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.

I See Dead London

“Disfigured Myth: The Destruction of London in Postmillennial SF Film”, Foundation 122, pp. 122-32.

There is a moment in Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire (2002) when the hero, Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale), climbs a wall from a river and gazes across at a semi-destroyed Palace of Westminster and says, ‘Well, this town’s gone to Hell.’ It is not the only landmark to have survived several decades of destruction: Tower Bridge has also made it through. This article explores the symbolism and meaning of such landmarks, drawing upon the ideas of Charles Peirce, Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud, within a number of recent British science fiction films: Reign of Fire, 28 Days Later (2002) and its 2007 sequel, and Children of Men (2006). To already indicate the instability of a British identity that these films work to prop up, only 28 Days Later is a fully British production whereas the others are co-productions. The director of Reign of Fire is American, of 28 Weeks Later Spanish, and of Children of Men Mexican, but they all feature a British-born star (although the protagonist of 28 Days Later is Irish-born).

This is a version of the paper “London Death Drives” I gave at the Worldcon in August 2014, fleshed out and theory-enriched. It strikes me that there are a couple more films that could also be included here (I watched Doomsday (2008) and Flood, but neither quite fitted in the word count) and I’m sure I’ll return to British sf film soon.

May be we are set in our ways — I note here I am still in the Freudian paradigm with the uncanny and the death instinct — but note also the importance of Tom Shippey’s chapter, “The Fall of America in Science Fiction”, in Tom Shippey, ed. Fictional Space, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell for The English Association, 1990), pp. 104–32. That Shippey collection was some of the first serious sf criticism I read and it influences me more than I usuallly realise.