Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

England's Dreaming: The Rise and Fall of Science Fiction, 1871-1874
by Erhart, Erin Michelle, Ph.D., Brandeis University, 2016, 224; 10103436
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation grows out of a conversation between two fields—those of Victorian Literature and Science Fiction (SF). I began this project with a realization that there was a productive overlap between SF and Victorian Studies. In my initial engagement with SF, I was frustrated by the limitations of the field, and by the way that scholars were misreading the 19th century, utilizing broad generalizations about the function of Empire, the subject, technology, and the social, where close readings would have been more productive. Victorian studies supplied a critical and theoretical basis for the interrogation of these topics, and SF gave my reading of the nineteenth century an appreciation for the dynamic nature of the mechanism, and a useful jumping-off point for conversations around futurity, utopia, and the Other. Together, these two fields created a symbiotic theoretical framework that informs the progression of the dissertation.

In this project, I am shifting the grounds of engagement with early SF between two main terms; my aim is to question the establishment of “cognitive estrangement” as the seat the power in SF studies and supplant it with an emphasis on the “novum”. While both terms are indebted to Darko Suvin, I argue that the fixation on cognitive estrangement has blurred the lines of the genre of SF in nonproductive ways, and has needlessly complicated an already complex field. This dissertation is a deep engagement with the SF novels of 1871-2 to establish how the genre was defining itself from the very beginning, and looks to examine how a close-reading of early SF can inform our engagement with the field. Chapter one treats the work of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), chapter two examines Sir George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871), chapter three engages with Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, and chapter four is an examination of the relationship between the first three novels and Robert Ellis Dudgeon’s Colymbia (1873) and A Voice from Another World (1874) by Wladyslaw Somerville Lach-Szurma (W.S.L.S).

There are four fundamental concerns. The first is that the near simultaneous publication of Chesney, Lytton, and Butler signaled the emergence of SF as a genre, rather than as the isolated texts that had existed prior to this moment. The clustering of the novels of 1871-2 marks the transition of SF concerns from singular outlier events to a generic movement. The second claim is that the “novum”, one of the key aspects of a SF novel, is not just a material component in the text, but is a kind of logic that undergirds these novels. While the novum is often thought of as “the strange thing in a strange world”, I lock onto the early language of Suvin and critics such as Patricia Kerslake and John Rieder to suggest that it is, instead, a cognitive logic that is experimented on within the narrative of the novel. The third claim is fundamentally tied to the second: this foundation logic of the text is technological or mechanical. It is this connection of cognitive logic and technology and the mechanism that situates the novum as a technologic that is experimented on or evolved within the body of an SF novel, and is important because it helps us lock onto how SF is a product of the industrial age. In the break that occurs in 1871, this form of the novum plays a critical role in the development and identification of SF as a genre, and helps to distinguish texts with scientific themes (what I am calling scientific fictions) from those featuring a fundamental technologic that is intrinsic to the development and deployment of the narrative (what will come to be called science fiction).

The fourth and final claim is a product of the function and nature of the novum: and is that SF as a genre not only helps to understand technology and culture, but actively works to define the relationship between the two. Technology is registered as an important influence on culture, and culture shapes the future of technology. This genre is ultimately growing out of the rise of the scientific method, and the logic of the texts reflects that experimental paradigm. The logic of SF is one that experiments with the future, testing the implications of the known world against the possibilities of time, and in doing so, defining the terms of engagement with what the future might bring.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Plotz, John
Commitee: Green, Laura, Sherman, David
School: Brandeis University
Department: English and American Literature
School Location: United States -- Massachusetts
Source: DAI-A 77/09(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Literature, British and Irish literature
Keywords: Edward bulwer-lytton, George chesney, Samuel butler, Science fiction, Technology, Victorian
Publication Number: 10103436
ISBN: 978-1-339-67002-7
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