here is a concept that I’m still trying to flesh out: medieval science fiction.
not, of course, aliens land during the middle ages, though I’ve read and enjoyed that, but something much more difficult to execute, if it’s possible at all: space opera (exempli gratia) as written by Bede or Gildas or Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Margaret Cavendish was not medieval, but she was an early modern natural philosopher writing at the dawn of science and she was the first (European) science fiction writer.
The main reason you don’t get medieval science fiction is because there was no science. There was natural philosophy, but the specific way of thinking that we identify as science – the scientific method for acquiring knowledge – simply didn’t exist. (In Europe – it would be very easy to say ‘in the world’ and Europeans do tend to view Europe as the birth place of science, but the truth is I have neither the world history nor the world history of science background to comment on that.)
The early modern period and the birth of science is generally dated to Galileo’s The Assayer, published in 1623.
What was regarded as known prior to this was dominated by the Church. I can’t stress that enough. What Galileo did that was so scandalous was not saying that the Earth revolved around the Sun, it was that he proved it with the scientific method and said that human beings could gain knowledge via this method and not solely from the Church and the Bible. More: humans could gain knowledge that showed the Church and the Bible to be wrong.
The Royal Society, England’s oldest scientific body, was founded in 1660.
Margaret Cavendish wrote The Blazing World in 1666.
That’s why you can’t really get actual science fiction that dates from the medieval period. The (early) modern period is kind of defined by the shift in thinking that allows people to think scientifically and therefore write science fiction – fiction based on the possibilities enabled by scientific discovery or possible scientific discovery. Margaret Cavendish extrapolated from a whole bunch of scientific theories that she was aware of and posited another Earth (an alien world) attached to our Earth at the North Pole. She posited a different ecology for that different world (aliens and xenobiology) based on the different plants and animals found in the so-called New World (full-disclosure, it’s a bit imperialist; she was a duchess writing in seventeenth century England). She posited new and incredible machines created by the natives of that world. This is hard science fiction. The scienciest science fiction.
Now. Can we coherently imagine Bede or Chaucer writing science fiction and what that tale would be like?
Urgh… it kind of breaks my brain a bit, because you probably have to deviate significantly from how they would have been likely to think. There’s a reason people from these periods who wanted to write speculative fiction wrote Arthurian tales or about fairies and other fantastical folk traditions. Partly it’s that it would have been sacrilegious, but partly it’s that Galileo’s achievement was a massive shift in perspective with regard to how people thought. How we think about the ways in which we can gain knowledge has a knock-on effect for how they think about their entire world, including the ways in which they imagine. The very way we defined the possible and the impossible or fanciful changed. It wasn’t defined by the church anymore – knowledge was democratised, but also systematised.
Not that there hadn’t been other ways of thinking about what was known or unknown. That’s one of the oldest discussions in philosophy and dates back to the Ancient Greeks, whose theology was very different. Logic played a significant role, but logic can’t actually tell you very much about what is known about what we now think of as the physical or material world (although those are themselves are modern and early modern concepts – they wouldn’t mean much to Socrates, for whom true reality was the world of the forms). There was also natural philosophy, which Aristotle was a champion of. A Christianised understanding of Aristotle’s teachings dominated the way we thought about what could be known about the natural world (the world we know via our senses) for over a thousand years.
The dominant way of thinking about learning in the medieval period was scholasticism. Scholasticism was characterised by dialectical reasoning – using inference to resolve contradictions. (Note: scholastics were particularly Christian; there was interesting stuff going on in Islamic and Jewish scholarship at this time, too. I don’t know that it was that different for the purposes of our current question – Al-Ghazali, an 11th century Islamic philosopher, was saying stuff that Descartes was still drawing on in the 17th century – but it’s notable that Islamic alchemy was well ahead of what English, Christian scholars knew.)
Could this be used to inspire science fiction… I just… it’s just not very scientific, OK? It’s very a priori (before experience) and based on reasoning from things already regarded as ‘known’. The scholastics got into maths and geometry, and they liked Aristotle to the extent that they could make him seem Christian. Which he wasn’t. So a lot of the natural philosophical thought that we can find in Aristotle and see as a precursor to scientific thinking… just wasn’t there. I am not a medieval scholar, and I’m sure that there were monks studying nature and making observations. But by and large they were looking to reason from those observations in ways that harmonised with Church teaching. Some of that thinking is still genuinely interesting. But it’s not scientific.
It’s not interested in creating new knowledge on the basis of our observations of the world in the way that is central to science fiction.
So… to imagine someone writing proto-science fiction in the medieval period, you really need to imagine a heretic. Chaucer would never have written science fiction. I don’t want to poo-poo the thought – it’s exciting! – but if you want to do it, I’d advise reflecting carefully on who might possibly be thinking in such a controversial way at that time.
I’m super thrilled to say that Speculative Fiction 2012 won the British Fantasy Society Award for Non-Fiction today. As regular readers will be aware, my post, ‘Remembering Margaret Cavendish‘, was published in this volume as one of the fifty ‘best online reviews, essays and commentary’ on the speculative genre in 2012. Obviously, it’s pretty awesome for me to have had my work published in a volume that has won such a prestigious award. And I’m stoked for Margaret Cavendish, as well, who only desired fame, and has been wrongfully denied her place in our memories as the first writer of science fiction (in the European tradition, at least). But more than anything, I’m thrilled for Jared Shurin and Justin Landon, our simply amazing editors.
Jared and Justin collected together a really incredible selection of essays that you really all should read. More than that, they have modestly and generously been consistent in sharing their praise with their contributors, including sending us specially commissioned artwork to commemorate the Hugo nomination. I’ve joked about sharing a 50th of a Hugo nomination, I could joke about sharing a 50th of a BFS Award, but the truth is that this is a really well deserved win for the two of them, without whom the collection would never have come into existence, and without whom my little essay would never have seen print, or had the recognition it has had since. They deserve every bit of this award, and I’m really just stoked that it has come through.
Whilst the nomination is really for our illustrious editors, Justin Landon and Jared Shurin, I am still tickled pink to have my essay included in something that’s been nominated for a Hugo. That’s, like, whoa.
I remember being a lonely geek girl smelling the books in WH Smith, gazing with wide eyes at books with dragons and spaceships that said on them ‘Nominated for a Hugo Award’, and I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew it was important. The idea that my writing might be in a book nominated for such an award makes me very happy indeed.
I’m tickled pink for me and I’m tickled pink for Jared and Justin and all the other contributors, and I’m tickled for Margaret Cavendish, too – writer of the first science fiction novel whose work is frequently overlooked, and for whom my essay sought to correct an oversight of history. Recognition of SpecFic 2012 gives the essays therein a certain status, and I hope that it adds weight to my words that this should be a thing more people should be aware of, too.
So, anyway, I’m really pleased. Of course, I hope we Jared and Justin win as well, but just being nominated is beyond rad. 😀 😀 😀
Two years! Woo-woo! Thanks for keeping with me. It’s been another hell of a year, and although Life Events have meant that I wasn’t able to review quite as much as I would have liked, you’ve stuck with me, and that’s awesome. In fact, with 28,000 hits this year, three times as many people have shown at least a vague interest in this little blog as last year. So: thanks! 😀
Those of you who were here last October 3rd will remember that to mark the aniversary of this esteemed blog I decided to hand out some meaningless awards: The Serene Wombles!
What exactly are the Serene Wombles? Well, to quote myself last year:
Eligibility for a Serene Womble i[s] conferred by being the subject of a review [on In Search of the Happiness Max] in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.
The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the judgement will [usually] have been made on a case-by-case basis at the time of reviewing. Sometimes I use a time machine for my reviews because I want to review something that came out in 1939, sometimes because I want to review something more recent that’s out of print, or because it’s a TV show that’s been cancelled… At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.
The competition was basically between Dredd 3D, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Hunger Games. If this category were about which film I’m most likely to rewatch… well, I’d probably rewatch all of those three, but I’d want to watch The Amazing Spider-Man first and most often. But this isn’t just about which film I found most fun. Each of these was well put together and entertaining, and The Amazing Spider-Man was also visually stunning and thematically well-conceived, but Dredd 3D was just in a league of its own – beautiful and thoughtful in equal amounts. It really felt like Dredd 3D was taking sci-fi back – giving us a real vision of the future, beautiful and provocative as well as dark. Breathtaking, is the word.
I doubt this film will sweep the Real and Proper awards in the way it deserves, but here in Womblevonia I’m doing my bit to recognise originality, inspiration, and artistic genius where I see it. Congratulations, Dredd 3D! Well deserved.
Tough crowd. I mean, we have The Fades, one of the most strikingly original and well-executed British fantasy TV shows in a good many years – a real tragedy that it was not renewed for a second series. Then there’s The Hollow Crown‘s adaptation of Richard II, which contains some of the very best Shakespeare I have ever seen performed, and for one of my least favourite plays, at that, including a truly spectacular performance from Ben Whishaw, as Richard II, and a simply wonderful portrayal of John of Gaunt by Patrick Stewart. And although Doctor Who has been highly questionable over the last year, I can’t deny that ‘A Town Called Mercy’ was excellent. Yet Game of Thrones is still hands down the winner, for me. It feels unfair to some of the competition to give it the Serene Womble for Best TV Show two years in a row, but given that it was even better this year than last year, I don’t feel that I can really deny it. Performances by Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, and Maisie Williams were stand outs, but everybody was bringing their A-game. The special effects were incredible – I now believe that dragons exist and that they are both very cute and very dangerous. Pretty much every element of music, direction, and writing was outstanding, and it stands out in my memory as the best thing I have seen all year.
As they say on these here Internets: All of The Awards.
Well, maybe not all of the awards. This is a new category introduced to include the burgeoning genre of web series. I was tempted to roll it into the TV shows Womble, but, upon reflection, I must concede that web series are their own medium. They are usually shorter and are often much lower budget. It’s neither fair nor practical to try and compare them to much longer, much higher budget shows. Moreover, they are developing their own tropes and styles and on the whole exhibit a different character to their televisual brethrin.
That said, there wasn’t a lot of competition in this category. Both these shows are Felicia Day creations, and whilst I did watch other web series over the course of the year, I can’t deny that Felicia is the mistress of this genre – she has not only talent but the extra experience of being one of the founders of this artform. It means that she’s been at it for longer, but also that she’s better known. Nevertheless, it is notable that The Guild greatly outstripped Dragon Age: Redemption. I suspect this is in part due to the fact that Felicia will have had much less control in the latter, but I also didn’t find her own performance as convincing. In all honesty, The Guild is just in a league of its own. It has the geek-following to bring in stars for the extensive cameos that were a feature of this series, and it’s starting to get the money that allows it to do more things. It’s also excellently and knowingly written for the audience that powers the Internet: geeks. Not to mention the spot on performances of the other cast members: Vincent Caso, Jeff Lewis, Amy Okuda, Sandeep Parikh, and Robin Thorsen.
It’s a deserved win, but with more and more people finding it natural to watch their visual content online, more TV stars using short videos as a way to get a bit more exposure and make a bit more cash on the side (see, for example, David Mitchell’s Soapbox), there’s a blooming new arm of the media that I’m thinking I need to investigate further in the coming year. I’m interested to see how things develop.
The Serene Womble for Best ActorBen Whishaw Elligible Actors: This category is open to any actor in any recent production that I’ve reviewed in the past year – film, TV, radio, podcast, whatever. I do not discriminate by gender. It’s a fight to the melodramatic death and the best actor wins, regardless of what’s between their legs or how they identify.
This was a tough one. I feel bad for stinting Peter Dinklage for the second year running after praising him so highly, but it was a strong field, and he did contribute to the overall Game of Thrones win – keep it up, Peter, there’s always next year. Lena Headey was also giving all the players a run for their money with her outstanding performance as Ma-Ma in Dredd 3D – a real performance of a lifetime. But I can’t deny the just deserts for Ben. He took a role I’d never especially liked or understood and made me see it from a completely different angle – an angle that was utterly compelling and heart-breaking. In all honesty I was far less impressed with Parts II and III of The Hollow Crown (and I somehow missed Part IV), and I’ll not deny that Tom Hiddleston did a good job, but Richard II blew me away, and Ben Whishaw was the lycnhpin of that production. Incandescent. Any actor that can ellucidate not just the character they are portraying but the themes of the play and have that render their performance more compelling rather than less, and to such a level… sheer genius.
Thank you, Ben, for showing me Richard II the way you see him. Have a Womble.
This one was probably the hardest. Kraken is the most imaginative novel I’ve reviewed this year, and it was certainly a gripping as well as intelligent read. However, it did have some minor gender issues, the attempt at rendering London accents was unconvincing, and although I found the exploration of personal identity fun, it was inconsistent.
Rome Burning‘s alternate history setting was imaginative in a different way. For exploration of gender, race, and cultural issues it was outstanding. The characters were interesting and varied. The pace was fast and gripping. The politics, nuanced and intriguing. And, overall, the harder-to-define ‘squee’ quotiant was just higher than for anything (new) I’ve read in a long time.
Romanitas, the first book in the trilogy of which Rome Burning is the second, was also good, gripping, and squee-worthy, but the writing was not quite as strong and the world-building was more developed in the second volume.
A Dance with Dragons is what it is: a novel to which I have mysteriously devoted a surprisingly large chunk of my life in reviewing; part of a long series that has given me both great joy and great frustration. Perhaps it is unfair to put it up for assessment when the review is as yet incomplete, but I’ll give you a sneak preview and say that, for all its good points, A Dance with Dragons was not really competition for any of the above.
The Serene Womble for Best ComicRomatically Apocalyptic
Another new category, and only two in it, but I couldn’t leave them by the wayside. Both of these are excellent, and I thoroughly recommend them to all of you. Both are surreal, hilariously funny, and gender balanced. Romantically Apocalyptic has an edge for me by being, well, apocalyptic; but then again, Real Life Fiction has Manicorn. The real clincher is the artwork, which, as you can see, is stunning. I have never seen anything like it in a web comic. Or any comic. Or ever. And the creator, Vitaly S Alexius, hands this stuff out for free. There are no two ways about it: this comic wins.
That’s right, I’m giving the award to a film it’s virtually impossible to buy anymore. It’s not available on Amazon (there’s a Korean film called Glass Slipper, but it’s a different movie), it’s never been made into a DVD, the only videos I can find are US vids on eBay, the cheapest was going for about £16 (inc. P&P) at time of posting. I don’t know if it’d even play on a non-US machine. My copy was taped off the telly in the 1980s. But if you can get it, I urge you to make the effort. And this is really what reviewing via time machine is all about: drawing attention to classics and forgotten works of art. How can we get great films like this pressed for DVD if nobody speaks up to say that they are wanted?
The Glass Slipper is beautiful, sweet, and knowing. To me, it is the definitive cinderella story, and that’s not just the nostalgia talking. I feared it would be when I went to rewatch for this review, but it’s not. This was a feminist take on Cinderella in 1955, long before anyone even dreamt of Ever After. And it doesn’t sacrifice the romance for its message; it is a heart-breaking, life-affirming, challenging, witty, and beautiful work of art.
This is not to discredit its competition, however; both of the other films were clear contenders, although each is very different to the others, and it was hard to make the comparison. Robocop is a cleverly written and directed critique of capitalism. Its ultra-violence and gritty realism stand at stark odds to The Glass Slipper’s colourful fairytale punctuated with surrealist dance-interludes. Soldier’s Girl is a moving and powerful adaptation of the true story of a soldier who was beaten to death for loving a transgender woman. It perhaps didn’t have the artistry of the other two movies, but I don’t know that you want a lot of whistles and bells for such a movie – its task is to tell someone else’s tale and command the viewer to witness a crime and recognise an injustice. It would be wrong for a director to grandstand and steal the show. So, what do you do, when confronted with three such different films, ones that resist judgement on equal grounds?
I think you have to go with your gut. The Glass Slipper is the one that had the deepest personal influence on me, playing a pivotal role in shaping my psyche and helping me figure out what sort of a woman I wanted to grow up to be. Children’s or ‘family’ movies are often over-looked as less serious art objects than ‘adult’ films*, but they help to form the worldview a child is exposed to when they are trying to figure out what this existence, this life, is all about. Films like The Glass Slipper, which show a child a multiplicity of roles for women, are incredibly important, especially when they do so in the context of a story that is usually cast to define women as romantic creatures whose ‘happily ever after’ lies in marriage, and not in independant thought. Doing that whilst keeping the romantic centre of Cinderella’s tale intact is a masterful stroke. It deserves this award.
The Time Traveling Womble for Best Actor Lee Pace
Eligible actors: anyone who has acted in a film I had to time travel to watch.
It may not have garnered the illustrious Time Traveling Womble for Best film, but I can’t deny the Womble to Lee Pace – head and shoulders above the rest – there really wasn’t any competition. Lee Pace plays Calpernia, the transgendered woman that Barry Winchell fell in love with, and was brutally killed for loving. The gentle, understated approach to this sensitive role is spot on. I imagine a lot of reviews of this film will have said something to the effect of what a ‘convincing woman’ Lee Pace made – I’m not even sure what that means, but it’s the sort of thing people say when they discuss a man playing a transgendered role. I’ve known a number of transgendered women – they’re as varied as any other random woman would be from another; they’re as varied as people. Which is not the same as saying that they have nothing in common or don’t have shared experiences. I don’t want to make any sweeping characterisations of what it is to be a transgendered woman and then proclaim that I think Lee Pace matched that stereotype. What I’m saying is that he portrayed a well-rounded character – a person with loves and passions and heart-ache, with interests both important and trivial; a person whose story moved me and made me think about an important issue.
The point that moved me most – that stood out – was a moment in the above scene. It spoke to me powerfully even though it was speaking about an experience I’ve never had, and am never likely to have. Because it’s a scene in one sense about a man struggling with figuring out his own sexuality in the high-pressure environment of being a soldier in the context of the US Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy – only revoked just over a month before I reviewed this film; still in force when it was made. To a large extent, that’s what the film is about. But it’s also about a woman, struggling to be acknowledged as a woman, finding it almost impossible to date, even though she is beautiful and charismatic, because straight men won’t acknowledge her as a woman. And here she has found a man, a man she is falling in love with, and she must always be asking herself: is this just an experiement, for him? Am I his way of figuring himself out? And all this time she has been loving and supportive and understanding that this is hard, for him, but here she finaly shows her pain and anxiety. Yet, it’s still within the context of that loving, caring, understanding character. Once he has affirmed his love for her she subsumes her own pain to his need for support. It is done with so much subtlety and nuance. Lee Pace isn’t the one bawling his eyes out in this scene, but the emotion is nonetheless powerful.
That’s acting. Acting and sensitivity; just exactly what the role needed.
I did think about including some of the works of Anne McCaffrey in this category, as I did talk about a number of them in her memorial post, but ultimately I decided that what I was really doing was celebrating a woman’s life’s work, rather than giving a review. Besides, I might want to review some of them properly somewhere down the line.
As for the two remaining novels… well, it was an unfair match. The Drawing of the Three is basically my most favourite book. The Blazing World is an important book that more people should read. It’s historically valuable and truly remarkable for its time. But it’s also the offspring of a genre (novel writing) in its infancy – the very first science fiction novel, in 1666. Don’t believe me? Go read the post.
As for The Dark Tower – ah… I suspect I shall spend my whole life trying to tease apart why it affects me so. My post, ‘Meditations on Death‘ explores just one aspect of my its power – the seductive power of the concept of death-as-release, what makes us resist its allure, and how this is expertly explored in The Drawing of the Three.
And, last of all:
The People’s Choice AwardThe Guild, Season 5 Perhaps the most arbitrary of all the awards, this is the one you voted for with your feet. The selection for this award is based solely on the review post with the single largest number of hits. And this year it was a landslide, with 8,431 hits and counting, this post has had more hits than my home page. It’s had several thousand more hits than the total for all hits of my most popular month (July). The closest runners up are The Amazing Spider-man and The Hollow Crown (both around 1,000).
And it’s not even because it’s been on the blog since October last year – the hits suddenly started raining in in July. I don’t know what it was, but it seems like all of a sudden the Internet woke up to The Guild, and all I can say is that it couldn’t be more well deserved. Congrats, Felicia and friends: they like you, they really, really like you!
And that’s it! The awards have been awarded, and it’s time to start all over again, selecting novels and films and TV shows and comics and web series, and kittens only know what else, to review in a brand new Womblevonian year.
Earlier today something came across my tumblr that perpetuated a common myth. Which is to say that ‘Mary Shelley invented science fiction’. Now, if you want to say that ‘Mary Shelley was the mother of science fiction’… OK, there’s probably a case for that. I don’t want to diss Mary Shelley and her achievement, but it’s important not to let Frankenstein eclipse an earlier work by a woman who was at least as revolutionary: The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish.
Artwork used as part of the British Library’s ‘Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it’ exhibition, quote from the The Blazing World; although painting was originally from a Rondo Veneziano album cover.
Written in 1666, and republished in 1668 alongside her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (AKA ‘science’ before there was such a term),The Blazing World was inspired by a visit to the Royal Society (Cavendish was the very first woman to do so). She looked down a microscope and it blew her mind to the possibilities of different forms of life.
The Blazing World is about a woman who journeys to a parallel world before we had a vocabulary for talking about parallel worlds, and before we had even imagined space travel. This ‘twin’ of the Earth was connected at the North Pole. Cavendish’s heroine’s ship is caught in a storm, driven off course, and washed up on this new world. There she encounters strange and wonderful people (before anyone envisioned aliens – although non-human sentient creatures were common in mythology and theology, these are the first I’m aware of whose different physiology is premised on their living in a different physical world). These people elect this strange woman to be their Empress and present to her many scientific marvels (including a submarine). Cavendish uses this set up to satirise her own society and explore a world where a woman was allowed power far beyond what Cavendish herself could hope to attain (even as a duchess with an unusually permissive husband and rare education).
This looks like a pretty clear case of science fiction to me. It not only has the science fiction tropes of soft SF (aliens, parallel worlds, advanced technology), I’d make a case for it being hard SF. The story seems fantastic to the modern eye, and the idea of another world just stuck on top of the Earth just seems bizarre. It’s likely that although Cavendish was permitted to enter the Royal Society and had an understanding of science beyond most people of the time (and certainly most women), she was still merely peeking into a world that she was largely barred from due to her gender. Yet she came away from her experience having gained a new perspective on the world based on scientific evidence and extrapolated a non-actual but plausible (based on the evidence available to her) premise upon which to base a work of fiction designed to transport readers to another world and use that world to make them reflect on this one. Definitions vary, but that sounds like science fiction to me.
Hence: Margaret Cavendish wrote the first work of science fiction, not Mary Shelley*.
The reason I think it is important to remember Margaret Cavendish’s ground-breaking work for the piece of genuinely original, genre-creating art that it is, is that there are reasons we remember Shelley, rather than Cavendish. It wasn’t easy to be a female writer when Shelley wrote, but it was next to impossible when Cavendish did. Writing was principally the preserve of wealthy and educated men. As Virginia Woolf so cleverly observed, it’s very difficult to write if you have no money of your own and no space and time to devote to writing (AKA A Room of One’s Own and £500 a year). You either had to be exceptionally wealthy and well-educated (in which case it would have been scandalous for you to engage in such an activity as a woman) or have a rich patron (which would have been exceptionally rare for a woman to obtain – the only one I can think of is Aemilia Lanyer, who had a female patron). Margaret Cavendish was the former: she was the Duchess of Newcastle, and she was generally judged to be mad. Samuel Peypes called her ‘mad, conceited and ridiculous’, according to Wikipedia (they don’t provide a direct reference for this, but the article does cite an extensive list of academic sources at the end). And I recall a lecture in which it was described how theatre-goers would go to the theatre to watch Margaret Cavendish at the theatre, for she was known for bizarre fashions, including going out in public topless.
Whether she was mad or not is unclear. Anyone reporting on her at the time is likely to have viewed her through the customs of the time. She must have been a real force of personality to achieve all she did, as well as having a very open-minded husband, and it’s clear that in certain ways she was pretty eccentric. But I think it’d take a real force-of-nature-style eccentricity for a woman to be published in the way she was at the time.
On the other hand, I’ve read some of her plays, and they’re pretty bad, it must be said. The Blazing World itself is intellectually exciting, but artistically a bit of a slog. In her defence, it was early long-form prose fiction, so she’d have had little by way of reference points to guide her style, and the idea is as blazing as the title suggests. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s equal to most equivalent works of the time.
Margaret Cavendish was a woman writing with few peers who was ridiculed for writing at all. That is why we have forgotten her. She would never have had the size of audience that was available to Shelley due to the advances in printing, and her writing was hardly likely to have been championed for inclusion in a gentleman’s literary education. She was seen as a curiosity at best. Virginia Woolf speculated of what life would have been like for a sister of Shakespeare, equal to him in talent and determination, but bereft of the opportunities he would have had simply by being male. She imagines an imaginative woman torn apart by passion and despair, shunned by society for rejecting the norms that confine her, ultimately killing herself. I can’t help but feel, reading this fictional account, that there goes Margaret Cavendish, but for her fortune and sympathetic husband. If she was mad (although I suspect she was not), we should not be surprised; and if she was forgotten, we should not be surprised, either. If they couldn’t silence her in life, they were unlikely to remember her in death.
So, I feel it’s important to say: ‘Yes, Mary Shelley was awesome and we should celebrate her epoch defining achievement; but also, no, she did not invent science fiction. Margaret Cavendish did, and more people should know that.’
*Obviously this comes with the caveat ‘that I am aware of’, but I suspect it’s fair. It’s really difficult to distinguish science from philosophy prior to the 17th Century, when Cavendish was writing. The Royal Society for improving Natural Knowledge was founded in 1660. Early modern thinking about natural philosophy is usually dated to have been sparked by Galileo’s work published in his controversial The Assayer (1623), which challenged the idea that the Church was the ultimate source of knowledge**, and birthed a movement towards observational investigation as an approach to finding things out about the world that became what we now call science. I suppose some might want to argue for Utopia, but I don’t see any science fiction elements in it, myself. It’s more of an extended ‘counterfactual’ as we would say in philosophy – or fantastic hypothetical used to explore a philosophical idea. It’s really a discussion of a possibility suggested by political philosophy rather than an extrapolation from empirical observation to non-actual, but physically possible, worlds, peoples, societies, and technologies (which is the definition I would lean towards if we’re discussing works that predate the term ‘science’).
** Wooyay – footnotes within footnotes, very 17th Century. Anyway: it should be noted that observational empirical philosophy of a sort can be dated back to Aristotle. The trouble is, Aristotle’s philosophy and observations became so dominant as to become stagnant dogma, assimilated into Church doctrine and taught in the Schools***.
*** Caveat on a caveat on a caveat: all of this is very euro-centric. I can only apologise for that. My knowledge of Margaret Cavendish comes from my studies for my BA, which even though it was supposed to be ‘English and Related Literatures’, was mostly English or American literature. My knowledge of the development of science and early modern philosophy come from teaching and studying early modern philosophy, but I must confess that English philosophy is still dominated by the analytic tradition, with a side bar on ‘Continental’ (i.e. continental Europe) philosophy, and with the European cannon of philosophy that leads up to the analytic/continental ‘split’. I’ve never been taught any world philosophy and have barely dabbled in it on my own time. I know even less on the relationship between science and philosophy in non-euro-centric cultures. Any comments on the origins of science fiction should thus be seen as comments on a largely european and american tradition.