The Magical-Industrial Revolution

by John Quiggin on November 29, 2005

In a sense, science fiction is all about the Industrial Revolution. The genre begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818. Among the layers of meaning that can be read into this work the most obvious, pointed to by the subtitle, is an allegory of the Industrial Revolution, unleashing forces beyond the control of its creators. In one form or another, this has remained the central theme of the genre.

Counterposed to the Promethean theme of science fiction is the frankly reactionary medievalism of Tolkien and most of his successors (‘It is not unlikely that they [orcs] invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions have always delighted them’).

Alternate history, long the topic of five-finger exercises in which, say, Paul Revere’s horse goes lame, has provided a new approach to the problem. The great discovery of recent years, after a period when the whole genre of speculative fiction seemed in danger of exhaustion, has been the fictional potential of the 18th and 19th centuries, the time when modernity, the transformation of life by science and technology, was still new and startling.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell gives the alternate history wheel a new spin, by imagining a starting point at which alternate and real histories have converged. Clarke’s Georgian England is just like the real thing, but has a history in which magician-kings ruled the North until some time in the 14th century.

For reasons that are never entirely clear, magic has faded away until its study has become the domain of gentlemanly antiquarians, ‘theoretical magicians’ who never actually cast a spell. Their comfortable clubs are suddenly disrupted by the emergence of a ‘practical magician’ the enigmatic Gilbert Norrell. He is joined by a student and potential rival Jonathan Strange.

Strange is much the more attractive of the pair, but appearances may deceive. Without anything much in the way of moral qualms, he joins Wellington in wreaking magical havoc on the armies of Napoleon, often finding it difficult to put the world back together afterwards.

The re-emergence of magic in this fictional world (where industry is scarcely mentioned) parallels the emergence of technology in the Industrial Revolution. Norrell is the image of a modern researcher looking for grant funding, emphasises cautious and practical applications of magical technology in agriculture, coastal defence and so on. And he has all the vices of associated with the type, hoarding information, jealous of his intellectual property and so on. Meanwhile Strange is alive to, and welcomes, the revolutionary possibilities of magic.

But it is Norrell, and not Strange, who opens the door to chaos when he makes the classic mistake of accepting an attractive-seeming bargain from the the faery king of Lost Hope, to spare the beautiful young wife Sir Walter Pole, from death in return for ‘half her life’. Rather than taking the second half of three-score years and ten, the king calls her away every night to dance in his endless dismal balls.

Lost Hope is the link to the third main character in the book, the ‘nameless slave’ Stephen Black, a negro servant in the Pole Household. The faery takes a fancy to Stephen Black, and determines that Stephen should become King of England, a goal he pursues with amoral carelessness for the sufferings he inflicts along the way. In the end, however, it is his own kingdom of Lost Hope that Black comes to rule.

The book ends in a cloud of dimly-perceived possibilities, with Norrell and Strange vanished from England, and magic transforming the North, very much like the real situation as Britain emerged from the Napoleonic wars. A sequel (or a trilogy) seems called for, and will be awaited eagerly.

{ 35 comments }

1

Ray 11.29.05 at 9:52 am

earlier version of a sentence intruding on paragraph 8…”to spare a young woman from death…”

2

Miracle Max 11.29.05 at 10:13 am

There is only one image of Industry in the three movies (which I can’t get enough of, BTW). That’s in the second one, with the orcs in the big pit manufacturing weapons and additional orcs. Everywhere else the mode of production is pastoral/handicraft and the form of government is obviously monarchical.

3

Ray 11.29.05 at 10:30 am

The movies are a really bad guide to Tolkien.

4

Dwayne Monroe 11.29.05 at 12:40 pm

“Counterposed to the Promethean theme of science fiction is the frankly reactionary medievalism of Tolkien…”

======

This tells only half the tale.

There’s a tension within LOTR between Tolkien’s dream of a pre-industrial, pastoral England (which can fairly be labeled “reactionary medievalism”) and the very modern, existential crisis of the trilogy’s hero, Frodo.

Recall that Frodo fails to accomplish his mission (done, ironically and accidentally, by the twisted, conflicted Gollum) and suffers from profound psychologically spawned terrors after returning home – hardly a medieval situtation.

The setting is, in some ways, reactionary but the mental condition of the most important characters is modern through and through.

D. Monroe

5

theogon 11.29.05 at 1:17 pm

The reactionary content isn’t in the theoretical absense of themes pertinent to moderns, but in the normative content: romanticism, heroism, elites = good; rationalization, industry, upsetting the apple cart = bad. It’s the same principle that makes Star Wars reactionary, even if it’s dressed in lots of technology.

6

Ginger Yellow 11.29.05 at 1:35 pm

“The genre begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818.”

Rubbish. I’m not going to claim they started the genre, but what about Gulliver’s Travels or at the very least Voltaire’s Micromégas?

7

Tom T. 11.29.05 at 2:00 pm

It seems to me that LOTR, a tale whose hero conspires to defeat the military-industrial war machine by renouncing personal power, should not be so wholly dismissed as reactionary. Moreover, I wouldn’t categorize the Hobbits as elites.

8

Cranky Observer 11.29.05 at 2:05 pm

> Recall that Frodo fails to accomplish his mission
> (done, ironically and accidentally, by the
> twisted, conflicted Gollum) and suffers from
> profound psychologically spawned terrors after
> returning home – hardly a medieval situtation.

Given that Tolkien fought in the Great War this is perhaps not surprising.

Cranky

9

perianwyr 11.29.05 at 3:00 pm

The fading of the romantic elites is seen as a given in Tolkien, however, as inescapable as sunset. It is not a future that any of the heroes are even capable of returning to if they wanted to- indeed, the only way to live in this past is to effectively die (leaving with the Elves.) The elites are important, but they are not all- indeed, left to their own devices, they probably would have fucked everything up.

10

gmoke 11.29.05 at 4:24 pm

Prometheus is one mythological lens for technology. Epimetheus is another. Daedalus yet another. Working later into history is Faust, as in the “Faustian bargain” with nuclear energy.

Countervailing that is the figure of The Green Man, hidden throughout our imagery. Once you start looking for his face of leaves, it’s everywhere.

11

John Biles 11.29.05 at 4:36 pm

Tom Shippey’s Tolkein: Author of the Century makes a pretty solid case that LOTR is basically Tolkein’s reflections on World War I, which he fought in, combined with his interest in the literature of the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse.

The ultimate hero of LOTR is a common man, a hobbit; kings and wizards and elves all, in the end, are side-shows to Frodo’s struggle with the temptation of power, and if you read the Silmarillion, Tolkein typically depicts the elites as a pack of morons who self-destruct repeatedly because of their hubris.

But it is strongly romantic in the sense of longing for days gone by, but marked also by a sense that actual return to those days is impossible. There’s an overarching sense of decline which can be staved off, but not stopped.

Tolkein was decidedly anti-industrial; he loved nature and disliked cities and industrial development for tearing that up.

12

John Quiggin 11.29.05 at 4:47 pm

Thanks for spotting the editing problem, Ray. Fixed now, I hope.

13

MikeS 11.29.05 at 5:11 pm

“In a sense, science fiction is all about the Industrial Revolution. The genre begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818. Among the layers of meaning that can be read into this work the most obvious, pointed to by the subtitle, is an allegory of the Industrial Revolution, unleashing forces beyond the control of its creators. In one form or another, this has remained the central theme of the genre.”
“In a sense” Yes, in the sense you wish to establish for your argument. This must be the archetypal straw man.

14

Rich Puchalsky 11.29.05 at 5:54 pm

I think that what this comment thread demonstrates (as did a similar one in the China Mieville seminar) is that once the subject of Tolkien is introduced, everything else goes out the window. It’s the Godwin’s Law of SF and fantasy discussion.

15

John Quiggin 11.29.05 at 7:11 pm

I was struck by the same point, rp. I guess far more people have read and thought about Tolkien than about any book we might actually be discussing.

16

Another Damned Medievalist 11.29.05 at 8:54 pm

I’m not exactly sure what you’re saying about JS&MN, though, John. Is it somehow sf because it’s alternate history? It seems you’ve conflated sf and fantasy to a single broad genre to suit your argument re Clarke; the connection to the Industrial Revolution, except in terms of the creators dealing with powers they don’t fully understand, is tentative, I think, because that’s a trope that long predates sf or the Industrial Revolution. And since the novel is neither ‘typical’ fantasy in the sense of embracing a type of medievalism and rejection of technology (at least, it never rejects it AFAIK — how can it reject something that isn’t there in the alternate world) that you ascribe to Tolkein … sorry, it’s just a bit unclear is all.

17

protected static 11.30.05 at 1:48 am

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell gives the alternate history wheel a new spin, by imagining a starting point at which alternate and real histories have converged. Clarke’s Georgian England is just like the real thing, but has a history in which magician-kings ruled the North until some time in the 14th century.

How would you compare JS&MN to Orson Scott Card’s (ultimately disappointing for me – I was only able to finish the 3rd book before getting turned off Card) Alvin Maker series? The history there sort of dips in and out of ‘our’ timeline, with very different events leading to essentially identical trends and dynamics. Of course, Card’s point (as far as I could tell) was to demonstrate that Mormonism would have emerged even in an alternate America…

18

Adam Roberts 11.30.05 at 4:03 am

I think A.D.Medievalist is quite right, and not at all unclear. One problem with this Brain Aldiss notion that SF ‘begins’ with Frankenstein is what to do with all the SF published before Mary Shelley. And there’s loads and loads of that. Aldiss, and other critics, call these texts ‘precursors’ or ‘anticipations’ or anything they can think of to exclude them and thereby shore up their pet idea that SF is somehow to do with the Industrial Revolution. As if there weren’t cultural discourses of science, technology, materialism, space exploration, aliens — or stories that explored these things — before the nineteenth-century!

19

Ginger Yellow 11.30.05 at 4:16 am

Does anyone want to address the issue that Sci-Fi clearly pre-dates the industrial revolution?

20

John Quiggin 11.30.05 at 6:25 am

Arguments about origins can never be settled, but the view that Frankenstein is the first real work of SF is fairly widely held, notably by Brian Aldiss. I think this view is right, others are free to differ, but I don’t see the need to rehash the argument here.

ADM, I think alternate history is typically a sub-genre of SF, since it takes the existing world, tweaks it a bit and then looks at what happens. By contrast, the vast bulk of fantasy involves the creation of an entire alternate world, or locates itself in an obviously mythical version of the medieval period. JSAMN is, I think, a fusion of the two.

21

Rich Puchalsky 11.30.05 at 4:22 pm

I think that it’s fundamentally a bit off to look at JSAMN as an alternate history, and the reason for this comes down to the authorial intention of the implied author (not the narrator, the person who supposed wrote the book within the world of JSAMN, but the author that seems to have intentions that we create from reading the book). JSAMN needs to have the setting that it does because its implied author seems to want to write in the style and setting of Jane Austen. Therefore it must appear to start in a historically recognizeable place. But, as I wrote in the comments to Maria’s essay, the author is seemingly not interested in letting the ahistorical elements that are introduced change the setting in any meaningful way except just at the end of the book, since that would require a change in style. Therefore, this isn’t an alternate history (which would be a subgenre of SF); it’s a fantasy. As I’ve already written, I think this is a weakness of the book. Imagine that, say, you want to write just like Tolstoy, except with magic. So you re-write _War and Peace_, except that the magic involved somehow doesn’t change any of the types of social relationships or events, which are by your choice of style immutable. It’s pastiche-y, really not much different in kind from the many imitators of Tolkien who have elves leaving the world and going to the West because that’s what elves do. It just seems much better because of the talent of the author and because there are far fewer Austenites than Tolkienites.

22

Another Damned Medievalist 11.30.05 at 5:04 pm

I can go along with the idea of fusion, John — it was the differentiation between the two that I was confused by.

23

burritoboy 11.30.05 at 11:23 pm

“Arguments about origins can never be settled, but the view that Frankenstein is the first real work of SF is fairly widely held, notably by Brian Aldiss. I think this view is right, others are free to differ, but I don’t see the need to rehash the argument here.”

Well, yes, you most certainly do need to establish this point since if Frankenstein isn’t the first SF work (instead – if the first SF work appeared many decades or centuries earlier), then there’s no real connection between scifi and the industrial revolution.

Which there isn’t. Because, intellectually, what’s powering the industrial revolution is the combination of science harnessed by government and commerce. Hoardes of Enlightenment thinkers had been advocating precisely that decades before anything like it came into any actual reality. We should remember that Swift’s Laputa is a satire on previous scientific utopias – the first one of which is Bacon’s New Atlantis. This makes sense, since Bacon was among the first to promote science as the integral part of a post-Machiavellian political regime.

24

John Quiggin 12.01.05 at 2:19 am

Perhaps one of the philosophers here could handle this one better than I will, but I’ll try.

I hope we’re all in agreement that Shelley’s novels are signficantly different from the other proto-SF candidates mentioned above, that this difference reflects, at least in part, the impact of the Industrial Revolution, and that lots of subsequent writing is in the tradition inaugurated by Shelley. I’ll use the term Shelleyite fiction to describe this body of literature.

Now, let me restate my initial claim. In a sense (for example the sense used by Brian Aldiss), all science fiction is Shelleyite fiction.

Of course, you can use different definitions that push the starting date back earlier, but then, the same is notoriously true of the Industrial Revolution. Thomas Newcomen was an almost exact contemporary of Swift for example.

25

Ray Davis 12.01.05 at 9:36 am

Calling “Frankenstein” the “first science fiction story” is absurd any way you slice it. First in the sense of the commercial genre for which that name was invented? Certainly not; it didn’t become a recognized commercial genre until the early twentieth century, and when it did, it didn’t take “Frankenstein” as an exemplar — it took the “future war” stories of the turn of the century, Wells, Verne, and that long line of fake-exposition which stretches to Defoe at least. First to parlay aspects of what some critics find in later examples of that commercial genre? Certainly not; such aspects can be found farther back and more widely spread. (Did Margaret Cavendish write the first virtual reality story?) But while we’re playing this game, I’ll plug my plug for “The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins” by Robert Paltock.

26

burritoboy 12.01.05 at 11:41 am

“I hope we’re all in agreement that Shelley’s novels are signficantly different from the other proto-SF candidates mentioned above, that this difference reflects, at least in part, the impact of the Industrial Revolution, and that lots of subsequent writing is in the tradition inaugurated by Shelley. I’ll use the term Shelleyite fiction to describe this body of literature.”

No, the difference comes from that Shelley is a Romantic, and Romanticism comes not from the impact of the Industrial Revolution perse, but from Rousseau in an ultimate sense. Yes, certainly Romanticism has a fundamental relationship with the Industrial Revolution, but Romanticism predates the Industrial Revolution. Rousseau’s conflict is with commerce as a whole (or the concept of “sweet commerce” in the Enlightenment), but not particularly with factories – since there largely weren’t that many dark, Satanic mills in France and Switzerland yet. Not that Rousseau would have been fond of the Industrial Revolution.

27

Ray Davis 12.01.05 at 12:28 pm

Here’s an origin myth of my own: the prevalence of the Shelley thesis says more about academia than about science fiction or Shelley. That cranky notion, held more-or-less solely by Aldiss, had the good fortune to be included in the most readily available one-volume survey of the genre for many years. Professors who wanted to teach a single semester of Sci Fi gratefully turned to it in lieu of surveying the field themselves. The lure of easy expertise turned Aldiss’s eccentricy into received wisdom.

The rich ground Clarke and many others are working, however, represents the meeting of two other types of not-much-influenced-by-Frankenstein fantasy.

One, the “decline of magic” strand, was primarily triggered by colonialism. England as world power wipes out a population (purportedly) for its vile supersititons; English writers then mope about not getting to have their magic cake with their imported tea. (This strand is still alive and sickmaking in the narrative convention that any spooky thing attempted by someone of African, Caribbean, or Native American origins will work, so long as it doesn’t involve achieving economic or political parity.)

The other, the “magic is real” strand, follows from the decline of protosciences like alchemy, astrology, and necromancy into pseudosciences. It’s not motivated by factory toddlers coughing to an early grave or by vanished green fields but by the dream that a poet could engage in spiritual struggle while blowing things up real good.

Both strands can be found, neatly separated, in W. B. Yeats’s stories.

More particularly, Clarke’s novel might be viewed as a weighty response to two decades’ worth of Anglophile Regency-or-thereabouts fiction which I’ve sometimes heard called “fantasy of manners.”

28

Ray Davis 12.01.05 at 12:47 pm

(I should probably note that none of these origin myths seem to me to be important to John Quiggin’s reading of the novel itself. You don’t have to found yourself on Frankenstein to come up with the interesting idea that real-magic, like the research behind the Industrial Revolution, might pass from eccentric gentleman hobbyist to secretive ambitious inventor to unpredictable social cataclysm.)

29

burritoboy 12.01.05 at 1:14 pm

“One, the “decline of magic” strand, was primarily triggered by colonialism. England as world power wipes out a population (purportedly) for its vile supersititons; English writers then mope about not getting to have their magic cake with their imported tea. (This strand is still alive and sickmaking in the narrative convention that any spooky thing attempted by someone of African, Caribbean, or Native American origins will work, so long as it doesn’t involve achieving economic or political parity.)”

Interestingly, the usually submerged colonialist subtext of these stories is made explicit in the early zombie masterpiece film “I Walked with a Zombie” by that forgotten master Val Lewton and his merry crew of B-filmmakers.

30

Another Damned Medievalist 12.01.05 at 6:01 pm

It might be helpful to resolve the Frankenstein arguments to note that James, in Science Fiction in the 20th Century, divides sf into three main subgenres: he places Frankenstein as one of the first examples of the third subgenre, ‘Tales of Science,’ but the others mentioned above (Swift, e.g.) fit into the other two subgenres (‘The Extraordinary Voyage’ and ‘Tales of the Future’). If we were to follow this schema, which makes a lot of sense, people could stop worrying about Frankenstein‘s relative place and talk about Clark’s book.

31

burritoboy 12.01.05 at 9:09 pm

“It might be helpful to resolve the Frankenstein arguments to note that James, in Science Fiction in the 20th Century, divides sf into three main subgenres: he places Frankenstein as one of the first examples of the third subgenre, ‘Tales of Science,’ but the others mentioned above (Swift, e.g.) fit into the other two subgenres (‘The Extraordinary Voyage’ and ‘Tales of the Future’). If we were to follow this schema, which makes a lot of sense, people could stop worrying about Frankenstein’s relative place and talk about Clark’s book.”

The original post was NOT “I love this book! Let’s talk about the book”. The original post’s thesis was that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell stood in a fundamental relationship to Frankenstein because all scifi MUST have a close link to Frankenstein (because Frankenstein is claimed to be the orginator and exemplar of the genre).

Anyway, since the Laputa (or Flying City) section of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a “Tale of Science” (as is Bacon’s New Atlantis), again, Frankenstein is not particularly new in that regard.

32

burritoboy 12.01.05 at 9:15 pm

“(I should probably note that none of these origin myths seem to me to be important to John Quiggin’s reading of the novel itself. You don’t have to found yourself on Frankenstein to come up with the interesting idea that real-magic, like the research behind the Industrial Revolution, might pass from eccentric gentleman hobbyist to secretive ambitious inventor to unpredictable social cataclysm.)”

Goethe’s Faust? HP Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University? Asimov’s Foundation? Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife and Our Lady of Darkness? Clark’s idea itself didn’t seem hugely innovative to me, though the execution was good.

33

Ray Davis 12.01.05 at 9:57 pm

BB, I was gonna be all snarky about how I never said it was startlingly innovative all by itself in its bare bones regardless of the fascinating flesh I just said it wasn’t based on Frankenstein, but anyone who references two Leiber novels is a pal of mine, so put it there!

34

Another Damned Medievalist 12.02.05 at 12:12 am

I do realise that, BB — You’ll note, if you read my original comment, that I questioned John’s initial premise. But I don’t believe that John’s argument was about Frankenstein qua Frankenstein but rather that he used Frankenstein as an example of sf as part of a general description of the genre in which Clark’s book rests.

IIRC, the main points of the discussion had much to do with the book as fitting into the sf subgenre of alternate history and the relationship of magic in that world to industry inours and the grey area that lies between. But I could be wrong. I’m just a damned medievalist. I just kind of thought that the essay was not about whether or not John was right to follow the ‘Frankenstein is the first real sf’ route.

35

John Quiggin 12.02.05 at 2:58 am

At least we’re off Tolkien! Frankenstein obviously deserves a post of its own.

I’ll try to restate my main point (also made in some ways by Maria) as yet another version of Arthur C. Clarke “Any sufficiently civilised magic is indistinguishable from technology”. It’s only towards the end of the book as Strange gets out of control that the revolutionary possibilities of magic become apparent, and these are (I think) very different from the revolutionary possibilities of steam. A sequel that showed this could greatly affect our reading of JSAMN, I think.

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