“William Wilson’s Prospectus for Science-Fiction, 1851”

The series looking at the essays in Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds: Essays on Fantastic Fiction continues.

Review: “William Wilson’s Prospectus for Science-Fiction, 1851“, Brian Stableford, 1975.Opening Minds

Stableford’s William Wilson is not Edgar Allan Poe’s hero of the same name, and most of this article is capsulated now under the “William Wilson“ entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

William Wilson was the first person to use the phrase “Science-Fiction” in his 1851 book about poetry, A Little Ernest Book Upon a Great Old Subject.

Wilson thought the findings of science could breathe something fresh and vital into literature:

. . . “Fiction in Poetry is not the reverse of truth, but her soft and enchanting resemblance.” Now this applies to Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true — thus circulating a knowledge of the Poetry of Science, clothed in a garb of the Poetry of Life.

Yes, as Stableford writes, it does sound a lot like Hugo Gernsback’s declaration, in the first issue of Amazing Stories, that the fiction in his magazine would promote scientific understanding

 with a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision”, that its fiction would be a “garb in which to make ‘the revelations of a reasoning imagination’ more attractive.

Wilson wasn’t just keen on the natural sciences. He hoped the human sciences would aid communications. Wilson just didn’t forsee Gernsback’s promotion of science fiction as a way to get readers to swallow the pill of scientific truth and enlightenment with the sugar coating of fiction. Wilson also foreshadowed, in his enthusiasm for phrenology, science fiction’s future dalliance with J. B. Rhine’s parapsychology and L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics.

Incidentally, the book that triggered Wilson’s thoughts was R. H. Horne’s totally forgotten The Poor Artist; or, Seven Eye-Sights and one object. It tells the story of how seven different types of Earthly creature would perceive the same object. Wilson seems to have thought Horne’s work as a completely new thing missing, as Stableford notes, other early works of science fiction including some of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories.

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