Jungles of the Upper Air: a review of Frankenstein Dreams, by Michael Sims

Stories have always had a fascination with fantastical devices and achievements.  Trojan horses and flying carpets.  Castles floating in the clouds and undersea civilizations.  Men building wings for themselves and marionettes without strings.  Read enough, and go back far enough, and you begin to realize that the human imagination has always been able to concoct futuristic technologies.  However, it was not until relatively recently, the Victorian era, that story-tellers began looking for explanations outside of the gods and magic.  Sure, the flying carpet could take a rider just about anywhere, but there was no mechanism to explain, no system of gears to chart.  Contrast that with the creation of Frankenstein’s monster and the excruciating detail Mary Shelley wrote to give him life.  At a certain point, magic simply was not good enough.

The Victorian era is characterized by many things.  Imperialism, colonization, oppressive manners, to name of view.  But it was also a time of unbridled scientific expansion.  The many unknown regions of the world were becoming known every day.  The corners of the maps were being filled in.  The men and women of the British Empire still felt that deep seated need to explore, but the realms to pursue that were now limited.  So, their minds and money turned elsewhere.  This was the early days of the scientific method, when resurrectionists plundered graveyards nightly and biology was a way to prove white supremacy.  Experimentation without restraint, science without morals.  Vivisection turned into a macabre form of art, and audiences flocked to watch live surgeries.  Suddenly, there were entire new worlds to explore, and new horrors arose from them.  This much progress in short amount of time led to a sort of scientific anxiety, inspiring some of the most lasting stories of our time.  If an amateur surgeon could develop a drug to dull the pain, then why could they not do more?  Why not a potion to improve the senses, as in E. Nesbit’s “The Five Senses?”  Tests with electricity could jolt corpses into movement, so maybe, with enough power, the dead could be brought back to walk amongst the living?

Michael Sims has collected his favorite Victorian science-fiction stories in Frankenstein Dreams.  Each writer receives a short introduction by Sims, talking a little bit about their lives and their other works.  There are the recognizable names: Mary Shelley, of course, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and H.G. Wells.  Then there are the writers like Alice W. Fuller, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Edward Page Mitchell, and the rest of the authors featured in the book.  Writers who are not household names, but whose influence can be felt in most modern science-fiction.  These men and women all grew up during the height of the Victorian era, and most lived to see the turn of a new century.  They saw the rampant scientific achievements of their time and imagined taking them to the logical extremes.  In their stories you will find the rediscovery of lost species, technological advancements that still have not come to pass, and a look into a much different vision of future America.

Although the anthology does feature mostly men, there a few women represented as well, aside from Mary Shelley.  Florence McLandburgh, Alice W. Fuller, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and E. Nesbit.  Each has a very distinct writing style, and their stories cover a variety of different themes.  No two voices are the same, though it is sometimes difficult to tell Victorian authors apart if you are not used to reading the older writing style.  Fuller, especially, is intriguing.  Her story, “A Wife Manufactured to Order,” is a wonderfully satirical work.  Our heroic narrator, upset that the woman he loves is an intelligent feminist, commissions a programmable wife.  Of course, he becomes bored and terrified of the automaton and comes crying back to the original woman, only to be rebuffed until admitting his worthlessness.  Contrast with Rudyard Kipling’s contribution, “Wireless,” in which a plot happens that is both difficult to explain and follow.

The Victorian approach to science without restraint also led to some of the greatest stories of horror and crime.  Edgar Allan Poe in particular thrived in this environment.  Only one of his stories makes it into Frankenstein Dreams, and for good reason.  For it was not just science that advanced, but also pseudo-science.  The séance became a national pastime in both England and America, and practitioners of mentalism, now known as stage hypnosis, sprung up in every corner.  They claimed to contact the dead, to control the minds of others, and to enter states of mind which let them pierce the veil and see worlds beyond our own.  “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” is presented as a factual account by Poe’s narrator, a popular stylistic choice at the time.  In it, hypnotism is used to slow a man’s death and bind his spirit to our plane for a few moments longer.  As is the case with most Victorian horror, the anxiety of this discovery proves too much for the characters, who flee in terror and lose their minds when presented with something so outside of their imagination.

The collection is not without criticism, however.  While each story is presented because of its connection with the scientific anxiety of the time, Sims also includes several excerpts from longer works.  The book itself opens with a couple disjointed chapters from Shelley’s Frankenstein, quickly followed by a chapter from Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  Thomas Hardy’s, Stevenson’s, and Wells’ contributions are also structured in this way.  Sims drops readers into the middle of story, without much preamble or summary, and expects that all readers are familiar with the full plot already.  While certainly enjoyable, these excerpts add nothing to the book as a whole and detract from the enjoyment of reading complete story after complete story.  However, the novels they are pulled from are excellent in their own right and it would be worth it to read them in full.  Your literary experience is not complete without The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The Victorian era was many things.  A time when the British Empire expanded across the glove, a time when phrenology was used to support white male supremacy, a time when the west believed the globe belonged to them.  It was also a time of technological and medical marvels.  Surgeries were developed and practiced, vaccines were stumbled upon, and a simple invention like the bicycle revolutionized travel as we know it.  Entire literary genres were invented during this time period, science-fiction most of all, and the influence of its writers has never disappeared.  One only needs to look at Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Frankenstein to understand the impact this relatively short time in human history has had on the world.  As long as science progresses and there are people who are capable of imagining tomorrow, the world will never be short on stories.

Frankenstein Dreams can be found online, in store, or wherever books are sold

Total read time: 20 days

Next on the list: The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter

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