A Brief Survey of Victorian Science Fiction

At Chicon the other week, I moderated a panel on Victorian and Edwardian science fiction. I’ve read some of the classics — Verne and Wells and so on — but I was excited to moderate this panel because it meant I could ask questions of my far more informed co-panelists, Randy Smith and Matthew Bennardo.

Randy was a charming gentleman and incredibly knowledgeable about the subject. (I can’t seem to find that he has a website, or I’d link to it.) He’s working on compiling a reprint anthology of period genre fiction, which I eagerly await. He also recommended a book that sadly seems to be out of print: Science Fiction by Gaslight: A History and Anthology of Science Fiction in the Popular Magazines, 1891-1911. In 1974, editor Sam Moskowitz sought out and reprinted only stories that had never before been reprinted. This is one I’ll be seeking out at my local library! (And so can you.)

Matt’s my friend and Machine of Death co-editor, as well as a short story writer of growing renown. He’s also been pursuing an informal research survey of period genre fiction, and mentioned many titles during the panel that I was unaware of. At my request, he’s been kind enough to compile an abridged list of titles for you to check out. Here’s what he has to say:

Over the course of the Victorian and Edwardian science-fiction panel, about 50 books and short stories were mentioned or discussed. It’s not possible to reproduce all the discussion here, but the list makes a fair starting point for those who may be looking for a general introduction to the science-fiction of the period.

This list has many shortcomings. It is nowhere near comprehensive. In fact, the panel largely jumped over the well-known catalogues of writers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. This doesn’t mean that the unnamed books by those writers aren’t worth reading. But most readers are likely to already be aware of many of them, and the discussion veered more often towards some less commonly read works.

In a few places, the list strays from all reasonable definitions of “Victorian” and “Edwardian”. Some books and stories that fall into different periods were discussed as points of comparison. I’ve included all those that I remember, whether or not they are technically “Victorian” or “Edwardian”.

Finally, the list is not very diverse — it consists almost entirely of books written by American, English, and French men. Mary Shelley and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are the only women mentioned, and no writers from other countries make an appearance.

Bear in mind that this list was generated organically during a conversation, and wasn’t intended to be a full survey of the field. The titles, authors, and dates are all correct to the best of my knowledge, but I have not attempted to correct omissions in this post. However, I have sorted the works into broad categories in an attempt to provide at least some context for them. Where free etexts are available, I have linked to them.

TIME TRAVEL

HOLLOW EARTH

UTOPIA/DYSTOPIA

FUTURE OR STRANGE WORLDS

JOURNEYS TO OTHER PLANETS

FANTASTIC INVENTIONS/DISCOVERIES

FLYING MACHINES

LOST WORLDS

SUPERNATURAL

WORLD CATASTROPHES

SOCIAL AND POLITICAL REVOLUTIONS

I’m very grateful to Matt for compiling this list, and I hope it’ll inspire you to check out some (freely available) period fiction you might not otherwise have run across!

I’ll mention as well one other thing that the panel brought up: there is a lot of genre fiction by non-English-speaking writers that has never been translated. Matt is currently doing what research he can to try and compile a list of possible non-English-language works that might qualify for consideration as part of this same historical canon, but of course this effort is hampered by the obvious difficulties — finding the texts to begin with, and translating them once found. Still, I hope that his search bears fruit! I’d love to read some turn-of-the-century Romanian science fiction.

This is also a fair place to mention that even the translations we do have of non-English-language works may not always be reliable. The works of Jules Verne are notorious for having been translated many different times with wildly varying faithfulness — a fascinating topic that deserves a post by itself. (See this article for more background on the Verne translation controversy.) That same website lists all the various published English editions of Verne, rated by faithfulness of translation. William Butcher has released several new and highly-regarded editions of Verne’s most famous works, which are available as free PDFs on his website.


NEW BOOK UPDATE. My new collection Emperor of the Food Chain will be out soon! Here’s the release schedule:

SEPT. 15-16 : SMALL PRESS EXPO, Bethesda MD. I’ll be there to sign and sketch!

SEPT. 17-30 : ARTIST EDITIONS will be available online in my TopatoCo store. Since some of my earlier books are close to being out of print, we have set aside a limited number for Artist Edition 5-packs. But once these are gone, they’re gone!

My other new books will go online at this time too — the Machine of Death Disposable Edition and the animal-themed Classy Lady Like You Will Love The Smell Of My Butt — as well as a few other new trinkets and doodads.

SEPT. 21 : REGULAR EDITIONS (with no sketch included) will become available online in my TopatoCo store.

Artist editions will stay available through SEPT. 30 only. Two weeks to get a sketched-in copy! I’ll be making two trips to TopatoCo to do sketches, so any Artist Editions ordered by 9/21 will ship right away; any ordered after 9/21 will ship around October 8. While I’m at TopatoCo, I’ll also sign or personalize any poster or print you order for free! So if you’re about to order a poster or print, hold off until Monday.

I’ll link to everything once it goes online! Hope to see you this weekend at SPX!