Review: The Shaman’s Appetites

The Shaman’s Appetites: The Works and Obscure Life of Uriah Bromley, ?-? by Graham C. Macallan

London: Faber and Faber, 488 pp., £16.00 (paper), pub. May 2019

It is one of the cruel turns of English literature that, despite the high reputation he still enjoys among scientists and connoisseurs of science fiction, Uriah Bromley is largely neglected by today’s reading public. In part, he is a victim of his own success: so many of his literary inventions, dazzling in the early nineteenth century, have passed into the world as scientific commonplaces or science fiction clichés, and the visionary, to modern eyes sated with wonder, may now feel derivative. But Bromley’s lack of renown can also be traced to the troubling mystery that precipitated his flight from England, losing him his home, friends, and livelihood. A genius can thrive in spite of scandal — witness Bromley’s contemporary Shelley — but he has to die tragically young to do it. He can’t just disappear, unpunished and unmourned.

This new biography of Bromley, the first since Mowbray Wolfe’s disturbing 1931 work The Fraughting Soul, contains no new revelations and can feel at times uninspired — a word no one would ever use for Bromley’s own oeuvre. But as a corrective to Wolfe’s bizarre phantasmagoria, it serves as a useful re-introduction to the works of the author most informed readers would consider the father of science fiction. Macallan, a professor of British literature at St. Andrews, hews to the known facts of Bromley’s life (such as they are) and undertakes a close analysis of his work, eschewing Wolfe’s mad drug-addled pilgrimages of the imagination for a more sober approach.

Nothing is known of Bromley’s family origins or early life. Contemporaries described him as being a stout man in his forties with strong, heavy-wristed arms and a protuberant belly. He had pale eyes and wore his receding, white-blond hair in a ponytail along with chops and a horseshoe moustache. The look was not eccentric for the time, though much else about Bromley was. His friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge described his accent as ‘Cheshire speech paved with pebbles’ — but Bromley knew even less than the average Englishman about Cheshire. Indeed, he often seemed to lack the most basic knowledge of everyday life: in an 1806 letter to the explorer and naturalist Joseph Banks, Coleridge describes watching Bromley, on a rare visit to the Coleridges in Keswick, fruitlessly attempt to brew tea — ‘At last it was necessary that he enlist Derwent [Coleridge’s six-year-old son] to help him, so completely harrow’d was he by the Tea-Kettle.’ (Coleridge ascribed this to Bromley’s dreaminess, which is a bit rich coming from the opium addict who wrote ‘Kubla Khan.’)

In regards to social class, Bromley was a difficult man to pin down. He struck those he met as intelligent and educated beyond what was then expected of the labouring class, but he was also clearly no gentleman: he had no Latin or Greek, key signifiers of a gentlemanly education at the time. (In her diary — about which more later — his housemaid Elisabeth Tallis writes of him sitting at his desk with a child’s Latin primer, mumbling earnestly.) What seemed most obvious to contemporaries was his nautical background. He bore several tattoos on his arms and chest, classing him beyond question as a man of the sea. Upon meeting him and discovering both his evident seafaring experience and his interest in science, Banks, in his role as President of the Royal Society, tried unsuccessfully to recruit him for one of the many exploratory voyages the Society regularly dispatched to the four corners of the world. Bromley was by this time the author of two novels, ‘scientific romances’ as they would later come to be known, that made him a literary sensation, and he proved understandably reluctant to leave the writing desk in his Surrey cottage for the years such an expedition would take.

Those novels, The Black Velocities and Hawkmoon, both published in 1806, were the first instances of what we would now call ‘space opera.’ Macallan deftly lays the background for these and others of Bromley’s works, sifting through his influences while providing the reader with a solid history of the age. In England, the Industrial Revolution was underway, expanding the promise and perils of technology; also underway were the Napoleonic wars, an epic, all-consuming conflict across land and sea that begged for portrayal on a wider canvas. News of exploration in Africa and the polar regions had captured the English imagination, while Gothic novels such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk and Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho were scandalising and enthralling the reading public with their dark undercurrents of lust, perversion, and supernatural obsession. The extent of these influences is easily seen in The Black Velocities, where Bromley portrays ‘iron-hulled star frigates’ battling in deep space, pistols and cannons that fire ‘phased light’, and cavalry careening through forests on electricity-powered jet mounts. Tyrants in sinister black armour lock young princesses up in oubliettes in interstellar ‘star keeps’ where hovering automata inject them with truth serums. Dark family secrets abound — unknown siblings, dubious parentage — and exotic mono-biome worlds are the norm: ice planets, desert planets, wooded moons.

Today it’s hard to credit how novel such elements were to readers of the time. There had been stories dealing with travel to other worlds — Voltaire’s ‘Micromégas’ for example–but the means were usually some sort of astral projection, and the end was often satire. Bromley’s intent was altogether different: he sought to kindle what has come to be known, at times disparagingly, as a ‘sense of wonder’ in his readers; he sought to evoke nothing less than the full splendour and mystery of the stars. His ambition was a timely one. It was, after all, only twenty-five years since the German expatriate William Herschel, living in Bath, had discovered the planet Uranus using his own home-made telescopes — the first discovery of a planet not visible to the naked eye. Herschel was at the time an avid believer in life on our own moon, having spotted what he believed were towns in the moon’s craters and forests in the Mare Humorum, possibly inspiring the forest moon in The Black Velocities.

Coleridge, among others, disagreed with Herschel, writing in his notebook of the 1790s of the ‘Moon at present uninhabited owing to its little or no atmosphere but may in Time — An atheistic Romance might be formed…’ Such debates likely contributed to Bromley’s second novel Hawkmoon; or, The Hood of the Austringer. Unlike The Black Velocities, which takes place in a distant galaxy in the distant past, the setting this time is our own solar system in the twenty-eighth century. Bromley’s heroine, the ‘astronette’ Keziah Ussington, leads the Jovian Confederacy in a war of liberation against the ‘Core Dominion’ (Venus, Mars and the Earth). In the aftermath Keziah, a sort of cross between George Washington and Mary Wollstonecraft, builds a new society on the rubble of the old:

‘There will be no place for Privilege now, but that all have it; no place for rank, or ownership of one’s fellow man. We have conquer’d Scarcity — so shall we conquer Inequity.’ As she spoke, Keziah laid her phase-rifle on the palace floor near where the green marmoreal slabs had fissured above the deep Abyss; at which act her Aureoton troop in their shining gold armour leapt forward to contrive a circle of bristling defense all ’round her. The Core Monarch, his visage grim as he sat upon the Throne of Eons, watch’d this living War-Halo surround Keziah but said nothing to counter her words. Even now from a spar of his battlements swung hungry the noose.

While we can see here another possible cause for Bromley’s modern lack of readers — the prose style of the time has not always aged well — there is a vigour and a fecundity of invention in his writing that would shame many modern SF authors. And the portrayal of Keziah Ussington is bold for its time: ambitious and resourceful and full of grit, she is a match for any man in the novel, and the world she seeks to build is truly radical in its anarchic, utopian vision. This utopian aspiration struck a chord with many intellectuals who had grown disillusioned when the promise of the French Revolution curdled into the Reign of Terror. William Godwin and Percy Shelley were both enamoured of the novel; Shelley, courting Godwin’s daughter Mary, would address her in letters as ‘My merciless Keziah.’

More stories and novels followed, and it can be shocking to scan them and see how essential Bromley was in creating science fiction as a genre. Having mastered the space opera, he moved on to other realms; he was a writer of many firsts, a ‘progenitor of the Fantastic‘ as Mary Shelley, no slouch herself, once called him:

  • ‘An Incident at Goswell Wood’ – the first alien abduction story
  • Noctis Equi – the first ‘zombie apocalypse’ story (Bromley calls them ‘the Unsouled’)
  • ‘Birds of a Scale’ – the first mention of the idea of genes and genetic engineering
  • The Somnium Variations – the first virtual reality story
  • Oberon’s Grief – the first tale of cybernetic organisms (‘Obots’)
  • ‘The Wreck of the Photius‘ – the first story to discuss black holes
  • ‘At Newton’s Throat’ – the story that predicted relativity’s time dilation effect
  • ‘The Shaman and His Huntresses’ – the first ‘time machine’ story

And he didn’t just create the genre of science fiction; with his passion for neologisms, he created much of our current scientific language as well. So much sheer terminology poured from his quill: black hole, gene, terraforming, nano, quantum, obot, software, wetware, hyperdrive, wormhole, technician, scientist, and spacetime, among a hundred others.

There were hints, though, of a darker side. Bromley’s last story is obviously problematic: ‘The Shaman and His Huntresses’ portrays a time traveller who uses his knowledge and advanced technology to create a prehistoric empire. All well and good; but Bromley’s time traveller, Dr. Hekataeos, conquers the Stone Age world with a vast army of suicidally fanatical pubescent girls. What starts out as a sort of Thermopylae as written by Lewis Carroll quickly becomes obsessively, pruriently detailed. As Macallan observes, Bromley was by this time clearly struggling with some sort of compulsion, and wisely chose not to publish the story in his lifetime. It remained unpublished until its inclusion, by Mowbray Wolfe, as an appendix to his biography The Fraughting Soul.

Perhaps ‘biography’ should be in quotes. The Fraughting Soul is, like its author, a strange and troubling piece of work. Mowbray Wolfe had compulsions of his own, and before his murder in a Buenos Aires garret in 1949 he had accrued an intercontinental dossier of offences and arrests fit to shock the most flamboyant social rebel. (That may sound like hyperbole, but this reviewer’s gag reflex is simply too robust to list Wolfe’s transgressions here; Wikipedia, in this instance, must suffice.) He was a true believer: an ardent utopianist of alternately fascist and anarchist convictions, depending on which mix of drugs he was addicted to on any given day, he pursued his vision of socio-pharmacological transcendence to its furthest, most perverse limits, eventually joining Jutta Pfeil-Holtmann’s ‘Aluf’ cult in the Peruvian rain forest and taking part in the Ucayali Horrors (the basis for Jean Arimao’s 1971 film Aux murènes).

So Wolfe was mad; he was also brilliant. He held much of Milton and Shelley, and all of Shakespeare, in his memory. His books on Shelley, Blake, and William Morris are classic examples of politically acute literary interpretation, and his exegesis of Uriah Bromley’s works is subtle, inspired, and free of cant. His conclusions about Bromley the man, however, simply don’t bear scrutiny. The last third of The Fraughting Soul degenerates into speculations drenched in demented paranoia — time travel experiments, condemned prisoners from the twenty-first century used as scientific guinea pigs, etc. As an imaginative work it’s fascinating, in a morbid way: the reader is obviously encountering the mind of a sick genius unfiltered (Wolfe was also heavily addicted to opium at this time). It can be no surprise that this strange, psychedelic book was published privately.

It’s inevitable that Macallan must wrest what he can from Wolfe’s bizarre text, however grudgingly. Even after almost a century of new bibliographic and research techniques there has been very little to add to our knowledge of Bromley’s life; unusually for the time, he left behind no letters or manuscripts, no diary, and of course no will. We know that during his productive period he never left England, rarely venturing more than five miles from the cottage at Farnham where altogether he wrote eight novels and nineteen short stories. And we know that when he wasn’t writing, he was usually fly fishing on the river Wey, often in the company of the pioneering chemist Humphry Davy — who, inspired by Bromley, would try his hand at science fiction as well.

It is really only in the writings of others, like Davy and Coleridge, that we get even a sketchy portrait. Normally not a talkative man, Bromley would open up in conversation under the influence of ‘the Bang and the dam Smack‘ as Coleridge called hashish and opium. He could thrill with his theories about planetary formation or steelmaking or bioluminescence. Discussing Herschel’s recent discovery of ‘calorific rays’ (infrared radiation) with Davy, Bromley speculated about the possibility of using such rays to, in Davy’s words, ‘detect and track anything one could imagine by the interval of their reflection — a flock of birds, a fleet of ships, &c. — even clouds and even electrical charges.’ Davy later credited Bromley’s theories as one of the inspirations for his and Faraday’s 1817 discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Naturally Macallan makes use of the most troubling document of all: the Tallis diary, discovered by Mowbray Wolfe in 1927 among the personal effects of a ‘Mr. H–‘ of Essex. As one would expect, there have been doubts about the diary’s authenticity — it was not unknown for a servant woman of the time to be literate but it was also not terribly common, and Wolfe’s refusal to reveal the name of the estate from which he procured the diary makes the task of tracing its provenance impossible.

Elisabeth Tallis, the daughter of a Farnham ironmonger, worked as Bromley’s housemaid from 1808 until his disappearance eleven years later. Her diary is a rather mundane affair (there is much anguish over a romance with a local stable-boy) until March of 1819, when she records Bromley ‘acting most strange’ following the disappearance of two Farnham children, Sally and Mary Wells. Previously a taciturn though kind man in her account, he now grew more and more agitated, keeping Tallis up late to attend to him as he sat before the parlor fire talking to himself in an anxious undertone. Then, in late March, he woke her up late one night to share with her what she described as ‘a spate of Ramblings that alarm’d me greatly’:

Mr. Bromley told me that he had travel’d farther than any man had ever travel’d before. He told me ‘You see these impulses were my Downfall but also my Salvation. They brought me here and they are the reason I’m here.’ When I asked him what impulses he meant and how they could have led him to Farnham and how they could be his Salvation he said that I was a ‘silly girl’ but that I had nothing to fear from him. I told him that indeed he had given me never [sic] no cause to fear him and had always been kind to me and a most generous employer. Then he said that there were ‘awful, terrible things’ he had done but those were in the past ‘or rather not the past‘ he said and seem’d set to weep right there in my small room. ‘I cannot deny that I have had these impulses but I would not imperil all I have now, I would not do it’ and he said he would always keep them in check. ‘I will not be lock’d up again’ he said as he left my room and afterward I sat in the darkness not knowing what to think and I still do not know.

This can of course be interpreted in many ways. Tallis herself links the change in Bromley’s manner to the children’s disappearance, and Wolfe seems willing to accept the connection. Given the content of ‘The Shaman and His Huntresses’ the disinterested observer could well wonder whether Bromley was guilty of something.

Anxious both for her position and her safety, Elisabeth Tallis revealed Bromley’s agitation to her sister and brother-in-law. This led to inquiries; then, on April 8, 1819, Bromley departed his Farnham cottage in the middle of the night, and never returned. He had withdrawn all his funds from his London bank a few days before. On his writing desk, he left open his edition of Shakespeare’s collected works at Act One of The Tempest, with the following passage hastily circled:

Poor souls, they perished.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth, or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed and
The fraughting souls within her.

Macallan attempts to trace Bromley through passenger manifests or further writings in America or Europe; but, even now, his fate remains unknown.

Which brings us to Uriah Bromley’s legacy, here on the two-hundredth anniversary of his disappearance. There’s no question that his tales served as inspiration for scientists and engineers of the last two centuries. Davy and Faraday both credited him often, if discreetly, as did James Clerk Maxwell and George Sutton. In 1910, upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb, the physicist Stanley Oakes-Ibbotson quoted in his journal the final line of the story ‘The Wreck of the Photius‘: ‘Poised there on the sprung bourne of a new Age, they wept in distress at what they had wrought.’

Macallan goes further — literally, crediting Bromley even with our expansion into the solar system: the colony on Mars; the outposts on the Jovian moons; the mission now en route to Saturn’s moon Titan. Even the startling discovery nine years ago of entanglement ‘signal-seeding’ by the unknown 51 Pegasi civilization can, in Macallan’s view, be ascribed, albeit indirectly, to the influence of Bromley’s works. It is a debatable conclusion; one can’t credit Bromley with the revolutions that were already afoot when he published his works. But it would be hard to argue with Professor Macallan’s larger point: it is long past time for Uriah Bromley to receive the wider recognition due him not only as a groundbreaking author of science fiction, but as a prophet of the coming age as well.