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.