Science fiction books in 1893 are where science fiction film was in 1977. In both cases, the genre was... perhaps “in the doldrums” is too harsh a judgment. Certainly, enough significant work had appeared before 1893 and 1977 that one could, in those years, speak of the science fiction genre, in both media, as a discrete entity. Indeed, as I hope I’ve shown in these articles, all through the late Victorian era there was enough science fiction and fantasy and horror to fill an awards ballot, even though fantasy and horror were undoubtedly the stronger genres among the fantastic. And before 1977, science fiction film had had the banner year of 1968 (Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes, 2001).

But everything changed for science fiction film in 1977, just as it did for science fiction literature in 1893. 1977 brought Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and 1893 brought George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution. Angel of the Revolution is the Star Wars of its era, for good and bad.

Welcome back to the Victorian Hugo Awards, what I hope will be a semi-regular column in which I award honorary Hugo Awards to the best novels and short stories of the Victorian era.

Novels

1893 isn’t an overwhelming year for novels, but there are two books that would have deserved to win, which is not something I’ve been able to write about many years so far, and there are some new names appearing on the ballot–more evidence of a vitality in the fields of sf, fantasy, and horror. Notably, all five finalists are science fiction, which hasn’t been the case to date–but science fiction begins its rise in this year.

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The 1893 Hugo short list for novels would have been: Camille Flammarion’s Omega: The Last Days of the World, George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution, Max Pemberton’s The Iron Pirate, Eugen Richter’s Pictures of the Socialistic Future, and Jules Verne’s The Castle of the Carpathians. Griffith would have won the Hugo, but Flammarion would have been the more deserving winner.

Camille Flammarion (1842‑1925) was a French astronomer and science popularizer. He is an important figure in the history of French astronomy as well as the most important 19th century French science fiction writer after Verne. His Omega. The Last Days of the World was only published as a novel in English in 1897, but the first half of the novel was published as a serial in Cosmopolitan in 1893 and so would have qualified for the Hugo ballot. And would have been voted onto it in a landslide. The second half of Omega is an impressive Future History Of Man, not unlike a Victorian Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Man (1930), and in 1897 this second half will undoubtedly pose some stiff competition to the other Hugo nominees. But in 1893 Hugo voters would have been voting on the first half of Omega. This first half is more impressive than enjoyable. It’s a story-essay about the end of the world, delivered in what amounts to a number of long infodumps. For modern readers used to different story‑telling approaches (a.k.a., fiction-as-fiction), the first half of Omega will likely be frustrating reading, since the heavy doses of science and As‑you‑know‑Bob narration interfere with the more genuinely interesting matter of what actually happens when a large meteorite strikes the earth. (Imagine Armageddon or Deep Impact, but with science lectures replacing 90% of the action, and the meteorite impact taking place in the last five minutes of the film).

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But for Victorian readers the first half of Omega would probably have been seen as a tour de force of hard science applied to a fantastic scenario: the end of the world and how it might actually take place, scientifically speaking. On those grounds Omega is a more deserving award winner than Angel of the Revolution. Today we would say that Omega is not a better novel, or better fiction, than The Angel of the Revolution, but in the context of the time Angel would have been viewed as Omega’s superior.

“George Griffith,” aka George Chetwynd Griffith‑Jones (1857‑1906), was a British writer and journalist. He was the second most important British science fiction writer of his time, after H.G. Wells. Griffith only had thirteen years of productivity—he died relatively young, of cirrhosis of the liver—but they were an influential thirteen years. Bleiler has it right in summing Griffith up this way: “Historically important, but a bad writer technically; in ideology, the embodiment of what was wrong with the British Victorian Weltanschauung.” Griffith’s first work, The Angel of the Revolution, debuted before Wells’ first important work (Time Machine, 1895), but Wells rapidly eclipsed Griffith, something heavily felt by Griffith, and Griffith wrote in several different genres in an attempt to escape from Wells’ shadow, as we’ll see in future years.

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As I said, The Angel of the Revolution can be seen as the Star Wars of its era. About a future aerial war of anarchists against established governments, and the anarchists’ success at a world revolution, Angel compares to Star Wars in a number of respects. Like Star Wars, Angel has an internal energy and fecundity of imagination which overcomes a lack of technical skill. Angel was extremely successful, though less so relatively than Star Wars, and Angel was influential on the science fiction that followed it, though again not to the degree that Star Wars was. Compared to the science fiction that preceded it, Angel, like Star Wars, was more pulpy, more sensationalist, more...fun. And Angel, like Star Wars, created an expectation on reader’s parts for blockbuster science fiction–an expectation on reader’s parts, an example for other writers to imitate, and something for publishers to demand. Readers and critics at the time responded to Angel in large numbers–Griffith was called the “new Jules Verne”–and Angel would have taken the long-form Hugo for 1893 in a landslide.

The Iron Pirate was written by Sir Max Pemberton (1863-1950). Pemberton wrote widely, edited some major magazines, was the director of Northcliffe Newspapers, and founded the London School of Journalism. He was knighted in 1928 for various good works. The Iron Pirate is his attempt at writing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with an American protagonist. To modern eyes, the novel is not successful. Pemberton, though a talented writer of crime fiction, lacked the scientific mindset of Verne, and The Iron Pirate doesn’t have the detail of 20,000 Leagues. Nor is the protagonist of The Iron Pirate a charming, Romantic misanthrope; Captain Black is just a bitter, unpleasant man. The Iron Pirate is competent commercial work, but nothing more. However, it was critically well received and popular with readers–even second-rate Verne knock-offs went over well with the reading public at this time–and the British voting bloc in particular would have put Iron Pirate on to the Hugo ballot.

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Eugen Richter (1838-1906) was a German politician and journalist. Though a liberal in outlook, Richter was bitterly opposed to socialism, and this opposition manifested itself in Pictures of the Socialistic Future, a dystopia set in a near-future Germany in which the socialists gain power and everything goes to hell. Richter is a bit prolix and is writing with a political agenda, but his style–at least, the one shown in the translation given below–actually flows rather smoothly, without the stiff awkwardness of many Victorian translations (like those of Jules Verne, for example). As Bleiler points out, Pictures of the Socialistic Future is a reductio ad horrendum of what would happen if socialism succeeded, but Richter doesn’t ascribe ill-will to socialists, just political short-sightedness and foolishness. As far as politically-oriented dystopias go, Pictures is relatively readable and enjoyable, and those (and its politics) would have been enough to put the novel on to the Hugo ballot. (Especially compared to the also-ran–see below).

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Jules Verne I’ve mentioned before, several times. Bleiler calls Castle of the Carpathians “the last of Verne’s great science fiction novels,” but contemporary critics were generally underwhelmed by it, as was I. About a Carpathian baron obsessed with a dead singer, and the baron’s attempt to lose himself (via a high-tech castle) in a delusion that the singer is still alive, Castle is thematically complex: Old Regime characters versus modern technology, positivism versus rural superstition, the nature of love and the nature of mourning. But Verne simply wasn’t a skillful enough writer to incorporate these themes into his work in any convincing way. Verne at his best writes wonderful voyages extraordinaire, but his attempts to write in-depth character studies were singing above his range, and it shows. Nonetheless, Castle would have appeared on the ballot due to the power of Verne’s name.

The only other novel of note in 1893 that would have appeared on the ballot would be E. Douglas Fawcett’s Hartmann the Anarchist, a Griffith/Angel of the Revolution-meets-Verne/Robur the Conqueror best-seller that has not aged well.

Short Stories

1893 is the beginning of a good run for short stories of the fantastic. 1890 was a very strong year; so, too, 1893, and the first of a number of years of solid competition.

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The 1893 Hugo short list for short stories would have been Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” Eugene Field’s “Pagan Seal-Wife,” Jerome K. Jerome’s “The Dancing Partner,” H.B. Marriott-Watson’s “The Devil of the Marsh,” and W.C. Morrow’s “Over an Absinthe Bottle.” Bierce’s “The Damned Thing” would have won the Hugo.

Bierce I’ve mentioned before, repeatedly. “The Damned Thing” is one of his best. It’s a witty, sharp gem, about the titular invisible beast: “The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real ‘chromatic scale.’ I am not mad; there are colours that we cannot see. And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a colour!” “The Damned Thing” has the Biercean sardonic humor, but muted. “The Damned Thing” is a traditional horror story, rather than something groundbreaking or new–it’s in the classical horror mode rather than something innovative, like Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” from 1892–but “Damned Thing” is still one of the best horror stories of the 19th century, and would have deserved the 1893 short form Hugo. (Trust me, if you’ve never read “The Damned Thing” you’re missing out).

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Eugene Field (1850-1895) was an American author, best known for his children’s poetry (he wrote “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”) and his humor writing. Less well known are his stories of the fantastic, of which the best is “The Pagan Seal-Wife.” (His “Platonic Bassoon,” also 1893, is an entertaining comedy of a woman who falls in love with a bassoon, but is no more than that). There was a nice trend among late Victorian writers to tell stories in a folkloric voice: William Morris, with his The House of the Wolfings (see the 1889 Victorian Hugos article); Clemence Housman’s “The Were-Wolf” (who I inexcusably overlooked in my 1891 Victorian Hugos article); “Fiona Macleod,” a.k.a. William Sharp, who I’ll be covering in the 1895 Victorian Hugos article; and Field, with “The Pagan Seal-Wife.” Told in a flawless mock-Orkney voice, “The Pagan Seal-Wife” is about the man who loved the seal-wife and the ups and downs of such a relationship. I think it’s an excellent piece of work, well-deserving of inclusion on the Hugo ballot and not at all deserving of its current obscurity.

Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927) was an English humorist, best known today for Three Men in a Boat (1889) and his various ghost stories. Jerome was a relatively gentle humorist, but his ghost and horror stories are far, far darker. I mentioned his magnificent “Silhouettes” in the 1892 article. His “The Dancing Partner” isn’t quite as good as that, though it is good enough to appear on the Hugo ballot. It’s a savage short story about a clockwork dancing partner and why such a creation would be a mistake. Jerome tells the story in a matter-of-fact way and keeps his fangs sheathed until the story’s horrific ending, which has an ambiguous and markedly unpleasant (in a good, horror story way) lagniappe. One can imagine Jerome smiling in a feral way as he wrote this.

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H.B. Marriott Watson (1863-1921) was an Australian-born writer of historical romances and supernatural fiction. His Marahuna (1885), with its fire-elemental-Ayesha femme fatale, attracted some notice at the time of publication (but wasn’t good enough, in my mind, to make the 1885 Victorian Hugos ballot), but “The Devil of the Marsh” is far and away his best work. It’s about a nameless narrator falling in love with a woman in a swamp, only to be countered by the titular Devil. “The Devil of the Marsh” is a chilling vignette with a memorable enough femme fatale, but one can wish that Marriott Watson had expanded “Devil” to short story length, as it could have been a masterpiece, rather than just a striking short-short.

W.C. Morrow (1854-1923) was a contemporary of Ambrose Bierce and a teller of Biercean tales. He can be thought of as a not-so-poor-man’s Bierce, though that’s doing Morrow an injustice. (Morrow suffered enough in his own lifetime from the Bierce comparison). “Over an Absinthe Bottle” (also known as “The Pale Dice Thrower”) is another of Morrow’s Biercean stories, though that’s unfair–it stands well on its own as an American conte cruel (a story or fable which highlights the meaningless of man’s place in the universe and the cruelty of fate). About a starving San Franciscan and the stranger who shares a bottle of absinthe with him, “Over an Absinthe Bottle” is much more of a fin-de-siècle Impressionist story than Bierce would have written, and is all the better for it. “Over an Absinthe Bottle” is intelligently and entertainingly written, and if the ending is somewhat predictable it’s still well worth getting to the ending.

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Also receiving votes: E. Nesbit’s nasty little conte cruel “Knights in Marble,” B.M. Croker’s fear-the-exotic “If You See Her Face,” Alice Perrin’s Kiplingesque “Caulfield’s Crime,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic “The Bottle Imp,” and Bram Stoker’s Poe riff, “The Squaw.” (Lorimer Stoddard’s “Vengeance” was unavailable to me, but would probably also receive votes).

Links

Omega

The Angel of the Revolution

The Iron Pirate

Pictures of the Socialistic Future

Castle of the Carpathians

“The Damned Thing”

“Pagan Seal-Wife”

“The Dancing Partner”

“The Devil of the Marsh”

“Over an Absinthe Bottle”

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