Table of Contents
1 • ”Speak if you can,” she implored: “Just one word!” from The Five Senses • (1909) • interior artwork by Fred Leist
11 • Introduction: The Dreaming Sex: Early Tales of Scientific Imagination by Women • essay by Mike Ashley
15 • The Blue Laboratory • (1897) • short story by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace [as by L. T. Mead]
40 • The Mortal Immortal • (1833) • short story by Mary Shelley
55 • The Moonstone Mass • (1868) • short story by Harriet Prescott Spofford
72 • A Wife Manufactured to Order • (1895) • short story by Alice W. Fuller
82 • Good Lady Ducayne • (1896) • novelette by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
111 • The Hall Bedroom • (1903) • short story by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman [as by Mary Wilkins Freeman]
129 • The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar • (1904) • short story by Francis Stevens [as by G. M. Barrows]
143 • The Sultana’s Dream • (2010) • short story by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (variant of Sultana’s Dream 1905) [as by Roquia Sakhawat Hossein]
156 • The Five Senses • (1909) • short story by E. Nesbit [as by Edith Nesbit]
175 • Lady Clanbevan’s Baby • (1915) • short story by Clotilde Graves
186 • Monsieur Fly-by-Night • (1915) • short story by Muriel Pollexfen
210 • The Ultimate Ingredient • (1919) • short story by Greye La Spina
229 • The Miracle of the Lily • (1928) • novelette by Clare Winger Harris
249 • The Earth Slept: A Vision • (1894) • short story by Adeline Knapp
by Mike Ashley
AT THE END of the Victorian era, from around 1890, there was a considerable rise in the number of stories that looked at the potential benefits, or dangers, of the wealth of technological and scientific advance that had been gathering pace during the previous forty or fifty years. This was the dawn of what would later be termed ‘science fiction’ (often abbreviated to the objectionable ‘sci-fi’), although that phrase was not coined until 1929. These earlier works, notably those by H.G. Wells, were known by the more charming phrase of ‘scientific romance’ – romance being used in its original meaning of something exciting and adventurous.
This anthology brings together a selection of such stories, all by women.
It has become a common-held belief that it was not until after the Second World War that women turned to science fiction, when writers such as Judith Merril, Kate Wilhelm, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin and Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr) began their trade. Before 1939 science fiction appeared to be solely a male domain, untouched by female hands. This anthology will prove that wrong. One thing that science fiction sets out to do is to speculate on what new advances in science and technology might achieve, and there were many women just as interested in that prospect as men. However, the women laboured under a major handicap. Early in the first story, ‘The Blue Laboratory’, a male scientist says to the young woman who has come to serve as governess to his children, ‘Is it possible that you, a young lady, are interested in science?’ You can almost hear the amazement in his voice. This story was published in 1897, just a year before Marie Curie established her reputation with the discovery of radium. Yet thirty years later that view still prevailed. Hugo Gernsback, publisher of the world’s first sciencefiction magazine, Amazing Stories, was delighted but surprised when one of the prize-winners in a contest he had run in 1926 was a woman. ‘As a rule,’ he wrote, ‘women do not make good scientifiction writers because their education and general tendencies on scientific matters are usually limited.
Were they limited? If they were it was because the scientific establishment imposed the barriers. It was almost impossible for women in the Victorian or Edwardian era to gain a scientific education. Elizabeth Garrett managed to qualify as a doctor in 1865 but only because she found a loophole in the regulations of the Society of Apothecaries. No sooner had she qualified than the society changed its regulations, banning women from entering. It was not until 1911 that Elizabeth Davies-Colley became the first British woman member of the Royal College of Surgeons.
It was not as if women were not interested in science. Caroline Herschel, for instance, the sister of the Astronomer Royal, Wilhelm Herschel, was an excellent astronomer in her own right, discovering several comets and producing an important catalogue of nebulae. The Royal Astronomical Society awarded her its Gold Medal in 1828, but it would not go to another women until 1996.
Then there was Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron. She became a first-class mathematician and worked with Charles Babbage on his famous ‘Difference Engine’ and ‘Analytical Engine’, now considered the prototype of the world’s first computer. She even wrote the equivalent of a program for the machine, with the result that she is considered the world’s first computer programmer – back in 1843!
Marie Curie, the discoverer of radium and polonium, went on to win the Nobel Prize not once but twice – for physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911. And yet the French Academy of Sciences refused to elect her as a member.
The interest of women in science may be traced back many years in Britain, certainly to the time of Margaret Cavendish (1623-73) who, through marriage, had become the Duchess of Newcastle. What is interesting about Cavendish is that not only did she debate science and philosophy with the best of them – she attended meetings of the Royal Society although was not allowed to be a member – but she wrote one of the earliest works of science fiction. This was The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, first published in 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London. It is a unique and highly imaginative work, unlike anything else of its day, creating a neighbouring world to the earth to which a woman travels, becoming the ruler or goddess of one of them. The story is self-indulgent but full of wonderful scientific ideas.
We can add to that. In his excellent study of the history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree (1973), Brian W Aldiss, while recognizing earlier works, identified the novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus as the point at which true science fiction was born. Because of its interpretation by the cinema, Frankenstein is usually regarded as a work of horror fiction, but its core deals with the fundamental scientific process for the creation of life. Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley, who was only twenty when the book was published anonymously at the end of January 1818. So not only is it clear that women were interested in the study of science; they were also interested in speculating on its potential in the new world of technological marvels that the industrial and scientific revolutions were creating. It was a woman who created the field of scientific fiction, and this anthology celebrates that by looking at other contributions by other women during the century following Frankenstein.
There were plenty of other women producing similar works during this century. I have concentrated on short fiction, but it is worth highlighting some women novelists to emphasize – if it were necessary – just how many women were writing scientific fiction. There was Jane Webb (1807-1858), best known for her works on horticulture and the Victorian kitchen garden but who, in The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827), took Frankenstein a step further by creating a scientifically advanced future in which it was possible to revive the dead. Then there was Mary Griffith (c 1800-1877), another horticulturalist, who wrote Three Hundred Years Hence (1836), describing a utopia where women are emancipated and slavery is abolished. There is more hope for the future in A Vision of Our Country in the Year Nineteen Hundred (1851) by Jane Ellis, while in Mizora (1881) Mary Bradley Lane reveals an ideal society within a hollow earth – ideal, that is, if you don’t like men or animals. Women were strong in suggesting utopias, either in the future or elsewhere on earth. Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910), who became Australia’s first female political candidate in 1897, presented one such in A Week in the Future (1889). So did Anna Blake Dodd in The Republic of the Future (1887). The best known of them is probably Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935).
There were many other themes. Poseidon’s Paradise (1892), by the Californian writer Elizabeth Birkmaier, is a genuine adventure romance set in Atlantis just before its destruction. Christabel Coleridge (1843-1921), granddaughter of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, produced an interesting novel of telepathy in The Thought-Rope (1909). Most remarkable of all, in my view, is Around a Distant Star (1904) by the French writer Jean Delaire (real name Elisa Touchemolin, 1868-1950), in which a scientist creates a spaceship-drive that can travel at two thousand times the speed of light. He also invented a super-telescope. He travels to a far-distant planet and through his telescope looks back and sees earth at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Few of these names will be known today, and that only underlines the point that, despite there being a significant amount of scientific fiction written by women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has been forgotten. Women had considerable interest in what science might bring, as the following stories show. Here you will find thoughts on how to slow down the ageing process, how to photograph thoughts, how to enhance our natural senses, whether we can become invisible, whether there might be another dimension around might be satisfied with synthetic wives and so much more. Apart from the first and final stories, the contents are arranged in the order in which they were first published, so as to follow the emergence of ideas.
(Mike Ashley, 2010)