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Close encounters of the first kind?

06/03/2008. Contributed by Dr. Dominic Alessio

Buy The Great Romance in the USA - or Buy The Great Romance in the UK

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In 1881 New Zealand a small two volume novella entitled The Great Romance was published under the pseudonym of The Inhabitant. Neglected until now, and republished for the first time in its entirety this Spring by the University of Nebraska Press, the work stands out as an example of early science fiction. Here, apparently for the first time in the history of the genre, or even the history of science itself, readers encounter descriptions of spacesuits, airlocks, shuttlecraft, space fleets, friendly non humanoid aliens, and the human colonisation of space. The author also raises the idea of faster than light travel pre-Einstein, the possibility of humans exploring planetary systems beyond our solar system, cross-species miscegenation, the impact of weightlessness on the human condition (in particular muscle fatigue), and telepathy.

Yet The Great Romance also stands out for more than its science. In terms of its impact upon literature it may have been the frame story for Edward Bellamy’s famous utopian and science fiction text Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), which went on to become an international best seller and has been ranked in terms of its significance “as second only to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital”.

Bellamy’s work directly inspired the Fabians, Zionists, the formation of Labour and Socialist parties in Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the US, as well as writers such as Chekov, Gorky, Shaw, Tolstoy and Wells. It also generated more than 50 utopian responses, the most notable being William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890).

Even more significant than its potential literary impact and forward-thinking scientific premises, however, is The Great Romance’s discussion of the human colonisation of other planets and alien contact.

Read against the grain and utilising postcolonial theory, the story of human-alien encounter presented in this work provides an insight into the more unique settlement history of New Zealand and the so-called “special relationship” between nineteenth century British settlers and the Maori.

Dr. Dominic Alessio

Dominic Alessio is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Study Abroad Program at Richmond The American International University in London. He is also Vice Chair of the New Zealand Studies Association and a Visiting Research Fellow at Northampton University. He has published on Science Fiction and/or Imperial History in peer-reviewed academic journals such as The Women’s History Review, ARIEL, Science Fiction Studies, The British Review of New Zealand Studies, The New Zealand Journal of Literature, The European Legacy, The Journal of Urban History, Foundation and International Cinema.

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