Frankenstein Dreams: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Science Fiction edited by Michael Sims
Long before 1984, Star Wars, or The Hunger Games, Victorian authors imagined a future where new science and technologies reshaped the world and universe they knew. The great themes of modern science fiction showed up surprisingly early: space and time travel, dystopian societies, even dangerously independent machines, all inspiring the speculative fiction of the Victorian era.
In Frankenstein Dreams, Michael Sims has gathered many of the very finest stories, some by classic writers such as Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells, but many that will surprise general readers. Dark visions of the human psyche emerge in Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “The Monarch of Dreams,” while Mary E. Wilkins Freeman provides a glimpse of “the fifth dimension” in her provocative tale “The Hall Bedroom.’
With contributions by Edgar Allan Poe, Alice Fuller, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle, and many others, each introduced by Michael Sims, whose elegant introduction provides valuable literary and historical context, Frankenstein Dreams is a treasure trove of stories known and rediscovered. (via Goodreads)
Why was I interested in this book?
At the beginning of last year, I noticed that many of the “literary” writers of the late 19th and early 20th century seemed to have a real enthusiasm for science that spilled into their works. In that time period, there seems to be a fuzzier boundary between literary and genre.
Frankenstein Dreams is chronological survey of science fiction starting at the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in 1818, which can arguably be considered the beginning of the genre. All types of science fiction are included: bats on the moon, a tale of mesmerism (which was thought to be a science), high-tech submarines, augmented humans, augmented dinosaurs, time travel, future societies, and more!
Included are some of the “genre” authors you’d expect (like Edgar Alan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne) along with some classic authors I don’t think of as having genre connections (like Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy) and many authors I wasn’t familiar with at all.
A surprise favorite was “The Senator’s Daughter” by Edward Page Mitchell. The introduction made me worry that it was going to be a very scattershot view of the future world of 1937 (it was published in 1879). I was further worried that about the premise of the US having been conquered by “the Mongolians.” If you read enough Victorian Era stories, you’ll come up against cringe-worthy Yellow Peril propaganda every-so-often. Mitchell’s story is thoughtful though, dealing with an interracial relationship that, while isn’t approved of, exists! Mitchell has two stories in the anthology. The other, “The Clock that Went Backwards,” is a time-travel tale. (I also recently read Mitchell’s “The Ablest Man in the World” for my automaton anthology. Definitely an early name in SF.)
What Didn’t Work
There were a few excerpts. In fact, the anthology starts with a series of excerpts from Frankenstein, which I would think a reader would be somewhat familiar with if they’re reading this book. Other excerpts are from Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau, Vernes’ Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Two on a Tower by Hardy. The excerpts work more or less as stand alone stories, but I wish Sims would have stuck to short stories only.
My other sort of half-problem was that some of the stories weren’t really science fiction. “The Monarch of Dreams” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson involves the attempt by the narrator to control his dreams, but it’s more fantastical than science-based. The same goes for Mary E Wilkins Freeman’s very good “The Hall Bedroom.” While there’s speculation of a fifth dimension, what occurs could as easily be called a haunting.
“Monsters of Magnitude” by Thomas Hardy (what Sims decided to call the excerpt of Two on a Tower) isn’t really science fiction, but is more like science *in* fiction, which is part of what I find interesting about a lot of literature in the Victorian era. As I also noted on Twitter, this excerpt makes me want to read the novel; I had sworn to forever hate Thomas Hardy since an unfortunate circumstance of being made to read him in the 7th grade. Similarly, Kipling’s “Wireless” involves science, but with a speculative fiction twist. Despite that, it too was one of my favorites of the anthology.
This was a solid set of short stories and a great taster of Victorian science and speculative fiction.
Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Bloomsbury, 2017
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: science fiction