Sunday, December 04, 2016

Edward Page Mitchell - a sci-fi visionary

I have been reading a collection of short stories by a 19th Century American author, hitherto unknown to me, and generally little known to the wider literary public, of the name Edward Page Mitchell. The stories, which originally appeared anonymously in serialized form in the New York Sun between the 1870s to 1890s (Mitchell later became editor-in-chief of the same paper), are not available in book form, but can be downloaded for free from the Interwebs.
In more recent years, Mitchell has come to be regarded as one of the pioneers of science fiction. Some of his fictional ideas predated similar ones by HG Wells and even Jules Verne by several years, and he anticipates many futuristic technological advances - some of which have come to pass, and some that are still to emerge - as well as social and political advances which would have appeared quite revolutionary at the time.
Among the best, and best-known, of the stories are:
  • A Man Without a Body (1877) - a scientist suceeds in teleporting matter, but when he tries to teleport himself, the electrical battery fails and only his head materializes, fully conscious and sensible, but lacking a body.
  • The Ablest Man in the World (1879) - a scientist develops a thinking, reasoning, computer-like machine, which he then installs in the head of a severely mentally-disabled boy, who as a result grows up into a fiercely intelligent and ambitious adult, set to take the world by storm, until someone discovers his dark secret and sabotages what they see as an abomination.
  • The Senators's Daughter (1897) - set in a futuristic 1937, this tale of a young American woman fighting for the right to marry her Chinese lover introduced a whole host of future technology (including travel by pneumatic tube, electrical heating, newspapers printed in the home by electrical transmission, food-pellet concentrates, international broadcasts, suspended animation or cryogenics), as well as social advances like votes for women, animal rights, racial equality, and interracial marriage.
  • A Crystal Man (1881) - a scientist discovers the secret of altering the colour of the human body, and even rendering it completely transparent, before dying unexpectedly and leaving his experimental subject to a fate of a lifetime as an invisible man (this was some 16 years before HG Wells pursued a similar idea).
  • The Clock That Went Backward (1881) - a mysterious old Dutch grandfather clock transports a group of people back hundreds of years, as it begins to turn backwards when struck with a bolt of lightning (written 7 years before HG Wells wrote The Time Machine).
  • The Tachypomp (1894) - in order to realize the apparently impossible task of achieving infinite speed (and thereby win the hand of his professor's daughter), a student of mathematics contrives a train which carries another train on top of it, which in turn carries yet another train on top of it, and so on, so that the combined speed of all the trains approaches infinity.
The stories are written in the same kind of gentlemanly, slightly stuffy, Victorian style as Wells and his comtemporaries adopted, but they are nevertheless eminently readable and not devoid of humour. They certainly make for an enjoyable and interesting few hours of entertainment at no financial cost, and very little tax on the intellect.

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