Martin Willis, Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines

Martin Willis, Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines: Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2006), viii + 272pp. £26.50 pb. ISBN 0-87338-857-7.

In Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines, Martin Willis presents us with an entertaining and illuminating series of case studies reflecting on the popular imagining of science throughout the nineteenth century. This is a book which will surely be read and referred to by anyone interested in nineteenth-century literature and science, especially for its astute eye for apposite pairings of texts. This said, some of the book’s framing contentions do not, perhaps, reflect what is best in its approach. For one thing, Willis can at times seem distracted by parochial disputes within science-fiction criticism which are probably peripheral to the interests of most of his potential readership. As the opening chapters quickly establish, the focus is not on fiction’s presentation of science in the form of technological marvels, but rather on its capacity to dramatise tensions between orthodoxy and heterodoxy in science. Willis’s patient analyses resist making the texts take one side or another, even if they do ultimately have axes to grind: the quality and tension of debate is the thing. Freed of the imperative of normal science to deal in concepts as hard, clean testable things, and primed to see the force of narrative and metaphor, literature has often been seen as the privileged explorer of this dubious border country. This sort of approach has done a great deal to show how established knowledge owes more, in its beginnings, to romance and metaphor than it might like to admit. Henri Ellenberger’s famous reappraisal of the role of mesmerism in the development of dynamic psychiatry has, for instance, been a guiding light in this area.

Willis, however, is not avowedly concerned to evaluate the contribution of, say, mesmerism to science. The ‘culture of science’ in Willis’s book implicitly refers to ideas of science held in the broader culture, and his prime context is no more that of discovery than that of justification, but rather of digestion. Literature’s preeminent role here is to channel popular skepticism over the claims of orthodoxy. The precise nature and value of this idea of popular culture can at times seem obscure. Too often, especially in the opening chapters, analysis is leading up to a point where it can declare the ‘complexity’ of the entanglement of orthodox and heterodox, as if complexity were necessarily productive: more argument is needed to convince that ‘protean hierarchy’ is not another way of saying ‘confusion’. This agenda becomes clearer in the conclusion, where Willis proposes the model of Bakhtinian carnival as a way forward for this sort of work. But this seems to confirm the suspicion that refusing to observe boundaries is assumed to be oppositional by its very nature. Does it make a difference if, as is arguably the case with Villiers de l’Isle Adam, the ideology of a text is in some respects quite conservative? A further problem with the carnivalesque reading is that it requires that there be an established orthodoxy at which it can thumb its nose. Willis is surely right to argue that clear lines of demarcation between Romantic and materialist science are hard to find in the early nineteenth century. But this also means that an allegedly ascendant materialism is harder to isolate; or more precisely, that the materialist as a distinct practitioner is harder to identify and risks appearing only as a straw man, a bogey-man of Romantic reaction. Precisely because the situation is so fluid, the textual strategies and institutional spaces which seek to marginalise the Romantic tendency in science need to be delineated with some precision.

Happily, the second half of Willis’s book is excellent in this respect, perhaps not least because it is dealing with a time, the latter half of the nineteenth century, when institutions and canons of orthodoxy are easier to pin down. Because the professional scientist, the amateur and the writer of fiction are far more distinct entities, vaunting distinct truth claims, their interdependence and the failure of intentional borders to contain their discourses emerge in far more telling relief. One of the great strengths of Willis’s argument here is a keen attention to the nature of institutional spaces. H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau is shown to be the contemporary not only of public fears over vivisection, but also of the rise of the laboratory and its role in the professionalisation of science. Willis is able, by juxtaposing the different positions taken in differently-placed organs, to show not only the power struggle between interested parties, but also the emergence of an intermediate space for the discussion of scientific ethics. As he cannily argues, Wells’s novel is by no means straightforwardly populist: Moreau’s retreat deeper into an entirely unregulated laboratory is in part the consequence of ill-informed panic. Willis finds for Jules Verne’s’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea a fascinating and timely counterpoint in the form of a correspondence in Nature between T.H. Huxley and German geologist Wilhelm von Gümbel which gives the chapter its title, ‘deep sea investigations on dry land’. Verne’s novel casts a critical eye on the power relations between amateur field-worker and closeted professional scientist, and the Nautilus emerges as much more than a technological marvel. At once laboratory, museum and sea-monster, it contains the ocean even as it is contained by it, and combines both object and instrument of study. Willis deftly shows how this play of inside and outside illuminates the interdependence of field discovery and closet reflection, and dramatises struggles over the proper location and ownership of knowledge. This attention to the significance of space in delineating institutional authority is important again in the chapter on Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s The Future Eve, where Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park provides the stage upon which legitimate technological research and pseudo-scientific spiritualism can throw sparks off each other. Willis thoroughly convinces in these chapters that literature does have a distinct contribution to make here. These texts do much more than exploit epistemological confusion for fantastic ends. Dramatizing the permeability of knowledges against the backdrop of putatively impermeable spaces, they show cracks in the structure of power which would otherwise remain masked.

Stephen Thomson, University of Reading