Monthly RAINSHINE # 5
Science fiction stories are not everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, you cannot drink them at all, but many people get a lifelong taste for them, often at an early age. Unfortunately, real life or reading about something else can get in the way of enjoying sci fi. You need to be in the right mood to travel far into uncharted space, or move through time, or encounter aliens who can be stranger and even more frightening than the average Tory politician. I suspect that most people who enjoy science fiction stories do so by watching television or cinema. I’m not certain of that statistically, but I do know – for me and for many others who like to visit future worlds or alternative universes, the most satisfying way remains the old-fashioned technology: reading. Yet, I see nothing wrong with movies, TV, podcasts, and audio versions. Like every other art form or genre, quality varies.
I don’t read nearly as much science fiction as I once did. As a teenager, I devoured the works of many sci fi authors including H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, J.G.Ballard, Arthur C Clarke, and Michael Moorcock. Then, real life and reading about other things frequently got in my way. Yet, occasionally I felt nudged back to paying attention to the sci fi galaxy of stars. I discovered Oliver Stapledon, whose works are marvellously described by Brian Aldiss in his book: Billion Year Spree. ‘He keeps turning the volume up. We move to para-galactic scale. Stars also have mentalities, and the minded worlds make contact with them. As the galaxy begins to rot, there is perfect symbiosis between stars and worlds. Meanwhile the ‘I’ observes ‘the great snowstorm of many million galaxies’. A full telepathic exploration of the cosmos is now possible, yet the ‘I’ still remains a mystery to itself’. Weird, chilly stuff.
Other sci-fi writers, while imagining time travel and other worlds, never lose sight of human relationships in the midst of fantastic settings. I think of Ursula K Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and China Mieville. And every now and then, I would also stumble across a writer very few people, even sci-fi buffs, have heard of. That happened a few weeks ago, when I spotted a small exhibition of photographs in the Wellgate library in Dundee. It was my introduction to the ‘Lost Scottish Father of Transatlantic Science Fiction: Robert Duncan Milne’. The exhibition was a result of a collaboration between Dr Keith Williams, and a group of dedicated investigators.
In my experience, it is unusual for a small library exhibition to be mightily mindboggling. Yet mightily mindboggling it was. The bare outline of the life of Robert Duncan Milne can be stated fairly simply. He was born in 1844 in Cupar. Milton grew up to become an adventurer and travelled to the USA where he settled in San Francisco and wrote literary sketches about his travels. Yet, it was within his futuristic imagination that his storytelling ability blossomed. In a fast-growing city, surrounded by the new technology of his own time, Milne dreamt big, science fuelled dreams, and created stories from this material. As Dr Keith Williams said in his riveting talk which accompanied the exhibition: “Milne was both symptomatic of his time and ahead of many contemporaries” in imagining the future growing out of science and technology. Milne’s stories are the lesser-known precursors to the future gazing tales of Jules Verne and H.G Wells. Milne’s themes are ones with which we are now familiar, but they were pioneering in his own era. His themes included:
alien life forms
powered flight and drone warfare
visual time travel
blood transfusion and regeneration
In all Milne wrote around 60 science fiction stories between 1879 and 1899. The stories first appeared in two publications: The Argonaut and the San Francisco Examiner. Some of these stories were multi part or novella length (a short novel). It is rumoured that he was on his way to a publisher to bring out a book of stories when he sadly met his fate: he was hit and killed by a tram. A few years later the great earthquake of San Francisco destroyed the archives where his newspaper stories were stored.
The more I hear about Robert Duncan Milne, the more I agree with Dr Keith Williams and the researchers and enthusiasts he works with: Milne’s stories amount to a great lost treasure of science fiction. There was an attempt in the 1980s to reignite interest in his stories. Sam Moskowitz wrote about Milne and brought out a book of 11 of Milne’s stories. Sadly, these efforts had limited impact.
Now there are fresh efforts. Ari Brin, who produced the podcast NOVUM (which is well worth listening to), is putting together a new volume: ‘The Essential Milne’. This project was mentioned in the talk by Dr Williams, who has lectured on science fiction and is the author of ‘H.G. Wells, Modernity and the Movies’ (2008). I asked Dr Williams how many of Milne’s 60 sci-fi stories had been found, and the answer was: “all of them”. Barry Sullivan, an archivist; and Scott Begbie, a reporter, should also be mentioned for their role in the ongoing saga of the rediscovery of Milne. I am happy to mention others in future updates of this blogpost.
An important point stressed in the exhibition and in the talk by Dr Williams is the astonishing connections between some of Milne’s imaginings in his stories and actual scientific advances. In the short story ‘The Great Electric Diaphragm’ (1879), Milne imagined a global satellite communications programme, thus predicting a scientific development then many years in the future. ‘The Eidoloscope’ (1890) imagined an invention which recorded moving images of the past. Obviously, we have not seen such an invention, but the same name was later used for an early rival to the development of cinema: the eideloscope developed in New York City 1894-95. Given other economic circumstances, the actual eideloscope could have become a replacement for cinema. Had this happened, I wonder if the longer name might have become shortened over time; and we would say “I’m off to the Eidy to see the new Batman.”
In another short story: ‘The Paleoscopic Camera’ (1881) a form of visual time travel was imagined. I hope this predicts an invention yet to be born scientifically. In any case, it predated by 14 years the more famous story: ‘The Time Machine’ (1895), by H.G.Wells. In his earlier story, Milne envisioned a device which allowed people to see the building of a cathedral hundreds of years in the past.
The rediscovery of Robert Duncan Milne has already led to at least one imaginative spin-off. A local writers group called the Wyvern Poets produced a booklet of poems inspired by Milne. The wonderful cover was created by Amy O’Brien. A quick scan of the internet will lead anyone interested to other articles and videos regarding Milne. It’s also worth remembering that something like the internet itself was also imagined by Milne, over a century ago.