Any reader who loves science fiction will want to visit New York sometime before March 10. Starting Thursday, the Grolier Club — the oldest bibliophilic society in America — is hosting a stunning exhibition of notable books in the history of fantastic literature. Titled “A Conversation Larger Than the Universe, ” it draws on the remarkable library of Henry Wessells, a raffish antiquarian bookseller, writer and publisher well known in science fiction circles for wearing tropical linen suits and dashing bow ties.
At an initial glance, Wessells’s illustrated companion volume to the Grolier show could be mistaken for a concise survey of the science fictional universe. It isn’t. For that, you still need to start with Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove’s “Trillion Year Spree.” While Wessells does reflect on prominent — and familiar — works of “fantastika,” he really shines when pointing readers to some of the field’s neglected classics or more idiosyncratic outliers. Add an easygoing, no-frills style, and the result is a lively, deeply personal set of “readings in science fiction and the fantastic.”
The 70 works Wessells highlights run from an obscure 18th-century Gothic novel (Thomas Leland’s “Longsword”) to the contemporary fiction of Karen Joy Fowler , Wendy Walker and Kelly Link. Curious and entertaining factoids abound. “The History of the Kingdom of Basaruah” (1715), by Joseph Morgan, is both the earliest prose fiction published in America and nothing less than a utopian allegory describing an imaginary country. “Le Nagzag” (1771) may be the earliest drug novel, the eponymous herb being an intense aphrodisiac. Wessells reminds us that the first words spoken by the monster in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818) are almost exquisitely polite: “Pardon this intrusion.” He also contends that Shelley’s “The Last Man” (1826) deserves to be better known: It is “a beautifully written account of utter, irreversible catastrophe,” the story of a plague that brings about the end of human civilization.
The third chapter of “A Conversation Larger Than the Universe” surveys works published in a single year, 1885, beginning with Richard Burton’s translation of “The Arabian Nights.” Bound in full white vellum, Wessells’s gorgeous set of this Victorian classic was “most recently owned by author-explorer Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003), who walked through the Empty Quarter in Southern Sudan and Ethiopia.” Many of the other books on display at the Grolier are similarly special: novelist Larry McMurtry’s copy of H.G. Wells’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau”; Stella Benson’s “Living Alone,” bearing the signature of Peggy Guggenheim; page proofs of John Crowley’s “Little, Big” inscribed by the author to his close friend, the multitalented writer Thomas M. Disch.
Gently provocative at times, Wessells argues that W.H. Hudson’s “The Purple Land That England Lost” (1885) is the earliest example of Latin American magical realism and that William Morris’s “The Sundering Flood” (1898) should be honored as “the first modern work of fantasy with a map.” When praising Hope Mirrlees’ “Lud-in-the-Mist” (1926), one of my own favorite books, he underscores that this exceptional novel — about a village located on the edge of Faery — quietly influenced Joanna Russ, Neil Gaiman and many other contemporary writers of fantasy. One of these, Elizabeth Hand, has compared “Lud-in-the-Mist” to the first album of the Velvet Underground, “which sold poorly; but everyone who bought it went on to form a band.”
No literary snob, Wessells enthusiastically points out science fiction’s influence on rock music, the punk scene and comics. He even allocates several pages to the 1930s pulp hero Doc Savage, “the man of bronze.” As a boy Wessells read all the 1960s paperback reissues of these weird-menace adventures and, he admits, still keeps the entire series in his attic. What’s more, he owns a signed print of the iconic James Bama portrait of model Steve Holland as Doc. You’ve seen the image: a torn-to-pieces shirt draped over perfectly chiseled abs and biceps.
Being well-read both inside and outside the genre, Wessells contends that the first major work of alternate history was a 1931 collection of essays, edited by J.C. Squire, titled “If It Had Happened Otherwise.” Its fanciful “lapses into imaginary history” include “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” by none other than Winston Churchill. Wessells also lingers over one of the most chilling dystopian novels of the 20th century, “Swastika Night,” written by Katharine Burdekin under the pen name Murray Constantine. Drafted in 1936 and published in 1937, it projects a Nazified far-future Europe where Hitler is worshiped as an Aryan god and women are kept in pens as breeding animals. (For more about this remarkable book, I recommend Daphne Patai’s excellent Feminist Press edition or the Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback, for which I wrote a short introduction.)
The second half of “A Conversation Larger Than the Universe” belongs to the more literary science fiction giants of the later 20th century: Robert Sheckley, Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) and William Gibson, among others. All these are wonderful writers, though I was sorry that Wessells left out my own particular favorites, Alfred Bester and Jack Vance.
No matter. “A Conversation Larger Than the Universe” is declaredly partial and personal; it reflects one individual’s distinctive tastes and collecting interests. In this regard, Wessells — himself a bookman — rightly devotes his penultimate chapter to honoring science fiction’s most influential scholars and bibliographers, including E.F. Bleiler, John Clute, L.W. Currey and that great authority on lost-world romances, Stuart Teitler.
Even if you somehow miss the Grolier Club exhibition, you might still want to pick up Wessells’s affection-packed monograph and, as they say on the radio, join the conversation — in this case, “a conversation larger than the universe.” To infinity and beyond!
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Henry Wessells
The Grolier Club. 287 pp. Paperback, $35