This is a reprint of the Books essay from Issue #46 of Exploits, our collaborative cultural diary in magazine form. If you like what you see, buy it now for $2, or subscribe to never miss an issue (note: Exploits is always free for subscribers of Unwinnable Monthly).
Like many (if not all) genres, science fiction contains multitudes of styles and aesthetics that readers and scholars like to group into eras. Proto-science fiction classics like Mary Shelley’s Fankenstein lay the groundwork for Jules Verne’s and H. G. Wells’ “scientific romances” in the late 19th century. The golden age of science fiction (epitomized by authors like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein) settled into full swing in the latter half of the 1930s. However, the first quarter of the 20th century is often neglected in the history of science fiction, relegated to the category of “pulp” rather than high literature.
A new series from the MIT Press aims to correct this misconception. Edited by Joshua Glenn of HiLowBrow, The Radium Age book series will start reissuing forgotten science fiction classics from between 1900 and 1935 this spring. Now, to be clear, I’m also working closely with Josh on this series in my other life as an acquiring editor at MIT, but I don’t think that takes away from the excitement any science fiction fan should feel about the new releases of books like E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man which features one of the earliest examples of a cyborg in literature, or J. D. Beresford’s World of Women, in which a plague originating in China sweeps through England killing all of the men, leaving the women from the Gosling family to fend for themselves. These early forgotten works of science fiction exemplify the value of science fiction in helping shape the future, as well as the limits on imagination in fully comprehending what will come next. Yes, the sort of international government that H. G. Wells sets forth in The World Set Free did become a reality in the post-WWI era, but it turns out, it’s not as effective a governing body Wells predicted.
The Radium Age series will also provide an avenue to reconsider the canon of science fiction and try to bring some neglected voices into the fold. Glenn’s edited anthology includes early science fiction works from well-known writers like Jack London and Arthur Conan Doyle, alongside WEB DuBois’s “The Comet” and a fantastic short from Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, the Bengali pioneer of feminist liberation. As the series progresses, we’ll be working on bringing more women and more authors from communities not often represented in science fiction, including Black Americans and writers from the global south.
These reissues will also be framed with new essays by leading futurists, science fiction authors and scholars. These new framing materials will help situate the sometimes problematic content in these books for the 21st century and help contextualize their importance in the history of science fiction. Those new essays and the amazing hand-illustrated covers from Canadian cartoonist Seth make the Radium Age book series a project that I’m thrilled to be helping bring out into the world. But you’ll have to do more than just take my word for it – you might have to buy a book yourself (*wink*)