Though Julius Vogel's utopian novel failed, he was a man with great foresight, writes books editor GILBERT WONG.
Julius Vogel as New Zealand's Nostradamus is an unlikely tag for those who sat in history class long enough to recall the short, stout, bewhiskered bloke who was premier twice in the 1870s.
He brought railways to the country and as colonial treasurer raised huge loans in London to finance the country's development. Call Vogel the Think Big architect of his day. History's judgment is that he was a major 19th-century statesman, though no prophet.
But after reading his novel Anno Domini 2000 or a Woman's Destiny (Exisle Publishing, $29.95) reprinted after many years in a limbo, it is hard not to think that Vogel had some prescience into what New Zealand and the world would be like circa 2000.
The novel follows the fortunes of Hilda Fitz-herbert, of whom he writes: "Dark violet eyes, brown hair flecked with a golden tinge, clearly cut features, and a glorious complexion made up a face artistically perfect." She is a Member of the House of representatives from Dunedin who rises to be an adviser to the Emperor, who resides in Melbourne.
Fitzherbert's life and those who love her form the melodramatic skeleton to Vogel's utopian vision of what the world might be like a century after he would leave it.
The novel, published in 1889, reveals Vogel to be an optimist of the highest order who believed in the power of technology to change the world for the better, and that the nations of the world - given the opportunity and means - would choose to provide a better lot for their citizens.
Technological progress, Vogel envisaged, would inevitably be matched by progress in social institutions. Women would achieve equality and assume positions of power, crime and sickness would largely be eradicated, and social security would eliminate poverty.
The most pronounced thread of prophecy is the ascent of women. Vogel writes: "It has, in fact, come to be accepted that the bodily power is greater in man, and the mental power larger in woman. So to speak, woman has become the guiding, man the executive force of the world. Men have the brawn, women the brains. And with that acceptance that they are far better leaders.
"Without abating any of their charms, women have long ceased to submit to be the playthings of men. They lead men, as of yore, but not so much through the fancy or the senses as through the legitimate consciousness of the man that in following woman's guidance he is tending to higher purposes."
Vogel's heroine is not only an astute politician but uncovers a republican plot. She is a mix of James Bond and M - though without the sex, drinking, or action scenes.
Vogel's imaginings are all the more insightful when brought into the context of his times. Although it was a woman, Queen Victoria, who was on the throne, women who did not have the advantage of lineage were denied positions of power in business or politics. For most women in the Western world of the 1880s, legal and political status was subsidiary to that of men.
To see why Vogel might have been influenced it is tempting to look at his beloved wife, Mary Clayton, whom he married in Dunedin in 1867. She was the daughter of an architect and 14 years his junior. The lively and intelligent Mary, writes historian Raewyn Dalziel, was a considerable influence on Vogel. He was emotionally dependent on her and found it hard when they were separated by his business and political responsibilities. Dalziel suggests that Mary might have inspired Vogel's introduction of the 1887 Women's Suffrage Bill, which eventually saw New Zealand women as some of the earliest to receive the vote.
When the book was published in 1889 Vogel was living in England, having returned to try to shore up his flagging finances. The novel failed, though Vogel, founder of the Otago Daily Times, continued a journalistic career in London.
The reason for Anno Domini's failure might simply have been because it was not very good. Vogel's prose is convoluted and his characters mannequins for his ideas of a benevolent future without crime, poverty or class and gender discrimination.
As a utopian novel it had tough competition. In the latter half of the 19th century utopian and science fiction novels flourished. Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon was published in 1865; H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, a veiled attack on the British class system, appeared in 1895; and in 1863 Verne's suppressed work, Paris au XXeSiecle, predicted petrol-powered cars, fax machines, the telephone and the rise of English as a global language.
To explain the trend for utopias and dystopias, literary critics can point both to early dissatisfaction with Industrial Age Victorian England and infatuation with the potential technology that would come from the discovery of electricity, a better understanding of magnetism and advances in chemistry and engineering.
But Vogel's novel is our utopia. The heroine is a New Zealander, much of the action is set here, and this country is a valued part of the Western world.
Vogel died in East Molesey, England, in 1899, a decade after his novel failed, but perhaps his heart and hopes remained Down Under.
* A global group of financial interests proves more influential than governments on world affairs.
* Australians sprout a forceful republican movement.
* Ireland is a prosperous country with people queuing to migrate there.
* The countries of Europe belong to a federation.
* British Royalty gains public support by a marriage between the Emperor and a commoner woman of great beauty and charisma.
* Women hold the positions of Prime Minister of New Zealand and President of the United States.
* Science, mathematics and technical subjects replace the prominence of Greek and Latin as elite subjects of study.
* Social security ensures that everyone has adequate shelter and food. The poor are housed in "splendid edifices of many storeys, with constant self-activating elevators."
* New Zealand is a world-class producer of wines.
* New Zealand relies on hydro-dams to generate electricity.
* Electricity is the main way of heating and lighting houses and businesses.
* New Zealand leads Antarctic research.
* Air travel is widespread, with the wealthy relying on private aircraft. These aluminium "air cruisers" are powered by fans.
* Journalists use the "noiseless telegraph," a portable machine to send copy direct to their newspapers, similar to e-mail.