Forgotten Science Fiction: Goslings by J. D. Beresford

Goslings by J. D. Beresford, is a 1913 post-apocalyptic novel about a plague that sweeps across the world and kills mainly men.  If you follow the link from the book title you can read a 23-part serialization from HiLobrow Books, which is illustrated with period photographs.  HiLobrow also has reprinted the novel as a paperback and ebook as part of their Radium Age Science Fiction Series.  I listened to the Dreamscape edition from Audible.com that was elegantly read by Matthew Brenher who did a bang-up job narrating the British dialect – just look at this reproduction of the English edition to see how hard it would be for a modern American to read.  The book was called A World of Women when first published in America.

goslings-500

Beresford was an admirer of H. G. Wells, and combined fiction with scientific philosophy in Goslings, that is part satire, part adventure, and part speculative science fiction.  I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic novels that deal with the collapse of society to where only a few individuals are left to rebuild civilization.  My favorite is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and although Goslings is not as fine as that great novel, it does prefigure many of the ideas that Stewart explored in his book.  I was totally absorbed in Goslings, which is just 8 hours and 12 minutes long, and addictively stuck with it two days running to finish because I enjoyed it so much.  However, like I said, I’m a fan of this SF sub-genre, and a fan of old science fiction, so I’m not sure how modern readers will react to this somewhat quaint intellectual story.

Goslings is a science fiction novel before we had the label of science fiction.  There is a long history to post-apocalyptic plague novels, the earliest I know of is Mary Shelley’s The Last Man from 1826.  I wrote extensively about plague novels in my review of Earth Abides, but also in my reviews of the British TV shows Survivors, and the classic SF novel The Day of the Triffids.  As a kid I loved stories about people stranded on a deserted island like Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson and The Mysterious Island.  As I grew older and discovered post-apocalyptic novels where most humans were killed by various catastrophes, I loved the idea of rebuilding society from scratch.

J. D. Beresford wrote during the age of passionate socialists who wanted to rebuild the world into a new order, of ardent feminist writers who wrote about female only utopias, and gloom and doom end-of-the-world prophecies.  Goslings reflects his thoughts about these topics.

I think the key sentence of Beresford’s philosophy is “It is no longer safe to comfort ourselves with the belief—begotten of our vanity—that the world was necessarily made for man.”  Western civilization evolved with the idea that Earth was made by God for humans, but during the Victorian Age, Darwin began teaching a new idea, that humans are animals like all the others, and we have no special place on Earth.  It was quite common in the history of Earth for species to disappear, so why not humans.  Goslings is about a close call.  Like most post-apocalyptic novels, their stories warn us.  Beresford did imagine a world without humans, and how cities and the artifacts of man would erode by the onslaught of nature.  To give his novel an extra twist, and to make a feminist commentary, he has his survivors to consist mainly of women.

Modern readers will see quite a bit of sexism and even a touch of anti-Semitism in the novel, but it’s not enough to warn you away from reading Goslings.  Beresford seems to be saying society has made women more helpless than men, but if given the chance, they will meet the challenges.  Beresford also deals with sex to a minor degree—but not like modern novels.  Some of the male survivors do act like what you’d imagine in a world of one man to hundreds of women.  And some women do attempt to get ahead in such a world by using their bodies instead of their minds.  H. G. Wells was a proponent of free love, and Beresford touches on this popular concept of his day too.

Beresford actual spends more time on the allure of religion than that of sex.  However, this novel is short, and he explores few ideas in depth.  For such an early novel of this type, Beresford touches lightly on many topics that later novels would explore in more detail.  Earth Abides focused on the reeducation of humanity, that Beresford only hinted at.

I thoroughly enjoyed Goslings, and while trying to find copies of the original editions on ABE Books I discovered there are many reprints, so it’s not an entirely forgotten novel.  My guess is there’s quite of few people like myself reading old science fiction, and resurrecting these forgotten classics.  That’s a very limited audience, but it might be growing.  It does fill in a gap between H. G. Wells and Amazing Stories.  I bought an ebook and audiobook of The Last Man by Mary Shelley and hope to read it soon.  I will probably read the other books in the Radium Age Science Fiction series.  The reprinting of Goslings goes to the heart of the matter of my favorite subject—what makes a novel become a classic.  Ultimately, a classic is a book we remember and keep reading after a very long time.  For Goslings, it’s been 101 years.

As to whether Goslings is a successful novel outside the context of its science fictional speculation is hard to say.  Beresford does not follow his characters, the Goslings, a middle-class family of four, to their complete fictional conclusion.  I wished he had added another hundred pages and wrapped up the stories of George and Blanche, but then Beresford seemed more interested in spending his time speculating about the fate of mankind than finishing the personal stories of some of his characters.

My guess is Beresford started out writing about the Goslings, finished his first draft, and then added the story of Jasper Thrale because he decided he needed a man in his story about a world of women to explain things, and ultimately get things done.  I would have found Goslings a more satisfying novel if Blanche had evolved into the Eileen character, and we had followed dad George, and daughter Millie on their individual sexual adventures.

In the end, the reading value of Goslings is for its science fictional speculations.  For a short novel, Beresford did touch on many ideas, and I was impressed by what his 1913 mind produced.  This is worthwhile for two reasons.  It adds to the storehouse of speculation on this subject, and it gives us a view of intellectual discourse of the time, because finally, all speculative science fiction about the future is also an examination of the times it which was written.

JWH – 5/10/14

18 thoughts on “Forgotten Science Fiction: Goslings by J. D. Beresford”

  1. Hello Jim,
    I am what you would call a post-apocalyptic genre enthusiast. I run a number of sites and forms related to the genre, including my main blog at Post-Apocalyptic.com.

    I was very surprised to come across your article on the novel Goslings, not by the article itself, but because I had never heard of the book before.

    With your permission, I’d like to repost your article on Post-Apocalyptic.com. Of course I’d source it back to you.

    Thanks,
    Bill

      1. I would say the earliest true post-apocalyptic novel would be Shelley’s The Last Man, as you mentioned. I’ve always thought of London’s The Scarlet Plague as the granddaddy of modern plague novels, and I guess it does slightly pre-date Goslings, but I’m very interested to read Goslings and see how many of the tropes that we see in more recent books started with it.

      2. And I’ve never gotten around to reading The Scarlet Plague. A couple weeks ago I saw a documentary on PBS Frontline about antibiotic resistant diseases. The producers predicted in another fifty years, the era of antibiotics might be over. With the advent of drug resistant TB, and all these new kinds of super-bugs, it’s easy to believe that a major plague might hit mankind. With the coming climate change, hotter weather brings more dangerous infections and diseases. Between overpopulation and easy air travel, we’re setting ourselves up. Bill, have you watched the British TV show Survivors? Both the 1970s version, and the remake of the 2000s?

      3. The Scarlet Plague is great, it’s well worth reading, and fairly short, so won’t take much time.

        I saw the first season of the new Survivors, and I really enjoyed it. Plague apocalypses are my favorite kind, followed by good old fashioned nuclear war. But when the show was cancelled after season 2, without wrapping up the story, I didn’t go back and watch the rest of it.

        I haven’t seen any of the original series, though I have read the novelization by Terry Nation. I do intend to watch it someday, when I have the time to binge my way through the entire thing.

      4. The production quality of the 1970s series wasn’t that great, but I really loved it. And it lasted long enough for many things to happen. I’d like to see it again, or even own it, but at $55, it’s more than I’m willing to pay for DVD sets. I have the book by Terry Nation, but haven’t read it.

      5. Bill, Le Dernier Homme sounds impressive, especially for 1805. I wonder how many SF stories, in any language, that were written way back then and are now forgotten? I’d like to read Le Dernier Homme, but I’d also like to read the reviews it generated. How did readers react.

    1. I wonder what their psychological appeal is then? With me, I think I’d like the world with far fewer people, but I also like the challenge of reinventing everything.

      1. I think my fascination with the sub-genre is that, by looking at the corpse of civilization, you get a sense of its structure. The post-apocalypse story is a literary post-mortem.

        There is the aspect that you mention: the physical intricacies and interrelationships of the actual infrastructure: agriculture, transportation, energy, buildings, manufacture, etc. This is the how-to aspect of survivalist books of the non-fiction kind and some of the best post-apocalypse stories.

        However, there’s is also the social and anthropological Winfrastructure of society. ho gets to be the leader in a post-apocalypse world? Why? Are all past debts cancelled in the grim, post-apocalypse world or are old loyalties maintained? Is there a natural political state for mankind that would reassert itself? Is there a normal relationship between man and women that we have only been lucky enough to alter because of the wealth of civilization? Etc.

  2. By the way, if you enjoy discussing post-apocalyptic topics, one of my other sites is PostApocalypticForum.com. You’re welcome to stop by and introduce yourself.

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