Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Episode 1

Title: "The Thames Valley Catastrophe"
Author: Grant Allen
Published in: The Strand Magazine December1897

Category: Catastrophes (duh)

Summary: A Londoner on a cycling vacation races home to secure the safety of his family as a huge basalt lava flow from a "fissure-eruption" fills the Thames River Valley, devastating villages and threatening the British capital.

Protagonist: White male "Government servant of the second grade" with a wife and two children.

The Science: Fissure eruptions, a real thing that occurs in Iceland and Hawaii. This one is much larger than those in human memory, though not as large as some speculated (in the story) to have occurred in America. (Because everything is big in America.)

Unlikely Coincidence: The protagonist (and the reader) learning about fissure eruptions from a chance meeting with a vacationing geologist the night before one occurs.

Nice touch: The story's conceit is that it is a personal eyewitness narrative appended to the official "Blue Book" report on the catastrophe some years after it happened.

Reader's notes: Most of the story comprises an extended chase scene through the English countryside, hero versus lava, and in order to make sense of it and understand the urgency, the reader really needs to be familiar with the place names and the geography. In fact, the narrator at one point advises parenthetically to "follow my route on a good map of the period". So I did.

The blue line from Cookham to Hampstead via Stoke Poges, Uxbridge, and Harrow shows the route the hero cycles; these villages are in the hills that form the northern lip of the Thames Valley.  The lava follows the floor of the river valley itself, from Cookham to Maidenhead, Slough, and beyond, roughly along the same route of the M4 highway. It is by keeping to the hills that the hero survives to write his addendum, while the people in the valley villages perish. What gives the story an especial chill is that the disaster is not discernible from the hills and the protagonist cannot dissuade people from heading into the valley and placing themselves in harm's way. Spooky stuff -- if you have the geography in your head.

The protagonist covers the 30 odd miles in 90 minutes - not a bad rate for hilly terrain!

Grade: a solid B

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