Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review of Mesaerion: The Best Science Fiction Stories 1800-1849

A great 4 star review of Mesaerion: The Best Science Fiction Stories 1800-1849 was recently posted on Amazon. Check it out.

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This review is from: Mesaerion: The Best Science Fiction Stories 1800-1849 (Paperback)
The editor of this anthology honors the authors in this collection with his research, wonderful annotations illuminating arcane vocabulary and references, and most of all his respect and enthusiasm for the works themselves. I like to think of science fiction as the most important genre of literature because, by examining the future or other dimensions, it opens a window to the anxieties of the present. I especially love dated sci-fi not only for its quaint imaginings of "modern" technology, but because here we can see how people long past expressed their fear and awe of a future that is in our distant past.

Barger's archaeology of science fiction traces these tales to the origins of science fiction itself. Here, we have uncovered the first imaginings of suspended animation, robot insects, laser guns, flights to the moon via hot air balloon. Alas, the historical significance of some of these tales surpasses their redemptive value as works of art. I found A Visit To the Lunar Sphere and Glimpses of Other Worlds ponderous, full of superfluous detail and bogged down by stuffy, professorial narration mingled with scant character development. Very stoic without any sense of fun. A common flaw of some of these stories is that the narrative focus takes the reader away from the action, presenting the imagined world from the distant vantage point of being on the outside looking in, without really engaging with it.

My favorite pieces ended up being stories with more traditional elements of literature: characters, substantive theme, a plot, and conflict, in other words--a story to tell. Perceival Leigh's The Aerial Burglar presented a dystopian fantasy world in the clouds that was like Bladerunner combined with the Jetsons.

Lydia Maria Child's Hilda Silfverling, A Fantasy was the crown jewel of this collection, combining chemistry (alchemy, really)suspended animation, crime and punishment with fairytale to create what must be the most charming story about incest ever written. Child's other story included here was also wonderful. The Rival Mechanicians provides a nuanced, artfully wrought depiction of binary contrasts in human nature, artifice versus nature, delicacy versus durability, and aesthetics versus utilitarian value. Child asks the question, much as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, can we overcome the vicissitudes of nature with the ingenuity of humankind.

At times, Child's philosophizing borders on the grace and eloquence of the Greeks: "In grand conceptions, and in works of durability, you would always have excelled Florien, as much as he surpassed you in tastefulness and elegance. By striving to be what he was, you parted with your own gifts, without attaining to his. Every man in the natural sphere of his own talent, and all in harmony; this is the true order, my son; and I tempted you to violate it p.166."

The other story that transported me was Nathaniel Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter, a tale that delves into the subject of chemical transmutation of the human form, alienation, amoral experimentation, with a Romeo and Juliet-like twist. I would recommend this collection on the strength of these four visionary tales alone, though the other six certainly contain points to recommend them as well.

While the depictions of "modern" technology were indeed quaint and silly at times in these stories, I was most struck by the ethereal, dream-like narratives, the elements of fable, fairytale, and magical realism found sprinkled like pixie dust liberally throughout these works. For the sake of identifying the origins of a genre, Barger's logic in placing them in this science fiction collection makes sense. However, many of these stories belong equally to the world of fantasy. If these tales are any indication, it seems that the early Victorians were most concerned with the ability of technology to change nature, and to replace morality with utility. The stories dealing with trans-human metamorphosis and the construction of artificial beings remind us that when we transcend the limits of human nature, we irrevocably alter it, and sometimes not for the best. Ultimately, these stories seem to impart the message that life and love are fleeting, and when we tinker with the "mechanics" of either, we are destined to lose both.

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