Victorian Values

One of the ground-breaking anthologies from Amabel Williams-Ellis and Mably Owen. Published by Blackie & Son Limited 1966. Cover art by Lawrence Cutting

World literature is full of imaginary worlds, revealing societies similar to, yet still significantly different from, our own.  They form the basis for stories that can intrigue us.  In the preface to their 1966 science fiction anthology Worlds Apart, editors Amabel Williams-Ellis and Mably Owen (well known for their Out of This World series) trace them back at least as far as William Langland’s fourteenth century allegorical poem The Vision of Piers Plowman and Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516.  These “worlds apart” can perhaps teach us something about what might yet be possible.

But the editors also identify a key development that took place in the late nineteenth century: “writers began to see changes in technology and science as setting off changes in society and in the individuals who make up society.”  No mere fantasies around which social comment or satire might be based, but actual possibilities.  In this context, they refer specifically to E Douglas Fawcett’s 1892 tale Hartmann the Anarchist or The Doom of the Great City – a farsighted story in which a terrorist with a serious grudge against Western society attacks London from a flying machine.  The threat of such terrorism, albeit not necessarily from the air, was a serious matter around that time, as shown in novels such as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent of 1907 or Under Western Eyes from 1911.

The idea of a fanatical inventor with a desire to cause havoc by destroying the symbols of Western civilization had been seen in Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea of 1870 or his Robur the Conqueror from 1886.  But the editors focus on Fawcett’s “vision of certain not impossible political developments which fortunately never evolved”, as well as his technical prescience in suggesting that Hartmann’s machine was powered by electricity generated directly from coal.  The possibility of using derivatives of coal, possibly coal tar, as a source of power which might even supersede petroleum was under serious consideration at the time they were writing.

All of which creates fictional images of a fanciful expansion of Victorian science and technology as it might have been – a history vastly different to our own but expressive of the rapid change and huge technological optimism of the period.  In an extreme form, it’s expressed in Tooth and Claw, a 2006 episode of Doctor Who where aliens seek to alter Earth’s history to build an interstellar empire based on nineteenth century mechanics, creating “starships and missiles fuelled by coal and driven by steam, leaving history devastated in its wake.”  These are akin to images of the steampunk genre.

Undoubtedly Hartmann’s airship Attila appears as a precursor of some of the ideas of steampunk – science fiction stories where events take place against the background of a nineteenth century that never was, or might have continued to be to this day, but where technical progress took an entirely different path to what we know.  Michael Moorcock’ 1971 novel The Warlord of the Air, the first of his A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy, expresses these concepts.  Oswald Bastable, an Edwardian soldier, finds himself in an alternative present where the First World War did not happen and the colonial empires still rule the world, projecting their power across the globe through large airships.

But underlying all this is an important point.  The period around the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth was one where anything could have seemed possible.  Stories such as HG Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895, or his The First Men in the Moon in 1901, demonstrate flights of imagination that might, by the knowledge of the time, have become reality.

The enthusiasm was certainly there, at least amongst those with the time and resources to consider such far-reaching expectations.  It was, in many respects, a turning point.  Technology, as it turned out, was not to be devoted primarily to scientific exploration.  But it might have been otherwise.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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