In the mid-1920s Hugo Gernsback, editor of Amazing Stories, coined the term “scientifiction,” an ugly mouthful that soon morphed into “science fiction.” Before then, speculative novels and stories were loosely referred to as fantasies, romances, future war fiction, adventures in the style of Jules Verne or, as H.G. Wells titled an 1899 collection, “tales of space and time.” Still, the phrase most often used to describe early sf — the preferred abbreviation for this beloved literary genre — is “scientific romance.”
This is also the title of Brian Stableford’s new anthology of “pioneering science fiction” from Britain, the United States and France. The book opens with Edgar Allan Poe’s innocuous-sounding “Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” — in actuality, the description of Earth’s fiery destruction by a comet — and ends with Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Horror of the Heights,” in which a pilot discovers monstrous creatures living high above the clouds in the upper atmosphere. Also included are such classics as “What Was It?,” Fitz-James O’Brien’s ultimately piteous tale of an invisible entity, Jerome K. Jerome’s “The Dancing Partner,” in which a clockwork automaton goes berserk, and William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night,” a masterpiece of horror about a young couple marooned on an island infested with a strangely rampant fungus.
Many other stories of comparable power deserve to be better known. In Grant Allen’s “The Child of the Phalanstery” a utopian society of the far future requires that babies with physical defects be put to death. In this world, prayers are called “aspirations,” God has been replaced by the “Spirit of Humanity,” and Darwin is the name of a December holiday. Allen’s sensitive depiction of an anguished community includes no villains, only victims. John Davidson’s “The Salvation of Nature” starts with Scotland being transformed into a theme park, where the costumed visitors pretend to be figures from history and legend, but ends with global devastation. In George Griffith’s “A Corner in Lightning,” an entrepreneur discovers a way to control all the world’s electricity. In Walter Besant’s “The Memory Cell,” a scientist can wipe minds clear of unhappy memories and install false but happy ones in their stead. Philip K. Dick would make this one of his signature themes.
In recent years, Brian Stableford has been translating the core works of what the French call the “roman scientifique,” in particular the fiction of J.H. Rosny, Maurice Renard — sometimes dubbed the French H.G. Wells — and Edmond Haraucourt. All are represented here with superb short stories. Instead of Rosny’s well-known “The Xipehuz” — my own favorite tale of alien invasion — Stableford chooses “Tornadres,” in which an isolated community suffers an astral attack, prefigured by panic among animals, alien sounds and a peculiar feeling of weightlessness. The invader eventually manifests itself as “a large rectangle the color of rust,” which blots out the stars and sends out waves of debilitating redness across the landscape. Eschewing Rosny’s phantasmagoric style, Haraucourt’s “The Gorilloid” reproduces the cool precision of a scientific lecture. In the distant future, civilized apes discover not only the bones of ancient humans but also a living specimen of the otherwise extinct race. In his prefatory note, Stableford calls “The Gorilloid” a masterpiece, though he fails to mention whether Pierre Boulle, author of the much later novel “Planet of the Apes ,” was influenced by it.
The stories included in “Scientific Romance”— and there are a dozen others — all first appeared before World War I. “Sisters of Tomorrow,” edited by Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B. Sharp, focuses on the contribution of women to American science fiction during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Like Stableford’s book, this excellent anthology — which first appeared last year — is an important work of rediscovery and reclamation.
Many of these pioneering women are relatively obscure today. But not all. C.L. Moore, one of the giants of the field, is represented by “Shambleau,” the first of her thrilling tales of Northwest Smith, in which the Indiana Jones of the spaceways encounters a most seductive alien. The editors include three evocative poems by Leah Bodine Drake, whose 1950 collection “A Hornbook for Witches ” is among the most sought-after titles published by specialty press Arkham House. In one poem, the female narrator runs with the werewolves; in another, Bodine describes a witchy woman, “a bit more than human/ And far less than good,” who ensorcells a young squire with her red hair and green eyes. This Wesleyan anthology also reprints editorials by Mary Gnaedinger, who oversaw the influential reprint magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries, and Dorothy Stevens McIlwraith, who ran the even more famous Weird Tales.
Though “Sisters of Tomorrow,” naturally enough, looks for signs of female empowerment throughout the period’s sf, it’s hard to view Dorothy Quick’s “Strange Orchids” as anything but an effective weird-menace shocker about a mad scientist with Svengali-like powers. Likewise, Margaret Johnson Brundage’s cover paintings for Weird Tales may sometimes portray women as “strong and fearless, even in harrowing situations,” but their overall aim is sexual titillation. Brundage generally depicts scenes of sadism, bondage and submission, sometimes tinged with lesbianism. For a general circulation magazine her art was remarkably transgressive.
“Sisters of Tomorrow” concludes with a strongly argued essay by Kathleen Ann Goonan, who teaches writing at Georgia Tech. “Challenging the Narrative, Or, Women Take Back Science Fiction” attacks residual sexism in the field while also praising the groundbreaking iconoclasm of writers such as Joanna Russ, author of “The Female Man,” and the important contribution of contemporary editors Ellen Datlow, anthologist extraordinaire, and Sheila Williams, who oversees Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Still, what really matters is, of course, the future.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday in Style.
Edited by Brian Stableford
Dover Books. 335 pp. Paperback, $14.95
Edited by Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B. Sharp
Wesleyan. 393 pp. Paperback, $29.95