Top positive review
Solidly in the lineage of modern science fiction and fantasy
Reviewed in the United States on September 4, 2015
This is one of various works touted as “the first science fiction novel” (especially in contexts where people are pointing out the strong influence of female authors in the early development of science fictional concepts). The full title is The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, first published in 1666, but with an expanded version (as discussed below) published in 1668.
In brief: a young woman is abducted by a would-be suitor but the ship carrying them is blown off course to the North Pole and enters a passage into an alternate world, in the course of which everyone on the ship except for the young woman perishes of the cold. From the description of the transition and the destination, the world seems to be not so much located in the interior of the Earth, but accessed as a sort of Klein bottle concept where both worlds are “exterior” to each other. The text seems to alternate between treating the home world of the young woman (who is never identified by name -- first she is simply “the lady”, later referenced by another title) as our own world, but later on there is reference to three worlds, with the third being the one the author herself dwells in, which is not directly accessible to the other two. The “Blazing World,” as this destination is called, is clearly utopian, being united under a single emperor and a single religion where everyone lives in peace and harmony. The inhabitants are of a number of different races, partaking of the nature of various animals (bird-men, fish-men, bear-men, worm-men, in addition to unmarked humans) to each of which is attributed some inherent set of intellectual skills. Unsurprisingly given the era when it was written, there’s a lot of unexamined essentialism, colonialism, and “white savior” issues. “The lady,” by virtue of her inherent virtue and purity is instantly recognized as being worthy to be the spouse of the emperor and is thereafter referred to simply as “the empress.”
After this elevation in status, the text bogs down in a long philosophical treatise, presented as the empress’s inquiries of the various beast-scientists as to the nature of the world she has come to rule. The Wikipedia entry on the book suggests that this section had originally been a separate and purely factual treatise “Observations on Experimental Philosophy,” which was appended to the fictional tale in the 1668 edition. (If this is the case, I’d dearly love to get ahold of the simpler 1666 text to see if it holds up better.) If I’d been reading this as a text, I probably would never have gotten past the first few pages of this section, but I had quite wisely chose an audiobook version in preparation for a long road trip. Even so I had to take a break to avoid being put entirely to sleep.
Eventually, the dramatized lecture on experimental philosophy shifts into a more complex story when the Empress turns her hand to introducing Christianity to the Blazing World (though she knowingly uses stage-magician’s tricks to convince her subjects of its truth) and then has her beast-philosophers summon up immaterial spirits to satisfy her curiosity about the condition of the world she left behind. They discourse for some time on theology and philosophy and in the end the Empress sets her heart on creating a Cabbala. The Empress asks the spirits to recommend to her a scribe who can write up the Cabbala for her and they recommend one Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. There’s only one problem: the Duchess lives in an entirely different world inaccessible to the Blazing World, but they can procure her spirit to talk to the Empress by a sort of astral projection, “and truly their meeting did produce such an intimate friendship between them, that they became Platonick Lovers, although they were both Femals.” [swoon] The Empress expresses a desire that the Duchess should rule over a similar realm to her own, but the spirits point out that every person is capable of creating an infinity of worlds within their own imagination over which they could rule, so why be content with just one? Both women exercise this power for a while, creating and abandoning invented worlds at whim. Oh, and the Duchess introduces the Empress to several important English concepts including Theater, with which she is much taken. (There are also digressions where the Duchess laments her husband’s financial woes and how badly Fortune has treated him.) The Empress decides she wants to visit England for herself, so she and the Duchess to the astral projection thing again and somehow both end up sharing the Duke of Newcastle’s body with him and there’s this discussion of the awkwardness of three spirits sharing a single body and the jealousies that arise thereby.
The next section involves a court case against the personification of Fortune, who is being indicted for crimes against the Duke of Newcastle, during which the Duchess pleads his case most eloquently and successfully. After this, the two women’s souls take leave of each other, promising to visit regularly (by astral projection, of course). And that’s the end of Part 1.
Part 2 can be summarized as, “The Empress checks out how things are going back in her home world, discovers that her homeland is beleaguered and throws the scientific and natural resources of the Blazing World at the problem of how to smite her homeland’s enemies and make it the dominant political power of its world. This involves the invention of submarines and chemical warfare. A great deal of the world-building info-dump from the beginning of the novel now becomes relevant as the special physical resources of her new realm are weaponized against the unsuspecting folks back home. They are victorious and the Empress returns home to the Blazing World considering it a job well done. There is a last episode where the Duchess visits the Empress in spirit once more and is lavishly entertained. The story concludes with an epilogue to the reader from the Duchess, describing the supreme delights of world-building and encouraging others to do the same.
For me, it is this emphasis on the self-conscious creation of an inventive secondary world, and the exploration of its nature, properties, and consequences, that places The Blazing World solidly in the lineage of modern science fiction and fantasy. If the plot seems a bit sluggish to the modern reader, and the language overly florid, and the social politics more than a little cringe-worthy, this must be chalked up to being A Product of Its Times and, if not forgiven, at least understood. As an imaginative creation, the Blazing World ranks solidly up there with Middle Earth, Narnia, and Barsoom. For that matter, when stripped down to the essence of the plot, the story could hold its own against many a straight-forward quest adventure. But do yourself a favor and listen to an audio version while doing something tedious like housework or weeding. I doubt many modern readers would have the patience to slog through it otherwise.