Nothing “Proto” About It: More on MIT Press’s New Radium Age Series
By Michael D. GordinJuly 27, 2023
A new series from MIT Press, lovingly curated by Joshua Glenn, and earlier heralded here at Los Angeles Review of Books, sidesteps disputation about the genre in favor of straightforward chronology. In between the “scientific romances” of Wells and Verne and what came to be called the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” (1938–46, or ending in the 1960s if you are generous)—Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, and many others—falls a chasm of books of uncertain genre, most of which have fallen out of print and memory. Identifying an era bookended by Marie Curie’s shared 1903 Nobel Prize for the discovery of radium and her death from radiation-induced leukemia in 1934, Glenn dubs it the “Radium Age.” The selection of works is not so much an argument for coherence as a catch-all to enable readers to revel in its heterogeneity.
You’ll get no pushback from me. The evenings I spent curled up with these 10 novels and two collections of short stories were captivating, even when the quality of a work occasionally left something to be desired. (More on William Hope Hodgson in a bit.) Glenn’s goal is often to surprise the reader with an unexpected offering, such as “The Machine Stops,” a 1909 story by E. M. Forster (yes, the same Forster of A Passage to India), which imagines a technological dystopia in which humanity has condemned itself to voluntary social isolation and endless Zoom calls. (I’m not kidding.) Each book in the series is supplemented with the series editor’s preface and then a bespoke and typically illuminating introduction. Two sport afterwords, which are slightly more academic in orientation.
There are, of course, limitations to the selection that one hopes will be remedied in the years ahead. (I, for one, hope there will be many years ahead.) The biggest deficiency is that the novels are all Anglo-American, with a heavy emphasis on Great Britain, and only two short stories hail from the more exotic climes of Imperial Russia and colonized Bengal. Some true classics are absent from the lineup, such as Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (1920), which bequeathed the word “robot” to the global lexicon, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopic We (1924). Although adding more Russophone titles would be welcome, they might somewhat detract from the smorgasbord aspect, since in Russian a genre had already solidified called “scientific fantasy,” which endows those works with greater coherence and intertextual reference.
The pleasure in reading the Radium Age series derives in large part from the Anglophone genre not yet having congealed: authors who wrote, say, popular entertainment or philosophical fiction can thus profitably be read off each other—even if that cultural moment is largely British. (E. V. Odle’s 1923 novel The Clockwork Man starts with a lengthy description of a cricket match that will befuddle most American readers.) The series’ freedom from genre purism lets us see how a specific set of anxieties—channeled through dystopias, Lovecraftian horror, arch social satire, and adventure tales—spurred literary experimentation and the bending of conventions.
Although the Radium Age spans from 1903 to 1934, its pivotal historical ruptures are concentrated between 1914 and 1921, when the crises of the epoch came to a head. Those were years of cataclysm. Reading these books, one is repeatedly struck by three intertwined anxieties, each of which provided fodder for oceans of ink washing over forests of paper. None will shock even the most casual student of the period.
Foremost was a preoccupation with fin-de-siècle capitalism and its discontents. This is almost too obvious to belabor, since the advent of heavy industry, the proletarianization of the urban poor, the emergence of various labor movements, and the growth of an ostentatious plutocracy were at the base of most political conflicts of the day. Strikes (and ensuing police violence against strikers), child labor, and periodic crashes fueled reform movements on both sides of the North Atlantic. The historical pivot of this problem during the Radium Age was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the first time that capitalism received its comeuppance. To date, the Radium Age books do not thematize the Bolsheviks in particular.
These struggles constituted the air these authors breathed. But rather than focusing on the big picture—the domain of the political pamphlet or the academic monograph—these novels targeted specific problematic aspects of the regnant hybrid political economy of colonialism in the South and industrial capitalism in the North: the increasing segregation of industrial labor from agricultural production, the global interconnectivity of trade, and the social fiction of money.
Capitalism seemed stable until disrupted by some external force, usually war or disease. J. D. Beresford’s A World of Women, originally published in 1913, describes a future in which all three props of the capitalist order not only fail under strain but also bring about their own demise. The novel opens with the lower-middle-class Gosling family (the British edition was entitled The Goslings), complete with a self-satisfied paterfamilias whose absence of moral compass is kept tightly in check by social opprobrium and his vacuous wife. Their two daughters, Millie and Blanche, seem destined to turn into versions of their mother, but Millie becomes more sensual and Blanche more brainy once the men vanish. Brace yourself—as Astra Taylor remarks in her astute foreword to the Radium Age edition, it is chilling to follow the plot of this novel written a century before COVID-19: a virus emerges in China and begins to spread around the world because venal tradesmen and hapless politicians cannot bring themselves to shut down transit. Highly communicable and of peculiar etiology, the virus kills almost all men and “not more than eight per cent” of women.
I’ll return to the gendered aspects later; for the moment, let’s focus on what happens to the economy. With half the population dead—including almost all laboring classes—the cities starve. The only solution is to head to the countryside, and there the three Gosling women eventually go, teaming up with other women to learn how to provide for themselves. For the most part, Blanche’s innate capacities prove a match to the new age, and she is not alone among this generation of resourceful women. The story ends well, as the virus burns itself out and a new world dawns.
Something similar happens in H. G. Wells’s The World Set Free, which is sadly rather tedious compared to his four 19th-century greats: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The War of the Worlds (1897), and The Invisible Man (1897). Yet this disappointing novel retains its status because it was published in 1914 right before a ruinous European war like the one it describes, and because here Wells coined the term “atomic bomb.” (The bombs are burning lumps of a radioactive material called “carolinium” that seethe lethally over many half-lives; they are not like the fissile explosives developed during World War II.) The bulk of Wells’s narrative is an extended quotation of another narrative, a fictitious memoir of the conflict, Wander Jahre, penned by one Frederick Barnet. Central to Barnet’s account is the starvation that strikes the devastated cities and the overcrowding in the countryside. Both are ills of capitalism that the coming postwar utopia remedies.
Nordenholt’s Million, published in 1923 by J. J. Connington (the pseudonym of prominent Scottish chemist Alfred Walter Stewart), has the benefit of looking at the collapse of urban capitalism from the other side of the Russian Revolution and World War I. Here again a disease crosses borders, this time annihilating not human males but nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Plant life collapses across the globe until the bacterium wears itself out, and nowhere is hit harder than the epicenter: the British Isles. The solution to starvation and the collapse of the world economy is not Wells’s mild meritocratic socialism but rather the benevolent fascism of Connington’s hero Nordenholt (in an account narrated by his only slightly more humane assistant, Jack Flint). Nordenholt relocates one million specially selected technicians and their families to Scotland, which he walls off from the rest of the island, leaving the others to starve—Nordenholt calls it “disorganizing” the old order—while his team engineers new soil and nuclear power. In similar stories, such as Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” (1907), translated from the Russian in More Voices from the Radium Age, the Nordenholt-like figure, Horace Deville, fails. A darker variant, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, which appeared the year before Connington’s, offers no Nordenholt to save humanity. Reading her tale of misanthropy and hopelessness is a scarring experience.
For most of the characters, the signal that capitalism has indeed changed—especially in A World of Women and Nordenholt’s Million—is that money ceases to have value. If the only thing of importance is food, which is not for sale, money is useless. The winners in these novels grasp the point quickly and adjust to bartering and subsistence farming. The losers, like Mrs. Gosling, go mad. The villains, quite tellingly marking these books as of their moment, are often the Jews, like “Mrs. Isaacson” in A World of Women. For the genteel antisemite (Connington/Stewart was a bit more than that), who better to embody the grasping after money? Essentially all Jewish characters in Radium Age literature are suspect, vestiges of a passing age. The only positive comment—if you can call it that—is the backhanded compliment, couched in parentheses, in Rose Macaulay’s eugenic satire What Not (1918): “It was in consequence of this that Jews—such Jews as had not yet been forcibly repatriated in the Holy City—were exempted from the provisions of the Mental Progress Act and the Mind Training Act. It would be a pity if Jews were to become any cleverer.”
The second main anxiety, already indicated by the bacterial and viral disasters besieging Nordenholt and the Goslings, concerned humanity’s tenuous sense of control amid the unpredictable vicissitudes of nature. This is an evergreen obsession, but a few inflections were specific to the Radium Age. The era was fixated on invasive species, be they insects or crops or Chinese laborers; eugenic movements were but one effort to combat degeneration. The most salient indication of humanity’s vulnerability, of course, was the 1918 influenza pandemic, which over the next few years infected roughly a third of the global population and killed at least 17 million and probably many more. Memories of influenza clearly set the stage for Nordenholt’s Million, even though the disease in that 1923 novel did not attack people (it did strip the flesh off the deceased, turning corpses into skeletons in short order).
Even before the Spanish flu claimed its many victims, science fiction writers pondered the vulnerability of humanity before the seemingly random cruelty of nature. Beresford’s World of Women depicted a single, gendered cataclysm in 1913, and that same year Arthur Conan Doyle—still trying to escape his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes—was even more universal in his novella The Poison Belt. The Radium Age series pairs this book with Doyle’s more famous work of science fiction, The Lost World (1912), which features the same set of manly adventurers led by the irascible Professor Challenger, a genius as likely to crack an inquiring journalist’s skull as the mysteries of the universe.
The Lost World treated the problem of extinction, with Challenger and his companions discovering pterodactyls and other dinosaurs improbably preserved on a huge mesa (“as large perhaps as Sussex”) isolated from the rest of the Amazonian rainforest. (To quiet skeptics, Challenger smuggles a malevolent pterodactyl back to London in his luggage and releases it at a presentation at Queen’s Hall in Regent Street.) Extinction is not only undone in the novel but also committed. Challenger’s team allies with the tribe of humans living on the mesa to engage in genocide—there is no other word for it—against an entire species of “ape-men” by driving most of them off the cliffs to their doom and enslaving the rest. (The Edwardian explorers find this jolly good sport.)
In The Poison Belt, the team of four reassembles at Challenger’s residence as Earth moves through a cloud of cosmic ether trailing a passing comet, which poisons the entire planet. These four keep out the miasma with oxygen tanks in their sealed room. Everyone else is dead, and a grotesque trip to London reveals only one survivor: an old lady medically dependent on bottled oxygen who is worried about her railroad stocks in the face of humanity’s end. (Only fools care about money.) It turns out that the effects of the ether are only temporary, and a day later everyone revives, except those who died in derailed trains or urban fires. That’s sort of a happy ending, but the reader is left with an unsettling aftertaste of human fragility.
The most extreme inquiry into human dependence on technology in the face of a nature perpetually degenerating into monstrosity and entropic heat death is William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912). This is a weird book, much illuminated by Erik Davis’s introduction, and the sole volume in the series that the editors have abridged—by over a third. And thank goodness! The story follows an unnamed narrator who is mesmerically linked to his timeless love, Mirdath, and who recounts his very detailed vision of a future when Earth is but a rock orbiting a dying star and is heated by scattered lava pools. The survivors live in the Great Redoubt, a massive pyramid sustained by a kind of telluric electricity that also keeps at bay the ravenous monsters roaming the countryside. The narrator discovers a psychic link to Naani, Mirdath’s reincarnation, and heads out to the heretofore-unknown (and, as we will find out, destroyed) Lesser Redoubt to rescue her. He does, defeating countless monsters with his cunning and what seems to be a laser-powered pizza-cutter. Most of the book is not adventure, though. Most of it sounds like this:
And I made in the end that I should eat and drink, at every sixth hour, and at the eighteenth hour sleep me until the twenty-fourth.
And by this means did I eat thrice in that time, and have six hours of sleep.
It gets old fast. The editors mercifully cut things off after he saves the maiden, so we don’t have to suffer the return journey.
Hodgson was clearly an inspiration for generations of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, who learned a thing or two about hideous monsters from texts like this one, and Hodgson’s 1907 short story “The Voice in the Night” (in Voices from the Radium Age), stints on neither horror nor narrative propulsion. It’s worth highlighting his vivid depiction of the heat death of the universe, a subject of much debate among physicists and popular science writers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and Hodgson’s valorization—no less than Doyle’s—of scientific thinking and technological superiority as the only means of preserving human existence.
Finally, there is war. We all know that the Great War broke out in the summer of 1914, bringing over four years of devastating carnage in its wake. In reading the Radium Age books that were written before its outbreak, it’s important to keep in mind that for many right-thinking people, major war on the European continent was inconceivable. Violence, frequent and brutal, only happened in the colonies in Asia and Africa. Diplomacy was supposed to avert great-power conflict at home, as it had since the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Since war was unimaginable until the guns started firing in Sarajevo, it was up to the novelists to imagine it.
One of the earliest novels in the Radium Age series is all about war, and although it is only questionably “SF” for the purists among you—it is set in the future, but there’s no science to speak of besides siegecraft—it is unquestionably a satirical masterpiece. This is The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), the first novel by G. K. Chesterton, who would go on to greater renown for his Father Brown mystery stories. The whole premise of the novel is that war is impossible. Futuristic Britain, set (in quite an ironic coincidence) in 1984, much resembles Chesterton’s own time, with the salient difference that the bureaucracy has reached such a high degree of perfection that it serially bestows the monarchy upon a civil servant chosen by lottery. The scepter falls to Auberon Quin, an insufferable twit who thinks it would be charming to medievalize London by requiring all neighborhoods to don regalia and fluffy ceremonies. Quin is not the Napoleon of the title—those honors fall to Adam Wayne, an incurable romantic who takes Quin’s fantasy all too seriously: Wayne wages war on Kensington and establishes the Empire of Notting Hill. Romance is reinjected into the world, but at enormous cost.
A decade later, the costs were higher and mostly bereft of romance. Of course, Wells’s The World Set Free, with its predictions of aerial warfare, atomic bombs, and international peace conferences, takes first place in the Nostradamus sweepstakes for those who prefer their science fiction to be predictive. After the carnage, we are treated to King Egbert of England—whom Wells clearly admires but who strikes this reader as insufferably smug—constructing a peaceful utopia beyond nation-states. That would be one possible outcome of a global conflict, one supposes, but by the time of the armistice in November 1918, and especially after the failure of the United States to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, Egbert’s paradise was clearly not in the cards.
We see in the Radium Age series two diametrically opposite reactions to the tragedy of the Great War: humor and bleakness. For the former, Macaulay’s What Not can occupy a pleasant afternoon, notwithstanding that it was penned during the final months of what she calls “this all-taking war, this bitter, unsparing god.” A glibly untraumatized Britain determines that more intelligence will ensure future peace, and the way to get intelligence is to breed a smarter population. Hence the Ministry of Brains awards A, B, and C certifications to its populace. Those in Class A are encouraged to marry members of B to spread the smarts, while those in Class C are taxed heavily for reproducing a new generation of cretins with their own kind. It’s eugenics with a whimsical touch, and the whole edifice comes crashing down in the face of true love. (Real eugenics was quite a bit nastier.)
Equally comic in intention, although slightly less fun in execution, is Odle’s The Clockwork Man, in which the title character is what we would call a cyborg (with gears instead of microchips), sent from the future to a pleasant English village where he causes all sorts of shenanigans. In form, this is the plot of the Terminator film franchise; in content, it couldn’t be farther removed. We learn at the very end of the book that future women got so fed up with men constantly fighting that they enlisted some “makers” (possibly aliens; Odle is maddeningly vague on this point, though he specifies that they are naked) to tame men with mechanical regulators and store them in a separate dimension. Much more durable than the Versailles Peace Treaty, to be sure.
The novel that more directly confronts the horror inflicted on the British Isles by the loss of a generation of young men is Hamilton’s Theodore Savage: A Story of the Past or the Future. The title figure is a minor civil servant happily courting his boss’s daughter when a new world war (for Savage, it is the second) erupts:
War, once a matter of armies in the field, had resolved itself into an open and thorough-going effort to ruin enemy industry by setting his people on the run; to destroy enemy agriculture not only by incendiary devices—the so-called poison-fire—but by the secondary and even more potent agency of starving millions driven out to forage as they could…. The process, in the stilted phrase of the communiqué, was described as “displacement of population”; and displacement of population, not victory in the field, became the real military objective.
Forget Chesterton’s neo-medieval conflict: Hamilton’s apocalypse thrusts Albion back to the neolithic. Scrounging for resources, warring tribes set up ramshackle encampments where women are brutalized and where anyone curious about something like “science” is punished by execution: “In knowledge was death and in ignorance alone was a measure of peace and security.” Decades later, scores of novels about the aftermath of nuclear war would deploy a similar gambit; few are quite this effective.
Golden Age science fiction authors assume a manly universe of economy and of struggles against nature and war, and you might be tempted to take the Radium Age literature the same way. But reading these books one after the other raises a different idée fixe that was surely not a genre convention—for there was as yet no genre—but speaks to a deeply felt cultural sensibility. The Radium Age was thoroughly preoccupied with the emancipation of women. To some degree, this prominence of “the woman question” is related to Glenn’s laudable choice to highlight women authors, but the salience across all the works indicates that something more fundamental is at play.
The story that opens Voices from the Radium Age, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream” (1905), has long been canonized by feminist scholars of science fiction. Framing a vision of a future utopia as a dream has been a trope, now fallen into disrepute, since at least Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634). It has the virtue of highlighting the contrast to the nonutopian present of the dreamer, and often includes a helpful guide who provides a perpetual voiceover explaining the wonders of the future. We learn that constant wars meant that women had to be released from purdah to attend (single-sex) universities while the menfolk were off fighting, and that eventually the women’s tremendous advances in science enabled them to take over the society, induce the men into purdah, and replace war with beauty and harmony with nature. (All three of the major themes of Radium Age science fiction are present in “Sultana’s Dream.”) Quarantining men because of the sex’s intrinsic bellicosity is equally the underlying premise of The Clockwork Man, written by a male Bloomsbury acolyte, and also of Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” (1926, in More Voices). Indeed, one is surprised that Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) is not yet in the series.
From the Radium Age series, the most explicit full-length novel about gender and sex is Beresford’s A World of Women, where the title says it all (though there are a few men, including the polymathic Jasper Thrale, who is central to the plot). Beresford’s point is that the elimination of men is catastrophic enough to allow a creative reimagining of the social order. While Connington’s Nordenholt and Flint offer a masculinized, post-fascist world of gleaming towers and general welfare, Beresford leaves it open-ended, insisting only on equality as a core value. Macaulay’s What Not, although hardly a postapocalyptic novel in form—as she notes, “Britons do not look ahead”—already shows women being granted substantially more agency after the Great War. This correlated with reality, with women’s suffrage legalized in Great Britain in 1918 (and more comprehensively, without property qualifications, in 1928) and in the United States by the 19th Amendment in 1920. Much science fiction, then and now, centers on catastrophe, but in reading one Radium Age novel after another, one gains a strong impression that cataclysms are useful devices for imagining more realistic transformations than those depicted in Wells’s World Set Free. Change could also move in the other direction, of course: the emancipated fiancée at the start of Theodor Savage was surely killed before she could turn into one of the enslaved slatterns of the postwar Stone Age.
Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood: or, The Hidden Self is an outlier in the series—not least temporally, given that it appeared in 1902, a year before Glenn’s self-declared onset of the Radium Age—although juxtaposing it with the resonant theme of the woman question shows how well it fits. This is the only novel in the collection (so far) penned by an American, and it stands out even more because Hopkins was Black. It looks a lot like science fiction although the science in question is mesmerism, which does not pass the bona fides as a legitimate science today (or, to be frank, in 1902; 1802 is a different matter). Of One Blood is a novel about passing, and like most passing novels, it culminates in the protagonist, the medical student Reuel Briggs, not only revealing but also valuing his African heritage. What most makes it stand apart, however, is its attitude to precisely this question of a transformative future, a clean break. For example, W. E. B. Du Bois’s story “The Comet” (1920, included in Voices of the Radium Age) belongs to the catastrophe-permits-utopia mold. It borrows from Doyle’s The Poison Belt, imagining a New York City purged of everyone but a Black dogsbody and a white socialite. Du Bois presents a few moments of a potential nonracialized future before the color line is peremptorily restored. Hopkins’s approach is different. The novel’s plot hinges on the main characters’ fundamental connection to the past: first to the abominable crime of slavery, which yielded an incestuous love triangle through the rape of an enslaved woman; and more optimistically to the Ethiopian utopia of Meroë, a Wakanda avant la lettre, which is distinctive for being an ancient African kingdom that outstrips what white societies claimed to be civilization.
There is tremendous diversity of plots and themes in Golden Age and later science fiction, of course, down to the present. After a long sojourn in the Radium Age, however, it is hard to escape the idea that while the formation of a specific genre of “science fiction” after Gernsback generated a certain imaginative impulse, it also diminished creativity in other directions. The ubiquity of emancipated women in these novels and stories speaks to the importance of the absence of a solidified genre of “science fiction” during the Radium Age. In this series, similar themes to more venerable contemporary genres (like the “New Woman novel”) were introduced in much more varied works and to different audiences.
By grasping this series as whole, we therefore gain some insight into the potential of reading outside of established canons, a realization that we could bring to our reading in the present, trying to spot what “age” future generations will categorize us as. Are we the Algorithm Age, the Screen Age, or the Greenhouse Age? Or do those taglines only betray that I am myself too stuck in the conventions of my present, and cannot see the thematic obsessions that bedevil us, so ubiquitous that they haven’t found clear expression yet?
Michael D. Gordin is a professor in Princeton’s history department. His latest book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (2021).
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