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Science Fiction’s Lost Romantics For Those Who Love the Classic Romantics of Yesteryear

By / January 26, 2016 / no comments

cannonbridgeI’ve been reading Cannonbridge by Jonathan Barnes. It’s not a great novel, but its quite fun in its way. In one strand of the story we glimpse incidents in the life of 19th century novelist, poet and playwright Matthew Cannonbridge. He turns up out of the storm at the Villa Diodati just as Dr Polidori and Mary Shelley are telling their ghost stories to Byron and Shelley.

A few years later he turns up at the Blacking Factory to help out a young Charles Dickens. Later still, he turns up at Haworth where the Bronte Family has gathered for Christmas, and gives Emily Bronte a black eye. In the other strand of the story, a modern day academic, Dr Toby Judd, begins to think that the life of the greatest of all 19th century writers is just too convenient to be true, so he starts to investigate, and ends up putting his own life in danger.

As I say, it’s an undemanding page-turned. But all the time I was lapping up the story, I kept thinking how many times I’ve read something similar.I know that Brian Aldiss has claimed that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel; but later sf writers really seem to have fallen in love with the Romantics.

Mary Shelley and Lord Byron and their fellows keep turning up as characters in sf novels, or great Romantic novels turn up, or we encounter a leading Romantic novelist we’ve never heard of before. It’s as if a certain strand of the fantastic is stuck in the early 19th century.

lord byron's novel

For instance, the best of the lot is probably Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley, which is just that, an exotic lost novel by Lord Byron,with annotations by his daughter, the computer pioneer Ada Lovelace, and of course a modern day narrative tying it all together.






Nearly as good is The Stress of her Regard by Tim Powers, in which a young Englishman, having inadvertently attracted the attention of the nephilim and thereby bringing about the death of his bride, flees to Europe assisted by John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley and their confreres.







anubis gates

Tim Powers seems to be particularly attracted to this sort of story, because he also wrote The Anubis Gates, one of the great time travel stories, in which a modern academic finds himself travelling back in time to meet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and the seminal unknown romantic poet William Ashbless (who also features in work by James Blaylock).







casebook of victor frankenstein

Mary Shelley and her circle also feature in Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, not by any means his best novel but still an entertaining variation on one of the founding texts of science fiction.








Yet another fascinating variation on Lord Byron crops up in Amanda Prantera’s intriguing but now seemingly forgotten novel, Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 years after his Lordship’s Death (surely worth seeking out for the title alone!) in which a modern day researcher creates a computer analogue of Lord Byron and then proceeds to quiz it about his sex life.



strange bodies

There’s a similar, and similarly splendid invention in Marcel Theroux’s wonderful award-winning novel Strange Bodies, in which a modern day professor of English finds himself investigating someone who appears to have the mind of Dr Samuel Johnson.









Dr Johnson isn’t exactly a Romantic, of course, and neither is Madagascar Rhodes, but both seem to belong in this group. Madagascar Rhodes was the author of The Alchemist’s Apprentice, one of the most beloved novels of all time. Rhodes was a household name, everyone had read his book, except that strangely, nowadays, no one has heard of the book, it’s as though Rhodes never existed. Until failed novelist Roderick Bent had an encounter with a ghostly girl and started to unravel a history that may or may not have happened. All of this occurs in another lost book: The Alchemist’s Apprentice by Jeremy Dronfield tended to get overlooked when it first came out because its publication coincided with the first of Jasper Fford’s “Tuesday Next” novels, but it really does deserve to be much better known than it is. Even if it does mean adding to the ever-growing library of imaginary books.

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