Book Review: Sci-Fi and Fantasy Stories From ‘The Sun’

Sci-Fi and Fantasy Stories from ‘The Sun’
by Edward Page Mitchell edition

Before Hugo Gernsback laid down the law, no one knew there was such a thing as “science fiction”. Many writers, not just Verne and Wells, dabbled in “scientific fantasy” or used the eventual tropes of the genre to give a gloss to their political screeds.

Mitchell wrote his stories to sell newspapers.

In 1874, he published his first (known) stories, “The Tachypomp” and “Back From That Bourne”. The latter appeared in the New York (City) Sun, one of the leading newspapers at the time. It wasn’t uncommon for newspapers to publish short stories – even putting them under the guise of actual news. Mitchell would pen twenty-eight more stories for The Sun over the next twelve years. He’d eventually become editor of that paper, whereupon he stopped writing fiction.

His work remained forgotten until science fiction editor and historian Sam Moskowitz recovered it in the early 1970s.

This collection seems to have all of his stories, and they really do count as science fiction and “horror” fantasy.

In science fiction, it seems there’s very few tropes he didn’t use. “The Ablest Man in the World” is about an android/robot…. “The Man Without a Body” is about a teleportation accident…. Time travel appears in “The Clock that Ran Backwards”…. In “Old Squids and Little Speller”, the latter character is a super-smart mutant…. The “horror” fantasy tales all deal with the supernatural. Ghosts, demons, and all that.

A couple of stories don’t fit into either of those classifications. “Our War With Monaco” describes an international incident where an annoying American causes a brief war between the two countries. “The Tachypomp” is a way of presenting a mathematical / physics puzzle about motion that noted puzzlesmith (and contemporary of Mitchell) Henry Ernest Dudeney might have come up with.

The one thing that characterizes the tales is the light and even humorous tone that Mitchell uses. You’ll catch on as soon as you encounter characters with names like “Professor Dummkopf” and “Abscissa Surd” (Abbie Surd = Ab Surd, get it?). They don’t cross a line into slapstick – even the outright comedy in “Our War With Monaco” is moderated through the careful use of calm and almost diplomatic language.

It’s a downright shame that these tales were unavailable for so long. But thanks to Sam Moskowitz and the Internet, we can continue to enjoy them.

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