Monday, February 20, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Preview Episode

So, in a recent post on Epicurus in Exile, I mentioned rediscovering the book Science Fiction by Gaslight: A History and Anthology of Science Fiction in the Popular Magazines, 1891-1911, edited and with an Introduction by Sam Moskowitz. It is my intention to not only re-read the book, hoping to recapture at least some of the excitement of my youth, but to share a quick "book report" on each of its 26 marvelous tales with you.

First, some background, not on my relationship to the book (which can be found in the cited post) but on the book itself and the editor.

Sam Moskowitz was a member of the ur-fandom of science fiction, serving in 1939 as the first chairman of what has since become Worldcon, home of the Hugo awards. Over the years, he became a professional and edited dozens of  SF anthologies - many of which I am sure I read as a youth - and even penned a few short stories himself. He was a noted (and relentless) chronicler and historian of science fiction, with several books on the subject to his credit, and was respected for factual accuracy and completeness if not always for nuance and judgment. Lord knows what Moskowitz would have done if he had lived in the age of the Internet.

His introduction supports the common response to Moskowitz's historiography: it comprises 35 pages of excruciating details of the business history, publishing dates, editorial staff, featured writers, and significant publication of those periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic that attempted at the turn of the last century to carve out a niche between the "better" magazines (at 25 cents per) and the penny dreadfuls (which were actually usually a nickel).

It was fascinating to learn that there were magazines like The Strand that sought to serve a slightly better-educated middle class reader, and that in addition to providing a home for the likes of Sherlock Holmes, these magazines also midwifed the science fiction genre. Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, and Conan Doyle himself were among the throngs of writers presenting stories of invention and speculation in these periodicals, and the burgeoning of the field is perhaps as exciting to learn about as it must have been to witness. Of course, Moskowitz's completist nature also requires us to learn that when the March 1899 issue of The Strand was published in the U.S., a six-page non-fiction piece on the British Parliament was replaced by a short naval story called "The Loading of the Convoy",  and that The Idler printed its text in a single column that ran across the whole page. Sometimes his reporting of history is little bit too detailed, and reading it can feel like trying to find the wheat among bushels of chaff.

Moskowitz's editing is a bit more deft than his history. The stories are dividing into categories such as Medical Miracles, Marvelous Inventions, Future War - even Man-Eating Plants gets its own section, as it was a pretty darn popular sub-genre back in the day.

So put on your smoking jacket and get comfortable: starting with the next episode of SFG, we'll dive into the stories themselves, beginning with the Catastrophes section and a story with the rather unambiguous title The Thames Valley Catastrophe.

We'll keep the gas lamp lit.

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