Will Tattersdill, Science, Fiction and the Fin-de-Siècle Periodical Press

Will Tattersdill, Science, Fiction and the Fin-de-Siècle Periodical Press (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2016) 220 + x pp. $80.00 PDF, £64.99 Hb. ISBN: 9781107144651

Will Tattersdill’s engaging study of the periodical and its role in the creation of science fiction as a genre aims much wider in scope than a survey of the general periodical at the fin de siècle.  In this book, he uses the periodical as a way of dismantling the idea of ‘two cultures’ by demonstrating the way in which science and literature interacted and indeed blended within the pages of the general magazine.  Tattersdill describes the periodical as providing a place which encouraged ‘a fertile dynamic between voices [...] traditionally regarded as estranged from one another’ (2). Tattersdill emphasizes that popular magazines are, by definition, popular, and that science and literature were, and indeed, still are, ‘active agents’ in popular culture (2).  As active agents they featured strongly, and often concurrently, in popular magazines.

Tattersdill focuses on a group of magazines published in the 1890s, specifically the period from 1891-1905, borrowing the terminology of Mike Ashley in referring to them as ‘Standard Illustrated Popular Magazines’ (1).  He outlines the rise of these magazines concisely and indicates their value to this particular debate in their inclusivity and ‘[engagement] with societal preoccupations’ (10).  He also demonstrates the part that these magazines have to play in the still young field of literature and science, particularly in providing fertile ground for the proliferation of popular fiction, including the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and most significantly, H G Wells.  Tattersdill, while not derogating from the importance of more canonical works in the field, shows that there is much of value to be found in the study of popular literature.

The book covers a range of topics and formats, beginning in Chapter One with a close reading of ‘Intelligible signals between Neighbouring Stars’, written by Francis Galton for the Fortnightly Review.  This article, Tattersdill argues, is a work of imaginative fiction, but the fiction is intertwined with genuine scientific arguments, and Galton utilises elements of scientific writing, including scientific language and the structure of the scientific article.  Galton, while generally remembered as a scientist (and the founder of the eugenics movement), was, as Tattersdill points out, ‘an enthusiastic communicator’, who wrote extensively for a non-specialised audience (29).  Galton’s ability to communicate produces an article which ‘evinces a cooperation between the form of journalism and the content of a scientific thesis, and the two demonstrate a remarkable synergy precisely thanks to their shared relationship with narrative’ (44).

Chapter Two engages with the idea of the future and non-future in the periodical.  Curiously, Tattersdill notes, the future is primarily dealt with in the non-fictional article, and the futures that do feature in the fictional vein are related closely to the present.  Tattersdill here explores two exceptions to this rule. One is a piece produced by Kipling which uses the article format – Kipling’s training as a journalist served him well, as he was able to use this structure to ‘infodump’, in order to get around the tricky problem of providing background information to his audience on the envisioned future.  In this way Kipling gives his work on the future a voice of authority.  The other exception is the original periodical publication of Wells’s The Time Machine, in which the Time Traveller provides the guiding voice of authority.

Chapter Three focuses on writings related to X-rays, demonstrating how differing periodicals drew on and used scientific ideas in differing ways.  What is interesting about the articles that Tattersdill uses here is that they all use the iconography of X-rays rather than talk about their scientific use.  By drawing together these differing yet similar approaches towards a key subject at the fin de siècle, the author demonstrates the cohesion of the periodical, reinforcing this idea by indicating the shared experience they drew on, simply from being produced at the same moment in time.

Chapter Four explores the relationship between polar exploration, empire and periodical fiction, offering a fascinating and detailed reading of the relationship between the arctic in periodical literature, the politics of the arctic as a space of colonisation and the wider debate about race and indigenous people.

The book provides an engaging and convincing argument against the idea of ‘two cultures’ through the lens of the periodical at the fin de siècle.  Tattersdill demonstrates that the cultural voices of literature and science are not necessarily opposites and that the juxtaposition of the two provided fertile ground for the growth of science fiction as a genre, particularly in the area of popular literature.  Wells, notably as 'a father of science fiction' is interspersed throughout the work, his works relevant to each chapter and subject.  Indeed, in the original periodical publication of The Time Machine, the story opens with a mixed gathering at the Time Traveller’s home, and the narrator admires the ‘harmonisation of polyphonic discourse’ that occurs at these gatherings, a particularly appropriate metaphor for periodical literature (81).

Tattersdill encompasses an appropriately wide field for his investigation of the fin-de-siècle periodical, and significantly, he ends the work with a strong celebration of the importance of English Studies to science and the wider world, offering a defence of reading skills and stressing the importance of such skills in critical thinking in day-to-day life, particularly with reference to science.  It is only by dismantling the idea of the ‘two cultures’, and recognising the similarities between science and literature that the value of science and literature explored together can be understood.  Tattersdill demonstrates here the value of this approach through showing the interconnectedness of the two in the periodical, and the way in which they together generated the genre that we know today as Science Fiction.

Katherine Ford, The Science Museum, London