REVIEW: “An Advance Sheet” by Jane Barlow

Review of Jane Barlow, “An Advance Sheet” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 127-148 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

What a marvelous story. Reading it, it was hard to keep in mind that it was written more than a hundred years ago, how unexpectedly timeless, prescient, and modern it was. We are quickly introduced to the main characters in the first page, Dr. Warden and Dr. Thomas Harlowe (the 1st person POV), two medical doctors who work in a mental institution, and a patient of theirs, John Lynn, who ended up in the institution after a nervous breakdown caused by anxiety over his university exams, a story all too familiar in the early 21st C. The focus of the story is Lynn, and a strange encounter that he relates to Harlowe. The trope involved is not an uncommon one in early SF: Travel to another time or another world via mental projection alone.

But what really took me with this story was the detailed explanation that Lynn gives Harlowe not about how such travel is possible, but about why we should even think these other worlds and times exist. Barlow’s explanation is uncanny: First, she articulates a version of the many-worlds interpretation of the universe:

“I refer to the fact that such a limitless atomic universe necessarily involves the existence, the simultaneous existence, of innumerable solar systems absolutely similar to our own…” (p. 129).

But not content to start there, she has Lynn immediately make the analogical step from the existence of different worlds to the existence of our own world at different times — and all of these different worlds being causally isolated from each other.

See, when I’m not writing, reading, and reviewing speculation fiction, I’m a philosopher who focuses on questions of modality and time. One of the most important developments in the logic and metaphysics of modality during the 20th C was David Lewis’s developments of modal realism, the idea that there are other “possible worlds” that are of exactly the same type as ours, but which are causally inaccessible to us. Lewis himself took time to be represented by different “stages” of these possible worlds; but it is also possible to take the possible worlds model further and identify times with worlds themselves, speaking of “possible times” instead of “possible worlds”. For Lewis, these worlds are out there, fully developed, and independent of ourselves; while we cannot access them through spatio-temporal relations, we can think of them, and, with a bit of a loose metaphor speak of looking through a telescope to these worlds to see what is occurring in them. Lynn adopts a very similar metaphor, as a means of explaining clairvoyance:

For, if what I have said is factually true, the explanation is simply this: the clairvoyant has somehow got a glimpse into one of these facsimile worlds, which happens to be a few years ahead of ours in point of time, and has seen how things are going there” (p. 1310)

The parallels in the views are remarkable, and even more remarkable that Barlow as writing 75 years before Lewis, and without the benefit of the philosophical and educational context that Lewis had in the 1950s and 1960s. Having read Barlow’s story, I’m now totally convinced I need to read more by Barlow, and write up a paper on this curious 19th-C Irish female precursor to one of the most important developments in contemporary analytic philosophy.

(Originally published in 1898.)

REVIEW: “The Pulse of Memory” by Beth Dawkins

Review of Beth Dawkins, “The Pulse of Memory”, Apex Magazine 116 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

It is generally agreed that, on a generation ship, nothing can be wasted. But what about memories? In this unusual story, people have discovered a way to recycle the memories of the dead, so that no knowledge or experience will be truly lost. How is this feat accomplished? Through fish. The fish eat people before they die, and then teenagers eat the fish when they come of age, thus gaining the memories of the people that fish dined on. It’s morbid, but effective.

The brilliance of this story lies not in the idea of memory-eating fish (though that’s a pretty great conceit), but in the way it shows how different people respond to this practice. Society is not a monolith, even in the constrained environment of a generation ship. Some people feel an almost religious reverence for the fish, others are disgusted by them, and some yearn to do away with them entirely. It’s a rich and organic source of conflict, and one that is too rarely used in most stories, making this story all the more sweet for really exploring it.

For such a strange (and at times, confusing) story, Dawkins keeps us grounded with a strong point-of-view character. Cal’s love for the fish, and for the role they serve in society, provides the reader with a hand to hold from beginning to end. This story gives us a unique take on generation ships, a staple of science fiction, and I’m grateful to have read it.

REVIEW: “The Professor’s Experiment” by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford

Review of Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, “The Professor’s Experiment” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 107-123 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

In the days before cryogenics and assisted comas, the idea of being able to put a person to a dreamless sleep that can persist days or weeks or years without any degradation of the body is both fantastical and tantalising — since the days of Shakespeare and perhaps even longer people have dreamt of potions which can induce a sleep like death. In Hungerford’s story, the old Professor has been researching the potions of the ancient Peruvians and South American Indians for decades and is now ready to put his theory into practice, despite the worries of his student and friend, Paul Wyndham. As yet, he has been unable to find anyone in Ireland that he could experiment on…and then there is a knock upon his door…

There is one place in the story where I fear there may have been an editorial mishap in the abridgement process; on p. 117 there is a strange repetition of six sentences. In the first place, there is a queer shift in time which is inexplicable, while the second occurrence of the sentences a few paragraphs later makes a lot more narrative sense. It seems as if the first occurrence of the sentences was mistaken, and it makes me wonder what — if anything — should have been there instead.

(Originally published in 1895.)

REVIEW: “Mercia, the Astronomer Royal” by Amelia Garland Mears

Review of Amelia Garland Mears, “Mercia, the Astronomer Royal” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 79-103 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

It’s amazing how modern a late 19th C story can feel. Here is the story of how Mercia, the Astronomer Royal, suffers sexual harassment at the hands of her boss (Emperor Felicitas). First she tries to resign her position to get away; and when he won’t allow her to resign and he lays his hands upon her, and she tries to rebuke him and protect herself, she is arrested on charges of attempted murder. Anxious to know how the trial will unfold, the Emperor visits a noted psychic who shows him scenes of the future — scenes that do not go well for the Emperor, though he does not know why. In an attempt to restore public favor to himself, he offers Mercia a pardon — a pardon which she refuses to accept because she has neither committed nor yet been convicted of a crime. In the end, the trial goes ahead and in a convenient plot twist Mercia is cleared of all charges and the emperor is disgraced.

I wonder what Mears would have made of the Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh investigation of 2018…

(This is an abridged extract of a novel originally published in 1895.)

REVIEW: “The Story of a Star” by Æ (George William Russell)

Review of Æ (George William Russell), “The Story of a Star” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 71-75 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Unlike some of the other stories in this anthology, with their quite detailed science, this one seems almost more fantasy (or perhaps magical realism?) than science fiction — though Robert, the narrator (what is it with all the men writing stories with egotistical, megalomaniac first person POVs? I mean, the narrator of this story imagines himself to be the reincarnation of one of the magi!), is dealing with subject matter that could be called science, such as the birth of stars and planets, the way he deals with them is not through observation, investigation, or scientific method, but through contemplation, dreaming, and fugue states.

(Originally published in 1894).

REVIEW: “The Age of Science” by Frances Power Cobbe

Review of Frances Power Cobbe, “The Age of Science” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 53-68 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The titular Age of Science in Cobbe’s story is a newspaper, an issue, dated to 1977, of which we are given a glimpse of via that marvelous new invention, the “prospective telegraph”, which does for time what the electronic telegraph did for space. The anthology editor, Fennell, notes that “futuristic newspaper” stories of the 19th C almost make up a genre of their own, and it is fascinating seeing a late 19th C glimpse of what the world would be like a century later.

Some things are laughable — there is no more war, as science has removed any reason for war; there stock market is much reduced in power and importance; both the Upper and Lower Houses of government are populated solely by medical men — while others seem shockingly prescient — when I read one of the occasional notes that reported a fault in a train at that moment under the Channel, 10 miles from Dover, I immediately had to pause and find out just when the Chunnel opened. (1994 — nearly 20 years after Cobbe foresaw it — but already as early as 1876 a protocol was established for a cross-Channel railway tunnel. So perhaps the surprise comes in that it took another 120 years to actually come to fruition!) Others, such as the strict and absolute prohibition of women either reading or writing seem merely sad, and all too familiar.

(This is an abridged version of a novella originally published in 1877).

REVIEW: “The Diamond Lens” by Fitz-James O’Brien

Review of Fitz-James O’Brien, “The Diamond Lens” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 21-49 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

O’Brien’s story is a first-person narration of Mr. Linley, a man obsessed with microscopes, convinced he’s the first person to make all sorts of discoveries despite never having studied any of the classics, and who sounds like basically the most irritating mansplainer of mid 19th C New England (yes, that’s where it’s set, there and in NYC, which strikes me as an interesting choice for an Irish author). Add in a bit of casual anti-semitism, some problematic gypsy stereotypes, and the objectification of women, and the entire thing is rather horrific. But read through a 21st-century lens (albeit not diamond), it’s something of a howler — I had trouble taking the narrator at all seriously, and enjoyed thinking of all the devastating memes I’d post in reply to his Twitter feed (which I’m sure he would have had, if Twitter existed in the 19th C).

But like the previous story in this anthology, O’Brien’s has a solid dose of microscopy and optics, which I appreciated, and lively doses of spiritualism and unlikely coincidences. It’s almost enough to offset the entire lack of redeeming features in Mr. Linley’s character — almost.

(This was originally published in 1858.)