Over the next five months, I’m reading and reviewing ten pioneering works of science fiction written by women. This is my second pick, check out my first. Stay tuned for more.
In 1666, the same year that Newton graduated Cambridge, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, wrote A Description of A New World, Called the Blazing-World, better known as The Blazing World. An early work of science fiction, this short novel touches on alchemy, the occult, religion and philosophy, moving between topics — and accuracy, in the light of modern understanding — at a dizzying pace. Like her contemporary Newton’s writings, which ranged from physics to alchemy, Cavendish’s work showed the transition in thought from ancient philosophy to modern ideas that was the hallmark of the scientific revolution.
In The Blazing World, a woman from our world is kidnapped by a suitor on a boat, his plan goes awry, the boat’s crew dies, and the woman is transported to another world as she rounds the Earth’s pole. The world she is transported to is the eponymous and fantastical Blazing World. There she becomes empress of the Blazing World through marriage. The core plot unfolds in a space scarcely larger than its summary. The empress and Cavendish herself later interact, mediated by spirits. The women become fast friends, platonic lovers, and travel to each other’s worlds.
Despite the fantastical elements — its character cast of Bear-men, Worm-men, Fish-men and more, the method of travel between worlds — The Blazing World reflects scientific ideas that were just coming into place in age leading up to the enlightenment. The work serves as a vehicle for Cavendish’s own theories of natural philosophy and her understanding of the zeitgeist. The engine powered boat wasn’t to be designed until the next century, submarines were merely being prototyped, and the Aristotelian view that the universe was small was still in vogue. Yet Cavendish’s pioneering work contains engine powered boats, elaborate submarines, and an infinite universe, among other contemporary scientific curiosities that later turned out to be realized and accepted. Her spot-on predictions of the work are scattered between dead wrong assertions and predictions, such as asserting spontaneous generation of some insects and the possibility of alchemy. These failings are a products of Cavendish’s time and serve a warning as to how the science fiction of the present might be viewed in 350 years.
The Blazing World is a feminist work. It was written by a female author in the 17th century under her own name, to an audience of women, about women characters discussing topics of natural philosophy in a fantastical setting. The work is subversive, exploring Platonic love in scenes which feature without judgement homosexuality, androgyny and polyamory. Cavendish and the empress “became Platonick Lovers, although they were both Femals.” The spirits who mediate their conversations have “no difference of Sexes amongst them.” When the empress wants to travel to Cavendish’s world without her subjects noticing she is gone, the spirits find a soul among them that is so close to the empress’s, it could stand in for her soul, implying that human souls are without inherent gender. When the empress and Cavendish’s husband commune in spirit form, Cavendish is jealous until she considers that “no Adultery could be committed amongst Platonick Lovers.”
For all its pioneering feminism, scientific predictions, fantastical musings, and contemporary natural philosophy, The Blazing World is a difficult read. The work is unabashed and conscious wish-fulfillment, with Cavendish’s main characters a stand-in for the author. Cavendish states bluntly that her “ambition is not onely to be Empress, but Authoress of a whole World.” Such rare insights are difficult to distill from the sea of distractions Cavendish provides.
Cavendish has little structure to her writing, jumping from one topic to the next in a string of non sequiturs. The story, where it exists at all, serves as a vehicle for Cavendish’s own musings on natural philosophy. Dialogue is unformatted and there are no chapters beyond a perfunctory division into two sections. Cavendish’s Socratic-style dialogues don’t convince so much as tell, with the interlocutor in the dialogue immediately convinced without nuanced argument.
The novel was still coming into its forte as a form in the 17th century, but Cervante’s contemporary Don Quixote shows none of Cavendish’s shortcomings as an author. Cavendish’s shortcomings as an author are thus not merely a product of the times, they are hers to own. Cavendish’s imagination stretches far beyond her writing ability; she was perhaps the first to discover this all-to-familiar weakness of science fiction writers.