Gosh. Here it is. I paid $22 for this 1980 paperback, since I didn’t want to pay the $900 for the an 1885 first edition. As you can see, my “J’s” follow my “K’s.” There’s a good reason for this.
Making my list, I could find any “I” or “J” books of note. But it gnawed at me. It bothered me. I didn’t like reading through an alphabet’s worth of famous science fiction writers and not including all the letters. So, I took up one of my good resources, John Clute’s Illustrated Science Fiction Dictionary. I went through it to glean out possibly promising authors in the I, J, Q, and X categories – perhaps not the best books, but at least books of note.
I found everything except X. (But I’m not giving up.) And I think this book is an excellent choice. It represents some of the earliest science fiction, and probably the first to address one of the common themes of science fiction, which is of course, the utter destruction of London.
Richard Jeffries was best known as a nature writer, and that shows here in this novel. The first third of this book gives the setting– not the story –and elegantly describes the natural processes by which England becomes wild after “the fields were left to tend to themselves,” as well as the animals and people that inhabit the dense forests and bogs. When the book goes to the main story of Lord Felix Aquila, living in a rustic fortress with his farming Baron father and calm, athletic brother Oliver, some of the best parts are descriptions of skills needed to live in the great forest and the natural observations about seasons and animal behavior. The last chapter describes the world again: a vicious Ice Age style winter that destroyed London and England in the first place, written as a letter from someone living there.
1885. This is the oldest novel I have read for this list so far, and I think its age offers some gifts that younger books do not. It is written in loose omniscient, and Jeffries often stops the story to describe the background of characters or what their motivations are, history, or other explanation. Although it makes slower reading, it gives more depth to what happens, and more impact with the story that follows. Also, Felix is far from a perfect, showing flaws that few modern authors would be willing to give their characters. He is moody, pensive, frustrated, easily mocked, physically slight, and prone to fainting when upset. Additionally, this book has some “Jane Austinisms,” in which the set-up allows the reader to intuit where the story would go next, which is strangely satisfying. The story isn’t predictable, but you don’t go into it completely blind, either.
Being what if often called proto-science fiction, much of Wild England does not seem scifi-y: Felix leaves the safety and comfort of his world to enter Wild England, hoping to make a name for himself to impress his lover Aurora’s father, and wanders through the wilderness is a canoe he cut by hand. However, it does reach into the best that science fiction has to offer when Felix trips into the ruined graveyard of London. This section is highly imaginative, emotional, charged with tension and danger, and presciently describes what the grounds of a nuclear strike would be like... which the author attributes to noxious fumes seeping from chemical tanks.
This is the fortieth book I have read on my list. I have learned so much from these books, and often I make even more observations quite a while after I read them. For instance, it dawned on me that Aldous Huxleys’ Brave New World (written in 1932) is also a vicious parody of Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+, which was written in 1925.
As a nineteenth century author, Richard Jeffries reminds us that depth of meaning is an important part of writing. This is a technique that I would like to imbue into some of the future stories I am thinking of doing, perhaps Stone Woman, or even Seaborne.