Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Man in Asbestos by Krista Peterson

Although humorist Stephen Leacock was not known as a science fiction writer, his short story “The Man in Asbestos – An Allegory of the Future” follows in the dystopian tradition of other writers such as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. In Leacock’s story, first published in 1911, the narrator, a “passionate student of social problems,” purposefully falls into a deep sleep for more than 1,000 years so that he can see a future in which nature has been conquered and all human struggles are things of the past. When he awakes, a man clad in a suit made entirely of asbestos explains this new world to the narrator, who slowly comes to realize that it may not be such a paradise after all.

Several themes run through the story – the dangers of technology, the significance of work, and the basic need for health and community. Whether or not Leacock was aware of the extent of the dangers of the mineral, the guide’s asbestos suit stands as a representation of humankind’s hubris toward not only nature, but also public health. A history of asbestos written by professors James Alleman and Brooke Mossman reveals that commercial use of asbestos in the Western world began toward the middle of the nineteenth century, though it didn’t hit its stride until the twentieth century. For decades it was considered a “magic mineral” for its heat-resistant capabilities and ease of combining with other materials. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, asbestos company Johns-Manville exhibited a giant “Asbestos Man” to celebrate the usefulness of the substance.

However, even in the time when Leacock wrote his story, it was known – though not widely – that asbestos could be dangerous, causing lung problems such as scarring, asbestosis, and mesothelioma cancer. Mesothelioma symptoms are dangerous not only in themselves, but also because they can be confused with those of less serious lung conditions until the disease is in its later stages. While it is not clear exactly how many employers or officials were aware of these dangers, it is clear that many of them continued using asbestos long after the risks were known. In fact, in 1930, the Johns-Manville company circulated an internal memo about worker fatalities attributable to asbestos, then several years later worked to suppress reports of these hazards in the media.

The natural environment has also suffered as a result of humankind’s momentary obsession with asbestos. Mining the mineral has caused significant damage to the earth and made entire towns – including Libby, Montana – completely unlivable. Both cats and dogs have been documented as suffering from mesothelioma and other lung problems as a direct result of asbestos exposure, and it is highly possible that many other animals are susceptible as well. Scientific American reports that asbestos is also by far “the most expensive pollutant in terms of regulation and removal,” drawing EPA funds away from other environmental problems.

In Leacock’s satirical story, the “conquest of nature” involves taming the weather with machinery, eradicating the need for food through extensive agriculture, and generally showing a disregard for the complexity of life on earth. Though the Man in Asbestos claims that humankind has stamped out all diseases, the very clothes he wears presents a significant health risk that he seems oblivious to. Mesothelioma life expectancy is tragically low – the American Cancer Society puts the five-year survival rate at between 5 and 10 percent. Though Leacock may not have known it at the time, he dressed his guide to the future in a symbol of efficiency triumphing over human and environmental welfare.

Recommended Reading:

Alleman, J.E. and Mossman, B.T. 1997. Asbestos revisited. Scientific American: 70-75.

American Cancer Society. 2011. Malignant mesothelioma. Retrieved from

Brodeur, P. 1985. Outrageous Misconduct: The asbestos industry on trial. Pantheon Books

Brown, M. 2010. Asbestos contamination still taking toll on town. Associated Press. Retrieved from

Castleman, B.I. 1996. Asbestos: Medical and legal aspects. Aspen Law and Business: Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Author Biography:

Krista Peterson is a 23 year old student living in Florida. She is an aspiring writer with a passion for the health & safety of our community & environment. In her free time she enjoys reading, doing yoga, and playing with three 3 dogs. She is currently working on creating her own blog.


Anonymous said...

great post, nice guest blogging.....i recently learned that actor Steve McQueen died at age 50, some 30 years ago, from abestos-caused cancer, when as a soldier in US army he had to clean out ship inside with lots of abestos to breathe, in 30 years later he died from thsi kind of cancer....SAD.

danny blooming

Jean-Luc Picard said...

From whatb we know now of asbestos, the Human Torch wouldn't need to do anything. Asbestos Man would drop dead just putting on his suit!

SF Girl said...

That is sad, Danny Blooming...

I especially liked Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape".

Anonymous said...

Krista you are spot on that society is paying for a grave mistake in the past where asbestos was embraced as a wonder material, just like many other things. The only thing that is different today is our ability to detect problems earlier and change course. Where problems with asbestos and cigarettes took decades to come to grips with, it now takes just a couple of years to determine that something is dangerous.

Today, we now take much longer to bring new solutions onboard due to extensive testing but we still have bad stuff getting out there. Conversely, some stuff gets taken off the market due to a suspected link to a piece of new technology only to come back once they figure out they didn't understand the real problem.

Today we are faced with trying to solve problems while trying to balance extreme safety with development costs versus cost of future cleanup. In many cases we end up frozen in fear that if we are wrong we can't live with the mistake?

But, why so harsh on Stephen Leacock.

Leacock's short story made me think more on the consequences of Marxist Philosophy (as in what K Marx believed). Leacock's notions of the future are allegorical representations of taking Marxist philosophy of total equality, non-materialist and complete freedom.

In 1911, Marxist philosophy was a hot topic of discussion amongst the intelligentsia.

Leacock's story takes the extension of total equality, the defeat of materialism and other social banes out to the Nth degree.
The narrator has a nightmare (not surprising given what he had for dinner) where he finds himself in a very bleak milieu.
The story also notes of the extent that government took to eliminate communication and travel.

A society so "perfect" that nobody has any joy. The population in Leacock's "future" bumble around, merely existing - zombie like.

The posting posits that Leacock was talking about the dangers of technology and the basic needs for health and community.

From the point of view, the Man in Asbestos has learned that technology has eliminated all the stresses and problems that humanity faced. But technology is an allegory for the elimination of menial, labour intensive jobs and the elimination of those who profit from that labour.

Ultimately, Leacock's short story is the age old warning - be careful what you wish for, you might not like what you get - Utopia isn't all that is made out to be.

The article seems to think that "the need for food was eliminated through extensive agriculture". Rather, agriculture and the attendant toil were eliminated when a chemical replacement for food was created - a pill taken once a year.

Leacock's story postulated the extreme endpoint of a world that embraced Marxist philosophy. A world where all were equal and taken care of, but lifeless.

The conclusion of the article "that human kind has stamped out all diseases, the very clothes he wears presents a significant health risk that he seems oblivious to", is disingenuous to Leacock's story. In that distant future where they cured old age, why wouldn't they have eliminated the danger that asbestos presented to them. The people of the "future" have lived with their asbestos suits without a problem.

Fundamentally, this short story from 1911, isn’t a science fiction story, it is a satire of Marxist Philosophy and the goal of striving for an Utopian society.

Regards from Limberger

SF Girl said...

Thanks, Limberger, for your thoughtful comments. I'll let Krista respond.

And thanks so much, Krista, for guest posting here!

Best Wishes,

food infertility said...

Leacock may have not known what exactly an asbestos can do to a human health,it is a great danger. But when used in many industries it is very useful, since the fiber of the asbestos are resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals and they do not conduct electricity.Asbestos plays a health hazard because when you inhale a single fiber and they may be trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long period of time,these fibers may accumulate the lungs and may cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.
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SF Girl said...

HAR! Jean-Luc! Good one...