Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Science Fiction through the Ages

I.O. Evans (editor) Science Fiction through the Ages volume one (1966)
Idrisyn Oliver Evans, to give him his full name, wrote a ton of those Observer's Book of Nuggets style publications for bespectacled boys and undertook the translation of a number of Jules Verne novels - which is interesting because I understand there to be some piss-poor Verne translations out there. I actually fucking hated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, although it turns out that the version I read had been anglicised by Mercier Lewis, which at least lets Idrisyn - if that was really his name - off the hook on one count.

It's hard to fault the choices made in this prehistory of science-fiction, excerpts from the writings of Plato, Johannes Kepler, Voltaire, Lucian of Samosata, Verne, Mary Shelley, and others. Unfortunately, few of the works quoted really yield satisfying extracts, and I'd suggest that at least Frankenstein and Gulliver's Travels should be read in their entirety. Isolated snippets reveal a nifty turn of phrase but not a whole lot else. Unfortunately the excerpts from things I haven't read aren't generally much better and left me mostly unmoved, and certainly unlikely to wonder any further about Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris or Robert Paltock's Peter Wilkins. Edgar Allen Poe's The Balloon Hoax is reprinted in full, and I couldn't actually read beyond the first two pages, such was my dislike for how it was written.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the excerpt from what I take to be I.O.'s own translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues a great deal more than the one that I read; and Patrick Moore's account of Johannes Kepler's then untranslated Somnium is reasonably terrific; and the bigger picture afforded of the history of science-fiction as a genre is greatly more thought provoking than at least a few of these individual parts. Brian Aldiss identifies Frankenstein as the first true science-fiction novel, although much of his criteria seems contradictory. Frankenstein, he declares, may be termed science-fiction by virtue of references to technological developments of the day, galvanism and the like, whilst earlier efforts such as those of Swift or Lucian are deemed purely allegorical. This would be fine but for the remainder of Trillion Year Spree greatly favouring the allegorical over the technological - Philip K. Dick rather than Hugo Gernsback - as the truest form of the genre. Evans' book at least proves the futility of drawing such sharply defined lines by showing how the science Aldiss recognises in Frankenstein is only science as seen from a twentieth century perspective, and that it probably isn't fair to dismiss earlier more alchemical forms just for the sake of an argument.

This collection really should have been better given the sources, but then it wasn't so much bad as simply a little on the dry side; and on the other hand, I now really want to read Kepler's Somnium, so that probably counts for something.

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