22 October 2015

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: The Year of Miracle: A Tale of the year One Thousand Nine Hundred by Fergus Hume

Hardcover, 187 pages
Published 1891
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
The Year of Miracle: A Tale of the year One Thousand Nine Hundred
by Fergus Hume

This is one of a large number of early science fiction texts I read this winter at the Eaton Collection at the University of California Riverside, thanks to a Mullen Fellowship that defrayed my travel and lodging expenses. My focus was on novels about future revolution in the period from 1890 to 1910, especially those featuring air-ships and/or scientists. Partly this ties into my dissertation, and partly this will feature into whatever I do after that.

The Year of Miracle is about a young medical doctor improbably named Francis Rebelspear trying to make it. It frequently invokes evolutionary rhetoric, such as when the narrator says of his ailing practice, "Here was a brilliant illustration of the Darwinian theory concerning the survival of the fittest. Question: Was Rebelspear one of the fittest who would survive? Answer: Entirely depends upon his capacity for holding out, or the public’s giving in." Francis has a friend improbably named Julian Delicker, one of those idlers who loaf around Victorian fiction launching verbal barbs but not contributing to society, who suggests that a plague would be awesome: "if all the weak, the sick, and the revolutionary were killed off, think of how much smoother things would go" (!).

You might not be surprised to learn that a plague does happen. A Prophet of Doom brings a deadly vial back from the Middle East and drops it in London to cleanse it (and, not incidentally, to get revenge on the guy who stole his wife). This Prophet uses both Darwinian justifications for his actions and preaches against the uselessness of science, so he's not very consistent. Also the narrator justifies the fact that the guy who stole his wife had plague-death coming, completely glossing over the thousands-- hundreds of thousands?-- of other people who died in the plague. The narrator too sneers at the science believed in by Rebelspear and Delicker but also uses Darwinism to argue that the apocalyptic ending is totally hopeful: "A great number of those poorer classes had been swept away, and in this case of the survival of the fittest those left in England to rebuild London and the social life of the British people were mostly either physically or mentally strong. The brain workers aided the physically strong in the work of rebuilding a new England out of the ruins of the old, and the twentieth century began its career under the happiest auspices."

Um, happy? Yay, plague! Also I want to suggest that Fergus Hume doesn't have the firmest grasp of the actual causes of poverty. Delicker converts to Christianity, though, so I guess it's all worth it.

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