A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason

A triumph of homage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A collection of short stories linked by subject matter and style rather than through the characters, this is a wonderful homage to the science fiction of the late 19th/early 20th century. There are nine stories in all, and I gave six of them five stars, two got four, and only the last story in the book, which I freely admit I didn’t understand, let it down a little for me at the end. But not enough to spoil my overall enjoyment – some of these stories are brilliant and the quality of the writing is superb.

As regulars will know, I love early science fiction, books from the colonial era, and stories set in fog-bound, sooty old London, and Mason manages to tick all those boxes in this slim collection, so I think it’s fair to say I was destined to love it. It could all have gone horribly wrong though if he’d got the style wrong or dragged in accidental anachronisms. Fortunately, he does an amazing job at catching just the right tone, and I could imagine HG Wells and the lads nodding enthusiastically over his shoulder while he was writing. That’s not to say the stories feel old-fashioned or dated, though. Mason looks at the subjects he chooses with a modern eye, but includes those observations so subtly it becomes part of the style. So the anachronisms that are there are quite intentional and disguised so beautifully that they’re barely noticeable, except in the way that they make the subject matter resonate with a modern reader. In short, what I’m attempting – badly – to say is that there’s no need to have read any early science fiction to enjoy the stories – they work twice, as a homage as I’ve said, but as a fully relevant modern collection too.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the stories I loved most:

The Ecstasy of Alfred Russell Wallace – Wallace is a collector of bugs and birds and animals, which he sends home for the many scientists studying such things. During a fever, he has an epiphany and realises that living things evolve to survive. He writes to a scientist he knows vaguely – Charles Darwin – and waits for a reply. And waits. And waits. And gradually he begins to doubt himself, and to doubt the scientific community, fearing they will take his idea for their own since he isn’t one of them and doesn’t deserve recognition. This reads so much like a true story I looked it up, and Wallace did indeed exist, although his real story seems to be rather different than the story Mason gives us. It’s truly excellent, full of insight into how the scientific world worked in that era.

On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases in the Midst of the Smoke of London (Phew! He likes his long titles!) – This is the story of an asthmatic child and his anxious mother, and the lengths to which she will go to save his life. Mason gives a superb depiction of nineteenth century sooty London, industrialized and choking. Also of medicine, at a time when the treatment was often worse than the disease. It has a wonderful science fiction element to it which I won’t explain for fear of spoilers, but it’s a fabulous story that brought the tears to my eyes at the end.

The Line Agent Pascal – a story set in colonial Brazil. Pascal is one of the agents who live along the communications line that crosses the country, each many, many miles from the next along. Every morning, a signal is sent from head office and each agent confirms in turn that the line is working. But one day, one of the agents doesn’t respond. This is a great character study of Pascal, a man who struggles to fit in with other people, so his solitary posting suits him perfectly despite the dangers lurking in the forest around his station. But he has grown to think of the other men along the line as some kind of friends despite never having met them. The colonial setting is great, with the feeling of loneliness and constant danger from nature or the displaced indigenous people. Worthy of Conrad, and in fact reminded me not a little of the setting in his story, An Outpost of Progress, though the story (and the continent!) is entirely different.

On the Cause of Winds and Waves, &c. – The story of a female aéronaute – a balloonist – whose exploits have made her famous. But when one day she sees an odd rift in the sky she discovers that her gender and class mean that the scientific community not only don’t take her seriously but actually ridicule and humiliate her. So she sets out to prove her story true, taking along a witness. Another science fiction one, but with a delightful quirk that takes it into the realms of metafiction. (I swore I’d never use any word beginning with meta- on the blog, but I really can’t think of another way to describe it. 😉)

So plenty of variety linked, as I said at the beginning, by style, subject matter and wonderful writing. A great collection – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle at Pan Macmillan.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

47 thoughts on “A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason

    • Oh, I hope you enjoy it, if you do find time to read it! Yes, the science stuff sounded accurate to me – not the actual science, which there wasn’t really a lot of, but the way the scientific community worked in most of the stories. And the science fiction aspects were very lightly done – they didn’t overwhelm the human stories.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think from the comments that I’ve maybe over-emphasised the SF aspects, just because I enjoyed them so much. This is one that is very definitely suitable for non-SF fans – the SF elements are very lightly done and never overwhelm the human stories.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to hear that, because I felt they could be enjoyed just as much by someone who wasn’t as steeped in early SF as I have been the last couple of years. The SF elements are so well woven into the humanity of the stories… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, that would be nice! 😀 Yes, none of the stories were traumatic or upsetting, though they were occasionally quite moving. I don’t think I want to read anything too dark at the moment – life is bad enough!

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  1. I’m so glad this worked for you, FictionFan! So often, short story collections are uneven, but it sounds like this one was more consistently good – always a plus. And what an interesting-sounding set of stories, too! I have this great mental picture now, of Verne and some others standing by a contemporary author giving guidance and approval! There’s something about that early science fiction that asks some deep questions about humanity, and raises possibilities. I think that focus makes some of those stories classics.

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    • Yes, that’s exactly it, Margot, and that’s what this book did so well and why I found it such an excellent homage. Modern SF often concentrates too much on the science for my taste, while the older writers simply used it as a vehicle to look at their own society from a different angle, and I felt Mason was very much looking at our society even though the books are set in the past.

      Liked by 2 people

    • It takes a lot for a book to bring the tears to my cynical eyes! 😉 I hardly read any moderns sci-fi and this is really more fiction than SF overall, but I loved the way he sprinkled little bits of SF through the stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, we all knew you were really a sofft touch being reduced to tears by a story about an ill child and his mother. It sounds like a great collection though, Science Fiction is not really my thing, but these stories seem to have great humanity, so I may see if I can find them.

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    • Hahaha, oh, no!! Is my street cred destroyed? I’ll need to find a book now where babies regularly get eaten… 😉 From the comments, I think I’ve maybe over-emphasised the SF elements simply because I enjoyed them so much, but overall I’d say this collection falls far more into the lit-fic category. Which, in fact, is why I like early SF more than contemporary stuff – they didn’t get bogged down in the actual science…

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  3. This sounds like a collection I’d really enjoy. I’ll have to make note of it for next year’s October reading. Or anytime I feel like dipping into the eerie. 😉

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      • Hurrah! It’s quite light on the SF elements but beautifully done, and the stories are all very different. Great stuff! have you got the new Born of the Sun BL anthology yet? I’m loving it… 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • No, but I have it on my wishlist, along with a couple of other BL anthologies I want.
          Advice please…. if I have time to read my first Agatha Christie this month, which of these two do you recommend: Death on the Nile or The Secret Adversary? I have both in my kindle.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Death on the Nile definitely! I love The Secret Adversary as you’ll probably have guessed since my cats are called Tommy and Tuppence, but the T&T books are different from her usual style. Death on the Nile gives a much better idea of what she’s mostly loved for, and it’s fab – one of my top five, for sure – maybe top three! Enjoy! 😀

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    • Bwahaha, my evil plan is working! 😉 I do think I might have over-emphasised the SF elements in this just because I enjoyed them so much. Overall, I’d say it falls more into the lit-fic category, and so well written…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh this does sound like a lovely little collection, and also good on you for admitting you don’t understand a story-this happens to me often but I rarely admit it in writing haha

    The story with the super long title about the smoke in London sounds interesting to me, especially as it seems to relevant right now. As a parent I’m faced with a whole spectrum of attitudes that other parents are taking with their kids and covid. It’s such a strange time, but I keep reminding myself to be thankful that covid isn’t like the polio scares of centuries past…

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    • Haha, in a different time I might have read that last story again to try to understand it, but I decided I didn’t care enough! 😉 Gosh, yes, the battles that are going on over school in every country are pretty intense – glad I’m not a parent of young children at the moment! I keep remembering that when I was a kid, before there was a measles vaccine, parents used to send their kids to play with any kid that got the measles, since it was considered that the younger you got it, the less dangerous it was for you. But unlike Covid, you could only get measles once…

      Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, it’s like anti-biotics – I vaguely remember life before they became so commonplace, when every mother knew the old traditions of how to make poultices to draw the poison from wounds and so on. I must admit anti-biotics are considerably less messy! 😉

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  5. I really like the sound of this story collection. I especially enjoy short stories when they make the best of the short form to bring a new world or perspective to the reader – there’s an intensity when this is well written and developed within the constraint of fewer pages. Certainly going on my list,

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you might love this one – hope so! The writing is so good, and like the great SF writers of old, he never lets the science get in the way of the humanity of the stories – he merely uses it as a vehicle to view society from a different angle. I’ll certainly be looking to see what else he’s written… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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