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What the Victorians Taught Me

you should see this movie just for fassbender.
For someone that writes speculative fiction, I have a somewhat ridiculous aversion to modern and post modernist writing. I don't hate it, but if I can get out of reading it, if there is a loop hole I can wiggle through, I'll find it and run far away. Just look at my college transcript - the only thing after Shakespeare is Victorian and Children's literature (and there is a lot of overlap between the two. Most children's literature classes don't cover beyond the 90's and there's a big gap between Alice in Wonderland, World War II literature and the rise of Harry Potter)*.

Despite this, I find that I draw a lot from my classes and that most of it is applicable to my writing. Medieval and Early Modern literature is filled with a lot of 'firsts' and sometimes I'm surprised at the amount of writing that I find, in today's market, we would categorize as speculative.

This semester I'm taking a class on Victorian literature - I'm surprised how much I love it, but one of the reasons that I do has a lot to do with the reasons mentioned above. There are no robots or computer hackings in Victorian literature - but there is one thing that I think characterizes science fiction pretty well:  an awareness that dynamic change is possible.

Victorian Literature exists in a  post French Revolution age, one obsessesed with the idea and sudden reality that change is possible. That change on a global scale is possible. The characters that inhabit this era's books are hugely aware of this possibility - their stories are all about change. But more than that, their change is intimately linked with technology. Just as today's science fiction is entangled in super globalization (is that a thing?), and what it means to be so connected, so too is much of Victorian literature.

My very brilliant professor said of Marx, "he [Marx] is a romantic. He's engaging with the idea that the human experience evolved from age to age." We think of our lives as static - many of us grew up in the age of internet, and though Facebook and Twitter are constantly growing and evolving, they're already here. Science fiction and Victorian literature  say, change is happening now. What will your characters do with it?  How does the next state of affairs come to be?

But more than that, it says, how will my characters react and cope? And I think these questions are what make science fiction one of the longest enduring genres.

*Actually, I just remembered that I took Restoration Drama and that made me want to rip all the hairs out of my head. The professor was great. The material -- kadjfladlfjkdsad.There is all this cool beheading and throne changing going on (a real life Game of Thrones, if you will) and all you want to write about is how men swindle money and have sex. Really? Look at your life! Look at your choices!
Somaiya Daud

Somaiya Daud received her BA and MA from a university in DC in English. She is currently working on her PhD. When not writing or studying, she spends too much time on the internet yelling about comics and robots. Her first novel, Mirage, is coming 2017 from Flatiron Books.

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  1. I too took a Victorian Lit course in University and loved it! I may never have stumbled across an author like Elizabeth Gaskell had I not taken it and I think she's great. There is a lot of similarity between their time and ours as far as the huge leaps in technology go. The internet was not widely used until I was finishing highschool, and look at where things are now! Great post!

  2. P.S. Fassbender is one of the only reasons to watch this version of Jane Eyre--they managed to take out nearly everything that made it such an awesome book. Meh.

  3. I took 18th century and restoration lit last year and wanted to gouge out my eyes and ears the entire time. Definitely could have used a sassy gay friend. ;)

  4. I took a modern English class last term, and I was acquainted with e.e. Cummings, and Willa Cather. I read about the Beat Generation, Ginsberg, and then post modernists like Tim O'Brien and Sherman Alexi. I did tend to find that (besides O'Brien), I did enjoy reading the older material. I find that writing is also an art, and that having guidelines, unlike post-modernists, their work is constructed in ways that seem more professional, with more substance.

    Thank you for this blog post. Good discussion.

    Robin Quinn

  5. This is a great post. I love Victorian literature too - from Alice in Wonderland to Jane Eyre, to Frankenstein.

    It does have that in common with science fiction - change. It seems like there is a tingling of change in every Victorian book I've read - mostly change for the characters personally, emotionally, etc. I particularly love the change for women in the Victorian period. Which is why the MC of my first novel is female and it's set in the end of the 1800s.

    It was almost magical what they discovered back then with science, medicine, biology, sociology. Perhaps that's why it still fascinates me today. To be on the edge of that feeling - even if it's only in a book - is a thrilling experience!

  6. Awesome post! This is so timely - Victorian lit was never something I was super into, until the last month. And now I'm all over it.

  7. So, my area is Latin American literature, so I can't quite say "what the Victorians taught me," but same period.

    One thing that fascinates me is reading early and foundational sf texts from that era in their original periodical sources, where the idea you mention -- of change happening now -- is especially present: alongside stories about artificial men and journeys to other planets you find articles on science and technology and advertisements for the latest inventions (nineteenth-century infomercials?), many of which read like sf themselves. The sensation of seeing science fiction in a real-world environment that seems very science fictional is an idea I keep returning to, and which I find useful to thinking sf in general.

    I guess this education is good for something. :D


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Item Reviewed: What the Victorians Taught Me Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Sumayyah