I recently began some writing projects into what I thought was a thus far unexplored genre: historical science fiction. Steampunk touches on this but is largely attached to the Victorian era and seems to be more about the spectacle than about the science, and speculative fiction, while an accurate title, is rather broad for my tastes, as it encompasses all of science fiction and fantasy, without giving this little curiosity of what-could-have-beens its own little niche and name. To tell the truth, I was a bit excited at the thought that I might create a new genre (my previous attempt at some kind of neo-noir having been preempted before my birth by Blade Runner), but I was not at all disappointed (unlike my experience when hearing about Blade Runner) when I heard about Irregularity, described to me as set during the Age of Reason and being about “famous scientific types encountering strange things.” I picked up a copy as soon as I could, thrilled that I wouldn’t be the only writer exploring this particular combination of science and history.

Even before I began reading, I fell in love. The synopsis on the back cover is enticing, promising tales of “the secret names of spiders” and “the assassination of Isaac Newton” (I may or may not have squeaked with excitement while walking down the sidewalk as I read that phrase), and the typeface, which is something I normally don’t pay much attention to, reminds me of old books printed at the beginning of the 20th century if not before. I dove into the book as soon as I got home.

The first few stories in the anthology are probably my favorites. The prologue, “Irregularity”, doesn’t have an exciting, page-turning plot, but there are passages that made me gasp aloud with eagerness. It’s the perfect opening to this sort of book: a love letter to libraries, and to stories themselves, and a quiet reminder to the reader that even though not everything written down is true, there is always some element of truth within the words, if one knows how to look for it. I would have been happy to read and reread this story, but there were others calling for my attention.

The next story, “A Game Proposition”, is more what I had expected. It has a very definite setting – Port Royal some years before 1700 – and characters that stuck inside my mind – four women: Nan, Peg, Jenny, and the unnamed narrator; and one man: a certain William Dampier. The man spies these four women playing at some game and asks whether he can play along. All through the story we are given hints and clues as to what the game means and who these women are (by which I mean, it is all but spelled-out, though the author never makes it feel too obvious), and the conclusion strikes just the right balance between finality and a lack thereof.

The next two stories, “The Spiders of Stockholm” and “The Last Escapement”, could both easily be called horror, although for very different reasons. “The Spiders of Stockholm” deals with a combination of the horror of the unknown and the horror of knowing. Curiously enough, the spiders themselves are not horrible at all. “The Last Escapement” is a more traditional form of horror that, once I was done reading it, put me in mind of when I had watched Black Swan. It takes place during the time when people were trying to find a way to accurately tell time aboard a ship at sea, and the tone goes from the sort of determination any fellow creator will understand to literally feverish excitement to a place that becomes genuinely horrifying. It’s a chilling story, but excellently done.

If I must be honest, the next story is the one I had been looking forward to the most: “The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle”. I won’t tell too much about this one, since to do so would be to ruin the best surprise, but I will say it was not at all what I had expected, and refreshingly welcome after “The Last Escapement”.

The next story I enjoyed the most is another that I cannot tell too much about for fear of giving away the ending, but I will say that it concerns a secret voyage undertaken by Charles Darwin aboard the H.M.S. Basset on a matter of vital importance for the soon-to-be Queen Victoria. This story kept me curious throughout as to what exactly Mr. Darwin could be doing with his mysterious cargo that appeared to be comprised solely of some form of insect life, which he bore to an island – and it could only be that particular island, according to mathematics – all the while attempting to avoid a thwarting by the French.

In the interests of space, I’ll have to skim over a few of the other stories in this anthology to get to the final two, both of which struck me more than the middle set of “Animalia Paradoxa”, “Footprint”, “The Heart of Aris Kindt”, “An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought”, “Circulation”, and “Darkness”. My lumping these five stories together should not give the impression that they are of a similar nature, for that is the last thing I would say about them. Some are drawn out, while others reach their destination more quickly; some have definite endings, while others (mainly “Circulation”, but also slightly with “The Heart of Aris Kindt”) left me feeling slightly bemused, but perhaps rereading them will leave me more satisfied. All the stories are curiosities in their own way, and all are quite good.

The final two stories, both of which I found myself drawn to, captured me in different ways. “A Woman Out of Time” is quite possibly one of the stranger stories in the collection, and considering another deals with a black hole appearing in the Thames, that says quite a bit. The narration, really, is the strange part about it. The story itself concerns a French woman, Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, but the narration comes from a nameless “we”, who are determined to keep her from becoming brilliant and obscuring the light of Voltaire. In a collection of stories showing what could have been (and in the case of some, what never could have been), it is odd and exciting to find something that shows some inhuman force keeping what could have been strictly in line with what was.

The closing story, “Fairchild’s Folly”, is the perfect way to end Irregularity, though I did not think it so when I first read it. It has none of the excitement of Darwin or of black holes, and while it does have Carl Linneaus, the most he does is write letters to a botanist named Thomas Fairchild. And yet, for all its quiet tone, the story manages to capture something about science that the others do not. Science, it says, cannot touch everything.

I think that’s what I’ll need to remember as I continue my own projects.


By Jo Niederhoff

Jo Niederhoff has been reading fantasy for so long that she sometimes forgets the real world doesn't have dragons. This is slightly disappointing, but she's just as glad that she won't be eaten by giant lizards. To make up for the lack of magic and inexplicable things, she writes fantasy (and the occasional science fiction), some of which she posts on FictionPress as RussetDivinity. Currently she alternates living between her family and college, but considering she's getting a degree in creative writing, she'll likely be with her family for some time after graduation. You can follow her on Twitter @JoNiederhoff.

One thought on “Irregularity edited by Jared Shurin”
  1. I would have thought that Doctor Who counts as historical science fiction, certainly much of it anyways, especially during the early years of the show.

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