Being a fan of Stableford’s work, I immediately requested a review copy when I saw it on Netgallery.
Review: Scientific Romance: An International Anthology of Pioneering Science Fiction, ed. Brian Stableford, 1917.
Before America colonized science fiction with its conquistador John Carter in 1912 and made it into a genre concerned with space and adventure, it was something different. It was, argues Stableford, a stream of literature interested in “the adoption of the scientific outlook and the attempt to employ the scientific imagination as a springboard for speculative fiction”.
Just as the Vikings colonized the New World before Columbus’s voyage, Francis Bacon and Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac discovered new frontiers for literature when they wrote scientific romances. And, just as the Viking colonization inspired no immediate imitators, no writers imitated Bacon and de Bergerac for a while. Bacon’s New Atlantis was unfinished and published posthumously in 1627. De Bergerac’s L’Autre Monde ou les Etats et Empires de la lune [The Other World] wasn’t published until the 1920s.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that authors in France, America, and England began producing work that was noticeably something different and that stuck in the public mind. These were stories about the drama to be made out of new scientific discoveries, new technologies, and the peculiar psychologies of inventors and scientists.
Stableford arranges his survey chronologically from 1839 and Poe to 1914 and Arthur Conan Doyle. He also provides a checklist of longer works produced in that time.
There’s not just material here for the science fiction or cultural historian. Most of these stories, with a couple of exceptions, entertain too.
The peculiar, obsessive, otherworldly – or all too worldly – psychology of these new scientist people gets several looks.
Henry Berthoud’s “A Heavenward Voyage” (1841) tells us about Ludwig Klopstock, self-proclaimed scientist thought by the public and the academy to have no merit or ability. Sure, his agricultural innovations are good enough to be copied by his neighbors. His work on solidifying carbon dioxide is ignored. (Not actually achieved until Ardien Thilorier did it in 1843.) His calculation of the axial rotation of Saturn comes after Herschel did the same. Bad investments force him into poverty, and he’s only comforted by his faithful wife. But a trip up in a balloon and the new, clearer view of the heavens creates in him an obsession to go higher. The accompanying balloonist actually has to fight with Klopstock to return to earth. Upon that return, Klopstock works on developing steerable balloons and dreams of a flight up to the heavens again. A flight of no return.
The hero of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful” (1844) has to learn that building his beautiful, butterfly-like automata is its own reward because the woman he loves and his romantic rival are not impressed by his skill and artistry.
Professor Bakermann of Charles Epheyre’s “Professor Bakermann’s Microbe” (1890) is a nearly amoral scientist obsessed with creating a super lethal germ in the home laboratory he dubs “the infernal chamber”. A jealous wife accidentally releases it into the world, and Bakermann’s reaction is one part horror and one part annoyance when the newspaper stories don’t use the name he chose for his creation. Epheyre, incidentally, was the pen name of Charles Richet, a Nobel Prize-winning neurophysiologist.
Maurice Renard’s “The Singular Fate of Bouvancourt” (1909) has another scientist, this one seeking more “invisible light” rays that can penetrate matter like x-rays. I found it’s detailed optics a bit confusing, but that may have been a deficit on my end and not Renard’s. This tale of extradimensional travel does not end well for Bouvancourt.
American and French scientific romances tended to be more comical and satirical, and Thomas Edison is the butt of the joke in Ernest d’Hervilly’s “Josuah Electricmann” (1882). It’s an account of the many absurd inventions with Latinate names Electricmann busily churns out. Then, one day, he realizes he really should get married and procreate. Putting out an advertisement in something like our internet, he’s married in three hours. But modern life is busy. His new wife is in Greenland. The solution? He needs to invent the “amouradistanceophone”.
Being too busy for sex isn’t the only modern theme that shows up here. John Davidson’s “The Salvation of Nature” (1891) anticipates nature preserves and theme parks. A nobleman buys up Scotland, the Hebrides, the Orkneys, and the Shetland Isles” and has all buildings and all traces of the Industrial Revolution demolished, burned, and the whole thing covered over with dirt from Polynesia. The result becomes sort of a theme park for reenacting medieval warfare, with real casualties, and nostalgic performances of Shakespeare plays in contemporary surroundings. I suspect Davidson might have been playing off the medieval nostalgia of Richard Jefferies’ After London. The story then takes a bizarre apocalyptic turn to become sort of an Adam and Eve tale.
The premise put me in mind of a line from Scot Brian McNeill’s “Bring Back the Wolf”, a song about Englishmen favoring Scots’ nature over actual Scots’ lives: “They’ve been trying to make us a theme park since the Romans built a wall.”
Some moderns might find Eugène Mouton’s “The End of the World” (1872) too close to home in its depiction of human fecundity overheating the atmosphere and annihilating wildlife. Humorist Mouton largely mostly plays it straight, but there’s some black humor like royalty of the future spending money on ice and water carriers as the new capitalists.
Several writers found drama, wonders and perils, in the vastness of space and deep time.
Edgar Allan Poe’s pioneering post-apocalypse story “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839) is a post-death conversation between the title characters. It’s a key exhibit for the hypothesis that ex-artilleryman Poe liked to end his stories with a bang. Here it’s a literal bang as an approaching comet over saturates Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen and ends man in all consuming flame. But Poe spends most of the story looking at human reaction to impending doom. Stableford suggests he was mocking the Millerites whose Great Disappointment at no end of the world lay five years in the future.
While Poe’s story has two characters relating events, several of these apocalyptic tales are more like dramatic essays with no distinct individual on stage, just the mass of humanity.
H. G. Wells’ famous “The Star” (1896) exemplifies that approach with its account of human civilization vanishing after a wandering star passes by earth. As in his The War of the Worlds, the alien, not a concept used much in the stories of this book, provides another perspective. To Martian astronomers, it’s all been no big deal, just a “shrinkage of the white discoloration (supposed to be frozen water) round either pole.”
Ambrose Bierce’s “For the Akhoond” (1892), a story I’ve discussed extensively elsewhere, has a future North America trashed by climate and geologic change as well as Bierce’s satire on the America of his time.
Edmond Haraucourt’s classic “The Gorilloid” (1904) anticipates the basic idea of Pierre Boulle’s The Planet of the Apes: a future where intelligent gorillas have built a civilization and the descendants of humans are pathetic and near extinct animals. I’ve also talked about it elsewhere.
Some stories fall in the nebulous category of weird fiction. The menace of J. H. Rosny’s “Tornadres” (1888) does come from space to discolor the sky above a French plateau and disrupt its gravity and air. But the weirdly glowing vegetation that results also reminded me of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” though there is no way Lovecraft read this tale which couches its horror, as Lovecraft did, in scientific terms.
A couple stories feature what Stableford calls “exotic biological menace set in remote parts of the world”.
William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” (1904) is set in the Pacific where the unfortunate survivor of a shipwreck talks about what happened when he and his fiancé landed on an island of strange fungi and the horrible changes that resulted.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Horror of the Heights” (1914) gets in under the historical wire in plausibly speculating on hostile monsters living in the atmosphere. The reconnaissance of the air that sprang from World War One pushed that idea from reasonable speculation to pure fantasy.
There’s also horror in Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” (1859), but it’s not remote. It’s in a New York City apartment when an invisible creature assaults the narrator. The attempts to deduce the nature and appearance of the creature if not, as Stableford points out, its origins make this science fiction. This version also includes the opium use of the narrator and his friend which is deleted from some later versions.
While it’s a ghost story of sorts in imagery if not tone, Frank R. Stockton’s “The Philosophy of Relative Existences” (1893) is also, says Stableford, a very early example of the time travel paradox story.
Stockton’s story isn’t the only one with germs of modern science fiction themes.
Automata and robots show up in places besides Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story.
Edward Page Mitchell’s “The Ablest Man in the World” (1879), notes Stableford, is one of the earliest stories to specifically mention the work of Charles Babbage and his computing machines. The computing machine here is Baron Savitch, a cunning Russian diplomat, whose true nature is uncovered by an American gambler who dispatches the international menace with the help of American bourbon. The story manages to mix humor, technology, and satire on the international set of the late 19th century.
Jerome K. Jerome’s “The Dancing Partner” (1893) has a maker of automata build the perfect dancing partner for his daughter. He regrets it, and the story struck me as an update of a fairy tale I came across once but whose title I don’t remember.
Walter Besant’s “The Memory Cell” (1900) takes up the consequences of manipulating memories through elimination and fabrication. It is, as Stableford says, an idea “extrapolated to much greater length and complexity” later in science fiction. The journalist narrator comes across another one of those obsessive scientists. This one wants to eliminate the pain, guilt, regret, and social stigma of bad memories. The narrator challenges him: “If you destroy Memory, you destroy Repentance”, and the story looks at the scientist’s most successful experiment: molding a young man literally sold to him by a disgraced and criminal father.
Stableford’s introductory notes are a trifle sour on Camille Debans’s immortality tale, “The Conqueror of Death” (1895) when he says it
reflects the bad press that hypothetical technologies of longevity generally receive in works of fiction.
Stableford, after all, in his “emmortality” books tries to argue it wouldn’t be a bad thing, and it would be manageable. However, the inventor of immortality in this story, W. Benjamin Smithson, makes some cogent arguments why he won’t release it. Bad marriages will never end. The evil will never die. The world will overpopulate. Nations will go to war. At first the public tries to flatter him into releasing it. Eventually, though, things get ugly when he remains firm in his resolve. Debans convincingly depicts the public ingratitude towards a man who has already given them many technological wonders.
There’s a robot in Émile Goudeau’s “The Revolt of the Machines” (1891), but there’s a whole lot more metaphysics than science in this over-the-top story. It’s not just machines that revolt against man. It’s anything remotely resembling a tool or machine, even domesticated crops and animals. Or, as Goudeau puts it, “the soul of Metal”, “the soul of Stone”, and the obscure souls “of the Vegetal” and Coal.
Jack London’s “The Shadow and the Flash” (1903) is one of the two disappointing stories in the collection. It takes up the old idea of invisibility rationalized by H. G. Wells’ earlier The Invisible Man. Two men, bitter rivals, compete for fame and the love of the same woman. They both want to attain invisibility. One goes the route of perfecting a light absorbing pigment, the other by a chemical rendering organic matter transparent. I don’t think even in 1903 the science would have been convincing.
Oddly enough, London, who wrote works of socialist science fiction, completely ignores politics in the story. As you would expect, other authors in the book do not.
One is the Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s son, who wrote the disappointing “June 1993” (1893). As Stableford notes, this was obviously one of many works that followed Edward Bellamy’s very popular and politically influential socialist utopia Looking Backward published in 1883. Like its hero, Hawthorne’s hero sleeps his away into the future. After a nap of a century plus a month, he’s in utopia. Yes, as Stableford notes, it’s a good example of a technologically determinant story where society is changed by one invention – here personal air travel – which empties out the cities. (Clifford D. Simak used a similar premise as the background to City.) It’s rather dull though the end has some wit and shows that Hawthorne may not have been taking things too seriously and was perhaps playing up to the aviation enthusiasm of the publisher of Cosmopolitan magazine where the story was published. However, if you want an early example of the old – and still current in some quarters – utopian notion of a decentralized and peaceful world brought about by globalization, free trade, and racial amalgamation and whose citizens lead rich “interior” lives unlike us primitives and our materialistic concerns, then this is the story for you.
Socialist Grant Allen’s “The Child of the Phalanstery” (1884) takes up the utopian ideas of Charles Fourier and Auguste Comte’s “religion of humanity” where man is a parasite on the Cosmos to present a communal society that practices eugenics and infanticide. Not exactly novel ideas or particularly inspired by the science of the day, but Allen’s tone is remarkable in presenting both sides of the issues and not discernibly coming down on either.
George Griffith was a fan of anarchy and left-wing politics, so it’s no surprise his “A Corner in Lightning” (1899) features the pernicious attempt by a Russian scientist and English industrialist to corner the supply of the world’s electricity using a facility at the magnetic North Pole. Of course, he gets his comeuppance.
Stableford also includes two poems. A tradition of scientific romance in poetry goes back to Erasmus Darwin, a key figure, argues Stableford, in not only scientific romance but the British Romantic movement.
James Clerk Maxwell’s “A Paradoxical Ode (After Shelley)” (ca 1875) – and, yes, that’s Maxwell of electromagnetism fame, rebels against attempts to reconcile Darwin and modern science with Christianity. Edgar Fawcett’s “In the Year Thousand” (1890) is a poetic dialogue between First Manhattian and Second Manhattian about how nationalism and want are extinct but death is still present. But should it be feared? Does life have a purpose? Maybe now that the Martians are communicating, things will improve.
With his deep knowledge of scientific romances, historical notes, occasional annotations, and, presumably his own translations from the French, Stableford has come up with an affordable anthology that should appeal to all science fiction fans except those absolutely unable to deal with dated science and tech.
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