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The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

(MonkeyBrain Books, US$50.00, 1009 pages, hardcover; ISBN 1-932265-15-5.)

Review by Marianne Plumridge

cover scanThe rise of the Victorian presence in current fiction of the fantastic -- be it novel, film, television, graphic novel, etc. -- over the last decade or so has become a reflection of the current state of social mind. Up till a quarter century ago, the reading and viewing public saw only the 'future' as something to be yearned after; something to strive towards, something exciting, thrilling, magnificent. However, in that last previous quarter-century we have begun to live that future of the fantastic: we have space-flight; walked upon another orbital body in space; built a space-station or two; fast produced technology which grows ever more microscopic, and available to the common person -- cell phones, music players that fit in the palm of one's hand, satellite tracking for cars, car computers that can transmit self-diagnostic data, email, the internet, fantastic gadgets for life and home, etc, etc, etc.

Unfortunately, the modern world has become all a bit blasé and restricted as the using public tries to conform with so many conflicting signals at once, of what we should and shouldn't do, wear, buy, prefer... Market research makes our decisions for us in a new kind of conformity that's almost, hey, Victorian. But in looking back at that century, to that time of new industrialization, changing attitudes and manners, emerging technology and fantastic visions in a previously un-envisioned world, everything appears rosily simple and exotic. The rules were being re-written in the age of England's Queen Victoria, and during that time, the sky wasn't the limit. So, in more recent decades there have appeared tomes like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Amelia Peabody murder mysteries, vintage adventure stories, a plethora of Sherlock Holmes pastiches in film and literary fiction, Steamboy (Japanese anime), and a long list of current creative endeavors that reflect the times when invention and imagination knew no bounds. In his book, The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, Jess Nevins lovingly and respectfully attempts to place the roots of some of these visions -- two hundred years of genre and adventure writing -- into perspective, where they belong. So saddle up, hail a hansom cab, put your pipe in your pocket along with the secret documents, your choice of pistol, rifle or elephant gun, swirl the cape and clap on a top hat or bonnet: the adventure is about to begin...

The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana looks, at first glance, exactly that: a series of encyclopedic entries describing various characters from Victorian fiction. However, this compilation is far more than that. Each entry -- fully annotated -- not only states who created a character, but an in-depth synopsis of where and when the character appeared, and in what environment he, she, or it existed, story, etc. Far and above this, each entry is supported by a vibrant and knowledgeable analysis by Mr. Nevins, regarding the character/story's effect on society at the time of publishing and vice versa. The text brings to life many stories and personalities that have since been swallowed whole by time and history, and gives them new voice. Enough so, that the reader may just go hunt up some of these stories and personas to read them for him or herself. These efforts range from still popular heavyweights like Sherlock Holmes and associates to forgotten creations of brilliance in the vein of Ambrosio, the protagonist from M.G. Lewis's original gothic novel The Monk: A Romance (1796), and beyond. From the truly great efforts of literature down to the merely mediocre, authors across decades and borders spanning most nations of Europe, the United Kingdom, Russia, the Middle East and distant Orient are all exemplified within the copious pages of this Encyclopedia.

Other entries chronicle various stereotypes of the Victorian era, within fiction and without: their evolution and how they were treated by the society of the day. For example, one of these is an apt description of the 'Adventuress', both in fiction and real life, and how the meaning of the term changed irrevocably with the growing emancipation of women. Another, 'Anarchists' describes why terror-style and anarchy-style fiction became the vogue in the latter two decades of the 19th century as a response to the public's general feeling of 'unease' in these matters. Many more entries cover topics like: Hero-Villain; The Gothic; The New Woman; The School Story; The Great Detective; Future War; The Hypnotist; Martians (I) and (II); The Lost Race Story; and so on -- all meticulously and extensively cross-referenced throughout.

This type of book, with its insightful look at the Victorian era literature and social mores, would make an excellent addition to any writer's reference shelf, especially those writers who create modern fiction set in that age. Even readers who are admirers of fiction emanating from Victorian times, whether written then or written now, would find this encyclopedia compelling reading matter. The text and analysis are not only informative, but rather entertainingly so.

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