A great time capsule of this important period in sci-fi history
Though examples of science fiction can be found as far back as ancient times, it was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when this genre became popular and plentiful. Before the term “science fiction” gained widespread use in the 1920s, literary critics commonly referred to speculative fiction based on scientific concepts as “scientific romance.” In the book Scientific Romance: An International Anthology of Pioneering Science Fiction, published in 2017, editor Brian Stableford presents 27 short stories that exemplify the era of scientific romance. For the most part, the quality of the volume’s selections is very good. Reading this book is like opening an entertaining and educational time capsule of this pioneering period in science fiction.
In his introduction to the book, Stableford gives an overview of the origins of the scientific romance genre and its heyday from the 1830s up until World War I. It must be noted that in this case “International” only includes writings from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Stableford obviously reads French and is quite knowledgeable in the history of French literature. I don’t think he translated the French works for this volume, but he does supply helpful footnotes that provide historical context and explain difficulties of translation.
Due to their influential talents and prolific output, the undisputed giants of this era were Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. This volume does not contain an entry by Verne, likely because he didn’t write any stories short enough to fit. Wells is represented by his excellent apocalyptic vision “The Star” from 1897. Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle were also prominent authors in this genre, and Stableford includes their stories “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” and “The Horror of the Heights,” respectively. Readers of classic literature will also recognize familiar names such as Nathaniel Hawthorne (“The Artist of the Beautiful”), Ambrose Bierce (“For the Akhoond”), and Jack London (“The Shadow and the Flash”), as well as several regular contributors to the American and British pulp magazines. One of the best things about this volume, however, is that it draws attention to French writers with whom English-language readers are likely to be unfamiliar, such as S. Henry Berthoud, Charles Epheyre, Émile Goudeau, and Camille Debans. Stableford provides brief but valuable biographical introductions to each story, often referencing a few other works by each author for further reading.
The diverse range of topics these authors cover represents the scientific concerns of their times. The ideas around which these stories revolve include future utopias, the end of the world, artificial intelligence, automatons, alien life forms, evolution, eugenics, microbial disease, climate change, and human immortality. The protagonists of these tales invent flying machines, weather control devices, invisibility potions, and a method for creating artificial memories. Many of the authors take a humorous or satirical approach to their sci-fi visions, with some hilarious results.
This collection is published by Dover Books, a company known for its inexpensive, no-frills volumes of public domain material. It is therefore a pleasant surprise that Scientific Romance is such a well-edited collection. Stableford has done a great job of not only selecting the stories but also of educating the reader on the history of this literature. One could find these stories online for free, but Stableford’s knowledge adds value to the reading experience. Not every story in this collection is a masterpiece, but overall the outstanding entries far outweigh the mediocre.
Stories in this collection
The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion by Edgar Allan Poe
A Heavenward Voyage by S. Henry Berthoud
The Artist of the Beautiful by Nathaniel Hawthorne
What Was It? by Fitz-James O’Brien
The End of the World by Eugène Mouton
A Paradoxical Ode (After Shelley) by James Clerk Maxwell
The Ablest Man in the World by Edward Page Mitchell
Josuah Electricmann by Ernest d’Hervilly
The Child of the Phalanstery by Grant Allen
The Salvation of Nature by John Davidson
Tornadres by J.-H. Rosny
Professor Bakermann’s Microbe by Charles Epheyre
In the Year Ten Thousand by Edgar Fawcett
The Revolt of the Machines by Émile Goudeau
For the Akhoond by Ambrose Bierce
The Philosophy of Relative Existences by Frank R. Stockton
June 1993 by Julian Hawthorne
The Dancing Partner by Jerome K. Jerome
The Conqueror of Death by Camille Debans
The Star by H. G. Wells
A Corner in Lighting by Gorge Griffith
The Memory Cell by Walter Besant
The Shadow and the Flash by Jack London
The Gorilloid by Edmond Haraucourt
The Voice in the Night by William Hope Hodgson
The Singular Fate of Bouvancourt by Maurice Renard
The Horror of the Heights by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle