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The Wesleyan Early Classics of Science Fiction Series
The Moon PoolA. Merritt, edited by Michael Levy287 pages
Star MakerOlaf Stapledon314 pages
Subterranean Worldsedited by Peter Fitting225 pages
The Twentieth CenturyAlbert Robida, translated by Philippe Willems, edited by Arthur B. Evans397 pages

The Moon Pool
 
 
Star Maker
 
 
Subterranean Worlds
 
 
The Twentieth Century
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

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Looking back on futures past is one of the pleasures of reading classic science fiction -- our own lives may seem mundane compared to what old-time futurists thought they would be, but the overlay of yesterday's tomorrows onto awareness of today's now illuminates both the past and the present, and even restores a certain wonder in the everyday moments we take for granted.

The four most recent releases from Wesleyan University Press's Early Classics of Science Fiction series offer many such opportunities for new perspectives built from old. More than that, though, these books show us what survives the passage of time and what doesn't. Not all of the authors presented were as interested in predicting the future as others; as with most science fiction, entertainment and imagination were as important as any armchair prophesies, and it is the imaginative power of these writings that continues to make them compelling as something more than historical artifacts.

The Moon Pool and Subterranean Worlds are not, in fact, about the future, but both offer imaginative theories of the past, and both are filled with instances of the current science of the day being used to justify the background of the story. The introductions and footnotes to each Wesleyan title are excellent, and help modern readers understand the context in which the books were written and published. A. Merritt's writing seems to us like flat-out fantasy, but the introduction and notes by Michael Levy show how aware Merritt was of the scientific and pseudo-scientific theories at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries (the first part of The Moon Pool was published in 1918 as a novelette in All-Story Weekly), and the footnotes repeatedly demonstrate that many of the central, and some of the peripheral, ideas in the book were not as far-fetched when Merritt wrote them than they seem to us today.

The Moon Pool -- which uses a variation on the idea of a hollow Earth to propel its characters through a melodramatic story of lost races, weird technologies, and evil beauties -- finds a nice companion in Subterranean Worlds, which gives short selections from twelve books and stories published between 1721 and 1914, each of them based on the idea of mysterious places beneath the Earth's crust where lost or utopian societies flourish. Peter Fitting has done a fine job of tracing the hollow earth hypothesis from its earliest iterations to its eventual popularity as a plot device. The book is not entirely satisfying as an anthology, because the selections are often as tantalizing as they are illuminating, but as a collage-like representation of the evolution of an idea it is a valuable study, indeed: a kind of anthropological slide show rendered in words. For historians of popular literature and science fiction, it will be, I expect, an essential text.

Star Maker and The Twentieth Century are pure science fiction -- in Star Maker's case, probably some of the purest, most imaginative speculation ever written. Olaf Stapledon makes Robert A. Heinlein and even Cordwainer Smith seem positively provincial as future historians. If you have never encountered Stapledon, the Wesleyan edition of Star Maker is an excellent place to start, because it gives us a book often considered to be Stapledon's best along with a comprehensive introduction and footnotes.

Stapledon has received some attention within the science fiction community, but, except while he was alive, he hasn't been noticed much by literary historians. On the first page of his introduction, Patrick McCarthy notes that "the book's publication led to appreciative letters from such otherwise different writers as H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf, both of whom compared it to aspects of their own work." Wells and Woolf represent two poles of fiction, and for one contemporary writer to be praised by both suggests something extraordinary is at hand. Nonetheless, Stapledon's book does not make for easy, casual reading, because its scope is as vast as that of any novel ever written -- hundreds of billions of years and the entire reach of the universe pass through fewer than three hundred pages. McCarthy's summary is as good as any I've read: "The narrative is fundamentally a search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, a description of its forms, and ultimately a quest for understanding of the creative force that gave birth to everything." Readers looking for a suspense-laden plot and well-developed characters will be disappointed; this is a novel interested in far different things. It is an act of pure imagination, a philosophical reverie carved from precise and elegant prose, a literature of almost nothing but ideas.

Albert Robida's The Twentieth Century is as impressive an achievement as Stapledon's, though its scope is far smaller. This book is the gem among the four discussed here, the most exciting discovery. It has never before been translated into English, despite having been tremendously popular in France when it was first published in 1882. The first thing to notice about the Wesleyan edition is how beautiful it is -- nearly every page includes a whimsical illustration by Robida, who is generally better known as an illustrator than an author, having published over 50,000 illustrations in his lifetime. His style is similar to that of other illustrators of his day (he was often compared to Doré and Daumier), but with an imagination closer to that of Dr. Seuss. The Wesleyan edition's designer, Richard Hendel, deserves accolades for how well the illustrations work within the book, how clear the text remains, and how elegant the book as a whole feels in the hands.

The Twentieth Century is a treasure not only for its physical presence, but also for bringing a lost classic to readers of English. Robida was a contemporary of Jules Verne, but, as Philippe Willems argues in his astute (although somewhat jargon-addled) introduction, Robida was far more of a science fiction writer than was Verne, whose work was concerned more with speculation about technology than about culture, society, and politics. The Twentieth Century is an attempt to offer a vivid and realistic account of life seventy years in the future. And while certainly the 1952 of the book is quite different from the 1952 of our past, Robida's careful extrapolation of inclinations from his own time into the future makes the world he portrays more vivid and interesting than it might have been had he created a more arbitrary future.

While the book eventually portrays events throughout the world, its heart is in Paris, and Robida's loving, obsessively-detailed descriptions of daily life in Paris are astounding. This future world is one linked through vast networks of instantaneous telecommunications, a world where people can sit at home and watch plays and operas projected onto screens, where businessmen travel by rail and air from one distant destination to another (and sometimes remember to pick up the phone and let the family know they'll be late for dinner), where advertisements are all-pervasive. It's a busy future, a future of speed where most people don't have time to slow down, and classic literature is condensed into four-line poems that are easy to read ("In our busy century, we need fast and concentrated literary works," one character says). Decades before Walter Benjamin wrote about "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Robida writes of "photo-painting", which allows any painting to be rapidly reproduced and any live scene to be captured as art. "Art is now within everyone's means," the narrator explains. "What middle-class property owner or small-time capitalist could deny himself the exquisite pleasure of owning one of Veronese's masterpieces?"

Though bound to a much smaller time frame than Star Maker, The Twentieth Century is an equally impressive imaginative accomplishment, because Robida didn't simply make some guesses about technological advances, but, rather, used his knowledge of science and human life to extrapolate an entire social and cultural milieu. The plot is loose and episodic, the characters often stereotypical, but the book is nonetheless a joy to read, because it is so dizzyingly thoughtful and inventive.

The Wesleyan series offers us a chance to think not only about the history of science fiction, but also about how entertainment changes over time. The Moon Pool, for instance, was an immensely popular book of its time, reprinted frequently both in book form and as magazine excerpts and serializations. Today it is, frankly, often tedious to read. Star Maker and The Twentieth Century are vastly more rewarding books, despite lacking The Moon Pool's heavy plotting. Very little of what The Moon Pool accomplishes could not be accomplished far better today by Hollywood, but most of what is interesting and pleasurable about Stapledon's and Robida's novels is tied inextricably to qualities that can't be captured by movies. Certainly, Robida's illustrations would make for an amusing animated film, but the book is a wonder because its illustrations are only one part of it -- the words move the story beyond the visual representation, allowing the illustrations to function as glimpses, touchstones, and variations of an imaginative world given depth through all the possibilities language offers. Likewise, while Star Maker certainly stretches the definition of what a novel is and can be, it defies the possibilities of cinema, because written language remains the most efficient means to convey vast concepts. The scope of the book would explode any other art form.

Much credit for the excellence of the Wesleyan series should go to Arthur B. Evans, the series editor, who is also editor of Science Fiction Studies. He has chosen well not only which books to include, but also the editors for them -- the introductions and notes for each volume are uniformly informative and useful. In many academic versions of books, the scholarly apparatus seems overblown and inessential; that is not the case here, where the introductions and notes do exactly what such things should: provide context and ideas that deepen the experience of reading the text. Evans and his collaborators are deepening our understanding not only of specific books and authors, but of the history and concept of science fiction itself.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.


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