- Science, Evolution & Ecology
This is the first book by the Romanticism scholar Michael Page, with an ambitious sweep that traces out the impact of evolutionary theories on English literature from the work of Erasmus Darwin in the 1780s to H. G. Wells a century later. Five chapters explore the interaction of Erasmus Darwin’s translations of Linnaeus and the imaginative theory of evolution expounded in his poetic texts; the influence of Darwin’s evolutionary and revolutionary thought on the early poetry of Wordsworth and the first success of Percy Shelley, Queen Mab in 1813; the evolutionary imagination that structures Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Last Man; a sweep of post-1830 Victorian fictions that begin to engage with the ideas of Erasmus’s grandson, Charles, including those by Charles Kingsley, Edward Bulwer Lytton, Samuel Butler, Richard Jefferies, and W. H. Hudson; and the scientific romances of H. G. Wells. An afterword briefly brings us up to the present day, ending with a discussion of the legacy of this thought on contemporary science fiction criticism and writing, including the much-admired work of science fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi, whose Wind-Up Girl appeared in 2010.
There are several virtues on display in this argument. It is refreshing to see a broad sweep across periods in an era of narrow specialisation, but also across critical frameworks. Page is heavily indebted to the Green Romanticism critical paradigm, which mainly emerged in the wake of Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology in 1991. Some of the most inventive passages in Page’s book suggest striking similarities between this turn to ecological criticism in mainstream Romanticism with elements of modern science fiction criticism. Needless to say, these areas are not often seen to talk to each other, yet they share not only an interest in the mutual dependence of science and literature, in contrast to the banality of C. P. Snow’s antagonistic “two cultures” thesis, they also try to think in terms of the globe, the embeddedness of culture in wider planetary ecologies.
Page is able to bring to science fiction criticism a convincing historical trajectory that roots the genre in Enlightenment and Romantic science, where local genre histories often begin with Wells. Similarly, Page’s awareness of science fiction criticism is able to bring to Romanticism an encouragement to think beyond the paradigms of “high” art (there are some telling reminders of how Mary Shelley’s Gothic shocker Frankenstein was largely discarded by Romantic critics until a major set of revisions in the 1970s turned it into the quintessential concentration of Romantic themes). One could contest his rather literal [End Page 543] definition of science fiction as literature about science, especially as the genre has been so destructively policed by critical demands that its texts display proper scientific “rigor,” but there is a conviction in arguing that the eighteenth century produces new breakthroughs that mean that a literary culture built on the imitation of classical models is smashed open by the cultural transformations that were effected by science and technology as the industrial revolution took hold. Actually, Page might have benefited from the science fiction critic John Clute’s argument that from about 1750 the key literatures of modernity are the emergent genres of science fiction, Gothic and fantasy because they are all products of a recognition of man’s location on a fragile planet: they are the fictions of planetary consciousness, capturing larger forces that escape the notice of the empirical niceties of the nascent Realist novel.
Page writes with admirable clarity and the book’s steady progress through classic texts will make this a good port of call for students seeking basic orientation through this line of authors. I do not think I was especially surprised by anything original here, though, in the very predictable sequence of authors chosen. One expects to see Kingsley’s Water Babies and Butler’s Erewhon and Wells as a culminating point. Even a formerly “minor” author like Richard Jefferies has been steadily lifted into notice...