11 December 2013

Review: Zalma by T. Mullett Ellis

Hardcover, 438 pages
Published 1895

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2013
by T. Mullett Ellis

If, like me, you are reading late-nineteenth-century revolutionary science fiction looking for scientists, then Zalma is an utterly bizarre goldmine. The novel sees Count Pahlen (a Russian nobleman, Tsarist counter-spy, and professor of biology) give his illegitimate daughter up to the Catholic Church, which raises her in a convent and plans to marry her to the heir to the throne of Dell-land (a thinly veiled version of England). The plan fails, and Zalma escapes the convent and joins her father, who is actually the ringleader of an anarchist conspiracy. Her father dies before he can bring his plans to fruition, and so Zalma decides to dump anthrax on all the capital cities of Europe from balloons. The novel ends with Zalma’s committing suicide at the moment of her strike, right when the British spy John St. Leger (who she loves but cannot be with because of their ideological divide) arrives. Zalma’s plot has been discovered, but it might not have been discovered soon enough to be stopped:
He [St. Leger] paused. Outside, the clamour of the mob recalled him to his duty.
“Is this the End of Anarchy?” he asked wearily; “—or is it the Beginning?” (438)
These are the novel’s very last words, the success of her plan and the future of civilization left ambiguous. This synopsis does not quite do its full weirdness justice-- we get dinner parties, anti-Catholicism, anti-vivisection tirades, but also mocking of anti-vivisectionists, and even a couple risqué seduction scenes. I get the feeling that at the same time we are supposed to find Zalma morally repellent we are also supposed to find her utterly hot (just like Olga in George Griffith's Syren of the Skies*). It's a long, meandering, sometimes dull book. Pretty typical, then, for early science fiction.

But how utterly fascinating! It seems to advocate for free love only to condemn it, but one suspects Ellis is trying to make his views and ideas palatable-- the radical viewpoints of the revolutionaries are given tons of time to be explicated, whereas their refutations are not even glossed. The revolutionaries justify themselves with the "survival of the fittest" (if Nature kills many to advance itself, why should Man not do the same?) which adds to the sense at the end that revolution is imminent even if Zalma's immediate plot has been defeated. Mankind will continue to progress and evolve, and if it is not into anarchy, the present state of affairs is too precarious to continue-- perhaps socialism? In Science-Fiction: The Early Years, Everett Bleiler suggests that Ellis’s “political sympathies would seem to be with Christian Socialism” (222), though I'm not entirely sure why.

In any case, this is an amazing book, though perhaps not always for the best of reasons.

* I would definitely read a Zalma/Olga team-up. Heck, I would even write it, though I suspect its audience would just be me and Jess Nevins.

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