"The Lord of the World" is known as one of the first dystopian novels: a form of science fiction writing in which the author speculates about the future which has taken a terrible turn for the dark side. (Now, don't go read the Wikipedia entry unless you want a spoiler of the entire plot.)
Lord of the World . . . is truly remarkable and deserves to stand beside Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as a classic of dystopian fiction. In fact, though Huxley's and Orwell's modern masterpieces may merit equal praise as works of literature, they are clearly inferior as works of prophecy. The political dictatorships that gave Orwell's novel-nightmare an ominous potency have had their day. Today, his cautionary fable serves merely as a timely reminder of what has been and what may be again if the warnings of history are not heeded. Benson's novel-nightmare, on the other hand, is coming true before our very eyes. (source)
What thrills me about dystopian novels is how accurately the good ones predict what actually happened in the future, both culturally and technologically. For example, Benson foresaw 55 years early a Vatican Council being called which caused "the loss of a great number through the final definitions . . . . the 'Exodus of the Intellectuals' . . . ." (Figures don't lie.) Euthanasia--which had recently entered public debate at time of writing--is a normal, everyday occurrence in the world of our book: mandatory for the "useless" or anyone in the "final agonies" and optional for anyone who desires it. The reader sees a world in which everything from the sunlight to the turf is artificial, the world is perfectly clean, and marriages are often childless. Technologically, this novel reveals that air flight is common (writing four years after Kitty Hawk) and phone communication with multiple lines and caller ID is used (see history of the phone).
When a dystopian author predicts radical changes for the future, how was his book received upon publication? Sure, now we read the book more than 100 years later and remark at its accuracy, but did earlier readers find it so fantastic that they could not suspend their disbelief? I don't know, but I did read that "Lord of the World" has never been out of print.
The crisis of the novel is the appearance of a new world leader, the mysterious Felsenburgh who is hailed as Savior of the World but is, of course, the AntiChrist. Having a sound knowledge of Scripture (and I feel like I have just barely enough) will make reading this book even more chilling: one reads how Scripture is misused and twisted throughout, very similar to what we see in the secular world around us today.
Will everyone be taken in by the AntiChrist? How far reduced can Catholics become in the world? Will everyone left apostasize? Will the line of the papacy remain unbroken till the end of time? Will the gates of Hell prevail against the Church or not?
I read this novel absolutely gripped by the plot, but simultaneously wondering all the time more and more about the author himself. Msgr. Benson was an Anglican priest and son of the Archbishop of Canterbury (as in, the head of the Church of England!), yet converted to Catholicism (1903) and become a Catholic priest (1904)--causing a sensation, indeed! This prolific author published this sophisticated, completely orthodox Catholic novel only four years after becoming Catholic and he died a mere ten years into his priesthood. Benson wrote fifteen highly successful novels--that is so rare for any author, and yet a Catholic priest: how did he have time?
I highly recommend "The Lord of the World" as worthy of a sincere Catholic's time. And now, my appetite whetted, I am off to read one of my favorite dystopian and post-Apocalyptic novels, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I read about once per year.
Other book reviews of "Lord of the World," better than mine, can be found: