Rare jewels of Victorian fiction highlight the fantastic contributions made by women writers in the early development of science fiction
A selection of early science fiction short stories by women are collected here, along with an introduction exploring the contributions women made in the early development of the field—in particular the different perspectives they cast on the wonders or fears that technological and scientific advances may bring. The contributions of women to the history of science fiction and to the genre's development has been sorely overlooked. Frankenstein, generally reckoned as the first true work of science fiction, was by Mary Shelley, and one of the first utopian works written in America was also by a woman, Mary Griffith. A companion volume to his acclaimed The Darker Sex, Mike Ashley's latest collection is more essential reading by such female writers as Mary Shelley, Clare Winger Harris, Adeline Knapp, and many others.
The Blue Laboratory by L.T. Meade: Mad doctor, abominable medical experiments, young woman in mortal danger in a countdown to death! A good one to start off the collection.
The Mortal Immortal by Mary Shelley: The only story in the collection I'd read previously and a strong offering from, arguably, the progenetrix of science fiction. However, is this a sci-fi story? I don't think so - the "technology" here is alchemy, which is a spiritual tradition with only the surface trappings of the true science of chemistry. That aside, a very good tale.
The Moonstone Mass by Harriet Prescott Spofford: Even the editor seems to have qualms about including this story in a sci-fi collection, as he says it is the spirit of enquiry, of exploring geographical regions then unknown to science (to boldly go...?) that has warranted this story's inclusion. By that argument, King Solomon's Mines could be classed as sci-fi. So, perhaps this shouldn't have been in the collection, but... it's very good! A journey to the Arctic to find the North-West Passage ends with the protagonist adrift in unknown regions. It reminded me somewhat of Lord Dunsany and early H.P. Lovecraft.
A Wife Manufactured to Order by Alice W. Fuller: Basically, "The Stepford Wives". In which it is shown that men are idiots.
Good Lady Ducane by Mary Elzabeth Braddon: More of a Gothic romance with a medical element than SF. I've recently read The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice by Wilkie Collins, and this story put me rather in mind of Collins's novel. The story has some good characterisations in it and I was chuckling in places. I really enjoyed this one.
The Hall Bedroom by Mary Wilkins Freeman: Creepy! It's almost a ghost story in feel, but it's actually about accessing other dimensions. A bit Clark Ashton Smith-y, and leaves much to the readers imagination, in the best way.
The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar by G.M. Barrows: This would make a great super-hero origin story.
The Sultana's Dream by Roquia Sakhawat Hossain: A Utopian fantasy which asks the question, "What if women instead of men assumed the dominant role in Indian society?" The answer, Again, not sure is this is really sci-fi as it's presented as a dream rather than an actualised society.
The Five Senses by Edith Nesbit: One of the best stories in the collection. Science versus sentiment; pros and cons of vivisection; medical experimentation (gone wrong, obviously); the horrifying prospect of premature burial. What a versatile writer Nesbit was. Her "weird" fiction is usually very chilling, but she's also responsible for well-loved children's classics like The Railway Children and Three Children and It. People are complex, aren't they?
Lady Clanbevan's Baby by Clotilde Graves: Similarish idea to The Picture of Dorian Gray, but the ending really threw me. I wasn't sure if Graves's intent was shock, humour or a mix of the two. As I reacted in the third way, I hope that's what she was going for. It was kind of like the end to a Little Britain sketch!
Monsieur Fly-by-Night by Muriel Pollexfen: What a brilliant authorial name! And my absolute favourite story in the collection. This is a cross between the Ruritanian romance of The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope and a Steampunk adventure. I imagined the whole story shot as a Studio Ghibli anime: Mysterious, youthful and adventurous "Sky Captain" is called upon to use his miraculous airship to help rescue the princess of a mid-European pocket-country from her dastardly uncle Osric, who is fomenting revolution!
I so wish that Pollexfen had done a series of stories about Maxton Domville, "Monsieur Fly-by-Night"!
The Ultimate Ingredient by Greye La Spina: Reminiscent of H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man or Jack London's The Shadow and the Flash. Another dastardly doctor - were Edwardian woman really as distrustful of the medical profession as would appear from this selection of stories? (Hmm - yes, they probably were, and not without good reason, I imagine.)
The Miracle of the Lily by Clare Winger Harris: A very well told story of environmental collapse, mass extinction, evolutionary impetus, scientific and social sterility. The narrative form is a series of journal entries by members of the same family over the course of centuries. I really liked this one, too.
The Earth Slept: A Vision by Adeline Knapp: In which we learn that you can't stop the march of evolutionary progress and that rampant capitalism is bad.
I really enjoyed this collection of 19th- and early 20th-century short stories by women. The phrase "tales of scientific imagination" is definitely more accurate than 'science fiction' - many of these deal with invention and discovery. It's great to explore the work of authors whose work has often fallen by the wayside, even though it may have been popular in its day, and to gain perspective on the attitudes of the time. Plus, many of these stories are just purely enjoyable!
The Blue Laboratory by L.T. Meade (1897): This is a classic 'mad scientist' story! A young governess is asked to assist her employer in his experiments, but her young charge lets her know that untoward things are happening in the laboratory. Her investigation leads her into danger...
The Mortal Immortal by Mary Shelley (1834): Hey, Frankenstein-lady! This short story by Shelley also explores her themes of the nature of life and humanity. An alchemist's assistant accidentally receives the elixir intended for his master, but the extended life he has received has brought him no pleasure...
The Moonstone Mass by Harriet Prescott Spofford (1868): An explorer lost in the Arctic encounters untold treasure, and nearly finds his death... Very similar in flavor to Lovecraft's 'At the Mountains of Madness,' but although this story is not as well-crafted, it did come first.
A Wife Manufactured to Order by Alice W. Fuller (1895): One of the most explicitly feminist of these stories, and also one of the more 'science-fictional' of the collection. A man discovers an inventor hawking feminine robots as 'wives,' advertising their beauty, courtesy and inability to talk back (as they only 'speak' in prerecorded phrases.) The guy in question thinks this is a great idea... until he realizes that his old girlfriend (an independent woman with a mind of her own) actually has far more to offer than a clockwork-and-wax figure.
Good Lady Ducayne by Mary Elzabeth Braddon (1896): The only one of this collection that I'd previously read. I'd read it in a vampire-themed anthology. It is neither a vampire story nor a science fiction story. It is a very well-crafted, dark and gothic tale. Worth the re-read.
The Hall Bedroom by Mary Wilkins Freeman (1903): I'm back to being reminded of Lovecraft! This story is very similar in feel and theme to 'Dreams in the Witch House.' I have to say, again, that this story is not quite as good - but it was written first. A woman entrepreneur starts a rooming house - but one of her lodgers disappears... and he's not the first to have disappeared from that room.
The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar by G.M. Barrows (1904): A man awakes after an industrial accident - with super-strength! Unfortunately, that's it. It reads more like the beginning of a story than a finished piece.
The Sultana's Dream by Roquia Sakhawat Hossain (1905): Almost more of an essay than a story, this piece by an Indian woman is explicitly feminist, talks about the repressive treatment of women in traditional Indian society, and offers a utopian(?) view of a society in which the position of the genders is reversed. Not really a great 'story,' but very interesting to read, especially in the context of the body of science fiction published much later which posited sex-segregated future societies.
The Five Senses by Edith Nesbit (1909): I expected to like this one a bit more than I did. Good ideas, but it got a little repetitive in execution. A young scientist is conflicted by his fiancee's strong opposition to vivisection - on which his career depends. The animal-lover eventually gives him an ultimatum, and he moves on to experimenting on himself...
Lady Clanbevan's Baby by Clotilde Graves (1915): A horror story with similar themes to that of Shelley's - focusing on the unnatural and terrible aspects of an artificially extended life and youth...
Monsieur Fly-by-Night by Muriel Pollexfen (1915): The author's surname, combined with the fact that this is an adventure tale, reminded me of the character Mrs Pollifax. Coincidence? Probably. Anyway, this story of a daring rescue of a princess by a flying ace, combined with a political coup, somehow seemed like it ought to be more exciting than it was. My attention kept wandering. Maybe my fault.
The Ultimate Ingredient by Greye La Spina (1919): A mad scientist becomes the Invisible Man (though this story does not pre-date Wells' Invisible Man) - and has psychopathic murder on his mind, in order to continue his dastardly experiments. A well-crafted pulp adventure.
The Miracle of the Lily by Clare Winger Harris (1928): OK, this one is a bona fide science fiction story (and remarkably modern-feeling). Set in the thirtieth century, we see a barren earth, destroyed by plagues of insects. The insects have been defeated, but humanity is dependent on artificial oxygen manufactories. However, audio communication with the natives of Venus reveal that they are currently facing a similar plague. The Venusians hope that Earth can counsel them on how to survive... I won't give away the ending, but this is an excellent story, on a par with some of the best classic sci-fi shorts.
The Earth Slept: A Vision by Adeline Knapp: A short and optimistic view of the passage of time...
Contents: "The Blue Laboratory" by L. T. Meade "The Mortal Immortal" by Mary Shelley "The Moonstone Mass" by Harriet Prescott Spofford "A Wife Manufactured to Order" by Alice W. Fuller "Good Lady Ducayne" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (PDF) "The Hall Bedroom" by Mary Wilkins Freeman "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar" by G. M. Barrows "The Sultana's Dream" by Roquia Sakhawat Hossein "The Five Senses" by Edith Nesbit "Lady Clanbevan's Baby" by Clotilde Graves "Monsieur Fly-by-Night" by Muriel Pollexfen "The Ultimate Ingredient" by Greye La Spina "The Miracle of the Lily" by Clare Winger Harris "The Earth Slept: A Vision" by Adeline Knapp
Some of these stories, early science fiction and other imaginative tales by 19th and early 20th century women, are amazing. I especially enjoyed L. T. Meade's "The Blue Laboratory" and Roquia Sakhawat Hossein's "The Sultana's Dream", as well as more familiar, but high quality, anthology fare like Mary Shelley's "The Mortal Immortal" and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "Good Lady Ducayne." Probably my favorite was Alice W. Fuller's "A Wife Manufactured to Order", which has essentially the same plot as a late episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Other stories were more lackluster; Muriel Pollefexen's "Monsieur Fly-by-Night" had an airship *and* a woman born to rule, but somehow didn't come together (points for great ideas, though).
Asi dve povidky ( ty dve posledni) me nadchly, vetsine spise prumer a jednu jsem ani nedokazala docist, jak me nudila a byla necitelna. Zajimavy pohled na "starsi" autorky fantastickych pribehu, ale asi radsi zůstanu u tech modernejsich.
Women are unilaterally excluded and erased from the contributive narrative of our history. Pick any aspect of culture - be it art, history, military strategy, or in this case, the burgeoning of science fiction - and you'll find women who are underrepresented or forgotten despite their (often) titular contributions to our world.
It's unfortunate that science fiction, then, is also assumed to have always been a male-dominated field. Ideas like this perpetuate a myth that women today dreaming, working, and striving are exceptions to the rule, rather than heralding a line that goes back just as long as men. After all, it's increasingly understood by your average Joe that the first work of science fiction as we know it was written by a woman.
The subheading for this book gives a better idea of what this anthology caters than a simple "science fiction" claim, however. While there are a few stories in here that are very obviously Victorian-era sci-fi (I think The Blue Laboratory and The Miracle of the Lily are good examples), the term "Scientific Imagination" cues us as readers into a few more things. A scientific imagination, to me, includes a sense of wonder and inquiry about the unknown, and an ability to extrapolate into the future with what we understand now to predict what challenges, beliefs, and opportunities could arise for us. Under such an idea, many more of the stories fit in, including the utopic Sultana's Dream and even Edith Nesbit's The Moonstone Mass, although it's a bit of a stretch. Some of these works seem more supernatural than science fiction, but I also feel that perhaps my own bifurcation of "science" away from "the supernatural" is more a product of our modern culture than it is a real truism. In fact, many of the things we can now explain by science were and still are incredible phenomenon that we at best barely get our minds around. So I give a lot of lee-way to Mike Ashley's interpretation of "Sci-fi" here, both considering the time period and the fact that even today I would argue for a more ambiguous interplay between the supernatural and the scientific.
The short stories themselves varied in quality and interest in my opinion. The final two were a powerful and resounding few notes to end on, and there were bright points all throughout, but some just felt a little plodding, despite being short stories. That might be a product of Victorian-era writing style or something else. Either way, I'm glad I read this not only for the insight it gave into women of the period and the questions they had for our future, but also just getting short glimpses into Victorian norms and customs and beliefs. Brief mentions of race and marriage, of class and it's relationship to love, satire for feminism, etc. were all really cool to get sort of a micro view of a larger cultural attitude - while also seeing the seeds of change growing inside it.
The subtitle to this book - "Early tales of scientific imagination by women" - is a pretty good description of this anthology, which brings together 11 proto-scifi short stories by female authors of the 19th and early 20th century.
Is such a gender-based collection still needed in our day and age? Frankly, yes, and there are some very good reasons for this. First of all, in the early days of speculative fiction, women writers were at forefront of the genre, going beyond the frontiers of reality whether through supernatural tales or more "scientifically oriented" stories. This notwithstanding, there is still, sadly, a widespread mistaken impression that speculative fiction in general and sci-fi in particular are a male realm. This anthology comes as a welcome corrective.
Moreover, some of the featured stories have a decidedly proto-feminist theme which fits in well with the rationale behind the choices (in this regard, "The Sultana 's Dream" by Roquia Sakhawat Hossein, with its imagining of a Muslim female-led society, is nothing short of visionary).
Mike Ashley ferrets out some intriguing rarities alongside works by better-known authors such as Braddon and Mary Shelley, and provides a brief introduction which puts each story in context.
The literary quality varies and, on the basis of the featured stories, I wouldn't place, say, L.T.Meade or G.M. Barrows in the same league as Edith Nesbit. However, what is certainly consistent throughout the collection is the vividness of imagination of all authors concerned, whether they are writing about other galaxies, the distant future, marvellous discoveries or chilling experiments.
from the library computer: Contents: The blue laboratory / L.T. Meade -- The mortal immortal / Mary Shelley -- The moonstone mass / Harriet Prescott Spofford -- A wife manufactured to order / Alice W. Fuller -- Good Lady Ducayne / Mary Elizabeth Braddon -- The hall bedroom / Mary Wilkins Freeman -- The curious experience of Thomas Dunbar / G.M. Barrows -- The sultana's dream / Roquia Sakhawat Hossein -- The five senses / Edith Nesbit -- Lady Clanbevan's baby / Clotilde Graves -- Monsieur Fly-by-Night / Muriel Pollexfen -- The ultimate ingredient / Greye La Spina -- The miracle of the lily / Clare Winger Harris -- The Earth slept: a vision / Adeline Knapp.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Another book picked up in the recent Sci-Fi exhibition in the British Library, this is a selection of stories by fourteen different writers, dating from 1868 to 1928. Apart from a couple of stories which I found weakly thought out and, moreover, weakly told, the stories in this collection are fascinating in being more imaginative and thrilling than I'd expected. The short introductory texts were a good idea, too, giving some little information about the writers, most of whom are entirely obscure.
The most interesting thing about this book is imagining the female writers at their desks putting their thoughts and ideas on paper. I like many of the short stories (L.T. Maude: The Blue Laboratory; M. E. Braddon: Good Lady Ducayne; R.S. Hossein: The Sultana's Dream) and others not so much. But it's definitely a keeper for my bookshelf.
Z viktoriánských časů jsou jen některé autorky, ale stejně je to pěkný sborník. Je to jedna u knih, které neumenší seznam knih k přečtení o jednu položku, ale naopak ho podstatně rozšíří, takže pozor na to. Scifi není žánr, který někdy vznik, scifi tu bylo vždy, ale sborník zachycuje dobu, kdy si scifi začalo nezvratně nacházet cestu k masovému čtenáři.
Půvabné a zajímavé čtení. Výběr povídek je nadmíru šťastný, ilustrace jsou naprosto úchvatné. Dílko je o to lepší, že je doplněno skvělými komentáři k dobové tvorbě. Je vidět, že nejen znělá jména (hodně to evokovalo Wellse) dovedla napsat poctivou povídku. A navíc to jsou všechno děvčata, takže mají mé sympatie.