The Man in Asbestos

“The Man in Asbestos: An Allegory of the Future,” chapter ten of Nonsense Novels by Stephen Leacock (1911). The text is in the public domain.

To begin with let me admit that I did it on purpose. Perhaps it was partly from jealousy.

It seemed unfair that other writers should be able at will to drop into a sleep of four or five hundred years, and to plunge head-first into a distant future and be a witness of its marvels.

I wanted to do that too.

I always had been, I still am, a passionate student of social problems. The world of to-day with its roaring machinery, the unceasing toil of its working classes, its strife, its poverty, its war, its cruelty, appals me as I look at it. I love to think of the time that must come some day when man will have conquered nature, and the toil-worn human race enter upon an era of peace.

I loved to think of it, and I longed to see it.

So I set about the thing deliberately.

What I wanted to do was to fall asleep after the customary fashion, for two or three hundred years at least, and wake and find myself in the marvel world of the future.

I made my preparations for the sleep.

I bought all the comic papers that I could find, even the illustrated ones. I carried them up to my room in my hotel: with them I brought up a pork pie and dozens and dozens of doughnuts. I ate the pie and the doughnuts, then sat back in the bed and read the comic papers one after the other. Finally, as I felt the awful lethargy stealing upon me, I reached out my hand for the London Weekly Times, and held up the editorial page before my eye.

It was, in a way, clear, straight suicide, but I did it.

I could feel my senses leaving me. In the room across the hall there was a man singing. His voice, that had been loud, came fainter and fainter through the transom. I fell into a sleep, the deep immeasurable sleep in which the very existence of the outer world was hushed. Dimly I could feel the days go past, then the years, and then the long passage of the centuries.

Then, not as it were gradually, but quite suddenly, I woke up, sat up, and looked about me.

Where was I?

Well might I ask myself.

I found myself lying, or rather sitting up, on a broad couch. I was in a great room, dim, gloomy, and dilapidated in its general appearance, and apparently, from its glass cases and the stuffed figures that they contained, some kind of museum.

Beside me sat a man. His face was hairless, but neither old nor young. He wore clothes that looked like the grey ashes of paper that had burned and kept its shape. He was looking at me quietly, but with no particular surprise or interest.

“Quick,” I said, eager to begin; “where am I? Who are you? What year is this; is it the year 3000, or what is it?”

He drew in his breath with a look of annoyance on his face.

“What a queer, excited way you have of speaking,” he said.

“Tell me,” I said again, “is this the year 3000?”

“I think I know what you mean,” he said; “but really I haven’t the faintest idea. I should think it must be at least that, within a hundred years or so; but nobody has kept track of them for so long, it’s hard to say.”

“Don’t you keep track of them any more?” I gasped.

“We used to,” said the man. “I myself can remember that a century or two ago there were still a number of people who used to try to keep track of the year, but it died out along with so many other faddish things of that kind. Why,” he continued, showing for the first time a sort of animation in his talk, “what was the use of it? You see, after we eliminated death——”

“Eliminated death!” I cried, sitting upright. “Good God!”

“What was that expression you used?” queried the man.

“Good God!” I repeated.

“Ah,” he said, “never heard it before. But I was saying that after we had eliminated Death, and Food, and Change, we had practically got rid of Events, and——”

“Stop!” I said, my brain reeling. “Tell me one thing at a time.”

“Humph!” he ejaculated. “I see, you must have been asleep a long time. Go on then and ask questions. Only, if you don’t mind, just as few as possible, and please don’t get interested or excited.”

Oddly enough the first question that sprang to my lips was—

“What are those clothes made of?”

“Asbestos,” answered the man. “They last hundreds of years. We have one suit each, and there are billions of them piled up, if anybody wants a new one.”

“Thank you,” I answered. “Now tell me where I am?”

“You are in a museum. The figures in the cases are specimens like yourself. But here,” he said, “if you want really to find out about what is evidently a new epoch to you, get off your platform and come out on Broadway and sit on a bench.”

I got down.

As we passed through the dim and dust-covered buildings I looked curiously at the figures in the cases.

“By Jove!’’ I said looking at one figure in blue clothes with a belt and baton, “that’s a policeman!”

“Really,” said my new acquaintance, “is that what a policeman was? I’ve often wondered. What used they to be used for?”

“Used for?” I repeated in perplexity. “Why, they stood at the corner of the street.”

“Ah, yes, I see,” he said, “so as to shoot at the people. You must excuse my ignorance,” he continued, “as to some of your social customs in the past. When I took my education I was operated upon for social history, but the stuff they used was very inferior.”

I didn’t in the least understand what the man meant, but had no time to question him, for at that moment we came out upon the street, and I stood riveted in astonishment.

Broadway! Was it possible? The change was absolutely appalling! In place of the roaring thoroughfare that I had known, this silent, moss-grown desolation. Great buildings fallen into ruin through the sheer stress of centuries of wind and weather, the sides of them coated over with a growth of fungus and moss! The place was soundless. Not a vehicle moved. There were no wires overhead—no sound of life or movement except, here and there, there passed slowly to and fro human figures dressed in the same asbestos clothes as my acquaintance, with the same hairless faces, and the same look of infinite age upon them.

Good heavens! And was this the era of the Conquest that I had hoped to see! I had always taken for granted, I do not know why, that humanity was destined to move forward. This picture of what seemed desolation on the ruins of our civilisation rendered me almost speechless.

There were little benches placed here and there on the street. We sat down.

“Improved, isn’t it,” said the man in asbestos, “since the days when you remember it?”

He seemed to speak quite proudly.

I gasped out a question.

“Where are the street cars and the motors?”

“Oh, done away with long ago,” he said; “how awful they must have been. The noise of them!” and his asbestos clothes rustled with a shudder.

“But how do you get about?”

“We don’t,” he answered. “Why should we? It’s just the same being here as being anywhere else.” He looked at me with an infinity of dreariness in his face.

A thousand questions surged into my mind at once. I asked one of the simplest.

“But how do you get back and forwards to your work?”

“Work!” he said. “There isn’t any work. It’s finished. The last of it was all done centuries ago.”

I looked at him a moment open-mouthed. Then I turned and looked again at the grey desolation of the street with the asbestos figures moving here and there.

I tried to pull my senses together. I realised that if I was to unravel this new and undreamed-of future, I must go at it systematically and step by step.

“I see,” I said after a pause, “that momentous things have happened since my time. I wish you would let me ask you about it all systematically, and would explain it to me bit by bit. First, what do you mean by saying that there is no work?”

“Why,” answered my strange acquaintance, “it died out of itself. Machinery killed it. If I remember rightly, you had a certain amount of machinery even in your time. You had done very well with steam, made a good beginning with electricity, though I think radial energy had hardly as yet been put to use.”

I nodded assent.

“But you found it did you no good. The better your machines, the harder you worked. The more things you had the more you wanted. The pace of life grew swifter and swifter. You cried out, but it would not stop. You were all caught in the cogs of your own machine. None of you could see the end.”

“That is quite true,” I said. “How do you know it all?”

“Oh,” answered the Man in Asbestos, “that part of my education was very well operated—I see you do not know what I mean. Never mind, I can tell you that later. Well, then, there came, probably almost two hundred years after your time, the Era of the Great Conquest of Nature, the final victory of Man and Machinery.”

“They did conquer it?” I asked quickly, with a thrill of the old hope in my veins again.

“Conquered it,” he said, “beat it out! Fought it to a standstill! Things came one by one, then faster and faster, in a hundred years it was all done. In fact, just as soon as mankind turned its energy to decreasing its needs instead of increasing its desires, the whole thing was easy. Chemical Food came first. Heavens! the simplicity of it. And in your time thousands of millions of people tilled and grubbed at the soil from morning till night. I’ve seen specimens of them—farmers, they called them. There’s one in the museum. After the invention of Chemical Food we piled up enough in the emporiums in a year to last for centuries. Agriculture went overboard. Eating and all that goes with it, domestic labour, housework—all ended. Nowadays one takes a concentrated pill every year or so, that’s all. The whole digestive apparatus, as you knew it, was a clumsy thing that had been bloated up like a set of bagpipes through the evolution of its use!”

I could not forbear to interrupt. “Have you and these people,” I said, “no stomachs—no apparatus?”

“Of course we have,” he answered, “but we use it to some purpose. Mine is largely filled with my education—but there! I am anticipating again. Better let me go on as I was. Chemical Food came first: that cut off almost one-third of the work, and then came Asbestos Clothes. That was wonderful! In one year humanity made enough suits to last for ever and ever. That, of course, could never have been if it hadn’t been connected with the revolt of women and the fall of Fashion.”

“Have the Fashions gone,” I asked, “that insane, extravagant idea of——” I was about to launch into one of my old-time harangues about the sheer vanity of decorative dress, when my eye rested on the moving figures in asbestos, and I stopped.

“All gone,” said the Man in Asbestos. “Then next to that we killed, or practically killed, the changes of climate. I don’t think that in your day you properly understood how much of your work was due to the shifts of what you called the weather. It meant the need of all kinds of special clothes and houses and shelters, a wilderness of work. How dreadful it must have been in your day—wind and storms, great wet masses—what did you call them?—clouds—flying through the air, the ocean full of salt, was it not?—tossed and torn by the wind, snow thrown all over everything, hail, rain—how awful!”

“Sometimes,” I said, “it was very beautiful. But how did you alter it?”

“Killed the weather!” answered the Man in Asbestos. “Simple as anything—turned its forces loose one against the other, altered the composition of the sea so that the top became all more or less gelatinous. I really can’t explain it, as it is an operation that I never took at school, but it made the sky grey, as you see it, and the sea gum-coloured, the weather all the same. It cut out fuel and houses and an infinity of work with them!”

He paused a moment. I began to realise something of the course of evolution that had happened.

“So,” I said, “the conquest of nature meant that presently there was no more work to do?”

“Exactly,” he said, “nothing left.”

“Food enough for all?”

“Too much,” he answered.

“Houses and clothes?”

“All you like,” said the Man in Asbestos, waving his hand. “There they are. Go out and take them. Of course, they’re falling down— slowly, very slowly. But they’ll last for centuries yet, nobody need bother.”

Then I realised, I think for the first time, just what work had meant in the old life, and how much of the texture of life itself had been bound up in the keen effort of it.

Presently my eyes looked upward: dangling at the top of a moss-grown building I saw what seemed to be the remains of telephone wires.

“What became of all that,” I said, “the telegraph and the telephone and all the system of communication?”

“Ah,” said the Man in Asbestos, “that was what a telephone meant, was it? I knew that it had been suppressed centuries ago. Just what was it for?”

“Why,” I said with enthusiasm, “by means of the telephone we could talk to anybody, call up anybody, and talk at any distance.”

“And anybody could call you up at any time and talk?” said the Man in Asbestos, with something like horror. “How awful! What a dreadful age yours was, to be sure. No, the telephone and all the rest of it, all the transportation and intercommunication was cut out and forbidden. There was no sense in it. You see,” he added, “what you don’t realise is that people after your day became gradually more and more reasonable. Take the railroad, what good was that? It brought into every town a lot of people from every other town. Who wanted them? Nobody. When work stopped and commerce ended, and food was needless, and the weather killed, it was foolish to move about. So it was all terminated. Anyway,” he said, with a quick look of apprehension and a change in his voice, “it was dangerous!”

“So!” I said. “Dangerous! You still have danger?”

“Why, yes,” he said, “there’s always the danger of getting broken.”

“What do you mean,” I asked.

“Why,” said the Man in Asbestos, “I suppose it’s what you would call being dead. Of course, in one sense there’s been no death for centuries past; we cut that out. Disease and death were simply a matter of germs. We found them one by one. I think that even in your day you had found one or two of the easier, the bigger ones?”

I nodded.

“Yes, you had found diphtheria and typhoid and, if I am right, there were some outstanding, like scarlet fever and smallpox, that you called ultra-microscopic, and which you were still hunting for, and others that you didn’t even suspect. Well, we hunted them down one by one and destroyed them. Strange that it never occurred to any of you that Old Age was only a germ! It turned out to be quite a simple one, but it was so distributed in its action that you never even thought of it.”

“And you mean to say,” I ejaculated in amazement, looking at the Man in Asbestos, “that nowadays you live for ever?”

“I wish,” he said, “that you hadn’t that peculiar, excitable way of talking; you speak as if everything mattered so tremendously. Yes,” he continued, “we live for ever, unless, of course, we get broken. That happens sometimes. I mean that we may fall over a high place or bump on something, and snap ourselves. You see, we’re just a little brittle still—some remnant, I suppose, of the Old Age germ—and we have to be careful. In fact,” he continued, “I don’t mind saying that accidents of this sort were the most distressing feature of our civilisation till we took steps to cut out all accidents. We forbid all street cars, street traffic, aeroplanes, and so on. The risks of your time,” he said, with a shiver of his asbestos clothes, “must have been awful.”

“They were,” I answered, with a new kind of pride in my generation that I had never felt before, “but we thought it part of the duty of brave people to——”

“Yes, yes,” said the Man in Asbestos impatiently, “please don’t get excited. I know what you mean. It was quite irrational.”

We sat silent for a long time. I looked about me at the crumbling buildings, the monotone, unchanging sky, and the dreary, empty street. Here, then, was the fruit of the Conquest, here was the elimination of work, the end of hunger and of cold, the cessation of the hard struggle, the downfall of change and death—nay, the very millennium of happiness. And yet, somehow, there seemed something wrong with it all. I pondered, then I put two or three rapid questions, hardly waiting to reflect upon the answers.

“Is there any war now?”

“Done with centuries ago. They took to settling international disputes with a slot machine. After that all foreign dealings were given up. Why have them? Everybody thinks foreigners awful.”

“Are there any newspapers now?”

“Newspapers! What on earth would we want them for? If we should need them at any time there are thousands of old ones piled up. But what is in them, anyway; only things that happen, wars and accidents and work and death. When these went newspapers went too. Listen,” continued the Man in Asbestos, “you seem to have been something of a social reformer, and yet you don’t understand the new life at all. You don’t understand how completely all our burdens have disappeared. Look at it this way. How used your people to spend all the early part of their lives?”

“Why,” I said, “our first fifteen years or so were spent in getting education.”

“Exactly,” he answered; “now notice how we improved on all that. Education in our day is done by surgery. Strange that in your time nobody realised that education was simply a surgical operation. You hadn’t the sense to see that what you really did was to slowly remodel, curve and convolute the inside of the brain by a long and painful mental operation. Everything learned was reproduced in a physical difference to the brain. You knew that, but you didn’t see the full consequences. Then came the invention of surgical education—the simple system of opening the side of the skull and engrafting into it a piece of prepared brain. At first, of course, they had to use, I suppose, the brains of dead people, and that was ghastly”—here the Man in Asbestos shuddered like a leaf—“but very soon they found how to make moulds that did just as well. After that it was a mere nothing; an operation of a few minutes would suffice to let in poetry or foreign languages or history or anything else that one cared to have. Here, for instance,” he added, pushing back the hair at the side of his head and showing a scar beneath it, “is the mark where I had my spherical trigonometry let in. That was, I admit, rather painful, but other things, such as English poetry or history, can be inserted absolutely without the least suffering. When I think of your painful, barbarous methods of education through the ear, I shudder at it. Oddly enough, we have found lately that for a great many things there is no need to use the head. We lodge them—things like philosophy and metaphysics, and so on—in what used to be the digestive apparatus. They fill it admirably.”

He paused a moment. Then went on:

“Well, then, to continue, what used to occupy your time and effort after your education?”

“Why,” I said, “one had, of course, to work, and then, to tell the truth, a great part of one’s time and feeling was devoted toward the other sex, towards falling in love and finding some woman to share one’s life.”

“Ah,” said the Man in Asbestos, with real interest. “I’ve heard about your arrangements with the women, but never quite understood them. Tell me; you say you selected some woman?”


“And she became what you called your wife?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And you worked for her?” asked the Man in Asbestos in astonishment.


“And she did not work?”

“No,” I answered, “of course not.”

“And half of what you had was hers?”


“And she had the right to live in your house and use your things?”

“Of course,” I answered.

“How dreadful!” said the Man in Asbestos. “I hadn’t realised the horrors of your age till now.”

He sat shivering slightly, with the same timid look in his face as before.

Then it suddenly struck me that of the figures on the street, all had looked alike.

“Tell me,” I said, “are there no women now? Are they gone too?”

“Oh, no,” answered the Man in Asbestos, “they’re here just the same. Some of those are women. Only, you see, everything has been changed now. It all came as part of their great revolt, their desire to be like the men. Had that begun in your time?”

“Only a little.” I answered; “they were beginning to ask for votes and equality.”

“That’s it,” said my acquaintance, “I couldn’t think of the word. Your women, I believe, were something awful, were they not? Covered with feathers and skins and dazzling colours made of dead things all over them? And they laughed, did they not, and had foolish teeth, and at any moment they could inveigle you into one of those contracts! Ugh!”

He shuddered.

“Asbestos,” I said (I knew no other name to call him), as I turned on him in wrath, “Asbestos, do you think that those jelly-bag Equalities out on the street there, with their ash-barrel suits, can be compared for one moment with our unredeemed, unreformed, heaven-created, hobble-skirted women of the twentieth century?”

Then, suddenly, another thought flashed into my mind—

“The children,” I said, “where are the children? Are there any?”

“Children,” he said, “no! I have never heard of there being any such things for at least a century. Horrible little hobgoblins they must have been! Great big faces, and cried constantly! And grew, did they not? Like funguses! I believe they were longer each year than they had been the last, and——”

I rose.

“Asbestos!” I said, “this, then, is your coming Civilisation, your millennium. This dull, dead thing, with the work and the burden gone out of life, and with them all the joy and sweetness of it. For the old struggle—mere stagnation, and in place of danger and death, the dull monotony of security and the horror of an unending decay! Give me back,” I cried, and I flung wide my arms to the dull air, “the old life of danger and stress, with its hard toil and its bitter chances, and its heartbreaks. I see its value! I know its worth! Give me no rest,” I cried aloud——

* * * * *

“Yes, but give a rest to the rest of the corridor!” cried an angered voice that broke in upon my exultation.

Suddenly my sleep had gone.

I was back again in the room of my hotel, with the hum of the wicked, busy old world all about me, and loud in my ears the voice of the indignant man across the corridor.

“Quit your blatting, you infernal blatherskite,” he was calling. “Come down to earth.”

I came.