I believe it must be somewhere close to thirty years since I first heard of this book, and thought I’d read it someday. But I didn't get around to it, and might still be not getting around to it, except that Janet Cupo recently recommended it to me, and my wife happened to have loaded a free version (it’s out of copyright) onto her Kindle.
It’s an odd book: an Edwardian sci-fi/religious novel about the coming of the Anti-Christ. Robert Hugh Benson was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury who followed what sounds like a Newman-esque path to Rome. Ordained an Anglican priest in 1895 at the age of 24, and received into the Catholic Church in 1904, he published Lord of the World in 1907, and died at 43 in October of 1914. That last date seems significant, coming only two months after Britain’s entry into the Great War which marked the real beginning of the crisis of the 20th century which the novel anticipates—fairly accurately at the spiritual level, rather less so at the historical.
Taken simply as science or speculative fiction, the work is interesting, though perhaps not enough to make it so for people interested in that element alone. Its imagined future is roughly our own time—I don’t remember the year being specified, but an event of 1998 seems, in context, to have occurred no more than ten or twenty years earlier. Not surprisingly, it has a sort of steampunk quality for the contemporary reader (see here if the term “steampunk” is unfamiliar to you). It’s always interesting to me to see the ways a science-fiction writer’s imagination does or doesn’t guess right about the future which is now our past. Benson does imagine air travel, by machines called “volors,” which have wings that flap and are said to be quite beautiful, making a “startlingly beautiful and piercing” musical cry (for reasons not explained as far as I recall). But these vessels are unable to communicate with each other: Benson gets no further in the direction of electronic communications than the telephone and wireless telegraphy, extant at the time he wrote. So there are no radio or television, but a great deal of paper, with newspapers still the great medium of mass communication, and a great deal of important business that requires transporting letters and documents to and fro. Buildings and roadways make great use of rubber for the purpose of dampening sound, and cities are very quiet places; I believe rubber had only fairly recently come into widespread use in Benson’s time.
He does not imagine the modern personality, with its cynicism, hedonism, and frivolity; his characters are distinctly Edwardian. And, interestingly to me, he shares with a writer who came along fifty years later and also wrote about an imagined future Church—Warren Miller, in A Canticle for Liebowitz—the assumption that the language, rituals, and general style of the pre-Vatican II Church would never change. But he does see quite clearly the spiritual movement which was already under way in his time: the displacement of Christianity (and all similar religion) by the quasi-religion of materialistic humanism with which we are all too well acquainted.
You must remember that Humanitarianism, contrary to all persons’ expectations, is becoming an actual religion itself, though anti-supernatural. It is Pantheism; it is developing a ritual under Freemasonry; it has a creed, ‘God is Man,’ and the rest. It has therefore a real food of a sort to offer to religious cravings; it idealises, and yet it makes no demand upon the spiritual faculties.
“Spiritual but not religious”! Apart from the bit about Masonry, this is pretty much the way things have gone.
Then there is the enormous progress of psychology.... First, you see, there was Materialism, pure and simple, that failed more or less—it was too crude—until psychology came to the rescue. Now psychology claims all the rest of the ground; and the supernatural sense seems accounted for.
The only thing missing from this summary is the introduction of vaguely Eastern ideas and terminology into secular Western consciousness.
There is a prologue which outlines the history of the 20th century, and of course it is all wrong historically—Benson did not foresee that tremendously destructive wars would begin less than a decade after he wrote, or envision the brutal totalitarianism which would soon darken much of the globe. Politically, the world is divided into three parts: America, Europe, and The East. A potentially cataclysmic war is brewing, and it is to intervene in this conflict that the character whom we immediately recognize as the Anti-Christ makes his first appearance.
The Catholic reader can readily imagine the broad course of events that will follow, and I don’t want to give the plot away. I will mention that Benson’s conception of the Anti-Christ involves an explicit and specific correspondence of important characteristics with Christ himself: the Christian vocabulary still has a hold on society, and the Anti-Christ is described and honored as Creator, Redeemer, etc. Whether this has any authority in traditional teaching on this subject or is simply Benson’s speculation, I don’t know. But it’s not what I’ve imagined, which is something and someone with less explicit resemblance to religion, the better to establish itself as being entirely different from religion rather than a mere replacement for it, in the manner of Unitarians meeting on Sunday morning for non-worship.
From the literary point of view, the novel is a mixed bag. It’s very well-written in a Victorian-Edwardian way, but the narrative seems a little clumsy to me, and to lack tension; much of it seems a series of set-pieces and speeches rather than a flow, especially when Felsenburgh, the Anti-Christ figure, appears—there are long, florid, and to my taste unconvincing depictions of his effect on people. And the characters do not, for me, come fully alive. I can’t point to any specific reason for this; it’s something that either happens or does not happen when one reads a novel. Partly because we have a general idea of where things are going, there is a lack of dramatic tension, especially in the first half or so. It was only toward the end, when the fate of specific people is in doubt, that I really felt caught up in the story.
I have my doubts as to whether a non-Catholic would care much for this novel. Its ideas are of greater interest than its literary quality, and those ideas might be inaccessible to a non-Catholic, and indeed obscure to many Protestants, who might not grasp its very specifically Catholic view of the Apocalypse. But many Catholic readers would find it interesting at minimum. Especially if they have a taste for steampunk fiction.
Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (Wikipedia biography)
The cover image at the beginning of this piece was located via Google and copied from an interesting-looking site called A Catholic Reader, where you can read another view of Lord of the World as well as a description of another Benson novel, Dawn of All, written in response to Christians who found the former too disheartening (!). I take the image to be an early, if not original, cover.
Embarrassed Update: I had forgotten that Janet had written a full and very good review of this book at her blog. You should definitely read it. Among other things, she tells you a lot more about what actually happens in the book than I do (without giving away anything that would spoil the story).