The Third Millennium

December 28th, 2004 Comments Off on The Third Millennium

Revisiting books you have read and liked a long time ago is always a trick business. Sometimes, what you found touching and noteworthy in your first reading becomes banal and uninteresting the next time you read the book again. Sometimes, the work can still hold your attention, but you find weaknesses in it that you didn’t perceive before.

A couple days ago I finished rereading The Third Millennium, by José Maria Domenech. As I told in a previous entry, I came across this book recently after not thinking about it for more than ten years. It was mentioned a short time ago in a science fiction list I’m subscribed to, and when I visited a bookstore in the next day, I found it in the used books section, in very good condition, even though it’s somewhat rare.

As I also said in that previous entry, this book was one of the first science fiction books I read, which contributed for my taking a liking for the genre. I was about nine or ten years old when I read it for the first time (if memory serves me right) and I already had a profound interest for anything related to science, especially where space were concerned. This book showed me it was possible to have science and adventure in the same pages. It broadened my literary horizons, and imbued me with the will to tell my own stories. I even wrote some short stories based on the book, and on ideas it provided me — stories which, unfortunately, I didn’t keep.

The book caused such an impression on me that I remembered its main storyline for all those years, even though I couldn’t remember specifics like the names of the characters, for example. Reading the book again, I was surprised to see how much I remembered of the story, and how little I remembered of the philosophy defended by the book. Probably because I was still too young when I read it to care about such things.

The Third Millennium is a story written to present a particular viewpoint about the evolution of the human society in the tradition of works like Brave New World, Island, Walden II, and Utopia. It’s not on a par with those works in terms of literary value, but has a similar style.

The book offers an optimistic vision of the future, although it starts with the somber note of a nuclear holocaust, which, ironically, is the author’s solution to purge humanity of his destructive impulses. The book relies heavily on Malthusian theories to present its view of a perfect society.

Written in 1972, it’s considerably dated. The story begins with the first human spaceship able to traverse interstellar distances waiting for the beginning of its first mission, which, strangely, is the colonization of Mars. On the verge of The Third Millennium, the ship is keeping a silent watch until the time for leaving comes. Then, the worst happens, and the Earth is destroyed in the flames of a nuclear holocaust. The ship’s crew, forced to change their plans, decides to explore the galaxy while they wait for the time when Earth can be colonized again. When the ship returns, after a thousand-year journey, surprises lie ahead for its crew.

It’s not an original story, and it’s merit lies not on the plot but on the discussion of the problems the world was facing at the time and the possibilities science was beginning to explore to solve those problems.

The book has three main parts. The chapters are short, usually two or three pages long. Exposition is a bit heavy, which is a big failing of the book. Most dialogues are just an excuse to expose some scientific or social considerations, which the characters would never need. Amusingly enough, the part of the book I remembered best — the interstellar journey — takes up mere four chapters, adding up to no more than ten pages;

The first part of the book recounts the events leading to the construction of the ship in which most of the action happens, and the technological advances that made its construction possible. The second part describes the nuclear hecatomb and the ship’s journey to the stars. The final part narrates the return of the ship, and the surprises waiting for the crew on Earth. In all parts, Domenech’s theories are explored.

In this rereading, I found that I don’t agree with most of the theories the author defends, even discounting the changes in society that happened meanwhile.

Domenech’s dream is of a society where people are genetically selected to breed and technologically controlled, something that’s too close to Brave New World to my linking. The author splits up humanity in two distinct classes, implying only those with a superior genetic stock should be allowed to breed.

Another thing that I didn’t like about the book is the role it attributes to women. Female characters appear in the book as mere supporting players, whose single object is making the male characters comfortable. In the ship, there are three couples besides the commander, who’s single. The women in the ship (whose scientific qualifications are only briefly mentioned) act as simple “housewives” (or, as Domenech puts its, “hostess”) who keep the ship clean, the male crew fed, and only occasionally helping in scientific duties.

The technological advances predicted by Domenech — hibernation, magnetic shielding, and artificial intelligence — are still in the future. Although his imagined society is heavily dependent on technology to function, Domenech displays a deep distrust for technology. For example, in the book, three artificial intelligences share the command of the ship, being played one against the other, so to speak, to keep them from taking control of the ship from their human masters.

There are other things I didn’t like, but it’s not my interest to make an exhaustive analysis of the book. Despite those problems, I still like the book. The story is interesting, and I believe that, even with its failures and dated technology, it has some good qualities. The questions explored in the book were important when it was written, and are still significant. Although I don’t like the solutions Domenech proposes, the discussion is interesting.

After criticizing the book so much, I don’t believe anyone will want to read it, even if it could be easily found. Anyway, as one of the few science fiction books published in Brazil, it may still be worth a look.

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