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  • The British Empire & Emergent Media
  • Patrick Brantlinger
Aaron Worth. Imperial Media: Colonial Networks and Information Technologies in the British Literary Imagination, 1857–1918. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2014. vii + 146 pp. $49.95

AARON WORTH’S STUDY of the imagined relations between the British Empire and emergent media offers fresh, insightful readings of stories and novels by several British authors: Rudyard Kipling, Marie Corelli, H. Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, and John Buchan. Sometimes his findings are familiar—Haggard’s She is of course a tale with proto-cinematic qualities, though Worth adds some new details to illustrate this idea. And while the inclusion of Wells’s “scientific romances” seems inevitable, what Worth adds by delving into Wells’s Anticipations and Outline of History is valuable. [End Page 442]

Worth is right to compare Wells’s thinking about the relations between empire and new media to that of Marshall McLuhan, though he says both express “a thoroughgoing technological determinism.” There are, however, degrees and varieties of technological determinism, as contributors to Merritt Smith and Leo Marx’s anthology Does Technology Drive History? contend. (See also my essay on McLuhan and “crash theory” in States of Emergency.) By the conclusion of Imperial Media, I was left wondering where Worth himself stands in regard to such determinism. Has The Matrix completely enclosed us, or is it only gradually or partially enclosing us? Will the CIA, the NSA, and our rapidly developing surveillance state be totalitarian and completely wipe out privacy, or will it still manage somehow to be democratic?

Worth suggests early in his study, and correctly so, that while technological innovations gave great advantages to Europeans as they expanded outward from the Renaissance forward, those same innovations, when appropriated by indigenous peoples in all parts of the world, would be used to bring about the decline and fall of the European empires. Guns are an obvious example, but so are communications systems such as telegraphy, radio, and today the Internet. Worth points to the menacing “mimic man” figure of the Indian telegrapher in several of Kipling’s stories, though Kipling seems never to have imagined that figure in connection with Indian independence (26–35). Much more menacing is John Laputa’s “native” information system which includes both drumming and telepathy. In John Buchan’s Prester John, Laputa threatens revolution and the creation of a new Zulu empire for all of Africa (90–91). Were the technological advances that allowed Europeans to build their empires, then, means of domination or of liberation? Did they produce versions of “determinism” or just the opposite? During the period that Worth’s study encompasses, from the Indian “mutiny” or great rebellion of 1857 to the end of World War I, the answers to those questions hung in the balance and continue to do so today.

Besides the major new communications media that Worth foregrounds, there were many scientific and cultural developments that affected how British writers viewed their empire and its future. The theories of evolution and entropy at least implicitly informed all of the texts he analyzes, most famously so in Haggard’s She and Wells’s The Time Machine. Both theories underwrote the prevalent fin-de-sièècle theme of degeneration, which in turn informed the emergent discourses of eugenics and criminology. How did these discourses affect [End Page 443] late-Victorian and Edwardian writers’ understandings of continued imperial expansion and domination, versus their anxieties about decline and fall? Worth mentions Darwin only in passing, while Dracula, the late-Victorian novel perhaps most frequently discussed in terms of new communications media, he relegates to a footnote. He does briefly discuss Buchan’s Augustus in relation to “Maxwell’s demon,” but that barely touches on the imbrication of writing that concerns the “imperial media” with the major scientific discourses of the age. This is not to say that Worth should have dealt with every fin-de-siècle novel that has anything to do with new media and with science. His readings of the texts that he includes are insightful, however, so I wound up wishing he had included more, and also that he had been more thorough in relating his insights to earlier...


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pp. 442-445
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