I know I’ve mentioned more than enough in this journal that I am at work on a history of British science fiction, in which I want to set the literature in the context of the science, politics, philosophy and culture of the period in which it was written. Well, when we were in Berkeley we came upon a bookshop we’d never noticed before, University Press Books. There is no way we can not explore a new bookshop, and this well repaid the visit. For instance, I picked up E.L. Doctorow’s latest collection of essays, Reporting the Universe. In fact, as a shop it reminded me most of The London Review Bookshop, an esoteric collection of books that don’t seem to crop up in most bookshops. We were already getting ready to pay up when I noticed a book on a shelf by the counter: Wonder and Science: Imaginging Worlds in Early Modern Europe by Mary Baine Campbell (Cornell University Press, 1999). The title was intriguing enough, so I picked it up, flicked through a page or two, then instantly added it to my pile: ‘It’s chapter one of my history,’ I said.
I’ve been reading it, off and on, ever since, and if it isn’t quite chapter one of my history it is full of important stuff, in particular, on Bacon’s New Atlantis, Godwin’s The Man in the Moone and Cavendish’s The Blazing World, and I’m already quoting it extensively in what I’m writing.
The book essentially covers the response of Europe to the New World between the latter years of the 16th century and the early years of the 18th century, and in particular how it affected approaches to science, to ethnology, to anthropology. It looks at the relationship between science and fiction (Cavendish’s Blazing World, for instance, is directly presented as a reaction to Robert Hooke’s Micrographia), suggesting that the borders were very blurred throughout this period. Thus a fiction such as Aphra Behn’s Oronooko says as much or more about the ethnography of Surinam as does a conscious piece of contemporary ethnography, Lafitau’s Moeurs des sauvages ameriquaines.
It is not an easy book to read. Campbell doesn’t go in for too much jargon, but her sentence structure is clotted in the extreme, there are allusive references scattered throughout just about every sentence, and you really have to work to get to the point of what she’s saying. She also has odd enthusiasms. In discussing Hooke’s Micrographia she presents it in terms of pornography, and having latched on to pornography at that point keeps returning to the subject throughout the remaining third of her book. Nevertheless there is incredibly valuable stuff in this book, and anyone interested in postcolonialism should really check out what she says about the early European response to the alien, especially in her discussions of Andre Thevet and Father Lafitau.
First published at Livejournal, 15 August 2004.