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.)

REVIEW: “The New Frankenstein” by William Maginn

Review of William Maginn, “The New Frankenstein” in A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction, edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018): 3-18 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Where to start with this story?! It’s the Frankenstein fanfic you never knew you needed. An unnamed narrator tells the reader a story told to him by an unnamed German that he was in quarantine with in Venice, and what a story it is! The German scientist studied at Leipzig and Paris, but it was when he was staying in Mannheim that he first came across a German translation of Frankenstein, which he promptly read, not knowing it was intended to be read as fiction. So when his old tutor, Scharnstein, appears in his lodgings one day after years of absence, bearing with him the selfsame monster of Frankenstein. But

Frankenstein has left his work imperfect; he has resuscitated a corpse: I will give him a mind (p. 8).

There follows a very detailed account, rooted firmly in the fine scientific premises of animal magnetism and phrenology, of how to engender a mind within a brain by compressing and elevating certain gasses in the cerebellum and the cerebrum.

I don’t want to destroy the reader’s enjoyment of experiencing this story first-hand by summarising too much, so let it suffice for the remainder to note that Goethe, Shelley, and Coleridge all show up, although Kant does not (due to being dead), there’s a trip into the Necropolis, and an invocation of Satan. I mean, what more could you want from a story? Add to that the fabulous story structure, and I was grinning ear to ear while reading this. So bold, so shameless, I’d love to see more modern SF in this vein!

(This is an abridged version of a story originally published in 1837.)

REVIEW: A Brilliant Void edited by Jack Fennell

Review of Jack Fennell, ed., A Brilliant Void: A Selection of Classic Irish Science Fiction (Tramp Press, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

A while back I had time to kill in Belfast airport so I ended up in WH Smith’s hoping to find the newest Rivers of London book. I failed at that, but what I did find was a book that touted itself as being “a selection of classic Irish science fiction”. Classic science fiction, you say? Some people might think that’s an oxymoron, that SF is an inherently modern genre. In his introduction to the collection, “The Green Lacuna”, the editor Jack Fennell addresses precisely the issue of genre, as well as whether it makes sense to speak of a specifically Irish tradition in SF.

Fennell kicks off his introduction with a brief rehearsal of the fantastical elements that can be found in the history of Irish storytelling, arguing that many of the recurring tropes in medieval Irish mythology and literature are the same tropes that one finds in contemporary science fiction — from Balor of the Evil Eye, villain of the 11th C Book of Invasions who “was basically a mutant with laser-vision” (p. vii) to stories in the “Christian fantasy-voyage” genre with encounters with creatures that should “be read as forerunners of modern sci-fi aliens and mutants” (p. viii). Now, these examples might seem a bit far stretched — more fantasy than sci fi as there isn’t any “science” that is being invoked to underpin or explain the fantastical elements of these medieval myths. But they are part of a continuous tradition that directly fed into modern sci fi, mediated by, among other things, the classic Gothic literature of the 19th century, of which “Ireland was home to one of the most celebrated varieties” (p. viii), Ascendancy Gothic, feature “paradigm-shifting encounters with the other” (p. viii). This strand of gothic literature, Fennell argues, combined with the scientific romances of Verne, Wells, and others to become the direct parents of pulp SF in the early 20th century. A second specifically Irish influence on the development of modern SF, Fennell argues, is the Irish “desire to see the future” (p. xi), which is manifest in the central role that prophecy has always played in Irish literary tradition, and in particular in the aisling or ‘dream vision’ poetry.

Despite this, Irish science fiction has often been relegated to the “marginalia” (p. x) of Irish literature, Fennell argues. This anthology is an attempt to right this, and to bring to light stories and authors that have been sidelined. Reading classic science fiction not only allows us to “look at the commonplace from a hypothetical remove” (p. ix), it allows us a glimpse into what people of the past thought their future would, or could, be like.

This focus on the future is the red thread that ties all the stories together, even more than the cultural background of the authors. The stories in the anthology cover the period 1837-1960, and are both standalone stories and excerpts from larger works. I was super pleased to see that more than half of the authors included were women (8 women, 6 men). (Wait, you didn’t know there were female SF writers before the 1960s? Now you know!) As is usual, we will review each story individually and link the reviews back to this post when they are posted:

There are so many things to love about this collection — Fennell’s lucid and informative introduction, the variety of the stories, the coherence of the whole. I highly recommend it for classic SF lovers, people with an interest in Irish literature, people who want to read more early SF by women, or those who just want to curl up with a good story. This collection has it all.