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You know, for a long time I used to subscribe to the view that Kingsley Amis’s New Maps of Hell was the first book-length study of science fiction. Then I discovered this charming book by Marjorie Hope Nicolson, first published in 1948 (my copy is a 1960 Macmillan paperback – even the reprint pre-dates Amis). I’m not sure there are many academic books I would describe as ‘charming’, but that really is the only word to describe this book. It’s a study of literary voyages to the moon from Lucian up to C.S. Lewis, though most of the work is dedicated to a close examination of John Wilkins, Francis Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac and their co-freres. It’s idiosyncratic (there’s a passage where she says the reason she doesn’t go into detail on Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World is because she can’t face having to read the book again); it’s written in the most unacademic language you’re likely to find (long casual quotations from poems, for instance); and it is so enthusiastic for its subject that it is a sheer joy to read. I actually found myself referring to it far less than I anticipated in my own history, mostly because there’s a wealth of scholarship since then which has taken the subject much further, but there’s still an awful lot of interesting stuff on Wilkins and Godwin in particular, and especially on all the writers who followed on from Godwin. And if the text isn’t something you want to pick up on to any huge extent, the long and detailed annotated bibliography is probably the most vital tool for my history I’ve so far discovered. This is one of those extraordinarily rare beasts, an academic work you should read for pleasure.

First published at Livejournal, 15 August 2004.

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