Victorian Speculative Fiction: Ecology and Utopia

Autumn 2014-2015


Benjamin Morgan

This seminar examines the ecological and political imagination of speculative fiction between about 1860 and 1900, with particular attention to scientific romance from Verne to Wells. What is often described as a turn away from literary realism can in fact be thought of as an engagement with challenging new realities revealed by the natural and physical sciences. How could one imagine a world where humans might degenerate or go extinct, where the sun and earth would someday freeze, where time was to be measured in millions of years, where there might be fourth or fifth dimensions of space? This remarkable world, according to scientists, was in fact our own world. As gothic fictions, scientific romances, and alternative histories engaged with this new image of nature, they often denaturalized the progress of technology, the organization of labor, and notions of gender. Why were early science fictions so apt to become political fictions as well? In what sense is an image of nature always a political image? As we explore these questions, we will bring Victorian speculative fiction into conversation with philosophical considerations of science and culture, the concept of nature, and the utopian impulse. While the primary focus of the seminar will be British, we will follow the transnational trajectory of the scientific romance from France and to the U.S. (Verne, Bellamy, Gilman). The final weeks of the seminar will be guided by participants' interests and projects. Literary works will include novels and stories by Samuel Butler, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells, Edwin Abbott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Vernon Lee, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, William Morris, and Edward Bellamy. We will also read work by Dewey, Whitehead, Heidegger, Bloch, Adorno, Serres, and Latour. (18th/19th)