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The Science Fiction Writer Who Received Fan Mail From Virginia Woolf

Illustration for article titled The Science Fiction Writer Who Received Fan Mail From Virginia Woolf

It's one of those literary friendships that seems unlikely on the surface, but then makes endless sense once you dig deeper: Virginia Woolf had a correspondence with Olaf Stapledon, and he inspired her to write more science fiction.

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Kim Stanley Robinson digs up the two writers' correspondence for an article in New Scientist — apparently Woolf's key letter to Stapledon is among his collected papers, not hers, and wasn't included in her Collected Letters. The letter from Woolf to Stapledon, dated July 8, 1937, reads:

Dear Mr. Stapledon,

I would have thanked you for your book before, but I have been very busy and have only just had time to read it. I don't suppose that I have understood more than a small part - all the same I have understood enough to be greatly interested, and elated too, since sometimes it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly, in fiction. But you have gone much further and I can't help envying you - as one does those who reach what one has aimed at.

Many thanks for giving me a copy,
yours sincerely,
Virginia Woolf

Robinson believes that Stapledon had just sent Woolf a copy of his then-recent novel Star Maker, and Woolf had already read two previous Stapledon novels. Woolf had already been writing science fiction of a sort, with novels like Orlando. But Robinson claims that exposure to Stapledon's work pushed Woolf in an even more science-fictional direction:

These strange novels made a real impact on Woolf. After reading them, her writing changed. She had always been interested in writing historically, but her stream-of-consciousness style made that difficult to accomplish. Her character Orlando's fantastically long life, and the chapter "Time Passes" in To the Lighthouse, were two attempts at solving this problem. The modular structure of The Years was another. But after reading Star Maker, she tried harder still. In her last years she planned to write a survey of all British literature that she was going to call Anon; and her final novel, Between the Acts, concerns a dramaturge struggling to tell the history of England in the form of a summer village pageant. The novel ends with Stapledonian imagery, describing our species steeped in the eons. Woolf's last pages were a kind of science fiction.

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And Robinson argues convincingly that if Woolf were alive today, she'd be reading science fiction — both because British SF is in a new golden age, and because what's hailed as the best literary fiction in Britain today is mere historical fiction, which doesn't necessarily tell us anything new about the eras it covers and doesn't illuminate the challenges we're about to face. Robinson's whole essay is well worth reading. [New Scientist]

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DISCUSSION

There is someone I used to work with that I would love to show this article to as it parallels in some respect a conversation I had with her a while back when I introduced a quote by Harlan Ellison. When I explained who he was she was extremely dismissive, why would I expect her to know a particular science fiction author? While I woudn`t expect her to be able to necessarily name book after book he wrote, I would have hoped that she would be familar with the name simply because he is a famous author. I pointed out that I am no great fan of period costume dramas but I know of the Brontes and I can name some of the books they wrote.

What really irked me the most was the implication that she wouldn`t know who Ellison was not because he was an author of books she wasn`t interested in, but because he was an author of science fiction and therefore held in some mild contempt by the population at large. I think the attitude shown here by Virgina Woolf is most commendable.