Was George Eliot The Best Science Fiction Writer Who Didn't Write SF?

Illustration for article titled Was George Eliot The Best Science Fiction Writer Who Didn't Write SF?

George Eliot's work, especially Middlemarch, deals with the impact of new technologies on society. And her worldbuilding, in the sense of creating a microcosm of society, is second to none. So perhaps it's not surprising that author Jo Walton argues Eliot had a "science-fictional mind."


Talking to David Naimon on Naimon's podcast, Walton talks about the links to George Eliot in her new book My Real Children and her 2009 essay on George Eliot, and then says:

Science fiction didn't exist at the time she was writing... She understood that it was changing technology that changes society, which is a thing that very, very few people in the nineteenth century understood. And even coming into the twentieth century — and even now. I think now, people would say, "Well, yes, look at computers, they've changed the way we do things."... But I think even as recently as the twentieth century, people didn't see that the same way. And I think there's a kind of science-fictional mindset that looks at, you know, the invention of faster-than-light travel, and then talks about that.

George Eliot was looking at the invention of railroads, and how railroads allowed a woman to go from Manchester to London on her own — which would have been a three-day journey that you couldn't have done without protection. You genuinely couldn't do it. It's not just that it wasn't done, 'Oh, shocking.' You would have been killed. And then there were trains and they were safe, and a woman could do that alone, and it was a complete game-changer. And she saw how that changed things [and] how that changed the world economically.

And I think that that kind of attitude — it's not only science-fiction writers who have that. But it's a science-fictional way of viewing the present and viewing history that George Eliot very much did have. And you get passages where she's explicitly talking about this... and that's so unusual. You'd never get that in Dickens or Trollope.

There's also a huge Middlemarch nod in Life After Life, the acclaimed recent science fiction novel by Kate Atkinson, in which one of the main character's alternate lives is basically Dorothea's marriage to Casaubon, and this is actually called out. So it's great to see George Eliot getting more recognition among SF writers in general.

The whole podcast is well worth listening to. [via BoingBoing]


It's for this reason that I've always loved Monet's paintings of train stations like this one, Le Gare St. Lazare, 1877. To provincial people who's daily lives were mud and manure, this must have seemed like a starship port would to us.