31 August 2017

Review: Science, Fiction, and the Fin-de-Siècle Periodical Press by Will Tattersdill

Hardcover, 200 pages
Published 2016
Borrowed from the library
Read September 2016
Science, Fiction, and the Fin-de-Siècle Periodical Press by Will Tattersdill

Will Tattersdill first came to my attention when he e-mailed me to ask a question about Fighters from Mars, the unauthorized American The War of the Worlds rip-off about which I have published. At the time we were both humble Ph.D. students, but with the way the American and British postgraduate timetables differ, he finished his dissertation and got it published with a top university press when I was still scribbling away on mine.

You might conclude from the topic of his query that Tattersdill is interested in the periodical press and science fiction, and that's what this book is about (though there's no Fighters from Mars here). The book discusses the ways that science manifested in the British "Standard Illustrated Popular Magazines" of 1891-1905, analyzing issues as wholes-- part of his argument is that these magazines did not demarcate between what we would now call "science fiction" and other genres, so he examines what sf stories were doing with science alongside factual articles, interviews, and all sorts of stuff. The four chapters discusss interplanetary communication, futurology, X-rays, and polar exploration in turn, pulling in a lot of H. G. Wells and George Griffith, plus some L. T. Meade and Francis Galton, showing how these pieces of fiction were reworking science little differently from how journalism was. There are a lot of neat tidbits in here; I especially liked the discussion of X-rays, which takes in an issue of Pearson's containing both an interview with Röntgen and the first-ever work of fiction with an X-ray in it, an interview with an artist in the Idler that includes an X-ray of the artist's hand, and the use of X-rays as a tool of assassination in an L. T. Meade story.

I also appreciated Tattersdill's call at the end of the book to make the intersection of literature and science about something more than using science to illuminate literature, similar to something Anne DeWitt argued for twenty-one volumes earlier in the same Cambridge UP series as Tattersdill, and an impulse I share myself.

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