Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Review: Scientific Romance

Review: Scientific Romance, edited by Brian Stableford.

Before the term "science fiction" was invented, stories of scientists and their possible discoveries, of fantastic (but at least remotely plausible) voyages, and of strange (but not overtly supernatural) phenomena where known as "scientific romances" in France, Britain, and the US. This volume collects a number of these early works, from all three countries. 

I read an ARC from Netgalley, so I don't know if it's due for another editing pass before publication; the version I saw had a number of scanning recognition errors that had not been corrected. Picking these up requires painstaking work by a good proofreader, and they're the bane of any book based on a scan. 

Setting that aside, the stories themselves varied from the merely historically interesting to some that I still enjoyed as a modern reader. A few are clumsy explorations of philosophical points. There seem to have been a lot of socialists, for example, who expressed their ideas by means of scientific romance - not just H.G. Wells, the giant of the field in Britain, who is represented here by "The Star," but several others too. I don't mean to imply that all the socialist stories are mere clunky propaganda pieces; "The Child of the Phalanstery" by Grant Allen is an extremely well-constructed speculation on the darker side of a utopia with an active eugenics/euthanasia program, and is relevant to debates going on today.  

Others of the stories are, now that we have so much more scientific knowledge, obviously impossible, though despite that, I found Jack London's "The Shadow and the Flash" still effective as a story. The same can be said of Conan Doyle's "The Horror of the Heights". But several succeed both as stories and in terms of their speculations. It's interesting to see some of the perennial themes: the danger of humans being replaced by intelligent machines, the creation of an unstoppable plague, the end of the world from various causes, radical life extension, interference with human memory. There's even a kind of predecessor to "Planet of the Apes" in Edmond Harcourt's "The Gorilloid".  

A number of the authors were familiar names to me: Nathanael Hawthorne, Fitz-James O'Brien, James Clerk Maxwell, Ambrose Bierce, Frank R. Stockton, Jerome K. Jerome, Jack London, William Hope Hodgson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Others were new, mainly the French ones, which are presented in translations which read exactly like the English-language works of the time. 

There's a scholarly introduction - this is clearly a kind of literature on which the editor is an expert - and an appendix that lists the major works of scientific romance published from 1833 to 1914. I'm not sure why Frankenstein (1818) doesn't make the list; it seems as if it would fit the parameters. 

Most of the works here are, of course, by men (I believe Camille Debans' "The Dancing Partner" is the sole exception), and for a balance, anyone interested in early speculative fiction should read the stories in The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers, which contains some excellent stories from a slightly different, but overlapping, time period (1873-1930). If you're interested in the roots of science fiction, though, either as a scholar or simply as a reader, Stableford's Scientific Romance is a good collection.