Few things are as endlessly entertaining as depictions of Philadelphia in pop culture, which is why we're launching The 19102 Review, a new column devoted to Philly books.
The Heads of Cerberus
Sci-fi, 1919, Halcyon Press, 123 pp.
Philadelphia of 2118 A.D. doesn’t look a whole lot different than it did two centuries prior, at a first glance. Taxicabs still dart up and down Broad Street, hotels haven’t aged a day and the monster that represents humanity’s lust for war still sleeps in that pit beneath City Hall and its looming, crimson bell, waiting to devour sinners and the unjust in the name of merciful Penn. Hold on a second.
The Heads of Cerberus, first published as a serial over 1919 and 1920 in the pulp magazine Thrill Book, comes from the same early sci-fi era as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars. Author Gertrude Barrows Bennett (under the gender-masking pseudonym Francis Stevens) builds her dystopia with just enough subtlety to arouse real discomfort. When Robert Drayton, Terence Trenmore and his sister Viola are blasted two centuries into the future by a curious vial of gray dust said to have been stolen from purgatory (where else?), we’re not thrown into a bleak, colorless regime. The city itself looks largely the same. It’s the inhabitants that have changed.
The trio finds themselves in a Philadelphia ruled supremely by engineered superstition and fear of vengeful god William Penn; the Penn Service, its autocratic enforcers, reduce citizens to the numbers emblazoned on their yellow buttons. Not wearing your button? Then it’s off to the pit for disrupting Order and welcoming war.
Props are due to Bennett not only for probably pioneering the “alternate timeline” novel in the early twentieth century, but for penning smaller details that still feel unique when the novel is almost a century old, like the Liberty Bell having been converted into a disintegration machine. There are dystopian staples that run through the way the Penn Service works, for sure — newspapers and literature are only available to the powerful, knowledge of the world outside the city is unheard of, etc.— but the fleet of Penn Service officials called Superlatives, with names like Mr. Virtue, Mr. Mercy and Mr. Kindness (not to mention Mr. Supreme Justice), is chilling enough to keep a century-old genre novel feeling fresh. (Like many of the older books we mention, Cerberus isn’t easy to find in print, but is readily available as an ebook.)
If you have a book that'd be perfect for The 19102 Review (the dustier, the better), email ten.repapytic@gylime, or just drop it in the mail it to Emily Guendelsberger at Philadelphia City Paper, 30 S. 15th St., 14th floor, 19102.
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