LARB: The Radium Age and SF History

I have a new review/essay at The Los Angeles Review of Books, looking at three novels published as part of MIT Press’s Radium Age series:

In its first year, including releases planned up to February 2023, MIT Press will have published nine Radium Age books, representing a total of 16 works that first appeared between 1902 and 1932, with a plurality (seven) taken from the second decade of the century. Three of them are on the desk for this review: What Not by Rose Macaulay, which was published in 1918 and then again, with minor revisions, in 1919; The Clockwork Man by E. V. Odle, from 1923; and Nordenholt’s Million by J. J. Connington, also from 1923. The first task, as with any review, is simply to assess their individual qualities; but the second, irresistible given all the framing material, is to assess the project as a whole, and ask whether the argument being made is actually convincing.

One of the points I end up making is that so far the introductory rhetoric of “returning to an international tradition” currently means, in practice, reprinting (often interesting) English and Scottish scientific romances, rather than anything further afield; and for all the potential value of a project like this, as a reader in the UK, most of the titles aren’t as foreign as they might be to MIT Press’s presumed audience.

In particular, there’s a 2019 edition of What Not — my favourite of the three novels — from Handheld Press, and if you’re in the UK I think for preference I’d direct you there, for two reasons. First, while both editions have introductions, I preferred the one in the Handheld edition. Matthew de Abaitua’s introduction to the MIT Press edition is interesting and provocative, positioning What Not as a kind of autospeculative writing, and it productively interrogates some of the novel’s gender dynamics, but Sarah Lonsdale’s introduction to the Handheld edition is more sociological and historical, and more fully contextualises Macaulay and her work. Second, as I do note in the piece, What Not was published briefly in 1918 and then republished in 1919: the reason for this is that a short passage in which a newspaper editor attempts to blackmail one of the characters was removed, for fear of libel. It’s certainly not the most essential part of the novel, but while the Handheld edition uses the 1918 text, the MIT Press edition uses the 1919 text without mentioning the change. That seems like a miss to me.

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