That Gulf of Fear
"Nothing is so painful to the human mind," cries Frankenstein's pitiable monster, "as a great and sudden change."
Published in 1818, Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein was itself a pained response to the great and sudden changes that shook the collective psyche of Western civilization during the nineteenth century. Advances in understanding nature — from the stars to the human body — challenged ancient and cherished assumptions about space and time and even about our lineage as human beings. Everywhere readers turned, they encountered evidence that the cosmos was older and more vast than the provincial medieval view whose strictures continued to inhibit study of the world. And as the century aged, the spiritual vertigo from dramatic revelations seemed to increase.
Every new discovery raised questions. In 1781, for example, a German-born musician named William Herschel — a self-taught amateur astronomer — discovered the planet Uranus, and accidentally shook loose the last grip that ecclesiastical thinking had on astronomy. The notion of "deep space" soon followed and opened the door to even more devastating concepts such as "deep time," which provided eons for the gradual change of plants and animals.
Even the most passionate fans of natural history, which was an internationally popular recreation during much of the nineteenth century, found the intellectual terrain disconcertingly wobbly. What was our status in the cosmos? Were there really things called galaxies out beyond our local solar system? How can there be both a microscopic world beneath us and a telescopic world above us? Why do we find seashells fossilized on mountaintops? And, after Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859, people had to ask themselves if it could really be true that we are genetically related to other creatures rather than having been directly crafted from the same clay.
During the nineteenth century, from the era of the pioneer manned balloon flights to the time of the Wright brothers, the conceptual cosmos evolved from a cozy local solar system and a token prehistory to planetary kinship and the beginnings of institutionalized environmentalism. When the century opened, there were few professional scientists and no science courses in schools; church doctrine still dominated "natural philosophy." By the time it ended, the once-reviled Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey in a state funeral and the Natural History Museum in London had been built as a secular temple to knowledge — with its botanical rather than Ionic columns adorned by apes and lizards instead of gargoyles and saints.
New ways of thinking required new ways of writing, and the writer now considered the founder of science fiction saw the need for fresh metaphors while still a teenager. Mary Shelley confidently declares her position, midway between science and fancy, in her introduction to the 1818 first edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus:
The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin [Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles], and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence. I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination; yet, in assuming it as the basis of a work of fancy, I have not considered myself as merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment. It was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it developes; and, however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield.
Shelley's last sentence could serve as a manifesto for fantastic tales in general. Not surprisingly, most critics cite Frankenstein as the founding document of the genre that this anthology celebrates. It wasn't named "science fiction" until 1926; Hugo Gernsback used the term when he launched the first magazine devoted to it, Amazing Stories. Yet most critics consider modern science fiction to have emerged like Athena from the brow of Zeus in 1816, when Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (not yet Shelley) woke from a nightmare and began writing Frankenstein. The novel was an expression of some of the ancient themes of literature — anguished dread of mortality, the consequences of obsession, and hubris and consequent ate, the divine retribution that in mythology always follows overweening pride. Young Mary was an unwed, pregnant teenager. She and Percy Bysshe Shelley married later the same year.
Her first novel has lasted, in part, because the central figure quickly strode off the page and into popular culture. Nowadays the cobbled-together, nameless "monster" — long mistakenly known by his creator's name — is familiar to millions who have never read the novel. He is a stock figure in horror movies, a favorite of editorial cartoonists, a cautionary fable about science. Frankenstein and his tormented creation are perfect figures to open a tour of the nineteenth century's troubled dance between science and fiction.
In September 1831, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge attended the British Association meeting at which the word "scientist" was voted in to replace the antique term "natural philosopher."
At the same time, a twenty-two-year-old failed medical student named Charles Darwin was packing his duffel for the Beagle voyage and packing his mind with the earthshaking notions of such geologists as James Hutton, who saw a vast prehistory behind our own recent debut. Coleridge also enjoyed the work of the popular scientist Humphry Davy. "I attend Davy's lectures," he declared, "to increase my stock of metaphors."
In doing so the poet took sixty pages of notes such as this: "No difference of Oxygen in cities, Woods, or Sea shore." Coleridge participated in one of Davy's demonstrations of electric shock from a "Leyden Phial," the new chemical battery. Instantly linking the physical spark with theories of vitalism versus materialism, he jotted in his notes, "More's antidote against Atheism." No spark could leap between electrodes more quickly than it could make connections in a writer's mind.
Percy Bysshe Shelley's preoccupation with science dated from the early days of his youth, long before he met young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. He devoured every text he could find about astronomy, magnetism, and the recently discovered electrical nature of lightning. His younger sister recalled how he placed her and other children "hand-in-hand round the nursery table to be electrified" with the kind of chemical battery that fascinated Coleridge.
The cross-fertilization occurring between science and literature inspired poetry, drama, sermons — and, yes, science fiction. The stories collected in Frankenstein Dreams chronicle how Western civilization responded to the dizzying new discoveries of the nineteenth century. Gravity, time, distance, mortality, sensory limitations, our inability to divine the future — all of these barriers to the human spirit's dreams were tackled through fantastic, entertaining tales that merged ancient human concerns with new revelations and anxieties. Technological innovations and conceptual advances created new lenses through which to view every aspect of the body and nature and society.
The variety of such sparks makes literary taxonomy difficult, but anthologizing is a subjective game. Within the lively pages of this collection, therefore, readers may consider "science fiction" to be loosely defined as tales of the fantastic that exclude the supernatural — no ghosts, no deities, no magic. What may sound like an arbitrary distinction actually demonstrates separate ways of regarding the cosmos. Homo sapiens is a restless, curious animal. Whether increasing or reducing heat, converting plant and animal products into clothing, redirecting streams, or constructing tools out of wood and stone, primitive human beings devoted much of their time to manipulating nature. Such attempts included investing the world with spirits and deities whose help required magical intervention — prayer, ritual, sacrifice. The scientific approach that had achieved a new worldview by the nineteenth century, in contrast, regarded nature differently and sought to manipulate it solely by nonmagical means. It is this view of nature that animates most of the stories in Frankenstein Dreams, and it proves no less moving or fantastic than earlier viewpoints.
Throughout the century, fantastic concepts permitted writers to explore real-world issues from new perspectives. Among the tales gathered in Frankenstein Dreams, Mary Shelley conjures Faustian monsters from the discoveries of Galvani regarding electricity, and explicitly cites Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus and his notions of reanimating a corpse. In his 1845 story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," Edgar Allan Poe explores, in predictably morbid fashion, the theories of Franz Mesmer regarding hypnosis and animal magnetism. Blossoming visions of the human psyche's complexity animate Thomas Wentworth Higginson's disturbing 1877 story "The Monarch of Dreams." Alice W. Fuller, in her pioneer story "A Wife Manufactured to Order" from 1895, cheerfully envisions the shortcomings of the first robot girlfriend. In "The Hall Bedroom," published in 1903, the versatile Mary E. Wilkins Freeman — the only author who appears in each of the four Connoisseur's Collection volumes so far — convincingly portrays a stumble into another dimension.
The great themes of modern science fiction showed up surprisingly early in the dawn of the genre: space travel, time travel, destroyed ecosystems, dystopian societies, and even dangerously independent machines. Trapped within the brief journey of a single lifetime, for example, many imaginative writers envisioned both the past and possible futures. Mary Shelley's own postapocalyptic 1826 novel, The Last Man, takes place near the end of the twenty-first century, following the handful of survivors of a terrible plague. It was her ill-fated husband, after all, who described poets as "the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present." Edward Page Mitchell's thoughtful 1881 story "The Clock That Went Backward," reprinted here, is one of the earliest time-travel stories, and influenced many of its more famous successors. Mitchell conjures the frisson of displacement and melancholy that is the hallmark of time-travel stories: the poignant sense of fleeting and irrecoverable time that haunts our linear lives and that H. G. Wells explored in more social terms more than a decade later, in his first "scientific romance," The Time Machine.
During the nineteenth century, European writers often chose the less explored (from their point of view) regions of the earth as settings for tales of marvel and wonder. By the mid-Victorian era, imaginary trips to unexplored regions were hugely popular. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote again and again about the American frontier or the Arctic or tropical South America; and finally, in "The Horror of the Heights," which you will find in this volume, he sends his characters exploring in the still unknown regions above the clouds.
Often science fiction uses technological or other nonmagical means to transcend the narrative limitations of more realistic stories, effecting the same plot boost that ghosts or vampires might contribute to another kind of story. Inventors replace witches; chemicals and machines stand in for incantations and curses. This idea emerges from a long history. Hindu and Sanskrit epics, for example, describe the vimana, a flying castle — very much a form of technology, but less invented than conjured. "Sit now upon this square of tapestry," instructs the merchant who tries to sell a flying carpet to Prince Husayn in One Thousand and One Nights, "and at thy mere wish and will it shall transport us to the caravanserai wherein thou abidest." Is the carpet thus a vehicle controlled by telepathy? No, it appears to be — and is treated within these magical stories as — an enchanted object, like the talking mirror in Snow White or the Wicked Witch's crystal ball in the movie The Wizard of Oz.
In this volume, Rudyard Kipling in his story "Wireless" employs the recently invented radio to delve into the past, into the mind of a dead poet. Kipling, who wrote superb ghost stories such as "'They,'" chose technology instead of spirits to animate this particular plot, but the tale has also been reprinted in collections of the supernatural. Ambrose Bierce, known for brilliant supernatural stories such as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," appears in this anthology with four brief news-like accounts of people who suddenly vanish from mundane Earth — perhaps into another dimension. Bierce offers no spooky explanation, but this story too has appeared in collections of the supernatural.
In a rather Darwinian turn, American writer William Henry Rhodes envisions a child born with eyes that focus not upon nearby objects but only upon astronomical distances. This mutation becomes a window onto the cosmos. Rhodes's 1876 story "The Telescopic Eye," which you will find herein, also nicely demonstrates that, ninety years before the plastic masks of Star Trek, science fiction writers could envision aliens whose biology differed enormously from that of human beings:
The Lunarians are not formed at all like ourselves. They are less in height, and altogether of a different appearance. When fully grown, they resemble somewhat a chariot wheel, with four spokes, converging at the center or axle. They have four eyes in the head, which is the axle, so to speak, and all the limbs branch out directly from the center, like some sea-forms known as "Radiates." They move by turning rapidly like a wheel, and travel as fast as a bird through the air. The children are undeveloped in form, and are perfectly round, like a pumpkin or orange. As they grow older, they seem to drop or absorb the rotundity of the whole body, and finally assume the appearance of a chariot wheel.
Sprinkled among the complete stories herein you will find a handful of excerpts from novels. Each such narrative is self-contained, and its individual introduction to the author and the story will set the context. The works may be too long to include in toto, but their characters and themes have proven so memorable that they demand inclusion. And they earned their fame for a reason, by virtue of shocking new ideas and compelling narrative; every anthologist hopes to send readers back to the originals.
As the selection from his Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde will demonstrate, Robert Louis Stevenson was another writer who paid considerable attention to the ever-changing science around him. He wove many contemporary issues into his 1886 novella, beginning with well-known case studies of dual personality, but they gained resonance when he mixed in evolutionary fears and the recent notion of the violent criminal as an atavistic reversion to our species' brute past. A dramatic passage from it shows how deeply, in illuminating the duality of conscience and character, Stevenson was tapping into the Zeitgeist of his era when he unleashed the primitive id. The tale was published in 1886, the year that Sigmund Freud began his clinical practice in Vienna. Two years later, when Jack the Ripper began to terrorize Whitechapel, the newspapers immediately referred to Mr. Hyde, to the lurking midnight vicious- ness of humanity.