12 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Updates of 19th Century Classics

Arguably, 19th century literature is defined by the extravagance of its poetry. (The vampire Lestat ain’t got nothing on Lord Byron.) But the craft of the novel was percolating in the background too, undertaken by such undesirables as women, satirists, and social reformers. If you care to, you can find Victorian jeremiads railing against the social rot perpetrated by novels, which read like anti-television tracts from the first decades of that medium. (My take: give any genre long enough, and it’ll become preferable to the newest alternative. I am constantly begging my children to rot their brains with television instead of YouTube. For crying out loud, put on headphones at the very least.)

Because early novels were written on the edge of things—not precisely respectable, and new enough for wide experimentation—many bucked the often rigid social structures of the times. In the second edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which had been subject to much howling by moralists, Oscar Wilde declared, “all art is quite useless.” By which he meant (among other things) that the novel should not be used only as a moral punchline, but should explore the wide variety of the human experience. From Trollope’s intricate family sagas, to the Brontë sisters’ howling family Gothics, to the lurid and/or didactic serials of Conan-Doyle and Dickens, the novels of the era tread a lot of ground.

Maybe that’s why they’re such good fodder to update for a contemporary audience: they managed to hit first, and definitively, a swath of the human experience. No, no one has to worry about the entailed estates of the Regency period, but the social burlesque of Pride & Prejudice, the relationship between the sisters, and the sting of betrayal—all still hold true. (Plus, Darcy: rwrrr.) Here are 12 sci-fi and fantasy updates of major 19th century novels. I’ve not included works that already have a science fictional or fantasy twist to them, like Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; they almost need their own roundup. I have included edge cases like the Gothics, because any supernatural element tends to be ambiguous at best. (Quick: are the ghosts real in The Turn of the Screw?) Come let’s see what’s happening on the manse, in space.

Railsea, by China Miéville
Miéville’s romp through a world of tracks and sand isn’t exactly an update of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but it sure tips its hat most strenuously toward what might be the Great American Novel™. Moby Dick has a long history in the space opera, I think because the sense of the containment of ships and the vastness and callousness of the environment around them is the same. Railsea isn’t quite that—well, it is, at its basics—but it also comments on the inevitability of certain storytelling styles. It’s a commentary on storytelling itself. Which, don’t let that dissuade you! (It is also a riff on Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, which is the coolest.)

Pym, by Mat Johnson
Edgar Allen Poe wrote only one novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. He intended it to be a realistic recounting of life of the sea, but Hollow Earth theory and other bizarre stuff works itself in, because Poe. (The novel is said to have influenced Melville, Lovecraft, and Jules Verne; wow.) Pym follows an African-American literature professor who leaves his liberal Manhattan college in disgrace, and then undertakes the sea voyage of Gordon Pym, who he has come to believe is a real person, to Antarctica. It lies somewhere between secret history, a satire, and a full-on postmodern wig-out. It’s so funny, and at the same time, brutally satirical and insightful. Totally worth a look.

Drood, by Dan Simmons
Like Pym, Drood presents itself as somewhere between a secret history and a retelling. Charles Dickens’s last, unfinished novel was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a murder mystery of the title character. The narrator of Simmons’s update is Wilkie Collins, a lesser-known Victorian novelist and sometimes collaborator with Charles Dickens. After a train accident, Dickens sees a man who calls himself Drood “helping” the injured. It turns out that everyone Drood touched died. Drood follows the last 5 years of Dickens’s life, as filtered through the damaged narration of Collins, and including a massive amount of paranoia and references to the occult. Additionally, the events serve as semi-fictional background for Collins’s novel The Moonstone, considered by many to be the first detective novel. It’s an interesting, slippy, drugged-out take on two foundational writers.

Heartstone, by Elle Katharine White
There’s something like a cottage industry in updating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It has been rewritten from several different points of view, or continued from after Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage, or followed the lives of their children. In Heartstone, Elle Katharine White repeats the plot of Austen’s novel nearly beat for beat, but this time, the events take place in a world with dragons. I was impressed by the way White shifted some of the more thorny characters in Austen, changing their motivations to match the parameters of the world, and therefore rendering them understandable. That’s an altogether dry way of saying: you should read Pride and Prejudice + Dragons, because that’s awesome.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith
I don’t want to include this one, because I think stitching in some fight scenes to preexisting text isn’t really an update. I also don’t want to get yelled at in the comments for not mentioning it. It was a breakout hit in the late aughts, kicking off a myriad of monster mashups such as Jane Slayre, the Meowmorphosis, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. I admit they have great covers and brilliant faux study guides, and can generally be classed as “irreverent fun,” but I also find these mashups somewhat irritating. Maybe because I received no less than three gifted copies of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, due to my well-known affection for both Austen and zombies? You can’t pigeonhole me!

For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund
In For Darkness Shows the Stars, Peterfreund takes on one of the lesser known Jane Austen novels, Persuasion. For the record, Persuasion is my most favorite Austen novel, I think because its protagonist is older and knows something of regret. Anne Elliot rejects a suitor due to the advice of trusted friends, and several years later, he comes back into town, and they both must consider and reconsider that choice. In Peterfreund’s book, the separated lovers live in a world where genetic tampering has resulted in an immoral caste system, one that exploits the failings of one generation against the next. In Jane Austen’s time, the issue of slavery was an important one (there were sugar boycotts, among other things, that the average Briton did to express their displeasure with the practice), and For Darkness Shows the Stars puts that aspect front and center.

Ironskin, by Tina Connolly
Connolly’s Nebula-nominated debut recasts Jane Eyre in a world where the humans and the fae have been locked in a Great War for about as long as anyone can remember. Jane Eliot (which was Jane Eyre’s pseudonym, with a slightly different spelling, when she ran away from the bigamist Rochester in the original) has a leaking fae curse that must be hidden behind a mask, lest her anger manifest in truly destructive ways. She’s governess for an enigmatic man, whose ward is fae-touched, but somehow not cursed like Anne. While the novel is not set in World War I, the characters nonetheless have the sort of fatalism and jittery superficiality I associate with the literature of the time. The exploration of repressed anger, expressed in the curse and its masks, is the coolest part of this SFFnal shift.

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
While not precisely an update of Jane Eyre, The Eyre Affair nonetheless leans heavily on the plot and characters of that novel. In the Fforde’s world, which is something more goofy than a strict alt-history, the Crimean War has been dragging on for a century. Also, there are government agencies devoted to the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, various literary crimes, and time travel. So, you know, a lot can happen here. Fforde riffs heavily on a lot of 19th century literature, from Dickens to Poe, but he spends the most time with Jane Eyre. His protagonist, Thursday Next, has the ability to jump into the plot of books, and her interventions in the machinations between Jane and Rochester change the plot of more than one book.

Black Spring, by Alison Croggon
My complaint with many Wuthering Heights adaptions is that they fail to acknowledge what terrible people Catherine and Heathcliff are. These are no milquetoast lovers, but towering personalities whose love pretty much annihilates everything and everyone around them. (Stephenie Meyer’s Eclipse has a strong Wuthering Heights intertext, but I think this is mostly backwards: Edward is for sure Linton. Anyway.) Black Spring beautifully replicates the claustrophobic Gothic atmosphere of Wuthering Heights while folding in elements of magic and a compelling concept of vendetta. This is how you update something as bananas as early Romantic Gothic literature.

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
Alexander Dumas wrote some of the most exciting swashbuckling adventure stories you could find in the 19th century, including The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. The Stars My Destination is an update of the latter. (Bonus 19th c reference: the novel was first titled Tiger! Tiger! after the William Blake poem “The Tyger”.) Like the protagonist of The Count of Monte Cristo, Gully Foyle is a man of no ambition or drive. He is spurred to construct an elaborate revenge plot only by the most extreme adversity. Even better: Gibson and Moorcock have both hailed The Stars My Destination as a seminal cyberpunk novel.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis
Jerome K. Jerome set out to write a travelogue, but what he got instead was Three Men in a Boat, a funny, aimless farce of three Englishmen on a boating holiday. In the same time-traveling future as Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear, Willis sends her future historians back to Victorian England in search of a missing artifact. Along the way, they bump into Jerome’s ill-fated boating expedition. The homage isn’t really the point (speaking of which, large swaths of Willis’ plot also tip the hat to The Moonstone). The point, as with The Eyre Affair, is to be as funny as possible while messing around in the history of literature.

Hide Me Among the Graves, by Tim Powers
My mother, who wrote her dissertation on a cycle of poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, loved to tell stories of the antics the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their fellow Victorian poets and critics. One of the more memorable ones involved Rossetti himself, in a fit of grief, burying all his poetry with his late wife (a model and muse to Rossetti and others). About a year later, when the grief abated somewhat, he decided that he and a friend should go dig her up to get the writing back. So they did; yuck. Adding a vampire plot to destroy the world as a secret history to the lives of the Rossettis—Dante’s sister Christina was also a poet—fits perfectly well within the voluptuous extravagance of so many of the fin de siècle writers and artists. This is precisely what Tim Powers does in Hide Me Among the Graves. The novel is, admittedly, not strictly an update of any specific piece of 19th century literature, but I’m including it as a nod to the great poetic flowering that occurred from the boy Keats to the start of the Great War. Plus, I love secret histories, and Powers is the master of the genre.

What’s your favorite SFF update of a 19th century classic?

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