We're all familiar with the sort of sugar-coated "storybook" science that survives in pop-sci television programmes in which personal and theoretical rivalries are often simplified down to easily understood tropes. Examples include a problem imperfectly understood or causing a theoretical difficulty that attracts a number of crackpot theories of which one turns out to be true; or the scientist who turns out to be a maverick who is at first dismissed and then triumphs. This is "science as detective story"; or even more simplified, "science as human-interest." (A BBC Horizon on "Dark Matter" once introduced the astronomer who initially observed anomalies in the rotation speed of stars at the edge of galaxies as "working mum Vera Rubin. . . .")
Another mode treats the world, rather than the scientific endeavour, as a story. "Science" is personified by the narrator's voice, asking "Have you ever wondered why . . . ?" and explains the issues which proceed from the question using metaphor and personification. Such versions, famously exemplified by those nineteenth-century accounts of the kindly uncle explaining to a wide-eyed nephew and niece how the natural world operated, were common enough ways of explaining science to children by emphasising the fabulous or fantastic in the mundane. George Gamov, in the 1940s, popularised quantum physics by turning it outright into fiction in books about "Mr Tomkins," who dreams of worlds where the speed of light is so slow that relativistic distortions of time and space can be discerned. Hunting "quantum tigers" is difficult because it is impossible to discern accurately the positions of bullet and tiger at the same time. A more up-to-date version of this way of explaining physics and cosmology to young readers is Russell Stannard's The Time and Space of Uncle Albert (1989). Stannard literalizes Einstein's thought-experiments as "Uncle Albert" and his niece Gedanken ("thoughts"), who puzzle out together the effects of light-speed on time and space.
None of this is actually science fiction, although it is quite obviously fiction about science. Indeed, one suspects that if the term "science fiction" had not already been established it would be the appropriate term. On the other hand, pulling a book at random from my university's collection of children's books, I find F. G. Heath's Fairy Plants: A Fern Book for Children (1910) in which his young readers are advised that while fairy-tales may be "pretty stories," and that they come to accept that the term may be a synonym for "unlikely," "I want to tell you that in this beautiful and marvellous world there are things far more wonderful—and yet real—than anything you have ever read about in fairy books" (p. 20).
Melanie Keene's Science in Wonderland argues that such an approach is much more than jumping upon a bandwagon or casting a fluffy, sentimental cuddliness upon the marvels of the world, but comes from a long tradition of thinking about how to "tell" science to children. She explains how British children (and American children, for several of her examples come from American writers) were encouraged to see the world about them as one of marvel and wonder by explicitly connecting it with the fairy-tales they were also told. If Mr Tompkins and Uncle Albert are science fiction, this has to be science fantasy.
The best-known examples of such popular explanations today—certainly the most successful in communicating the relationship between science and story—are the "Science of Discworld" books in which Terry Pratchett, Jack Cohen, and Ian Stewart collaborate to show how science itself is also a kind of storytelling ("We have always had a drive to paint stories on to the universe" [Science of Discworld, p. 12]). By means of allowing the wizards of Discworld to encounter and be puzzled by the resolutely non-magical forces which power our universe (or "Roundworld"), Pratchett, Cohen, and Stewart use the techniques of the fantastic to encourage readers to understand what we mean by science and the endlessly provisional nature of the scientific understanding of the world. Melanie Keene's wonderful book, in which she explores the encounters between science and the fantastic in an earlier age, should be on everyone's shelves next to the "Science of Discworld" volumes. It is an entertaining, illuminating, and valuable example of how British and American writers in the nineteenth century engaged with science—and how young readers were encouraged to enter into the "wonderland" which the new scientific theories and developments of the day were opening up.
Keene's epigraph to her book is the well-used couplet from Tennyson's poem "Locksley Hall," written in 1835 though not published until 1842, in which the narrator muses about his youth nourished by "the fairy-tales of science." Early science education was often in the form of conversations: Jane Marcet's extremely influential Conversations on Chemistry (1819) sets the tone, with a mentor explaining matters to her two younger pupils, information coming out of the questions asked by Caroline and Emily. This model goes back to the Greek Socratic dialogues, and while Marcet herself tended to avoid wide-eyed encounter with wonder, the conversational model allowed authors in fiction and non-fiction for younger readers to address their audiences directly, and bring in more personal or literary digressions. For instance, Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863), explicitly subtitled "A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby," brings Tom the chimney-sweep into a realm inhabited by "fairy" creatures—as well as the wondrous life-forms revealed by close scientific (even microscopic) attention to water life—and offers the author many opportunities for friendly lectures to his young charges about how vast and ill-understood the wondrous world of science is: "You do not know what Nature is, or what she can do; and nobody knows; not even Sir Roderick Murchison, or Professor Owen, or Professor Sedgwick, or Professor Huxley, or Mr. Darwin, or Professor Faraday, or Mr. Grove, or any other of the great men whom good boys are taught to respect." (Things have clearly rather regressed since Jane Marcet's "Mrs B." was guiding Caroline and Emily!) Melanie Keene notes how Kingsley "wove together observations on natural history and evolutionary theory as the scientific warp to a societal weft in his moral fable" (The Water Babies, p. 114).
And so, the "fairy tale" model, inspired by the way fairy tales were always used as moral fables, as well as the revival of "fairies" in the nineteenth century as folklorists and literary figures began to explore the mode, and even the speculations (alluded to by Keene) as to whether fairies were race-memories of prehistoric ancestors, colonized or colonizers, fed into science education. Any metaphorical aside about how science was "magical" or "wondrous" or "charming" allowed faery to slip in, invited or not. Keene quotes the poet Lucy Atkins lamenting in 1801 that "dragons and fairies, giants and witches, have vanished from our nurseries before the wand of reason" (p. 9), and not the least of the many delights uncovered as Keene nudges us towards long-forgotten moral fables is the recollection of the tragic The Young Liar!! by W. F. Sullivan (1817) in which young Wilfred Story (geddit?) is "fed a literary diet of fairy tales by his equally appropriately named nursemaid, Fibwell" (p. 12), and after a downward moral plunge through school and university is killed in a duel caused by his habitual lying. However, by the 1820s, English translations of the Grimm brothers collections of German folk tales were available, and by the mid-century translations of fairy-tales and wonder-tales from other cultures, as well as original fairy-tales by writers like Hans Christian Andersen and John Ruskin, brought the mode back to the fore—if, indeed, it had ever really been away. Fairy-tales were a way of engaging with the moral (and physical) realities of the nineteenth century—a time just as affected as ours by the opportunities and threats of new technologies and conceptual breakthroughs; and so "the fairies and their tales were often chosen as an appropriate new form for capturing and presenting scientific and technological knowledge to young audiences. Fairies and imps, dragons and demons, giants and gnomes, appeared through these texts: as framing devices, as storytellers, as starring characters, as illustrations, as the invisible forces of nature" (p. 19).
Keene's account of how this is done consists of six chapters, loosely taking a thematic approach. So, for example, the first chapter considers accounts of how "fairy-tale" interpretations of the paleontological and geological discoveries of the age offered ways into both the facts as they were (literally) unearthed and the sometimes troubling theoretical implications. While using the Tennysonian title, for example, John Cargill Brough's The Fairy-Tales of Science draws more upon more generic folktales of monsters, but in evoking the world lived in by dinosaurs (the word was first coined in 1842), Brough also evokes tales of dragons and knightly combat (the battle between two saurian "monsters" Keene quotes from (pp. 33-34) is also reminiscent of those combats which, from Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle to Jurassic Park, have become staple genre scenes). Likewise, Charles Dickens's periodical Household Words published a semi-satirical article in which the craze for monsters, which resulted in full-scale reconstructions of dinosaurs in the grounds of the recently reopened Crystal Palace, was addressed in fairytale language, right from its title ("Fairyland in 'Fifty-Four"). A later publication, Hutchinson's Extinct Monsters (1892), claimed that if we were to visualize the primeval world we would find it "quite as strange as the fairy-land of Grimm or Lewis Carroll"; though inhabited by "real beasts", it would be a "veritable fairy-land" (quoted p. 37).
More directly linked to visualizations of "Real Fairy Folk" (as the chapter's title puts it) is the next section, which examines the way the popular image of fairies as diminutive winged creatures is exploited by the way writers like Louise M. Budgeon (as "Acheta Domestica" or "cricket") in Episodes of Insect Life (1849-1851), a series of gift-books whose illustrations emphasised, in describing insects and their lives, anthropomorphism. In Fairy Know-a-Bit (1868), the prolific Charlotte Maria Tucker created a fairy instructor to lecture Philibert and Sidney and, by means of magic, transform them and give them the same kind of practical education Merlin was to give Arthur in T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone (1938). Know-a-Bit is not one of these fluttery nature-sprites, but has taken up the new modern scientific education: something emphasised in another extraordinary book, Real Fairy-Folks, or, The Fairyland of Chemistry (1887), in which the American writer Lucy Rider Meyer presents a series of chemistry lessons by reimagining atoms and molecules as fairies: the "chlorine fairies," for example, disinfect hospital wards. Similarly, the illustration reproduced on page 79 in Keene shows the hydrochloric acid molecule as the union of a (female) hydrogen fairy and a (male) chlorine fairy. One senses that Jane Marcet might not have approved if Mrs B had started talking in this vein to Caroline and Emily, but Keene hints with this example (and indeed throughout), that part of the representation of such beings with "flowing hair and liquid gowns, radiant headdresses and benign expressions" (p. 80) is not only to evoke fairies but to imagine angels: in other words, to present a view of the workings of the natural world which did not entirely jettison the supernatural or the "Divine."
This became more troublesome as theories of evolution and natural selection began to question orthodox religious accounts. It's not insignificant that Charles Kingsley, friend of Charles Darwin, was the Reverend Charles Kingsley and that The Water Babies was, in part, an attempt to establish a context for Evolution within the world-view of Christianity. The change of perspective given by what the writer and lecturer Arabella Buckley called "magic glasses"—telescopes and microscopes—and the paradigm-shifts thrown upon geology and natural history by Lyell and Darwin, certainly needed what Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart call convenient and attractive "lies-to-children" if they were to be understood. Buckley's The Fairyland of Science (1879), still charmingly readable today, equated fairies with "invisible forces of nature" (p. 100), and Lewis Carroll's Alice books inspired later parodies such as "Alice down the Microscope," collectively written by a group of Cambridge biochemists for a magazine in 1927, as well as more immediate echoes such as Albert and George Gresswell's Wonderland of Evolution (1884), which, like Buckley and Kingsley, presented fairies as in some way an incarnate dialogue between "the natural world and the divine ‘higher power' that was originating influence" (p. 122).
Keene's later chapters show technology itself encroaching upon the narrative: the magic-lantern show, whose novel terrors alarmingly stimulated "bowel-complaint" in a teenage Harriet Martineau (quoted p. 139), and Buckley's encouragement to view the world Through Magic Glasses (1890), offered new ways of observation. An illustration from Brough's Fairy-Tales of Science (p. 165) shows the electric telegraph as Shakespeare's Puck, "girdling the world." Winslow's Children's Fairy Geography (1879) interprets the coming perspectives of ballooning, and speculations of powered flight, in its "wishing carpet" and "electric boots." L. Frank Baum reinterpreted and reinvented the fairy-tale altogether as a kind of science fiction for less sentimental young American readers in The Master Key (1901) and his later "Oz" books. In The Master Key, Rob, one of the era's many child-inventors—we only have to think of the dime-novel adventures of Frank Reade, Jr., and Tom Swift—conjures the Demon of Electricity, who gives him a series of ingenious inventions, such as nourishing electric tablets and a wristwatch-like machine that later takes him around the world, which Tom Swift himself would have killed for. Edison and Tesla, too, are name-checked. The status of such figures as themselves "wizards" is neatly brought up in a brief discussion of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (p. 183)
Keene's account of all this is concisely and attractively written, copiously and beautifully illustrated, and I found it thoroughly illuminated my understanding of the way Victorian writers incorporated "fairy" images into science-writing, and the way speculative fiction began to crystallise during the nineteenth century. I thought I knew this stuff, and I clearly didn't: anyone in the least interested in how the fantastic works, and the collision of science, religion, and fiction in the nineteenth century, has to have this book. But I do have a number of quibbles. It is unclear how far Keene is aware of, or interested in, her field as a section of a much larger conversation about the relation of the "fantastic" to the "scientific." Interestingly, it was a science fiction writer (Brian Stableford) who discovered William Wilson's coinage in A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject (1851): "Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true." Wilson's example, Richard Horne's The Poor Artist (1850), is not a fairy-story; but its fable of how an object is perceived differently by six beasts in a garden (a bee, an ant, a spider, a fish, a robin, and a cat) shows how the tradition of the related "talking-animal" story can be used to express a scientific moral: specifically the way beings with different senses experience the world differently. Keene mentions neither Wilson nor Horne, presumably because neither is directly "fairy-tale." Still, this is a gap, and one which some readers at least will notice.
And, while the Alice books are mentioned, Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno (1889)—which specifically uses the concepts of fairies and fairyland to explore questions like time, states of consciousness as well as life on other worlds—is absent. Its sickly sentimentality is often condemned, but makes much more sense when seen as part of the tradition Keene anatomises (although Carroll, as ever, is much more of a maverick than his contemporaries, satirising the contemporary vein for science-fantasy even as he employs it).
Does this matter? Science in Wonderland, while written by an academic historian of science, is clearly aimed beyond the academy and is clearly accessible and rewarding for a general audience. That part of the audience interested in modern fantastyka, as well as that of the Victorian age (which I would guess includes many people reading this), would be interested, though, in the wider picture; perhaps, then, it would have been worth including links to, or a professed understanding of, how science is seen through a similar lens in the succeeding period. Curiously, the British scientist A. M. Low, who wrote science fiction and factual books for young people from the 1930s to the 1950s, is noted because of his own book called Science in Wonderland (1935), in which he writes, "It is because I am sure that children ought to like fairy stories that I have written one in which there are no fairies at all" (quoted p. 193).
Low (who otherwise is hardly a well-known figure) is cited more as a way of showing how the knowing use of "supernatural" imagery and metaphor was a solid part of the new twentieth century industrial age than through any sense of how that age was developing its own "supernatural." Perhaps Hugo Gernsback and his definition of SF as "a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision" which "suppl[ies] knowledge that we might not always obtain . . . in a very palatable form" (Amazing Stories 1 [April 1926]: 3) would not have been strictly necessary, either, but certainly his claim that "If every man, woman, boy or girl could be induced to read science fiction . . . the educational standards of [the community] would be raised tremendously" (Science Wonder Stories 1, 1061) still has its adherents. Although the vocabulary of "magic" still permeates how we lay-people consider science (this is why we enjoy Ponder Stibbons and the High Energy Magic unit in the Discworld books), by the opening decades of the twentieth century, the pill of science was being coated with a different kind of sugar. This, and Wilson's mid-nineteenth-century call for a "science-fiction" is, as I see it, essential for the fuller picture, and it is a shame that Keene has not at least nodded to the field. Perhaps, though, I am asking too much, and I can only defend my position by re-stating how effectively Melanie Keene has revealed the worlds of wonder on display in her valuable book.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, and a widely published critic. For ten years he was Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the University's School of English. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously unpublished novel by John Wyndham, and (with Peter Wright) Teaching Science Fiction in the Palgrave "Teaching the New English" series. He was the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.
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