I was browsing the British Library’s Flickr photostream, of all places, when I stumbled across a full PDF scan of the 1895 novel Fifteen Hundred Miles and Hour by Charles Dixon. The title refers to the speed of a spaceship built by a Dr. Hermann which ends up transporting him and three other stalwart individuals, as well as a dog, from England to the planet Mars. Keep in mind, The War of the Worlds wasn’t serialized until 1897. Here we have another example of early scientific romance that I think only Darko Suvin has read cover-to-cover after it went out of print.
He called it clumsy.
I can’t disagree.
When we think of the 19th century development of science fiction, we tend to keep to a handful of names—H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelly, maybe Edgar Allen Poe. Yet there were quite a few novels floating around the Victorian era, like this one, that broadly fit under the category of “scientific romance”, including fantastic voyages in France written alongside Verne’s, or “Edisonades” with mad science and inventors in America. These authors were building upon those rather than inventing a new class of fantastic literature wholesale. They just happened to be a lot better at writing it than their contemporaries.
What counted as “scientific” was a lot broader then, which does make genre classification slippery; transmigration, astral projection and theosophy were commonly mixed into commentaries on future worlds and fantastic machines, as if these were equally valid avenues of inquiry. In fact, in popular thought and writing about science at the time, the lines were just that blurry and some ideas, no matter how overwhelming the evidence against them, just wouldn’t die. Discredited scientific theories found new life in dime novels as long as they suggested sufficiently interesting stories. The Hollow Earth sticks out in that category, as I’ve written about before. In this realm, we also have books like The Divine Seal by Emma Louise Orcutt (1909), which I can best sum up as: “In the far future, explorers go to the North Pole to discover the origins of a lost Aryan civilization while being intermittently trolled by a lizard-man.” Far-future technologies (which still haven’t managed to eliminate newspapers) mingle freely with occult histories of the world based on visionary evidence, turn-of-the-century anthropology with mesmerism.
The Divine Seal leads to my second point: most of this stuff is forgotten because it was terrible. I don’t mean in hindsight, either; science fiction’s reputation as pulpy trash stretches back to these times, too, since they dovetailed with the typical adventure novel, and the quality of the writing was generally low even if the illustrations were pretty fantastic. Cheap, formulaic entertainment, that still managed to forge narrative paths into regions left mostly untouched by other forms of literature.
This is also where we start seeing the mixing of scientific romance with colonialism, mainly with the debt to the lost race novel—yet another genre mostly associated with a few authors, namely H. Rider Haggard. Haggard wrote the best examples of lost race novels, She and Aisha, or the Return of She, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. The formula inevitably bled into scientific romance (or is the other way around?) through the simple process of taking us away from the once-unknown corners of the world that were throughout the 19th century rapidly being mapped, classified, and no longer mysterious, into territories beyond the world we knew such as, oh, the Hollow Earth, or the moon, or Mars, or Venus. Canada’s contribution to this transplant was A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by John De Mille (1888), which takes place in the improbably warm Antarctic regions wherein our hero finds a death-worshipping people.
The story beats, archetypes and rhythms of the lost race novel remained despite the change of locale. Edgar Rice Burroughs ended up refining all these variants in the Tarzan, Pellucidar and Barsoom stories a bit later, but the basic elements were the same: square-jawed explorers, lost civilizations living amidst ruins, imprisonment and daring escape, a princess just waiting to fall in love with our hero, primitive savages against advanced technologies, the princess in peril, the novel ending with the hero and his worldview supreme.
Fifteen Hundred Miles an Hour is all of that, and it’s difficult not to draw comparison between it and A Princess of Mars, if only because there is a princess of Mars in the book, named Voliné, who falls in love with one of our heroes and needs some old-fashioned rescuin’ by the end. Even her description sounds vaguely familiar:
Though of such commanding stature, she was grace itself ; not a part of her magnificent figure out of proportion with the rest— a woman, yet a goddess, too. Beauty personified! Her lovely violet eyes gave an incomparable expression of saintly beauty to her countenance ; and yet there was nothing meek or humble there; fire, and passion, and unbending will, lurked deep down in their purple, dreamy depths. , No being in female form, whether human or divine, could have appeared more lovely, as Voline stood, surrounded by the subdued golden glory of the setting sun, which poured in at the window, and threw a halo round her. (121-122)
There is a similar conceit as well of a “discovered manuscript”, this one found encased in a meteor that fell in the desert. The heroes at least build a spacecraft to get them to Mars over the course of two years, rather than simply willing themselves there the way John Carter does.
In terms of writing quality, however, Fifteen Hundred Miles an Hour doesn’t even match A Princess of Mars. Charles Dixon’s most famous works are all non-fiction books about birds (at least one bibliography assures me this is the same person), and those probably went through more strenuous editing than this. Ostensibly written in first person, it is impossible to determine who among the party the narrator even is. I think it’s Temple, but his actions are referred to in third person several times, and for all I know it could be the dog. Or a ghost.
And yet, amid the tedious expository dialogue filled with “as you know…” descriptors, and the servant Sally’s cringe-inducing dialect (“Na, na, Mr. Graham, it is na a joking matter. I will ha’ nothing to do with it ; for as sure as you do, bad luck ‘ll be followin’ us. We’ d best not meddle wi’ the likes o’ them.”) there was still an imagination at work here in the descriptions of Martian flora and fauna, scaled monsters and strange cities. Little glimmers of that sense of wonder which came to define science fiction in later decades. Unfortunately, these moments don’t manage to rise above the mediocrity and often incomprehensible nature of the story itself.
Still, Fifteen Hundred Miles an Hour is interesting insofar as it was one of the formative works in a genre that later gave us Barsoom, and as an example of one of the lost scientific romances of the nineteenth century floating about. As usual, the illustrations by Arthur Layaro are the best part, and it gives you some idea of popular notions concerning astronomy at the time and the pervasive view of “universal economy” that not only fuelled the idea of the Hollow Earth but also that all the worlds in the solar system has their own alien populations.
It should at least dispel the recently-oft-replicated notion that Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898) was the first space opera.
You can read Fifteen Hundred Miles an Hour, if you’re so inclined, by following the link below to a 66 MB PDF.
 I suspect most of the ink spilled on the book by Canadian science fiction critics solely has to do with its country of origin. A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is not a coherent book, let alone a good one, or influential in any way.