The Man with Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger

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First published in 1927, The Man with Six Senses tells the story of Michael Bristowe, a young man with a natural dowsing ability that, through practice and experiment, becomes so acute that he can tell what change a person is carrying in their pocket and whether they’ve eaten recently without even getting up out of his chair. It also tells the story of Hilda, the educated young woman who tries to help Michael, and of Ralph the older man who has just returned to England with the intention of marrying Hilda. (And no, he hasn’t asked her if she wants to).

Book cover for The Man with Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger showing a green crystal

Ralph is the narrator. He’s also an absolute arse. He is a condescending snob with an inflated sense of self-importance and a wilful blindness to other people’s (particularly Hilda’s) wishes. One hundred and ninety-one pages in his company was a hundred and ninety pages too many. Michael, who would have been the protagonist if Ralph were able to focus on anyone other than himself, was an almost equal arse: moody, selfish and rude, although I did have to keep reminding myself that as Ralph was telling the story, this impression of Michael wasn’t one I’d formed on my own. Even taking Ralph’s bias into account however, Michael is … difficult … to like.

And Hilda. In another story, Hilda would most definitely be the heroine. She is practical, rational and she’s the only character who makes anything happen. If she comes across as a little cold, I’m pretty sure that’s due to Ralph’s interference, as he spends half the book idolising her (and thus failing to see her way up there on her chilly pedestal) and the other half disgruntled with her for not doing what he expected (which he only expected because he never bothered to get to know her in the first place. Like I say: arse).

Do I need to mention that this book was not a happy read for me?

No? OK then.

I’m still questioning it’s claim to the label of science fiction. Michael’s curious ESP is believed by Hilda to be a significant evolutionary step forward, something to be protected, nurtured and passed forward. (Ralph thinks Michael is a pain in the bum … but he should try looking in the mirror). A couple of attempts are made in the story to find a practical application for Michael’s powers – including identifying ore deposits, finding lost persons and dead bodies, and locating oil – and that he proves ineffective in some of these roles and is replaced by technology in others only makes this novel even more unsatisfactory. Essentially, the human power of invention negates the need for the evolution of new physical strengths.

I’m over-simplifying there, I know, but that’s how I read it. In fact, I’m inclined to think that Jaeger is actually quite slyly suggesting at the end that it is Hilda’s wonderfully non-romantic, rational nature that will be of more use to following generations than any handy-wavy ability to count people’s pocket change. I certainly think she’s firmly rejecting Ralph and his women-are-only-there-to-support-the-menfolk stance when she finally condemns him to the unmarried state (thus denying him the possibility of passing on his genetic heritage and his block-headed ideas).

What else can I really say about this book? Jaeger’s writing is economical but, apart from one brief, lovely moment involving a sugar bowl, I didn’t find it particularly evocative. I had no real sense of place while reading this beyond ‘non-descript bit of English countryside’, ‘non-descript country pile’, ‘non-descript London flat’, although I think that may have been more to do with the nature of the story and the way in which it was being told. However, Jaeger damns Ralph with his own words again and again, in a way that in other hands would have been hilarious, but was no less clever for being delivered straight. It takes skill to have that tight a control over a character’s voice, I think. I only mourn that these weren’t characters I wanted to know.

 

I saved this book to be my last read for Vintage SciFi Month because I had no expectations of it. All the other books I’ve read this month – The Time Machine by H G Wells, Morlock Night by K W Jeter, The Crystal World by J G Ballard and Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein. I had some notion of before cracking the spine (just a figure of speech! I don’t actually do that!), but this one was just a chance find from the library. I hadn’t even heard of it before I saw it on the shelf. And that’s something I love about Vintage SciFi Month: that it pushes me to pick up books I might not otherwise try out. This time round, it didn’t work out so well.

But there’s always next time … *wink*

9 comments

  1. I didn’t pass my comfort zone too much, and mostly stayed way after 1950, tending to the 1980s.
    The older it gets, the lower my expectations. And your readings seem similar.
    I guess it’s better to scratch the border zone than to dive fully into that time 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The further back you go, the more tenuous the connection to SF things get. and considering that the magazine was king, lean, sparse and barebones was the name of the game.
    My cutoff point tends to be the 1940’s for SF.

    Liked by 1 person

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