Michael Page, The Literary Imagination from Erasmus Darwin to H. G. Wells

Michael R. Page, The Literary Imagination from Erasmus Darwin to H. G. Wells: Science, Evolution, and Ecology (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012) vii+224pp. £49.50 hb. ISBN 978-1-4094-3869-4.

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In the introduction to The Literary Imagination from Erasmus Darwin to H. G. Wells, Michael Page states that his aim is to ‘examine the ongoing conversation between science and literature through texts that, though not always explicitly linked, nevertheless follow from Erasmus Darwin’s dictum of “enlisting the imagination under the banner of science”’ (15). Keen to contend that Romanticism and science fiction are inextricably linked, Page discusses a range of representative texts from these two ‘literatures of change’ (12) in the light of their inherent preoccupation with prophecy, imagination and the future. His book contains chapters on Erasmus Darwin’s poetry, Wordsworth, Shelley and futurity, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Last Man, a further chapter incorporating a collective discussion of The Water-Babies, The Coming Race, Erewhon, After London and A Crystal Age, and, finally, a consideration of H. G. Wells’s scientific romances. Page emphasises how his methodological approach is firmly rooted in science fiction criticism and Green Romanticism (the author states his implicit intention to suggest that ecological criticism could benefit from revisiting the science fiction criticism of the 1960s and 70s).

Evidently Page has a deep personal investment in his subject matter, and he is especially concerned to raise the critical status of science fiction (though it is debatable whether science fiction is quite as marginalised as he claims). It is therefore disappointing that this study makes virtually no sustained or original contribution to science fiction studies (or indeed literature and science scholarship) and is beset by weak analyses, lack of historical contextualisation and sweeping generalisations. The root of Page’s problem is encapsulated by his curious emphasis on the ‘conversation’ between literature and science—and it is portrayed as a decidedly one way conversation at that. Literary authors are depicted here as simplistically (and somewhat slavishly) reflecting a surprisingly uniform evolutionary theory. Ironically, had Page looked more closely at some of the secondary sources he employs (Gillian Beer, for example), he would have been alerted to the now very well established notion of a reciprocal relationship between literature and science, where literary texts are construed as critical engagements with science, or even as interventions in scientific debates. (On the rare occasions when Page does see literature contesting evolutionary theory, the evidence presented is insufficient.)

Page declares an intention to be ‘interdisciplinary—drawing from cultural and literary history and theory, the history of science and evolutionary theory’ (9). Yet it is his unwillingness to take the cues provided by literary history and the history of science that results in the book’s surprising lack of historical contextualisation and somewhat monolithic conception of nineteenth-century science. Page accords Charles Darwin a prominent place in his study, but does not appear to cite him directly (even those with a cursory understanding of nineteenth-century literature and science will find Page’s assertion that ‘the name Darwin … should have a more prominent place in literary studies’ (193) to be extremely naïve). Page does allude to the fact that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was one of a number of competing theories of evolution in the nineteenth century, but it is the lack of historical nuance in this respect that leads to his somewhat reductionist readings of the texts. (For example, his reading of differentiation in Wells’s The Time Machine implies a Spencerian frame of reference as much as a Darwinian one.)

Another problem is that Page seems to argue for the need to acknowledge the importance of now widely studied science fiction texts. If Page were to examine now such canonical science fiction texts with critical insight and purpose, then he would need to consider the texts more firmly in the context of contemporary science, or even as sites where competing scientific theories converge. (In fairness to Page, he does highlight opposing critical approaches to texts, as is apparent in his discussion of Frankenstein.)

Page’s tendency to substitute secondary criticism for primary sources suggests an introductory quality to the work (an introductory quality is also suggested by the author’s use of the type of subheadings characteristic of reader’s guides). However, The Literary Imagination is not packaged as such. Even if this study were presented as an introductory text, then the author’s insights would have to be strengthened, with a much stronger sense of how his points add to existing criticism. Page makes statements that undercut the entire thrust of his argument. For example, in a passage where he identifies Wells’s scientific romances as a ‘fitting conclusion to this study of how the evolutionary imagination developed in the nineteenth century’, he proceeds to say that ‘the Victorian imagination largely failed to engage the most pressing intellectual debate of its time’ (149). In fact, recent scholarship has demonstrated that Wells’s scientific romances both continue and enlarge the evolutionary perspective already implicit in authors like Butler and Hudson (in fairness to Page, this may have been the point he was actually trying to make, though his writing disguises that fact). Page misses a golden opportunity by neglecting to explicitly identify how the very notion of the ‘scientific romance’, with its amalgamation of science and the imagination, acts as an appropriate culmination of Erasmus Darwin’s dictum of ‘enlisting the imagination under the banner of science’. Page cites Wells’s scientific journalism, but does not use it as a basis for exploring the scientific romances, resulting in the author often misreading Wells. The failure to situate Wells in the context of the numerous (and competing) scientific debates with which his romances engage is symptomatic of book's shortcomings overall.

The intriguing ideas articulated at the beginning of Page’s book—science fiction as a form of Romanticism, the idea that science fiction criticism could inform Green Romanticism, and the emphasis on ecological criticism—are never fully substantiated in its later chapters. Indeed, Page’s study attempts to do too much and, unfortunately, achieves little in the way of advancing scholarship. The most frustrating aspect of the book is that the critical material Page cites might have provided him with the basis of a methodological approach that could have led to new critical insights. This reviewer sympathises with the intentions behind The Literary Imagination and dearly wishes he could recommend it. At most, however, Page’s book might be used as a basic guide to the authors discussed, and even then with some caution.

Steven McLean (Independent Scholar)