The Revolutions, and the Charm of Victorian Science Fiction

The Revolutions

What is it about the 19th century that so fires the science fiction imagination? I still think it’s the top hats and petticoats. Time traveling, planetary exploration, and the like just seem more wondrous and appealing when done by stuffily dressed prim-and-propers. But that’s my own personal theory.

Nevertheless, Victorian sci-fi continues to entertain, and now (come April 1), Felix Gilman presents a sparkling new entry into the canon with The Revolutions. A summary is difficult, because there’s much going on in Gilman’s London: an astounding storm, a mysterious man-powered computing Engine, competing occultists, scenes from the Red Planet. But to start, let’s just say that our two protagonists, Arthur Shaw and Josephine Bradman, bring new and literal meaning to the term, “star-crossed lovers.”

The Revolutions, told through the eyes (and consciousnesses) of Arthur and Josephine, does what Victorian tales do so well: combines magic and science in such a way that you can no longer tell which is which. As Arthur asks of the mercurial and suspiciously friendly Lord Atwood, “By God, Atwood—is everyone in London a magician?” Soon we discover that no, not everyone is a magician, but the city sure is a cobblestoned pasture of plenty when it comes to wizardry.

From the minute down-on-his-luck writer Arthur joins the ranks of Mr. Gracewell’s Engine, performing mystical calculations he can scarcely understand, you don’t know where the story will take you, but you know you’re going to go far. In this case, to Mars and its moons, a world and society Gilman paints with the same admiring observation H.G. Wells gives the Eloi and Morlocks in The Time Machine.

(Note: there is vague talk of mathematics, but no actual number-crunching is involved on your part. The most relatable sentence in the entire novel for me, the math simpleton, is, “Arthur’s heart sank at the prospect of reading 122 proofs of anything.”)

Perhaps the highest praise I can offer is that after reading The Revolutions, there’s a fair chance you’ll want to host an occultist-themed soirée, with guests assuming planetary noms de guerre. In your case, it may involve a Ouija board and not actual space travel, but still—fun for everyone!

For further reading to satisfy your old-school mystic thirst, try these complementary titles, some new and some old:

The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells
The master class on opening lines, everyone: “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

A Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne
The upper crust penetrates the Earth’s crust, courtesy of the man who brought together Doc Brown and Clara Clayton in the Old West, much to the dismay of a beleaguered Marty McFly.

A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Let’s take the old-timey party to America…and then to Mars Barsoom, where Confederate Officer John Carter finds himself, naked. As essentially the manliest man this side of a Brawny paper towel package, and suddenly equipped with spring-loaded legs thanks to low gravity, John Carter puts on a flag-waving display of athleticism and heroics. It’s pulp fiction at its finest, without John Travolta.

“Some Words With a Mummy, by Edgar Allan Poe
The prince of darkness has some fun with the rampant interest in Egypt of his day with a short and sweet ditty: stodgy well-to-dos undress a mummy, who then proceeds to dress them down for thinking themselves somehow more scientifically advanced than he.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
I know, I know, it’s not Victorian; Clarke’s story clocks in just a tick too early in the 19th century, but its inclusion here is necessary. In this hefty tome, amid the Napoleonic Wars, a different sort of conflict is at hand in England. Magic, long thought dead, has been brought back to life via the two eponymous magicians. And can you ever have too many magical power struggles?

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman
As a palate cleanser, if you like your tales of secrets among England’s elite with a dash of belly laughter, try the fantastically readable story of Queen Victoria and her new consort, Vlad Tepes. No one leaves the planet, sure, but you do go inside the Diogenes Club, which itself is basically another world.

What’s your favorite Victorian-set novel?

  • Check out the Burton & Swineburne series by Mark Hodder. The first book, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, won the Philip K. Dick award and offers everything you could want in a Victorian novel: steampunk technology, time travel, and a fascinating alt history that uses real characters from our history to spin an entirely new one. I have read the first three and enjoyed them greatly. I believe there are plans for a six-book run.

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