Science Fiction Thrillers: The Man Who Was Thursday

By Thomas Sweterlitsch

When the unexpected and quite superb lobster mayonnaise is served at a “particularly dreary and greasy beershop,” what might have only been a feverish realism of the first chapter of The Man Who Was Thursday gives way completely to the slippery dream logic of reveals and reverses that dominates this singular novel.  “I don’t often have the luck to have a dream like this,” Gabriel Syme says as he’s devouring his elegant lobster dish, “It is new to me for a nightmare to lead me to a lobster.”  Within moments, Syme has revealed himself as a secret policeman and has infiltrated the highest ranks of the international Central Anarchy Council, his life often within a hair’s breadth of destruction as he attempts to topple the gargantuan President of Anarchy himself, a man named Sunday.

What is The Man Who Was Thursday?  Is it a thriller novel?  It reads like what we’ve come to think of as a thriller—spies, deception, and a race to stop an assassination.  Published in 1908, the novel is suffused with its era’s existential fear of anarchy, and we turn the pages because of its through line of an undercover policeman’s impossible mission combating the agents of global terrorism.  Unlike Joseph Conrad’s political thriller of a year earlier, The Secret Agent, with its brutally realistic depiction of a man’s attempt to carry off a terrorist bombing, Thursday abandons realism in favor of its unsettling dream narrative (the book is subtitled “a nightmare”).  As we go deeper into the novel, the thriller plot works in service to Chesterton’s overarching Christian allegory. The Man Who Was Thursday is very much like a science fiction thriller, or, more broadly, a ‘speculative fiction’ thriller, using the conventions and devices of the thriller novel to enhance his speculative ideas.

In Thursday, “Anarchism” is not merely an expression of political violence, but the sublime and indifferent violence of ‘nature without God,’ as well as its human expression, an attack against existence itself.  The nightmare logic of the book is a narrative expression of this anarchy, the disruption of the reasons for being at all. Chesterton’s unreality breaks apart reality in uncanny imagery, wax dolls and immobile figures suddenly come to life, false appearances, dream chases, as well as disquieting descriptions of atmospheric conditions: a sunset like the ‘end of the world,’ or light that makes the Thames seem like a river of fire.

Double agents, villains revealed to be heroes, and vice versa, prepare us for Chesterton’s conception of Christian love as the way out from the violent indifference of anarchic nature.  Syme reveals “the secret of the whole world,” is that “we have only known the back of the world.  We have seen everything from behind, and it looks brutal.”  Sunday is two-faced, a shadow-caster that is at once a monstrous force but also the face of God. Only at the end of the novel does the true anarchist confront Sunday, and in an evocation of the book of Job, we learn that plots and counterplots of agents fighting against themselves, of anarchists against the forces of law, are meant to convey the cost of free-will.  The accuser, the true anarchist, contends that the forces preserving order have never suffered, but Syme avers that every creature is at war against the universe, and only when he asks Sunday if he has ever suffered, does Sunday’s face seem to fill the sky as he answers from the New Testament, “Can ye drink of the cup I drink of?”

Often science fiction relies on the narrative conventions of other genres —thriller, war story, romance, etc.— to serve as an engine that drives the speculative ideas, the science, and world building.  Chesterton’s Thursday pulls off a greater trick in this regard, using the narrative conventions of the thriller genre as essential elements to his grander theme.

THOMAS SWETERLITSCH lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter. He has a Master’s Degree in Literary and Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University. He worked for twelve years at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Tomorrow and Tomorrow was his first novel, and he is currently at work on his second.

To learn more about Tomorrow and Tomorrow, click on the cover below.