When the VV thinks of Victorian writers, the genre of science fiction is not the first that springs to mind. Rather, it is the idea of domestic sagas charting the intricacies of everyday life, juxtaposed with sensation, melodrama and mystery. And yet there were authors quite unrestricted by such conventions as the current free exhibition at the British Library shows.
'Out Of This World: Science Fiction But Not as You Know It' informs us that the nineteenth century was a time when futuristic scientific fiction was rampant, with exciting novels being published that are still in print as classics today, and the concepts within them still influencing much of our contemporary writing and drama.
The Victorian era was one transformed by the industrial revolution, with many 'fantastical' new inventions such as the steam engine, the telegraph, the use of electricity, the 'magic' of film and photography. So, it would not have been the greatest leap for an imaginative and active mind to construct whole 'new worlds' around such ideas.
Sometimes that imagination turned out to be prophetic, such as in the case of Jules Verne who, when writing From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, described a journey in which he predicted, with quite an uncanny accuracy, a three-manned aluminium spacecraft being launched from Florida by a cannon called Columbiad, which then returned to earth again by splashing down into the Pacific ocean – and all at an estimated cost that was almost the same in real time as the billions which financed the Apollo mission – when 3 men were blasted up to the moon in a vessel made mainly of aluminium, before splashing back down to the Pacific Ocean!
There was fictional travel of a different kind, and many stories had already been told whereby men travelled back and forth in time, but never by using an actual machine - until The Time Machine by H G Wells which proved to be hugely successful – although it has to be said that the concept was not original as a Spanish writer called E Gaspar had already published El Anacronopete – or The Time Ship: a novel based on a vessel that if anything resembles the ideas behind the construction of Dr Who’s Tardis, being larger on the inside than out, whereas H G Wells' contraption was a great deal smaller and more 'down to earth'.
Both writers were telling more than a story. Wells was deeply concerned about the social disintegration that might result from industrial advances. Gaspar may have set his character off on a romp through ancient Rome, 3rd Century China, and the start of creation, but their journey was a clever way of satirising the present day – just as Jonathan Swift also did when, in the early 1700's, he created Lemuel Gulliver who sailed more conventionally to visit weird and wonderful lands which satirised the everyday faults of government and religion.
So, you see the old adage really is true – there is rarely anything new in this world – even when it comes to the 'other worlds' of science fiction and fantasy. And though now we find ourselves in the midst of another extraordinary revolution – this time a digital one which may yet open up who knows what new and exciting realms, even this phenomenon was foreseen by the Victorian writer Mark Twain who, in 1898 when inspired by the invention of the telephone wrote a story set 6 years in the future in which he visualised ‘mind’ travelling, rather than that instigated by physical movement. His ‘telectroscope’ has striking similarities to our modern internet, making ‘the daily doings of the globe…visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues.’
The VV cannot but help ponder on what wonders might come next - perhaps even telecommunication with other beings in our universe - but, you know, H G Wells thought of that too when he wrote about Mars in The War of the Worlds.
The OUT OF THIS WORLD Exhibition continues until September.
Gaspar's novel is currently being translated and should be available in English next year.
And, creating a rather nice symmetry, another Spanish writer has recently written a best-selling novel entitled The Map of Time in which the author, Felix J Palma, employs many themes from H G Wells' The Time Machine whilst reconstructing and twisting them into an entirely new story which draws upon other Victorian 'wonders' such as the history of The Elephant Man.
For other related VV posts, please see: