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Archive for October, 2012

I’m approaching completion of my thesis and am finding that some earlier material doesn’t fit anymore. The section below considers what exactly Charles Howard Hinton’s work is, and it doesn’t sit so well with the direction of an argument that now revolves around the mediations of space, matter and thought; so it naturally finds a home up here. It may be of interest to SF bods.

In the meantime, thanks to Fortean Dr Andrew May, who has drawn my attention to a really thorough piece of historical work on Zöllner, by Helge Kragh at Aarhus University. Andrew has previously blogged about Hinton and his site contains much that may be of interest to readers here. My second chapter deals with what I’ve come to think of as ‘the Zöllner event’, and this essay really usefully brings into play some of his German language work that was previously inaccessible to me. I’m delighted to be able to say at this very late stage that there is nothing game-changing for what I’m trying to argue!

Without any further preamble, here’s the Scientific Romance section:

The term Scientific Romance, coined by the publisher Swan Sonnenschein for Hinton’s essays, has surely contributed unhelpfully to subsequent attempts to locate his [CHH’s] project. Adopted in the 1890s by H.G. Wells to describe his fiction in this period it has been considered as roughly equivalent to an early form of SF. Brian Stableford, whose 1985 book took the term for its title, used it to mark ‘the British tradition of speculative fiction’ as independent of American SF.[1] Writing about Hinton, Stableford argued

that there is a certain propriety in the juxtaposition of speculative fiction and speculative non-fiction in these collections. The term ‘scientific romance’ was generally used to refer to fiction, and it refers to fiction in the title of this book, but there has always been a close relationship between British scientific romance and a typically British species of speculative essays […] Running parallel to the tradition of British scientific romance, therefore, is a tradition of essay-writing which is itself Romantic: always speculative, often futuristic, frequently blessed with an elegance of style and a delicate irony.[2]

Hinton, however, is considered by Stableford stylistically ‘inept’, a ‘hobbyist […] who made little impact’ but was ‘possessed of remarkable powers of imagination’. Stableford argues that in this period the term scientific romance was most frequently used by critics rather than by writers or publishers. His exemplars of the kind of speculative essay writing he identifies as close to the romance are, curiously, J.B.S. Haldane and Julian Huxley, two writers most prolific in the 1920s, rather than any of writers of the 1880s with whom Hinton might bear closer comparison – either Clifford or Helmholtz in popularising mode, say.

Stableford here echoes the observations of Darko Suvin. Describing science fiction texts as circulating ‘outside the principal […] fiction circuit’, Suvin assumed a different reader: ‘mostly upper-middle and middle class males with special interest in politics, religion and public affairs in general’. He went on to note the ‘the intertextual closeness to SF of such nonfiction genres as the social blueprint, the political tract, the predictive essay, even the semi-religious apocalypse’.[3]

Is Hinton’s work then some kind of early or hybrid SF? Bruce Clarke sees in Hinton’s The Persian King ‘science fiction in utero’.[4] Suvin includes both Flatland and the Scientific Romances in his survey, although his praise for the former is significant, while Hinton’s work is largely dismissed. Considering the conditions of emergence he describes in relation to his first case study, H.G. Wells, Roger Luckhurst makes brief mention of one of the pre-cursors of SF to which a direct connection back from Wells can be drawn: ‘The title ‘scientific romance’ was used for Charles Howard Hinton’s extremely odd mixture of stilted fiction and playful mathematical speculations about a fourth dimension in 1886.’[5]

In the account offered by 20th century SF criticism Hinton’s essays and fictions are continuous and his stylistic shortcomings in the fictional mode make him a largely unsuccessful author of speculative work. Certainly, the utopian strain in his thought – and higher space may well be an exemplary ‘no-place’ – aligns him with this reading. Luckhurst’s description is surely accurate but would benefit from some qualification. The Scientific Romances are weighted heavily towards ‘playful mathematical speculations about a fourth dimension’ (and, indeed, physical speculations) and far less towards ‘stilted fiction’. It has been customary to consider the two collections of Hinton’s Scientific Romances together and this, I think, is the source of frequent distortion of Hinton’s work. The second collection, published in 1895, did include two extended pieces of speculative fiction – the novella ‘Stella’, an invisible woman narrative, clearly bearing the traces of Hinton’s oriental exile, and ‘An Unfinished Communication’, a metaphysical love story – and two pieces written earlier, before his departure from Britain. By 1895 H.G. Wells’s career was gathering significant momentum and the scientific romance had a practitioner perhaps more worthy of the title.

Hinton’s first collection of Romances, however, contains only one piece, The Persian King, that attempts any kind of narrative, and it is weighed down by extended sections of explicatory text dealing with thermodynamics. Intriguingly, Hinton had submitted to his publisher a set of ‘Unscientific Romances’, which were rejected shortly after his conviction for bigamy in November 1886, ‘owing to the crowded state of our list’.[6] It is useful to consider Hinton’s work chronologically, not least because the rupture between the two periods of his literary productivity is so marked, but perhaps even more useful to take an overview that reveals the eclectic nature of Hinton’s approach to his subject.

In toto, there are Luckhurst’s ‘stilted romances’, ‘Stella’ and ‘An Unfinished Communication’, narrative novellas offering intriguing ideas cloaked in metaphysical love stories; there are didactic, hybrid essays, the above-mentioned ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’, ‘A Persian King’, ‘A Picture of our Universe’, ‘Casting out the Self’, ‘On the Education of the Imagination’ and ‘Many Dimensions’, using allegory and analogy to think through and explain higher spatial concepts and how they related to physics; there are the Flatland-inspired ‘A Plane World’ and An Episode of Flatland, responses to Abbott’s text that routed into mechanics; and there are the two book-length studies that instruct and contextualise his system of cubes, A New Era of Thought (1888) and The Fourth Dimension (1904), the first a quasi-visionary philosophical statement and manual and the second a more measured history of higher dimensional thought and refinement of his earlier system.


[1] Brian Stableford, Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1985), p. 3.

[2] Stableford, 5.

[3] Darko Suvin, Victorian Science Fiction in the UK (Boston: GK Hall and Co, 1983), p. 403.

[4] Bruce Clarke, ‘A Scientific Romance: Thermodynamics and the Fourth Dimension in Charles Howard Hinton’s “The Persian King”’, Weber Studies, 14: 1 (Winter 1997).  <http://www.altx.com/ebr/w%28ebr%29/essays/clarke.html>, para. 1 [accessed 24th Feb 2010].

[5] Roger Luckhurst, (SF, 30)

[6] Archives of Swan Sonnenschein, Reading University. SS to CH, letter 336, 19 November 1886.

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