Monday, February 22, 2016
The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
A mediocre fantasy novel, hardly a utopia
I came across The Blazing World in The Utopia Megapack, a collection of utopian fiction from Wildside Press. Originally titled The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World, this work was written in 1666 by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. The story begins in the “real world” in which we live. A man falls in love with a young woman, but the feeling is not mutual. She refuses to be his bride, so he kidnaps her and spirits her away in a small boat. They drift into the arctic, where all the men freeze to death, leaving the woman the sole remaining passenger of the vessel. When she reaches the North Pole, she floats into a secret world that exists adjacent to our own, connected at the pole like the two halves of a figure eight.
This foreign world, referred to as the Blazing World, is populated by several species of intelligent half-animal, half-human creatures. They usher the lost woman to the Emperor of their world, who quickly makes her the Empress. Each different were-creature specializes in a different area of study: the Bear-men are philosophers, the Bird-men astronomers, the Ape-men chemists, the Spider-men mathematicians, and so on. The Empress engages in a series of philosophical and scientific dialogues with these various manimals. In response to her questions, they explain to her how their world works. Given the antiquity of the piece, it’s difficult to understand whether the scientific theories discussed are meant to apply to our world as well or only to the fantasy realm that Cavendish has created. About halfway through, the book turns into a piece of metafiction when the Empress makes a friend in our world—the Duchess of Cavendish herself. From that point on, the Duchess refers to herself in the third person and takes an active role in the story, even escorting the Empress on a visit to our own world.
Not every novel describing a visit to a strange, unknown land qualifies as a utopian work. A utopian novel must show us a model world that is somehow superior to our own, not just different. A utopia should illustrate the author’s conception of how a society should be properly run and governed. It should instruct us to reconsider our philosophical, moral, and economic ideals. That’s not what’s happening here. The Blazing World is just a fantasy land. When the Empress interviews its inhabitants, the topics discussed include the dichotomy of matter and spirit, the physical nature of light, and the absurdity of the Jewish Kaballah, none of which in any way educates the reader regarding a positive reformation of society.
About the best I can say for this work is that it’s good for the 17th century. Drama and poetry were the strengths of that era; fiction not so much. Though this is a prototypical work of science fiction, I wouldn’t exactly call it seminal. Half-human, half-animal hybrids are its main contribution to the genre, and such characters have been around for thousands of years. The most groundbreaking thing about this work is that it was written by a pioneering woman in a century that offered little opportunity to female authors. Cavendish also wrote nonfiction books on science and philosophy. I would venture a guess that some of those treatises are more worthy of reading than this fantasy piece. This book will mostly interest scholars of the 17th century for what it says about Cavendish and the ideas of her times. Beyond that, it might hold some appeal for retro-fantasy enthusiasts, such as those of the Neil Gaiman set. Fans of utopian literature, however, will find it a disappointment.
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