What a pity she couldn’t have single-handedly invented science fiction! George Eliot’s Middlemarch

It’s too much to ask, of course. Nobody could, a quarter century before The War of the Worlds, and when Verne was only just beginning to be translated into English. But it’s such a pity, because she would have been so very good at it.

I only started to read George Eliot a few years ago. She suffered in my mind from a geographical, or rather alphabetical, contagion with Dickens and Hardy. (I have no idea how it is that my grandmother didn’t own any Mrs Gaskell, when Mrs Gaskell would have been so very much to her taste. It makes me a little sad every time I read Cranford, to know she never did.) In any case, whatever you may think, George Eliot isn’t tedious or depressing or shallow. What I loathe about Dickens is the shallowness of his caricatures, the way he pushes them around his ludicrous plots not even like puppets (because I could admire a well-done puppet show) but like children’s toys that might topple over at any moment and get a grinning “Aw shucks” from the mawkish and badly-played omniscient narrator. Hardy, on the other hand, was a good writer. I loathe him for the morbidity of his imagination and the sheer misery of his stories. Even his “lighter” works are blighted, and his best and most serious ones are barely endurable. But would I have liked Middlemarch any better when I was ten? Maybe it is a book you shouldn’t read until you’re forty.

But she should have been a science fiction writer! And she could have been because she saw the world in an essentially science fictional way. She saw how technology changes society—she understood that thoroughly. In a way, she was someone who had lived through a singularity—she had seen the railroad coming and had seen how it had entirely transformed the world she grew up in, with second order effects nobody could have predicted. Her books constantly come back to technology and the changes it brings. Her whole angle of looking at the world is much closer to Wells than to Dickens. She didn’t often speculate, but when she did, you have lines like:

Posterity may be shot, like a bullet from a tube, from Winchester to Newcastle: that is a fine result to have among our hopes.

(from Felix Holt, the Radical.)

And she understood the progress of science, the way it isn’t all huge and immediate:

He meant to be a unit who would make a certain amount of difference towards that spreading change which would one day tell appreciably upon the averages, and in the meantime have the pleasure of making an advantageous difference to the viscera of his own patients. But he did not simply aim at a more general kind of practice than was common. He was ambitious of a wider effect: he was fired with the possibility that he might work out the proof of an anatomical conception and make a link in the chain of discovery.


The trouble with mimetic fiction isn’t that you can tell what’s going to happen (I defy anyone to guess what’s going to happen in Middlemarch, even from half way through) but that you can tell what’s not going to happen. There isn’t going to be an evil wizard. The world isn’t going to be destroyed in Cultural Fugue and leave the protagonist as the only survivor. There aren’t going to be any people who happen to have one mind shared between five bodies. There are unlikely to be shape-changers. In science fiction you can have any kind of story—a romance or a mystery or a reflection of human nature, or anything at all. But as well as that, you have infinite possibility. You can tell different stories about human nature when you can compare it to android nature, or alien nature. You can examine it in different ways when you can write about people living for two hundred years, or being relativistically separated, or under a curse. You have more colours for your palette, more lights to illuminate your scene.

Now the problem with genre fiction is often that writers take those extra lights and colours and splash them around as if the fact that the result is shiny is sufficient, which it unfortunately isn’t. So the most common failing of genre fiction is that you get shallow stories with feeble characters redeemed only by the machinations of evil wizards or the fascinating spaceship economy or whatever. What I want is stories as well written and characterised as Middlemarch, but with more options for what can happen. That’s what I always hope for, and that’s what I get from the best of SF.

If Eliot could have taken her SFnal sensibility and used it to write SF, she could have swung the whole course of literature into a different channel. She could have changed the world. All the great writers who followed her would have had all the options of SF, instead of the circumscribed limitations of the mimetic world. We wouldn’t see books like Piercy’s He, She and It that are well written in character terms but incredibly clunky in SF ones because they don’t have the first idea how to embed SF tropes in a narrative.

Meanwhile, Middlemarch remains an extremely good book, and I enjoyed it as much on a second reading as I did on the first. You’d think from the bare bones that it would be as depressing as Hardy: it’s the story of two people who passionately want to succeed but who fail. Dorothea wants to help a great man in a great endeavour, and finds herself utterly miserable in marriage to a man jealous of her, and engaged on writing footnotes on footnotes. Lydgate wishes to make medical discoveries, and finds himself miserably married to a social climbing woman who weighs him down in debt, everyday cares and the shallows of life. Eliot shows us exactly why they make the decisions that seem like a good idea at the time and how they lead inexorably to disaster. It isn’t a miserable book though, not at all. It doesn’t grind you down. It’s very funny in parts, it has a huge cast of minor characters, some of them seen in great detail (she knows how to use omni deftly) and Dorothea’s story at least ends happily, if unconventionally. That is, unconventionally for a Victorian novel. She doesn’t get to be the ambassador to Jupiter, more’s the pity. She always wants to rush off and do good. “Let us find out the truth, and clear him!” she declares, when she hears base rumours about Lydgate. I’d like her to be in a universe where everyone’s response to that wasn’t to tell her to be sensible and calm down.

Middlemarch is a panorama, and a terrific novel of life in provincial England just before the Reform Act. It’s the kind of book where you want to gossip to your friends about the characters and what can become of them. I love it, and I heartily recommend it. But I wish she’d invented science fiction instead, because she could have, and it would have been so amazing if she had.


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