Tue
Feb 10 2009 4:38pm
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.

(Middlemarch.)

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.

16 comments
Karen Lofstrom
1. DPZora
I love Middlemarch too :)

However, I don't think Eliot would have done well as an SF writer. The proof: Romola, her historical novel. She sweated blood over it, doing research and aiming for accuracy, and afterwards said something like, IIRC, it had aged her as no other novel had. But Romola is inert. Sincere, but inert. I don't believe that she had the imagination to inhabit a fantasy world.

Dickens, OTOH, being less tied to reality in the first place, might have enjoyed the challenge.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
You could have a point. I haven't read Romola but what I have read about it does agree with what you say. So she might have been stilted writing fantasy. But I still think she could have done brilliantly with writing about the kind of people she wrote about, only being invaded by Martians, or going on rockets to the moon.
Nicholas Waller
3. Nicholas Waller
Middlemarch is currently appearing on BBC Radio 7 in 20 episodes, some already missed, though I don't know if the feed and Listen Again facilities work internationally.
Nicholas Waller
4. Lesley Hall
Eliot's novella, The Lifted Veil, is a fantasy about a man with precognition. But is not alas in the same class as Middlemarch.

I am not sure I buy the Romola is static, therefore Eliot couldn't have written sf - because sf wouldn't have bogged down her imagination in the way that her possibly undue respect for history and her perhaps over-dense research did in that work. It includes, by the way, a scene which is devastatingly horrific for anyone who has ever constructed significant parts of their identity around being a reader.

I sometimes imagine sequels to Middlemarch... there are so many minor characters whose stories one would like to pursue.
Kate Nepveu
5. katenepveu
You can Listen Again to BBC7 in the US, certainly, as I do all the time.

And I will grab the Project Gutenberg text of _Middlemarch_ and put it on my Palm to be read in my infinite free time.
Sherwood Smith
6. Sherwood
On my first reading of Middlemarch, I skipped past all the dull hospital and science stuff, outmoded as it was. On my second read decades later, I wondered if Eliot, like Mary Shelley, was in fact inventing science fiction by extrapolating one step ahead of the high tech of the time--and the thinking behind it.

Now I wonder if that aspect is in effect kept under control because it's subordinate to (or more like parallel to) the character dynamics. I wonder this because, like the commenter above, I found Romola a real slog, and ditto the earnest, very well meant, but almost unreadable Jewish history sections of Daniel Deronda, shoved so heavy-handedly into an otherwise compelling tale not just about obsessive love, but about the cost of the creative life.

If Elliott had made science a character, would it have been as heavy handed and kludgy as her research novels?

Dunno, but I love your thought about the direction of literature if she had decided to make Middlemarch sfnal--and it was a success--now that is an alternate world story that has all kinds of hooks.
Debra Doyle
7. DebraDoyle
The writer I'd have liked to see writing sf is Herman Melville. (True confession time here: I'm one of those heathens who find Middlemarch unreadable.) As it is, Moby-Dick contains a number of sfnal elements -- the whaling ship as a microcosm of a larger society, the lovingly detailed presentation and explanation of unfamiliar technology and the work involved in using it, the preoccupation with what, if any, meaning lies behind the mask of apparent reality. And Typee is a first-contact novel if I ever read one.
Nicholas Waller
8. Faye R.
As might be expected, given the number of panels you commenters have done at cons, you've managed among you to set out the ancestors of many directions of SF: The novel of ideas (Eliot); the interplanetary travelogue (Melville); the effect of science on society (Eliot); contact with other civilizations (Melville). But the shape of plot and characters so common in 20th c. SF--coming of age, galactic intrigues, heroic agents enforcing order in the galaxy, guys with superpowers, etc. etc. come out of the romance tradition, as do the Westerns and high adventure yarns that were the more proximate inspirations.

Sorry to pontificate (Pedagogicate?) But while we're wishing ourselves respectable ancestors, let's not forget about the horsethieves and highwaymen!
Sam Kelly
9. Eithin
Middlemarch is about the desperate urge to be doing, to be about things, to make some difference in the world, and the compromises we have to make with ourselves (or can't make with ourselves) to do that. Daniel Deronda is about confronting the alien (including the alien within us) and unexpected social change.

To me, this is one of the strongest reasons SF is obviously literature - SF does the same things as the best of the rest.

It occurs to me that a modern SFnal analogue to Eliot might be MacLeod.
Nicholas Waller
10. William H Stoddard
Having lately edited and proofread a biography of Auguste Comte, I discovered that G. H. Lewes, the man Eliot was involved with, was an early proponent of Comte's ideas in English, writing about them for British periodicals. And Comte in many ways was a precursor of science fiction, in the Gernsbackian sense. He worked out elaborate plans for the society of the future that would be freed of theological and metaphysical ideas and would be based on scientific truths alone, some of which went far beyond ordinary political reformism to detailed worldbuilding. He came up with strange speculative ideas such as the theory that medical science could eliminate the need for fertilization for women to bear children, and that as a result men would cease to feel sexual desire (this was probably Lamarckian rather than Darwinian). I'd also suggest that Comte's "positivism," with society governed by self-selecting boards of broadly educated universal geniuses, was a model for the kind of enlightened societies envisioned by science fiction writers from Wells to Asimov, and even more by Hugo Gernsback. So at least one of Eliot's influences could have pointed her in the direction of science fiction. Imagine a world where she chose to wrote an actual novel set in the future that Comte had dreamed of. . . .
mm Season
11. mmSeason
Thanx very much for this. I was thoroughly put off Victorian novelists in general at school - except HG Wells and Bram Stoker - and am only just discovering them, years later. Do you like Arnold Bennett?

Will you mind if i quote 100 or 200 words from this post (of 1,200 words) on my blog? With proper attribution, of course, as well as respectful gushing appreciation of your genius (i mean that genuinely, having recently discovered you and devoured Farthing and all your blogging.). 8)
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
mmSeason: Judicious quoting and a link on your own blog is just fine. And I'm very glad you like it.
mm Season
13. mmSeason
Thanx! 80)

Just found that the link (on Wikipedia, and on my blog) to your website http://www.zorinth.net/bluejo/ is dead - so i'm letting you know.
Nicholas Waller
15. 100indecisions
I linked to your review on my blog here, if you're interested. :)
Nicholas Waller
16. Timothy (TRiG)
Since you recently posted an article admiring Kit Whitfield's first sentence analyses, I thought you might be interested to know that she's recently done Middlemarch, and it's probably her best yet.

TRiG.

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