The Origins of Science Fiction edited by Michael Newton

A stellar line-up…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the latest in the Oxford World’s Classics hardback collection, several of which recently have been anthologies or collections of weird and Gothic horror. This one is a slight departure into science fiction but, as the editor Michael Newton suggests in his introduction, early science fiction has its roots in the Gothic tradition; and certainly many of the stories in the collection would sit just as neatly in a horror collection. There are seventeen stories in it, most of them quite substantial and with one or two reaching novella-length. It’s in the usual OWC format: an informative and interesting introduction, scholarly in content, but written in an accessible non-academic style; the stories, each preceded by a short biography of the author, including their contributions to the field of science fiction; and the all-important notes, which explain the many classical references and allusions, historical references and any terms that have fallen out of use. I found the notes in this one particularly good – well-written and done on a kind of “need to know” basis; that is, not overloaded with too much detail and digression.

In his introduction, Newton discusses how the concerns of the time are woven into the stories – the gathering pace of scientific and technological development, the impact of colonialism, anxiety about man’s future ability to communicate with the ‘other’, whether that other may be alien, evolved humanity, or machine. It’s interesting that all of those concerns are still subjects of contemporary science fiction, suggesting we haven’t yet solved the questions these early science fiction authors posed. He also talks about how many authors at that time who were known primarily for other styles of writing ventured into science fiction, sometimes to the displeasure of their publishers and perhaps to the bafflement of their readers. Certainly some of the names that turn up here surprised me – George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. Others are much better known as stalwarts, even progenitors, of the genre: HG Wells, of course, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. It’s truly a stellar line-up and they have produced some stellar stories – I gave them a veritable galaxy of stars. These are the included stories:

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – The Mortal Immortal
Edgar Allan Poe – The Conversation of Eiros and Charmian
Nathaniel Hawthorne – Rappaccini’s Daughter
Edgar Allan Poe – The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
Fitz-James O’Brien – The Diamond Lens
George Eliot – The Lifted Veil
Grant Allan – Pausodyne
Frank R Stockton – The Water-Devil: A Marine Tale
HG Wells – The Crystal Egg
Rudyard Kipling – Wireless
Mary E Wilkins Freeman – The Hall Bedroom
HG Wells – The Country of the Blind
EM Forster – The Machine Stops
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Terror of Blue John Gap
Jack London – The Red One
Gertrude Barrows Bennett – Friend Island
WEB du Bois – The Comet

With ten out of the seventeen receiving five stars apiece, and nearly all of the others receiving four or four and a half, it’s an almost impossible task to pick favourites, so the ones I’ve chosen to highlight are a fairly random bunch:

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot – The narrator is an introverted, artistic type who, following an illness, develops a kind of second sight which allows him to understand the inner thoughts of those around him, and occasionally to have previsions of the future. Despite a prevision showing him that marriage to the woman he loves is likely to be disastrous, he goes ahead and marries her anyway! After years of misery, a medical friend of his visits and they carry out a scientific experiment which leads to a shocking ending. This wasn’t my favourite story in the collection, although I enjoyed it and felt it was very well written. But I was so taken with the idea of George Eliot writing science fiction that I just had to include it!

The Water-Devil: A Marine Tale by Frank R Stockton – A stranger comes to stay at a village blacksmith’s where the locals gather of an evening to smoke and tell stories. On learning he’s a sea-soldier (marine), they beg him for a tale. He tells them of the time the ship he was on was becalmed in Bengal Bay, despite good winds blowing. One of the crew told them of the Water-Devil – a creature lurking at the bottom of the sea that can trap a ship with its one incredibly long arm, and then pull it down to eat all aboard! Lots of humour in this, beautifully told in the style of old fishermen’s tall tales. The ending clarifies why it counts as science fiction, but obviously I can’t tell you! I’ve only read two tales from Frank R Stockton and loved them both – must seek out more!

The Red One by Jack London – Guadalcanal. A man, a scientist, is ashore from a ship when he hears a strange booming noise. Intrigued, he sets off to investigate, but gets attacked by bushmen and can’t get back to the ship before it sails. He is taken in by some villagers who worship the Red One – the source of the mysterious noise. Although it is forbidden, he persuades one of the village women to take him to see the Red One and he’s astonished by what he finds… This is my first ever Jack London story, and I thought it was brilliantly told, with humour, peril and horror all intermingled. Lots of outdated language about the natives, of course, as is the norm for colonial tales, but in this case I felt it may have been deliberate – i.e., part of the character of the scientist, rather than representative of the views of the author – though I may be wrong. Still a great story, anyway!

The Comet by W.E.B. Du Bois – Jim, a “Negro”, works as a messenger in a bank. Everyone is excited because a comet is just about to make a near pass of the Earth. Jim is sent down to the vault to look for something and when he comes back up, everyone is dead, apparently as a result of the comet. He wanders the city (New York) and eventually finds one living person – a rich, white woman. Du Bois was a writer of the Harlem Renaissance and, while this story is undoubtedly science fiction, it’s also one of the most powerful stories I’ve read from this era (1920) about race. Excellently written, it is raw, full of anger and yet with a tone of despair, and it left me sobbing and furious at the end. I knew his name but haven’t read anything by him before – I’ll certainly be seeking out more.

So some science fiction stalwarts, some old names in a new genre and some new (to me) names who thrilled me. A truly great collection – my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link

23 thoughts on “The Origins of Science Fiction edited by Michael Newton

  1. This sounds like a great collection, FictionFan! There’s a nice representation of authors, and I like that exploration of the nexus among gothic, horror, and science fiction. And so many of them five stars? That’s a well done collection, then! You know, I never knew DuBois wrote fiction – that’s intriguing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s great when a collection is full of really high standard stories, and this one certainly is! I didn’t know much about DuBois at all but looked him up and it seems he did write some fiction, but it all seems to be polemical fiction about race, rather like this story. And unfortunately mostly out of print over here, as far as I can see. But maybe some of it will be available via Project Gutenberg or one of those sites – must check!

      Liked by 1 person

    • It would make a great gift. As well as the wonderful content, the hardback itself is lovely, and good quality. These books are always much nicer in real life than the cover images make them seem!


  2. Well, dang. You knew you’d get me with this one! Was the Poe good? I have an app on my phone with his complete works, so I could at least go read it as a “teaser”. I’m off to see what my options are for this one…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved one of the Poes, though I’d read it before – The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. The other one, The Conversation of Eiros and Charmian, didn’t work so well for me, I think because it was full of classical allusions that sailed straight over my head! Thank goodness for notes! It’s only available in hardback or Kindle at the moment, and the Kindle price over here is nearly as high as the book price. But I think it’ll probably come out in paperback later – I think they usually do that with these collections – and then hopefully the Kindle price will drop too. Hope you can get a copy – I’m sure you’d enjoy the intro and notes, as well as the stories of course! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah… I see now there are TWO Poes. One of them is classified horror in my collection, the other SF.

        Over here, the hardback is almost $23, but the Kindle is around $7 or 8. I’ve put it on the wishlist and will keep an eye on it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • M Valdemar works as either horror or SF, I’d say. I’m sure it was in a horror anthology that I read it before. Oh, that’s a better price for Kindle – over here it’s about £12 at the moment, and the hardback is about £14.

          Liked by 1 person

    • These really old SF stories are as much lit-fic as SF, I always think – just an opportunity to look at contemporary issues from a different angle. The quality of the writing is superb, as you’d expect from the names on the index!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I hope your library goes for it! I think you’ll love these stories. They are all science fiction in the strict definition, but these older writers use it in such marvellously clever ways to look at aspects of their own time and society. No alien shoot-em-ups here! And the quality of the writing is excellent, as you’d expect from these big names. They’re probably all available online, but I love the intros and notes in these anthologies – they really teach me about the various genres and I find that enhances my reading of the stories. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • These really early science fiction stories are nothing like modern ones – no alien shoot-em-ups here! They’re so well written, as you’d expect from such huge names, and each author uses the basic science bit really inventively to look at their contemporary concerns. If you do go for it, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I thought I might have read more of them, but most of them were new to me. These ones truly deserve that oft-misused “classic” label, and the intro and notes in these OWC books always add to my enjoyment of the stories. If you get your hands on a copy sometime, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I thought I might have read more of them, but actually I think I’d only read four before so there were plenty that were new to me, including a couple I’d been meaning to read for ages, like the Shelley. I love HG Wells – he really is the master when it comes to this style of science fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

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