Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, June 24, 2016


Isaac Asimov Presents:  The Best Science Fiction of the 19th Century edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, & Charles G. Waugh (1981)

This is the first of (I believe) four themed anthologies that Asimov, Greenberg, and Waugh published that specifically covered stories from the 19th century.  The other three covered fantasy, horror and the supernatural, and crime.  The lines covering all these genres were pretty much blurred; science fiction did not exist as a separate genre before 1926 (when Hugo Gernsback came out with a
"scientifiction magazine") and in the 19th century all fiction was basically just that -- fiction.

Anyway, this volume contains some tales that I would consider fantasy, as well as some that to be written as political and/or philosophical tracts.  Oh, well.  There's still a lot of interesting and historically important stories.  As is the norm for the Asimov/Greenberg/Waugh anthologies, there is a good mix of familiar and unfamiliar stories.  For your money, it's hard to go wrong with their anthologies.

The stories:

  • "The Sandman" by E. T. A. Hoffmann, (1817).  A psychological horror story about an automatron.  This is one of Hoffman's better-known stories and was adapted as the first act of Offenbach's 1881 opera Les contes d'Hoffmann.  The story is translated from the German b. Bealby.
  • "The Mortal Immortal" by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1833, although this book states 1834).  Alchemy, science, and the supernatural combine in this "be careful what you wish for" story about a magic elixir of immortality.  This story appears to be influenced by St. Leon, a 1799 noel written by William Godwin, Mary Shelley's father.
  • "A Descent Into the Maelstrom" by Edgar Allan Poe (1841).  The editors note that this "closely reasoned" tale "may be the first science fiction 'problem' story."  I find Poe to be either very good or very ponderous; This one is in the middle territory, leaning toward the good side.
  • "Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844).  IMHO, Hawthorne is more consistently readable than Poe, and this is one of his best tales.  Here Hawthorne spins a morality tale about the good and bad sides of scientific advancement.  The lovely Beatrice, raised in the presence of  poisons, is able to tend to poisonous plants but has become poisonous herself.
  • "The Clock That Went Backward" by Edward Page Mitchell (1881).  An early time machine story (the editors say the earliest) as well as a time-paradox story.  Mitchell was a newspaper reporter and long-time editor of the New York Sun.  Sam Moskowitz did much to bring awareness of Mitchell to the science fiction world with his The Crystal Man:  Stories by Edward Page Mitchell (1973).
  • "Into the Sun" by Robert Duncan Milne (1882).  According to the editors, Milne was the most prolific writer of science fiction stories in the 19th century, having written more than sixty of them.  Again, awareness of this author was brought to modern readers with a collection compiled by Sam Moskowitz:  Into the Sun and Other Stories (1980).  In this end-of-the-world story, the sun's heat causes Earth to burn as the apocalypse is witnessed by an aerial balloonist.
  • "A Tale of Negative Gravity" by Frank R. Stockton (1884).  Stockton, the author of the classic "The Lady or the Tiger?", was a hugely popular author, much of whose work is marked with a gentle humor.  As the title suggests, this is an anti-gravity story.
  • "The Horla" by Guy de Maupassant (1887).  Okay, this one is flat-out horror although some may want to call it a tale of psychological disorder.  (De Maupassant knew something about psychological disorders -- he died in an insane asylum six years after this story was published.)  One interpretation has the horla being an alien invader and may have influenced Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu."
  • "The Shapes" by J-H Rosny aine (1887). This was the first science fiction story written by Joseph-Henri Boex (the man behind the Rosny pseudonym) and involves prehistory, an alien visitor, and anthropology, all popular subjects in science fiction.  The story is translated from the French by writer/editor/critic Damon Knight.
  • "To Whom This May Come" by Edward Bellamy (1888).  A tale of telepathy, gone large.  the narrator is cast ashore on an island where all the inhabitants are mindreaders.  Somewhat preachy.  Bellamy is best known for the influential novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888).
  • "The Great Kleinplatz Experiment" by Arthur Conan Doyle (1894).  A tale of personality transfer via hypnotism.  Doyle wrote a great deal of science fiction and fantasy in addition to his better known mysteries and historicals.  An enjoyable and somewhat offbeat story.
  • "In the Abyss" by H. G. Wells (1896).  How can you have an anthology of 19th century SF without Wells?  (But where, I wonder, is Verne?)  What lies in our ocean depths?  According to Wells in this story of undersea exploration, there might be a race of human like critters.  
  • "The Thames Valley Catastrophe" by Grant Allen (1897).  A disaster story.  A volcano erupts in the Thames valley and the narrator tries to outrun it on his bicycle.  Allen was a popular and sometimes controversial author.  His good friend, Conan Doyle, stepped in to finish his last book, Hilda Wade, when Allen died.
  • "The Lizard" by C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne (1898).  A short man v. dinosaur story.  Hyne wrote only a few SF stories; the writer was best-known as the author of the popular Captain Kettle stories -- published by Pearson's Magazine to compete with the Sherlock Holmes stories appearing in The Strand.
  • "A Thousand Deaths" by Jack London (1899).  It's rough when your father is a mad scientist and even rougher when he uses you for his experiments, and rougher still when those experiments involve a method to reanimate the dead.  And the title of the story is accurate.
A good book to dip into.  Your tolerance may be questioned if you try to read it all in one sitting.


  1. Not only Verne, but where's Fitz-James O'Brien? If there's room for "The Horla"...excellrnt review...tried the other three?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Todd, I have read the other three and enjoyed them all.

  2. Freud's famous analysis of "The Sandman" was in response to Offenbach's adaptation...

  3. I have a number of Isaac Asimov/Greenberg anthologies. Like you, I prefer to dip into them from time to time rather than reading them straight through. Nice review!