The Short Long History of the Short

Ann-Marie Einhaus (ed) (2016) The Cambridge Companion to the English Short Story (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press)

It’s always good when a piece of work finally appears — I’ve been through research and drafts and edits and proofs and galleys. In here I have a chapter on “The British science fiction short story” (and I mourn my title or subtitle, which was something like “Authors and Editors”).

While the identity of the first sf novel is contested, Brian W. Aldiss’s championing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) provides a useful starting point. Her nested tale of a scientist who fails to take adequate care of his creation cemented an archetype of the genre and demonstrated an ambivalence towards science and technology that characterizes much British sf. Her depiction of the landscapes – of Germany, Britain and the Arctic – also points to an interest in the pastoral and the natural world, under threat from the Industrial Revolution. Her only other sf novel, The Last Man (1826), displays a pessimism and sense of decline that was also to pervade the British form. Shelley’s career was hampered by the politics of her family life; after the death by drowning of Percy Bysshe Shelley she had to borrow money from her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, against her son, Percy Florence’s, inheritance. Sonia Hofkosh argues that Shelley ‘recognizes an economics of the marketplace, wherein production and consumption are compelled and constrained by publishers, editors, and readers’. She published in the annuals, ornate gift books that contained vignettes, poetry, accounts of the previous year and engravings. The first annual had been Forget-Me-Not: A Christmas and New Years Present for 1823 (1822), but the Keepsake (1827–1857) was more successful. In Shelley’s ‘Mortal Immortal’ (Keepsake, 1833), protagonist Winzy becomes immortal as he accidentally drinks an alchemist’s potion and then watches his lover Bertha as she ages and dies. It is tempting to read this (like The Last Man) autobiographically, with the dead Percy forever twenty-nine and Mary subject to the ravages of time and economic struggle.

There then seems to be a fifty-year gap: ghost, horror and fantasy short stories, but no sf.

Of course, if I’m wrong, let me know the British sf short stories between 1833 and ‘The Battle of Dorking’ (May 1871) (I mention ‘The Signalman’ (1866)).

I’m hoping the fifty-year gap is 1826-1871, as ‘Mortal Immortal’ pushes the genre boundaries a tad. *koffs*

I take the story up to Nina Allan and Chris Beckett. It is a sprint.

But some good stuff in the collection, including Paul March-Russell on “Writing and publishing the short story”, period pieces on Romantic, Victoria, early twentieth-century, mid twentieth-century and … plus genres such as detective, gothic and microfiction.

What I Did on My Holidays

For about a month now I’ve been told that I can put my feet up now.

Yes, the teaching is over, but then there’s the marking to be done and then there’s all the bits and pieces that got lost in transit because essays can be handed in all kinds of places now and every time you think it’s over there’s another one beneath.

And then there’s internal boards and external boards and reviews and overviews and forward planning and archiving and interviews and supervising …

… there’s the catching up with work and thus …

… well, I want to do something but I can only find two days in the next fortnight where I can do this.

There’s the research.

There’s a pile of reading to be done (remembers something else) and before the end of July I need to write four pieces:

  • conference paper on Ex_Machina
  • writing up of the conference paper on Quest for Love
  • conference paper on the 2005 film adaptation of The War of the Worlds (probably not the one you are thinking of)
  • chapter on Star Trek movies

That’s in order of how much prep I’ve already done, but on the other hand that’s about eight films to rewatch and mull over for the last one.

I can probably hide from Quest for Love, but I applied for QR funding for that one and — well other bits of research got in the way to use that do I feel duty bound to finish before the end of the academic year.

And meanwhile I’ve been given some money to employ a research assistant on the beer stuff and I really have to visit an archive with him before he can go much further. And there’s only two days I can do that in the next fortnight. And of course there’s things I need to read to know where to send him next.

Watch the plates.

Watch them spin.

See also under: Rugs, Persian

It’s striking how many articles that come into journals for review — or essays that are submitted to be marked — that lack any sense of the secondary literature. Admittedly, I learned whatever craft I have in the days of card catalogue indexes and scholarly indices of periodicals and going through bloody contents pages of journals, so I had it easier than the young rapscallions and skallywags who have to make do with mere search engines to several thousand journals.

Still, it is annoying to locate three articles on a subject that I’ve already published on, which didn’t appear to have been indexed when I’d done the research.

I have a habit of being very — what is the word? — instinctive. I’ll be convinced that X is connected to Y and get some way into writing about Y before I research X. I was convinced, say, that Mary Douglas’s work would help an understanding of The Sparrow, but I didn’t really put this to the test by reading Purity and Danger for rather too long. One of these days I’ll push my luck too far.

So I’d been reliant on my considerable gut on this particular piece and ran out of steam. I needed something else to kick start it. Oddly, I chose to read Adam Roberts’s Science Fiction, one chapter in particular, and a particular term jumped out.

Of course. Slaps forehead.

Searches in search engine for X and Z.

First two results: articles which discuss X, Y and Z. On the one hand, pay dirt. On the other hand, maybe someone already wrote the bleeding chapter. (They hadn’t.)
So, it might be a new journal collection or a new algorithm, but those three articles didn’t show up when I did the research on Y — which admittedly is about two years ago. One of them should have shown up.

But nothing’s wasted, as a chapter I have to write by May will use that very nicely, thank you very much, and my instinct is colliding ideas rather nicely. No research goes unused.

Meanwhile, I am plugging away at a conference paper on “Random Quest” and Quest for Love (you know, the one I wrote on Sunday, ahem) and am struck by how little has been written on John Wyndham. The secondary research on this story has more or less drawn a blank, but my gut says I have enough for twenty minutes.

Meanwhile, here’s one learned analysis of another short story by Wyndham. I shan’t insult your intelligence by telling you which one.