Dancing on the World’s Thin Crust: On the MIT Press’s Radium Age Series

By Niall HarrisonJanuary 21, 2023

Dancing on the World’s Thin Crust: On the MIT Press’s Radium Age Series

Nordenholt’s Million by J. J. Connington
The Clockwork Man by E. V. Odle
What Not by Rose Macaulay

WHEN THE MIT PRESS publishes science fiction, it does it to make a point. The Twelve Tomorrows series of anthologies, for example, show their origins as a spinoff of MIT Technology Review by aiming for day-after-tomorrow prescience. And the Radium Age series of books launched in 2022 challenges readers to reconsider the science fiction of the early 20th century through a novel periodization; the name is intended to bracket work published between the date Marie Curie discovered radium and the date she died of radiation-induced leukemia or, in deference to the convenience of round numbers, between 1900 and 1935.

Every novel in the series includes a brief manifesto-flavored foreword by series editor Joshua Glenn in which he sets out his argument for this “crucial yet neglected and misunderstood moment in the emergence of the sf genre.” He describes a period of “rising sociocultural strife across various fronts,” and an “accelerated […] pace of change” driven by scientific advancement, and he ends with a call to action:

By returning to an international tradition of scientific speculation via fiction from after the Poe-Verne-Wells era and before sf’s Golden Age, the Radium Age series will demonstrate — contra Asimov et al. — the breadth, richness, and diversity of the literary works that were responding to a vertiginous historical period.

It’s an attractive crusade, and not a new one. As the foreword notes, in 2008 and 2009, Glenn contributed a series of blog posts to the SF and media site io9 (now part of Gizmodo) setting out some parameters; he subsequently built a more extensive Radium Age bibliography on his site HILOBROW, and a decade ago issued editions of 10 books from the period under the HiLoBooks imprint, a few of which were reviewed in this very venue by Rob Latham. The new MIT Press series looks to be an ongoing effort, and is supported by an advisory panel of authors and academics including Annalee Newitz (one of the editors of io9 at the time Glenn was writing there), Ken Liu, David M. Higgins (editor of the SF section of LARB), and Sherryl Vint.

In its first year, including releases planned up to February 2023, MIT Press will have published nine Radium Age books, representing a total of 16 works that first appeared between 1902 and 1932, with a plurality (seven) taken from the second decade of the century. Three of them are on the desk for this review: What Not by Rose Macaulay, which was published in 1918 and then again, with minor revisions, in 1919; The Clockwork Man by E. V. Odle, from 1923; and Nordenholt’s Million by J. J. Connington, also from 1923. The first task, as with any review, is simply to assess their individual qualities; but the second, irresistible given all the framing material, is to assess the project as a whole, and ask whether the argument being made is actually convincing.


Here are three novels by British writers, then, two English and one Scottish, all written toward the end of or in the immediate aftermath of the First World War and 1918–20 influenza pandemic. All three begin in the relatively near future, but it’s not particularly useful to test them against the actual 20th century: given the goals of the Radium Age, it’s more interesting to ask first whether they deserve their reprinting as works of fiction, and second, what they may or may not reveal about the mindsets of the time.

What Not is the most impressive, an example of a novel written in direct response to its time that remains vital because of that link and not in spite of it. In a foreword, Macaulay frames the novel as “a tale of life after the war, in which alone there is hope,” yet it is not a tale of a hopeful world; in the text, her omniscient narrator describes a society infused with “desperate gaiety,” simmering with sublimated fear of a return to the abyss of war. (Macaulay was at this time a pacifist, despite or perhaps because of her day job producing propaganda during the war.) It is this fear that has led to the establishment of a Ministry of Brains, which employs or otherwise shapes the experience of the novel’s finely sketched main characters — in particular, Kitty Grammont, mid-level civil servant, “something of the elegant rake, something of the gamin, something of the adventuress, something of the scholar,” and Nicky Chester, the Minister of Brains, a “paradoxical combination of shrewdness and idealism, sullenness and humour.” Their work is to mitigate stupidity in the general population, “to further social progress and avert another Great War.”

The story proceeds along two tracks that must eventually collide. The big story — the SF story — is that of the society and the work of the Ministry, responsible for setting standards, organizing tests, and so forth. Relatively early in the novel comes Brains Week, a national propaganda exercise that goes out of its way to contrast the fates of “the intelligent” and “the stupid.” The adverts reported in the text are a horrifying joy, impossible to read in anything other than a crisp establishment English accent (“A will be safe because he has taken the Mind Training Course […] B […] has refused to improve his mind [and] will therefore perish miserably”). Unfortunately, Brains Week is a dud — not enough people sign up — at which point establishment organs such as The Times call for a stronger hand to be applied; this leads to the Mental Progress Act, as well as increased attention to one of the other functions of the Ministry, which is to approve relationships on grounds of mental quality. Grade A brains should mate with B2 or B3, ideally, whereas anyone with a grade C brain must under no account mate with another C, and so on. What Not is often cited as a precursor to Brave New World (1932) for its depiction of these eugenicist ideas; at times, it can almost be read as a prequel. I’m aware of no evidence that Huxley read Macaulay’s novel, but they did have friends in common, and could easily have discussed its themes.

What Not comes into its own in its depiction of the intimacies behind the first ugly steps to dystopia. Kitty and Chester (she is always first-named, while he is always surnamed) fall into a relationship that turns out to be scandalous not only because she is his employee but also because, while she has a first-rate brain, he is unrated, which means their relationship should not be, and it would bring the whole work of the Ministry into disrepute if anyone found out. The narrator professes to have little time for these “simple human emotions” (the narrator has bought into the need for the Ministry’s work) but is nevertheless skilled at capturing them; the few scenes we are shown of their agonized forbidden courtship are as deft, witty, and insightful as anything else in the book. “We mustn’t let the one thing, just because it matters most, matter alone,” says Kitty at one point, trying to convince Chester that they should break it off: a great, wise, tremendously difficult sentiment to live by. And of course they don’t break it off, and of course they are inevitably found out, and so the book spirals to a complexly shaded conclusion in which the Ministry falls: one gets the sense that the narrator knows the right outcome is being achieved but dreads the potential consequences.

The Clockwork Man, the only novel published by E. V. Odle in his lifetime, is less well known than What Not, and substantially more idiosyncratic. The first chapter opens on a game of cricket in the village of Great Wymering. Doctor Allingham is at the crease, but tragically out of form — contemplating retirement, in fact, on account of age, because 40 is when you [begin] “to shrivel up [and] be deliberately and consistently mean and narrow.” (Odle was 33 when The Clockwork Man was published.) And then, a very strange sight catches his eye, coming over the hill at the edge of the ground: “Its arms revolved like the sails of a windmill. Its legs shot out in all directions, enveloped in dust.” Before Allingham has time to gather himself from this distraction, his stumps are out of the ground and he’s trudging back to the pavilion, out for one. The young captain, Gregg, an energetic and forward-thinking Cambridge man, commiserates but of course does not understand. Meanwhile, another member of their team, Arthur Withers (“a bit of a fool, and rather simple” but good-natured) also encounters the strange figure, and is able to strike up a conversation of sorts. Eventually, the figure recalibrates sufficiently to introduce himself as “a clockwork man” (without explaining what that means) and to ask what year it is (without explaining what answer he had expected). After some further cricket-related shenanigans, the clockwork man disappears at speed in the direction of the village, leaving a rather bewildered scene behind him.

This opening takes up the first 30 pages of the novel; I think there are two striking things about it. The first is that we never gain access to the clockwork man’s perspective. He is an intrusion into pastoral English life, a rupture in the way the world is understood. And the second is that, for all the slapstick humor, Odle layers the scene with a sense of underlying strangeness. Watching the clockwork man try to communicate with Arthur is funny, but also troubling. There is something “forlorn and wretched” about him, as well as amusingly incongruous; it’s clear that there is a mind present, and that it is struggling to control the body it finds itself in.

On a human level, the characters in The Clockwork Man are all a little more schematic than the ones in What Not. Allingham, Gregg, and Arthur are a little too obviously used to demonstrate three possible responses to what the clockwork man represents, which I would gloss as fear, excitement, and acceptance, respectively; in Allingham and Arthur’s cases, their attitudes are too neatly demonstrated through their relationships to their fiancées. The nature and origins of the clockwork man remain provocative, however. He is from the future, it is confirmed, a world in which mysterious “makers” have converted all men (but not women) to a “multiform” mode of living by installing devices into men’s heads that both constrain them — because they require powering and tuning — and free them — because they enable extraordinary movement in multiple dimensions, including time. The makers’ goal was — as it was for the social engineers of What Not — to prevent war, in their vision by taking men out of a world in which there are winners and losers and into a subjectivity that the clockwork man struggles to explain to Allingham:

Your world has a certain definite shape. That is what puzzles me so. […] [E]verything appears to be leading somewhere, and you expect always to come to the end of things. But in my world everything goes on for ever.

Fluidity versus fixedness as markers of peace versus conflict is a strikingly resonant argument to find in a novel that’s just under a century old, and it more than justifies time spent in the company of The Clockwork Man.

If What Not and The Clockwork Man occasionally jar contemporary readers, they do so more through their omissions — there is no consideration of sexuality in either novel, for instance, and barely any of race — than through direct insult. J. J. Connington’s Nordenholt’s Million, by contrast, is regularly off-putting, whether that’s through the evocation of “the Red Indian type” to lend the titular businessman an air of powerful Otherness, or multiple uses of the N-word, or the persistent infantilization of the only significant female character. It is probably, therefore, primarily one for the historians.

In that light, the novel is notable for being shaped more by pandemic-adjacent fears than war. At first glance, it anticipates John Christopher’s powerful 1956 novel The Death of Grass: in both cases, although more completely in Nordenholt, a pathogen destroys the food chain, in this case by entirely denitrifying it, obliterating plant life and turning fertile soils into sand, leading to a rapid civilizational collapse followed by a period of dangerous aftermath. Our narrator is Jack Flint, an engineer who is recruited by Stanley Nordenholt to help set up a “Nitrogen Area” in the Clyde Valley, with the aim of refertilizing soils in order to raise new crops, despite knowing that they won’t be able to do it fast enough, or at a large-enough scale, to save everyone. Connington is good at depicting the progression of ecological collapse — the transition from security to panic, the gradual creep of the catastrophe up the headlines, the dawning realization of what it means, and then the final phase change, eerily evocative, for me at least, of the actual early months of 2020. He is also good, in a mechanistic way, at describing the setting up and running of the Nitrogen Area. Nordenholt is positioned as uniquely capable of taming Hobbes’s leviathan, able to divine the psychology not just of individuals but of crowds, and therefore to intervene at precisely the right moment to shift the crowd in the direction he perceives to be necessary. He is that most seductive of authoritarian figures, the reluctant dictator: “Do I understand you to mean that you would like to be a Dictator?” the prime minister asks him. “No, you haven’t got it quite correctly,” Nordenholt replies. “I mean to be Dictator.”

At the peak of intensity, Nordenholt picks Flint as his successor after overhearing his dreams for the future, warning him that “[u]nlimited power is bad for any man. […] I feel that I am going downhill under it daily.” Nordenholt then sets out what he wants Flint to achieve: “[M]y first condition is meant to let you see the frailty with which you will have to contend […] and you have to make it as fit for the women as for the men.” Let us pass lightly over the fact that the thing women want from their utopia, it turns out, is largely the ability to make their own special home for their man, and let us embrace the fact that Connington includes women at all, and dedicates several chapters to the sort of practical utopian imaginary that catastrophe novels tend to relegate to the far horizon. It’s the most vivid section of the novel — particularly when paired with Flint’s hallucinatory visit at about this time to ruined, regressing London, and with the glimpses we get of the world beyond the United Kingdom (it is the only one of the three novels to travel) — and it’s a shame when it turns out to be something of a digression and we return to the race against time to prepare enough nitrogen before the metastable society Nordenholt has created collapses under its internal contradictions.

It becomes clear, in the end, that the story Nordenholt’s Million truly anticipates is Tom Godwin’s infamous 1954 tale “The Cold Equations.” They differ slightly in their outcomes, but their methods are the same. Both tales establish a nominally absolute problem, in order to examine the choices that would need to be made in such circumstances; both tales rig their scenarios to achieve a sense of inevitability about what must be done, and flourish grim consequences as a kind of proof. They are thought experiments, and they have their place, and their pleasures, but in the end, they illuminate very little outside their own sandbox.


Back to the framing project. Probably the most notable thing about the Radium Age, conceptually, is that it is named for events external to SF. It is also a long period, a little over three decades. These are both relatively unusual ways of periodizing SF in the 20th century. Existing histories tend to talk sometimes about decades, and often about labels arising from tendencies and debates within SF that, happily, serve as synecdoches for specific decades — the Pulps, the Golden Age, the New Wave, Cyberpunk, and so on. With minor variations, this is the approach taken by examples ranging from Brian Aldiss’s ur-history Trillion Year Spree (1986) through Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint’s Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction (2011), Adam Roberts’s The History of Science Fiction (second edition, 2016), and Mike Ashley’s five-volume history of SF magazines (2000–2022). In this century, the closest precursor to Glenn’s approach might be Roger Luckhurst’s cultural history, Science Fiction (2005), which identifies a breakpoint at the end of World War II, or, more precisely, with the culmination of the Manhattan Project; but even Luckhurst returns to a decade-based approach in the second half of his book.

Glenn’s project is also well suited to providing an organizing principle for an SF reprint line, to the point where I’m a little surprised that I can’t think of other similarly high-profile examples of reprint-as-critical-advocacy. Individual books, yes: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Big Book of Science Fiction (2016) comes to mind as a sympathetic historical-geographical project — but not entire series. In the United States, Macmillan’s Tor Essentials do only what they say on the tin. The United Kingdom is much better served, by the long-running Gollancz Masterworks series, as well as by more recent and more eclectic selections from Penguin and the British Library; but they are all general SF lists. They do, however, collectively mean that Glenn’s argument that the Radium Age period is neglected holds up less well in the United Kingdom than the United States: the lists don’t necessarily overlap much in their specific choices, but Gollancz includes works such as Karel Čapek’s RUR (1920), H. G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930); Penguin offers David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) and George S. Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) (and separately, recently reprinted Lao She’s Cat Country from 1932) while the British Library showcases, for example, Muriel Jaeger’s The Question Mark (1926) and The Man With Six Senses (1927).

This US/UK difference in existing coverage of the period perhaps helps to explain the geography of the MIT Press list. Of the 16 works that will have been published in the first year of the series, 11 are by British writers, four are by Americans, and one is by a Bengali writer. Four (two British, two American) are by women, three by nonwhite writers. Moreover, the HILOBROW page about the series lists a further nine books in preparation, out to 2025. If all come to fruition, 88 percent of the included works at that point will be books by white writers; 70 percent will be by white men; and 52 percent will be by white British men. Reasonable people can disagree about what those proportions “should” look like for the early 20th century, but that last figure, at least, feels high to me. Monographs such as Rachel Haywood Ferreira’s The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (2011), Nathaniel Isaacson’s Celestial Empire: The Emergence of Chinese Science Fiction (2017) and Ian Campbell’s Arabic Science Fiction (2018), among others, mention various works that could be considered, to say nothing of a reasonably extensive body of scholarship on European SF of the time. The VanderMeer Big Book includes a dozen stories from the Radium Age period, of which half are non-Anglophone — albeit primarily European.

To be clear: Many of the chosen works are not widely available, and deserve to be; I don’t want to efface the fact that there are works by non-British, non–English-language, non-male, nonwhite writers in the series, nor do I want to ignore the fact that there are likely to be practical constraints to be navigated in terms of rights, existing editions from other publishers, and the availability of translations. But in the series foreword, Glenn takes some care to provide a list of 25 relevant writers that includes, for instance, Mikhail Bulgakov, Karel Čapek, Gustave Le Rouge, Thea von Harbou (the screenwriter for Metropolis), Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, and Yevgeny Zamyatin, capturing a variety of strands of European SF of the time; only Russia is represented by the actually existing list. And therein lies the incompletely seized opportunity of the Radium Age. It comes at a time when SF’s present is increasingly international and diverse, and those present-day writers and works bring with them their own histories, which add to and complicate standard histories of SF. None of the histories I mentioned earlier exclude the non-Anglophone world entirely (Aldiss is probably the best on early non-Anglophone SF), but none of them offer anything resembling a genuinely global perspective. Examinations of non-Anglophone traditions are increasingly common, although so far they mostly exist as necessary but isolated monographs such as those noted above.

Over the last couple of decades, critics such as John Rieder, John Clute, and Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay have advanced models for how we might think about global SF history differently, and some of their thinking dovetails with some of Glenn’s. The way I would frame the opportunity would go something like this: in place of the Golden Age and the New Wave, we could identify broader social-historical-technological labels that provide umbrellas to bring different traditions into dialogue, encouraging readers to trace the impact of world-historical conditions and events — such as the First World War — even across the work of authors who, at the time, were unaware of each other’s existence. The Radium Age certainly gestures in this direction, not least because it boldly subsumes Hugo Gernsback’s 1926 launch of Amazing Stories within itself, thus (correctly) reframing the most commonly recognized starting point for genre science fiction as specifically the start of genre science fiction in the United States. Unfortunately, from the selections so far, it risks being only a gesture.


Niall Harrison is an independent critic based in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. His collection of reviews and essays, All These Worlds, is forthcoming from Briardene Books.


LARB Contributor

Niall Harrison is an independent critic based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He is a former editor of Strange Horizons, and his writing has also appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, and others. He has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and a guest of honor at the 2023 British National Science Fiction Convention. His 2023 collection All These Worlds: Reviews and Essays is available from Briardene Books.


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