Science Fiction Studies

#34 = Volume 11, Part 3 = November 1984

Herbert Sussman

Victorian Science Fiction

Darko Suvin. Victorian Science Fiction in the UK: The Discourses of Knowledge and of Power. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1983. xvii + 461pp. $50.00.

The field of Victorian literature, once securely defined in Arnoldian fashion as the single "great tradition" at whose center are Tennyson and Browning, Dickens and Eliot, Carlyle and Ruskin, has like so much in our collective past become destabilized, decentered to reveal instead a multiplicity of traditions and genres--of literature written for the working class and children, of non-realist forms such as nonsense and fantasy, even of literature written by females for female readers. For the study of Victorian literature, the importance of Suvin's work is to reveal the full magnitude of yet another 19th-century tradition, in particular another nonrealist mode that challenges the bourgeois male hegemony. For the history of SF, the achievement of this volume is to map definitively the complex evolution of Victorian SF so that the SF writers of this time no longer seem unexpected mutations or sports appearing, as Tennyson said of Hallam, "ere the times were ripe," but as developing within a rich and complex developmental process in the 19th century. Furthermore, Suvin provides not only a taxonomy, but also a powerful methodology for evaluating this great mass of what he terms "paraliterature." Since the volume is divided into two distinct parts--"Part I: Identification of the Science-Fiction Books and Writers" and "Part II: The Social Discourse of Victorian Science Fiction: An Interpretive Essay" based on the bibliographical and biographical data of Part I--I shall consider each section separately.

The bibliographical section "attempts to record all the first editions of English-language science fiction (SF) in book form published in and/or registered as imported into the United Kingdom in the years 1848 to 1900 inclusive" (p. 3). The entries are listed chronologically, with full bibliographical information, including in almost all cases identification of pseudonyms and anonymous authors. One of the features that enables this book to supersede earlier bibliographies is the rich description of each entry that often places the work within the development of SF in the UK. I will quote one as an example of the density and the sense of discovery in these annotations:

Lang, Herrmann (pseud.). The Air Battle: A Vision of the Future. London: Penny, 1859. [ii+] 112 pp.

5,000 years in the future geological and political changes have left the darkskinned empires of Brazilia, Madeira, and Sahara contending for supremacy in naval and air battles. Melodramatic love-and-hate plot with nasty Jew and Irishman, comic black servant, yet also happy ending with racial intermarriage. Nonetheless a remarkable work, not only historically pioneering but also one of the first narratively successful S-F romances set in the future.

Read in their chronological order, then, these entries provide a historical narrative of the development of the form--motifs, influences, sub-genres--for the years covered. One of Suvin's wisest decisions was to create not a bibliography of British writers of SF, but of SF published in England in the Victorian Age; for the 19th century, as now, SF was an international rather than a purely national literary form, although with delays in transmission between nations. The chronology indicates, for example, that Poe's Tales of Mystery, Imagination and Humour, containing much of his SF writing published in the US from 1835 on, did not appear in England until 1852. The inclusion of American and continental works also places such consummately British writers as Morris, Butler, and Jefferies within the larger swell of SF in the West and aptly demonstrates one of the major assertions of the volume, that by the early 1870s SF as a genre had reached a sufficient mass to achieve intertextuality. To cite one example, Verne's first SF translation in the UK, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, originally published in France in 1864, appeared in England in 1872, the publication year of Erewhon.

But there are limits to this mammoth bibliographical enterprise--necessary, self-imposed, and clearly articulated by Suvin--that point to the need for further research. First, as Suvin states at the outset, "The reader is hereby duly warned that this Bibliography has not sought for, nor does it pretend to give, any full overview of S-F stories in the period covered" (p. 3). The cataloguing of SF short fiction in this period is a task awaiting a future bibliographer: in the 19th century, as today, the short story provided one of the major forms for SF, and a study of only book-length works inevitably slights the contribution of such writers as Conan Doyle.

Second, the criteria for selecting the full-length SF in the bibliography are those articulated in Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: "SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance of a fictional novelty (novum, innovation) validated both by being continuous with a body of already existing cognitions and by being a 'mental experiment' based on cognitive logic" (p. 86). Using these criteria, Suvin quite reasonably omits "Nonfiction," the "Nonrealistic Mode," "'Naturalistic' Fiction with Minor S-F Elements," "Supernatural Fantasy," and "The Lost-Race Tale." Although one might quarrel with the exclusion of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which even Suvin admits is a close call, these intellectually coherent criteria provide a clear as well as a practical limit to the bibliographical project, while also suggesting the need for further work at the boundaries. For example, while the exclusion of works in which SF elements are not dominant is a perfectly reasonable criterion for a bibliography of SF, Suvin's difficulty with some test cases like Jekyll and Hyde indicates that the boundaries between "mainstream" writing and SF were as difficult to define in the 19th as in the 20th century and that Victorianists might pay close attention to the SF context of such novelists as Wilkie Collins and Thomas Hardy.

Within these limitations, Suvin achieves a comprehensiveness that enables this bibliography to supplant earlier works. A comparison with Bleiler's Checklist and Barron's Anatomy of Wonder shows that for the earliest year of his bibliography, 1848, Suvin lists three additional works: Henry J. Forrest's A Dream of Reform; Alphonse de Lamartine's France and England: A Vision of the Future; and Charles Rowcroft's The Triumph of Woman: A Christmas Story. For 1871, the annus mirabilis of Victorian SF, Suvin adds four books, including The Gorilla Origin of Man: or, The Darwin Theory of Development, Confirmed From Recent Travels in the New World Called Muy-me-ae-nia, or Gossipland by His Royal Highness Mammoth Martinet, alias Moho-Yoho-Me-Oo-Oo, which Suvin rather confidently lists as a pseudonym. Comparison with I.F. Clarke's Tale of the Future (3rd ea.) for these same years indicates that Suvin incorporates Clarke's work, but adds no new books in this sub-genre. Thus, in adding additional works to Bleiler and Barron, and in incorporating the research of Clarke on the history of the future, this volume achieves its goal of providing what is likely to remain the definitive annotated bibliography of book-length SF published in the UK from 1848 to 1900.

The "Bibliographical Study" is followed by a "Biographical Study" providing brief biographical sketches taken from standard sources and a carefully selected bibliography of secondary literature for each writer listed. These entries fulfill Suvin's aim of providing the "maximum informativeness" (p. 128) for future scholars and, with the biographical information, supply the data for the "Interpretive Essay" that forms the second part of the work.

In analyzing the field of Victorian SF, a field that this volume can be said to establish as a clearly delineated area of study, Suvin begins not with literary form, but with the mode of production, looking first to the class origins of the 19th-century authors of SF, while acknowledging the problematics of the bourgeois notion of the author as individual creator. The elaborate statistical analysis of Victorian authorship in general only confirms the received opinion that Victorian literature was produced by the professional and merchant class. Of more interest to scholars of SF is Suvin's conclusion, based on the analysis of the social origins of Victorian SF writers, that "SF was at the time written. . .by people of much the same social origin as the writers of 'high' literature" (p. 236). Thus we cannot project back into the 19th century the notion of a separate SF "ghetto"; SF "was not separated into a special enclave by the writers' social origin" (p. 236).

And yet, the assertion that the producers of SF were part of the bourgeois literary establishment is contradicted, in part, by the fascinating essay in the volume by John Sutherland, "Nineteenth-Century SF and the Book Trade." In his analysis of SF as a commodity, Sutherland notes that "long-established English publishers...Longmans...Macmillans...Smith Elder ...fought shy of SF" while "progressive new English publishers, founded in the last three decades of the century, seem to have embraced it...Heinemann...Edward Arnold...Hutchinson...Chatto...Lane" (p. 124). Sutherland also notes that SF was usually published in a single volume rather than in a multi-volume set and thus--"independent of the standard fiction-supply system"--operated within a "deviant apparatus" of circulation (p. 125).

This specific contradiction between the high-bourgeois origins of SF producers and the mildly deviant nature of the distribution system points to the issue at the center of Suvin's interpretation of Victorian SF--the contradiction of a form written at this historical moment by bourgeois authors for bourgeois readers that is in its essential nature subversive of the bourgeois hegemony. To engage this issue of contradiction, Suvin employs criteria that develop from the theoretical speculation of his Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. He posits a scale in which the best SF must present a "novum" that is "significantly different from the relationships assumed as normal by the text's addressees" (that is, a novum that opposes the bourgeois hegemony of Victorian England) and that this novum be presented as a "coherent universe" with "logical stringency and consistency" (p. 306).

Having developed criteria that fuse the formalist and the ideological-- criteria with which I would agree--Suvin turns finally to the literature, or paraliterature, itself. He divides Victorian SF into periods--1848-1870, "The Phase of Inception"; and 1871-1885, "The Phase of Constitution. " He does not consider the period 1886-1900, but sets this as another task for himself and other scholars. I would agree with this periodization of Victorian SF on the basis of the publication record. Certainly 1871-72, with the publication of The Coming Race, The Battle of Dorking, and Erewhon, marks a point at which SF accumulates a mass sufficient to become self-referential. But I do have reservations about attributing the cause of these literary phenomena too specifically to socio-political events. In marking the shift in SF in 1871, Suvin notes as "the immediate stimuli...the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune" as well as "deeper reasons . . . in a crisis of confidence in societal values and stability which. . . began already during the economic boom of the early 1870s, predating the onset of the 1873-1896 economic depression" (p. 325). Such special pleading, especially since any moment during the Victorian era can be seen within any particular historical narrative as indicating a "crisis of confidence, " suggests the danger of creating exact relations between literary productions, particularly book-length fictions, and social change.

Furthermore, Suvin's method leaves unexamined the question of why these bourgeois writers in attacking the hegemony turned to the literary form of SF at this historical moment rather than to other powerful forms available in their culture, such as the secularized sermon employed by Carlyle and Ruskin or the realist novel used so powerfully by Dickens. This question, a specific case of the more general difficulty facing any form of social analysis that attempts to explain why a particular artistic form emerges at a specific historical moment, might be better engaged by a more formalist theory of the genre, one that would look to the emergence of future histories in the late 18th century, and to intellectual history covering such familiar topics as secularization, evolutionary thought, and shifts in the time scale.

Yet by focusing on the tension between the sense of otherness intrinsic to SF and the conservative tactics of "neutralization...of the subversive novum" (p. 348), Suvin produces a brilliant set of interpretative essays on the SF of 1848-1885. To a Victorianist, the model of attraction/ repulsion to the subversive indicates another way in which Victorian SF participates in more general patterns of l9th-century literature. We can think of Darwin publishing The Origin of Species in 1859, then withdrawing to a secure invalidism while Huxley and others fought out the religious and ethical implications. Or of Walter Pater publishing his nihilist "Conclusion" to The Renaissance in 1873, then suppressing this statement in the second edition. Furthermore, Suvin's attention to contradiction provides a theory to account for the troubling indeterminacy of many major works of Victorian SF, such as Erewhon, and for the intellectual incoherence of others, such as The Coming Race. Indeed Bulwer's text provides Suvin with a telling example of this characteristic " neutralization " of otherness, here of the truly alternative vision of sexual freedom for women. The female of the Vril-ya "wears wings habitually while yet a virgin--. . . in the boldness and height of her soarings, not less than in the grace of her movements, she excels the opposite sex. But from the day of marriage she wears wings no more, she suspends them with her own willing hand over the nuptial couch. " Suvin acutely comments, "This revealing fragment fully confirms the equation of sex, freedom, and energy in [The Coming Race], and my diagnosis of uneasy fascination issuing in erotically and politically obscurantist invalidation" (p. 348).

The interpretative essays are filled with such fine insights. Of particular interest are the analyses of Poe's use of the hoax to subvert the new dominance of the media in bourgeois society; of Verne's adaptation of the imaginary journey to valorize movement itself within the quantified time and space of l9th-century consciousness; of the The Battle of Dorking as a warning, similar to that of books on World War III in our own militarized society, from one member of the imperial military to others of the need for "preparedness"; of the political subversiveness of Flatland, an unduly neglected work of analogical SF. I would only disagree with his high estimation of Jefferies' After London for showing a truly alternative society, since the work appears to me to employ the codes of Victorian medievalism and Whig history to see history repeating predetermined patterns in moving from the dark ages to "civilization."

As I have noted, Suvin provides a powerful methodology to explain and evaluate Victorian SF by focusing on the tension between the subversive potential of SF and the constraints of the bourgeois hegemony. But if Suvin fully documents this system of constraint in the texts and in the mode of production of Victorian SF, questions arise about the other side of the equation --and here is another field for future work--about how all that is subversive, all that Suvin calls the "novum," can come into existence within the hegemony. How do we account for Bulwer- Lytton, an aristocrat and sometime chief executive officer of the British Empire, writing a book suggesting the virtues of social community and female sexual freedom? Or why does Butler, the paradigmatic rentier, publish a satire suggesting the destructive power of technology and valorizing a primitive physicality?

Such questions about radical breaks with the dominant structures of feeling are inevitably slighted by concern with hegemonic power, but Suvin's volume suggests some approaches that a future analysis of this issue might consider. It appears that the authors of much of the best SF were, in a variety of ways, outside the tight world of English middle-class life. Suvin notes, for example--although he sees this only as an unexplained anomaly--that a disproportionate number of SF authors were either Anglo-Indian or had lived abroad for much of their lives, like Butler in New Zealand. Perhaps this statistical divergence suggests a group of people who through personal exposure to societies radically different from bourgeois England were able to escape the pervasive ethnocentrism of the Victorians and seek literary forms that could, without subverting fully the ethos of imperialism, valorize alternative worlds. Others identified them- selves by opposition to the middle class. As Suvin notes, Poe defined himself as a Southern aristocrat. Jefferies saw himself as a countryman who, like Hardy, chronicled the destruction of traditional agricultural life by capitalism. Morris, although he continued to live on unearned income throughout his life, identified himself, of course, with the socialist cause; and his major work of SF, News from Nowhere, which, I feel, most fully achieves the dramatization of a true alternative society, was published in a periodical addressed to other socialists. Indeed, as Sutherland notes in his essay, there is a strong correlation between the originators of SF and the early socialists. Here, Wells, the son of upper servants and a socialist in his early years, is the prime example.

But to raise such questions is to indicate the value of Suvin's study in opening avenues for future work. For this is the rare book that both makes available the materials of a field of study and provides a powerful methodology for analyzing this field. All future historians of SF and of Victorian literature will be deeply indebted to Suvin's work.

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