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Voices from the Radium Age

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A collection of early 20th century science fiction (1905-1930) which I really enjoyed. The Machine Stops by EM Forster is a favourite of mine but the other 6 in the collection I had not read before. The themes range from a feminist utopia, Sultana's Dream (by a Bengali woman in 1905!); a shipwrecked couple suffering from a weird disease, The Voice in the Night; Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Horror of the Heights is about upper atmosphere air travel! The final two stories are excellent. The Comet by W.E.B. Du Bois explores race in a post apocalypse world where there appears to be only two survivors, a working class black man and a young rich white woman. The Jameson Satellite by Neil R. Jones is a far future story when immortal aliens discover a dead earth and a satellite coffin with the remains of a man in it. The only lowlight for me was The Red One by Jack London . I just found the overt ugly racism made it impossible for me to engage in the story of an alien object worshipped by Solomon Islanders.
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Before I started reading this, I was expecting a collection of mostly scholarly interest: a look at proto-sf short stories, mostly literary work which weren’t really SFF as we know it e.g. during the Golden Age, but with some light speculative elements. 

Obviously I’d heard of The Machine Stops before, but many of the other tales were new to me. Some of them were very surprising works indeed. It’s a cool look at how diverse the early speculative scene was already, and I enjoyed most of them more than I was expecting.

Individual reviews and ratings:

SULTANA’S DREAM (3/5)

An early feminist piece of light SF. Nothing particularly special.

THE VOICE IN THE NIGHT (3.5/5)

This is a fun little fungal monster story. It’s a clear precursor to many current-day stories, though this one never feels like real “horror”- it’s more of a travelogue-esque description of an encounter.

THE MACHINE STOPS (4/5)

Definitely a highlight of proto-SF. Not only in how it predicted technologies, but especially in how it anticipated some major problems of our current and near-future age, such as our addiction to and overreliance on technology. It’s surprisingly readable, too, a visionary work, only making me wish Forster had written a proper dystopia-themed novel. He had the right ideas, that’s for sure.

THE HORROR OF THE HEIGHTS (3.5/5)

The concept of this short story is kind of ridiculous yet strangely fun. It’s kind of like the Zones of Thought/Fermi Paradox but for air travel: some mysterious monster in “air jungles” prevents people from going over 30,000ft in the air. You get the gist of the story fairly quickly, but it’s a cool (if super dated) idea for its time.

THE RED ONE (3.5/5)

What an interesting tale of an alien message lost in the wilderness! Sure, much of this story feels a bit yikes now (sexism, racial stereotypes, classic “primitives” and “civilized” scientists), but it’s the type of idea I still like to read today. 

THE COMET (3/5)

Don’t read this short story for its sci-fi aspect, because that’s not the focus here. It’s all background, some disaster scenario which creates the situation in which a person of color rescues a white woman in the 1920s, and the shock it causes. Obvious themes of racial and social justice, this story is a kind of proto-afrofuturist work, lacking in depth maybe, but probably a great story at the time.

THE JAMESON SATELLITE (4/5)

What a joy! It’s clear how influential this story was. You’ve got cryopreservation, cyborgs, dying earth, deep time… all in one single short story from the 1930s. Reads like the kind of stuff Olaf Stapledon wrote around the same time but actually fun to read. It’s a great initial vision of the sad death of our world. This one definitely felt Golden Age.

Average rating per story: 3.5, rounded up to 4. 

Disclaimer: I received an ARC for this book in exchange for an honest review.
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"Voices from the Radium Age" (edited by Joshua Glenn, published by MIT Press) is a valuable and entertaining collection of seven science fiction tales originally published between 1905 and 1931. Although two of the authors, Jack London and Arthur Conan Doyle, are quite well known, the remaining short stories still felt familiar. Specifically, I have read "The Machine Stops" (1909) by E. M. Forester in several other anthologies as well, and over one hundred years after original publication it still feels fresh.  I'm not sure if I should brag about it, but I have seen the movie which Glenn mentioned that was based on " The Voice in The Night" (1907). The "last person alive on the planet" theme of "The Comet" (1920) also feels comfortably familiar with an uncomfortable but important social message. As the latest published piece in this collection "The Jameson Satellite" (1931) absolutely has the feel of stories from the "Golden Age of Science Fiction". Perhaps this is not surprising, as Jameson stories continue well into this Age.

All in all, this was an informative, understandable, and entertaining collection of stories. Some stories contained a couple of words which are not in common use today, but most of them were mentioned in passing in the introduction. I find it exciting that this book is the first in an upcoming series of other science fiction stories from this era. I recommend this book for people who enjoy the perspective of reading stories from an earlier time and learning more about the foundations of modern science fiction literature.

I thank the publisher and editor for providing an electronic review copy of this collection.
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There is a case to be said for the evolution of science fiction to be at its strongest when science fact is changing the quickest – which makes the decades between Queen Victoria and WW2 to be the most stand-out, surely.  Not for nothing did the world change from the work of the Curies, and Einstein et al.  And in a world that knows the Poe-Verne-Wells triumvirate very well, and indeed what happened in the Golden Age, the years in between are the most neglected.  Hence this series-launching compilation, published alongside three novels from the time.

And you get an immediate show of power when it comes to reach, with a short piece from Bangladesh, 1905, from an authoress who has a national day in her name there now.  This however is such a feminist utopia – powered flight, no men allowed out of their lock-ups whatsoever, and even no mosquitos – that it overloads itself to the point of sexism.  William Hope Hodgson comes next, and it's much more sensible to call his drama a horror than sci-fi, with something unearthly met by a small boat's crew one misty night in the Pacific.  I am sure I read something with the very same outcome when at school, but not with the author's typical nautical framing, to my mind.

Hope Hodgson knew what he was talking about as a sailor, Conan Doyle the aviator convinces less so.  Still, his hokum of an early pilot finding lethal yet beautiful floating creatures at the ceiling of powered flight is very readable.  Jack London offers a quite old-fashioned, turgid slice of survival-horror-by-way-of-Conrad, made sci-fi only by an unearthly sound resonating across a nightmarish jungle island.  WEB Du Bois looks for all the world like he's inventing The Twilight Zone, before getting really clumsy with racial issues.  And Neil R Jones brings us to the age of the pulps, with the first in his series concerning a human space traveller – who starts the story forty million years before it ends, by getting his corpse shot into permanent orbit.  The science here is utterly inept, the writing very tell-don't-show.

The merit of this book – and this whole academic series – will be bringing to you authors and pieces you'll not have encountered before, and that at times despite copious chances.  F'instance I've never knowingly read E M Forster, but his piece – tucked away nonchalantly in the middle here – is outstanding.  Who knew, with a society in single-person cubicles beneath a destroyed Earth's surface, with the entire needs of mankind – and allegedly edifying lectures – available at the press of a button, that he would have predicted social media?  Said lectures are about as real to the world as Instagrams, and the whole Machine that runs mankind (apart from the lead woman's errant son) is clearly F*c*book – or Meta as it thought to call itself the week I read this brilliant drama.

Overall here, some fabulous writing is countered by some much too close to awful.  The standard swings quite erratically at times, suggesting a low star rating, if one be deemed appropriate.  But no – even with the wokeness of the spoilerific introduction – I appreciated this book's existence greatly.  As a calling card for an imprint of nearly-lost novels to come, this doesn't quite convince on quality control, but does show the materials will always strike a chord with modern moral issues, or at least give us a glimpse into something fantastical, even if that proves with hindsight to be hooey.  Indeed, if there are more wells of this kind to be plumbed I am all for it.  Three and a half stars for now.
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Okay. So before you start to read this book take onboard that it is stories from a generation ago. It’s not going be politically correct and in some stories you think that old fashioned. But- saying that out those thoughts  aside and just enjoy the stories. Some classic stuff.
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A collection of stories from the early 20th century - before the so-called "Golden Age" of SF, the pulp era - mostly by people who are better known for other things than writing speculative fiction; though most of them are known for writing fiction, and a couple of them were well-known SFF writers of the time who are now less familiar. 

Unsurprisingly, most of these century-plus-old stories don't match contemporary taste too closely, and at least one is, by today's standards, highly offensive. That the editor included it anyway - despite acknowledging its extreme racism in the introduction - is a signal that this is, primarily, an academic publication, concerned with what actually existed in the time period rather than what the editor thinks ought (or ought not) to have existed. But the same introduction states that the collection's secondary purpose is to provide some entertainment to fans of the genre. 

I have to say I didn't personally enjoy most of the stories that much, mainly because deep thinkers' views of the future in the early 20th century were pretty uniformly bleak (not without good cause) and most of the stories are at least one of apocalyptic, dystopian, or horror, three genres I usually avoid. But even while mostly not enjoying the experience of reading them, I'm able to appreciate the quality of the writing and the historical importance, and that's what I based my four-star rating on. 

I'd read a couple of them before: Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Horror of the Heights" and William Hope Hodgson's "The Voice in the Night". Both of them prefigure the cosmic horror later published in the pulp magazine <i>Weird Tales</i> by Lovecraft and others. There were fewer and fewer unknown parts of the world by this time, but, as unknown places always have been for humanity, they were populated by imagination with terrible monsters. Hope Hodgson's remote area is the Pacific Ocean; Conan Doyle's, more imaginatively, the high atmosphere, where aeroplanes were only just becoming able to reach. 

Two of the stories are by people better known as activists than fiction writers. Early feminist and education-for-women proponent Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's story "Sultana's Dream" portrays a feminist utopia similar to Charlotte Perkins Gilmour's later <i>Herland</i>, though seen through a specifically Bengali Muslim lens; the men are kept shut up in purdah while the women conduct business and run the country. Like many (not all) early feminist utopias, it assumes that women would do a much better job, and that crime and warfare would largely disappear if you got rid of or at least restrained the men.  

W.E.B. Du Bois, the famous early-20th-century black thinker who co-founded the NAACP, is represented here by "The Comet," included in one of his books; it's a well-crafted tale that gives strong voice to the black experience of being treated as less than fully human, in the context of an apocalyptic event in which it appears that only a black man and a white woman have survived. Forced by circumstances to see him as a man, and not just a black man, the white woman comes to an epiphany, but the ending brings matters back to the status quo. 

In contrast to these forward-thinking stories is "The Red One" by Jack London, which is the stunningly racist (and, almost incidentally, sexist) story I referred to above. The white naturalist/explorer protagonist falls into the hands of "savages" inhabiting Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and discovers a crashed alien spaceship, but is unable to get out with the knowledge that the "savages" don't appreciate and that could bring great benefits to civilization. I have a suspicion amounting to certainty that if he had brought the alien science out, it would have been used in war within a very short time period, but that's by the by. 

I had heard of E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops," which has been widely influential on other writers, but I'd never read it before. It's a vision of a dystopian utopia in which humanity, homogenized and pampered by the Machine, has lost its courage and imagination; people live isolated from one another in small underground apartments, connected in an inadequate fashion by the Machine, a vision that has strange resonance in 2021. Forster, as a member of the educated elite, imagines something like social media, except it's more like live vlogging of short pseudo-academic lectures that people broadcast to each other. It's shallow, but not nearly so shallow (or toxic) as actual social media. And then... the story's title tells you what happens. Forster was an excellent writer, and most of it gripped me strongly and conveyed the sense of dystopian and apocalyptic terror powerfully, but he couldn't resist a bit of soapboxing at the end. 

The closing story in the book is by Neil R. Jones, a prolific writer of the time who's largely forgotten today (more so than Hope Hodgson, who I'd heard of and read before). A scientist who has had his body shot into orbit around the earth after his death is picked up by aliens millions of years later, when Earth is a dead world. The aliens, whose civilization has long replaced their biological bodies with mechanical ones, does the same for him and brings him back to life, and he has to come to terms with the loss of everything he remembered and decide whether to accompany them on their exploration of the universe. There's not a whole lot of story, but there is some exploration of how such events would impact on a person, which wasn't always a strength of the pulp era that followed.

This is a varied and wide-ranging collection, despite having only a few stories in it, and it shows just how diverse the early-20th-century landscape of speculative fiction was. "Literary" writers were writing speculative fiction (as they always have and still are) to explore intellectual and emotional territory that was harder to access in other ways; activists were using the form as a way of getting people to think about a different world; and popular writers were prefiguring the pulp adventures that would dominate the mid-century. 

Although most of the stories weren't particularly to my personal taste, I'm still glad I read them, because they're an important part of our history as humans and as spec-fic fans. Part of the reason that we aren't more aware of the SFF of this period is that it didn't yet have its own dedicated magazines, but often appeared in "mainstream" venues like <i>Blue Book</i> (Hope Hodgson), <i>The Strand Magazine</i> (Conan Doyle) and <i>The Oxford and Cambridge Review</i> (Forster). It's good that people like the editor of this collection are taking the time and effort to unearth these stories, especially the less-known ones, and make them available again.
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