Monday, 22 April 2013

The Coming of the Ice by G Peyton Wertenbaker

First published in Amazing Stories, June 1926.
This story starts with the idea that our regenerative energies are somehow dissipated through the process of reproduction. The mad scientist figure in this story – a sober establishment type called Sir John Granden – explains it thus:
You have heard, of course, that our bodies are continually changing, hour by hour, minute by minute, so that every few years we have been literally re-born. Some such principle as this seems to operate in reproduction, except that, instead of the old body being replaced by the new,and in its form, approximately, the new body is created apart form it. It is the creation of children that causes us to die, it would seem, because this activity is, dammed up or turned aside into new channels, the reproduction operates on the old body, renewing it continually.
When Sir John tells his flatmate about this, he’s immediately keen to give it a go. But there’s a price to pay:
One must give up love and all sensual pleasure. This operation not only takes away the mere fact of reproduction, but it deprives one of all things that go with sex, all love, all sense of beauty, all feeling for poetry and the arts.
Young Dennell is engaged and decides he should ask his girlfriend if it would be okay if he was to have an operation that denied him access to any tender emotion in the name of immortality. She readily assents and says she’d like to go through with it too, which suggests their relationship was perhaps not as passionate as it could be.

Dennell goes first: he’s rendered unconscious and the operation performed. When he awakes he’s told tragic news: just after the op, Sir John and Alice went out for coffee or something and they’ve been killed in a carriage accident. The surgical technique, and all knowledge that such a thing ever existed, dies with Sir John and Alice.

Dennell is therefore left as a lonely immortal until the end of time, The Coming of the Ice of the title, while he waits for some other human to discover Sir John’s secret – they never do.

At first he’s not too bothered – all his emotions have been cut off, after all. Instead he turns himself to scholarship and observer the development of science for several centuries. However, in an interesting turn, scientific discovery reaches a point where his 20th century mind is no longer able to comprehend it. Immortal as one may be, there’s no escape from getting old.

The science of it all is utterly absurd, surely even by the standards of the day. It has more in common with theories of the elan vital than any credible biological theory. It’s pulp science, more like magic, a theory formed of relationships and accordances and some kind of cosmic equivalence where a great gift (immortality) comes at a great price (not loss of love, but insufficient plasticity of the brain).

It’s told in a first person style, perhaps a monologue, a familiar device from Wells, Poe, Robert W Chambers, H P Lovecraft and many other writers of the era. It leads us to a terrible ending, where Dennell sits and watches the snow falling, awaiting the end:
The storm cries Weirdly all about me in the twilight, and I know this is the end. The end of the world. And I – I, the last man....
The last man...
… I am cold …
But is it you, Alice, is it you?
Along the way we get a kind of potted history of the human race of a sort that was popular after the discovery of the yawning gulfs of time that the universe encompassed. Welles’s The Sleeper Wakes gets a name check here, and there’s also First and Last Men by Olaf Stapledon and the epochal chronologies of H P Lovecraft. It’s the sense of wonder in effect, the yawning vastness of time.

It’s not a great story, but it gives a good view of the state of popular writing at the time. Hopefully things will improve soon.

Themes: immortality, vastness (geological time), self-experimentation, the last man on Earth, asexuality, the unforeseen price


  1. A morality tale about the importance of keeping documentation up to date and easily available to others, perhaps?

  2. In such circumstances I would dedicate my immortal years to improving record keeping the NHS.


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