When you think of the Mummy in fiction, you probably think of a shambling, bandaged figure terrorising those who dare to open the tomb of a long dead pharaoh. The Mummy might by the earliest reanimated Mummy story. It should go some way to reassess that image. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein it was originally published anonymously. The original three volumes were published in 1827, are republished in 1828. And like Shelley, Loudon was only a teenager when she wrote it.
This is a review of Volume 1, the second edition, as published in 1828. It is a rendered version of an early text, read on the iPad via Google Books. I haven’t read the second and third volumes, as there is enough in this volume to understand the story and to judge both its literary and science fictional elements.
It is hard to talk about the plot for The Mummy without referring to the works of Shelley. They were written by similar people as similar times, but I wonder if this story is a homage, a satire, or just a plain rip-off. The ideas are similar to Frankenstein and the tone and style are almost the same as The Last Man. In summary, then, it is 2126 and England is under ‘the absolute dominion of a female sovereign’. The opening segment of the book is an exposition on how and why the society is as it is. Talk is of freedom and of education. A battle between science and religion; reflective of the times it was written. So what world has Loudon built? England has tried anarchy, socialism, republicanism and more, but has reverted back to the aforementioned monarchy, with an absolute female line of succession. The Queen won’t marry or have children, so succession falls to an unmarried woman elsewhere in her family. Despite this, women still fall under the rule of men in terms of marriage and career. Catholicism is also the main religion. Steam power still rules; indeed, Loudon comes up with an ingeniously silly steam-powered communication system. Galvanism is the ‘new thing’ – the power of electricity still causing wonder 200 years after its invention! England is still an imperialist state as well. It’s not until chapter 2 when we start to meet the characters in the story.
We are introduced to the aristocratic Montagues, and the Duke of Cornwall. Edmund Montague is a national hero in the army, while his younger brother, Edric, is lazy but very intelligent. The Duke’s family includes Elvira and Rosabella, who are of age to marry. The one who doesn’t will be next in line to the throne. Edric yearns for notoriety of his own, albeit academic. He hatches a plan with a German scientist – his tutor – Dr. Entwerfen, to resurrect a mummy. Is Edric a more rational Victor Frankenstein? He doesn’t want to build a body, just reanimate an already existing one. He is not trying to be a clever scientist, but wants to prove that the body and soul remain linked upon death. There is a clergyman in the story, Father Morris, who provides Edric with his spiritual debate. But how can Edric succeed in his mission? Fortunately, his father insists he marry Rosabella. Parents still dominate the lives of their children; Loudon insisting it is the duty of parents to make their children’s decisions for them. Maybe she was being steered in directions she didn’t like growing up as a teenager. Refusing, Edric is forced to leave the family home. And so he can embark on his journey, via a quick stop-over in London.
With Dr Entwerfen, he travels onto Egypt via hot-air balloon. By now, we’re almost at the end of volume 1. Almost as soon as they land, they’ve located the mummified pharaoh, Cheops, and resurrected him using their galvanic battery. There is almost no explanation of the science and the procedure here. Cheops, however, isn’t best pleased with being suddenly alive again. Edric is unable to ask him about the soul, as the Mummy quickly escapes the pyramid and steals the balloon. Edric and his companion are arrested and tried by the Egyptian authorities and left to rot in a cell. Meanwhile, and beyond any reasonable explanation, Cheops steers the balloon to London where there is a parade held in honour of the Queen. The balloon lands on her, killing her.
Despite this being set firmly in the future, and with Loudon trying her best to evolve technology to show as much, The Mummy is a story of family and society in the Regency period, the way The Last Man was. This novel, fortunately, is no-where near as boring. It is disappointing, however, that most of the ‘action’ is reserved for the final few pages of this volume, and when it arrives, it swiftly passes by.
Some of the science fictional bits are worth a mention: Loudon describes (briefly) a machine which can alter the weather, in order to ‘give the barley a little rain’. I mentioned a communication device earlier. You see, the usual mail was too slow for ‘so enlightened a people’, and thus letters were put into little balls, shot by steam canons and caught in nets. Not so enlightened, methinks. And yet for longer distances, carrier pigeon is still used. And what of moving houses? Oh yes. Small houses move on tracks, so their inhabitants can have weekends in the country without the inconvenience of packing and staying in hotels. They also have inflatable flying horses! Indeed. What this shows is that Loudon thought about what was wrong in her eyes with society, and tried to apply technological solutions to them. It also shows the difficulty of thinking outside that time period; a trick most science fiction authors fail with (and one reason my many critics think these authors fail to predict the future – which is not what they are trying to do). Science is seen to have changed ‘desolation into plenty’. Loudon pro-science? So, despite these ideas seeming ludicrous to our eyes, Loudon has introduced proper science fiction elements into her story, which is fundamentally about society and religion, along with the debate about the body and the soul. And these are the kind of themes all good science fiction should address.
As a work of fiction, I found The Mummy lacking. I didn’t warm to any of the characters and some of the plotting is dull at best. Edric is so arrogant he doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong, even when accused by the Egyptian judge. Most of the other actors in the book are one-dimensional at best. Unlike the creature in Shelley’s debut, there is no explanation or insight into Cheops character or actions. There is no description of how or why Cheops found his way to London, although to be fair, this is a question which may be addressed in volumes 2 and 3. I just don’t want to read them. Loudon takes lazy shortcuts on occasion as well. Not a great work of fiction, then (Loudon isn’t the greatest writer – she often says something like, ‘no event of any importance occurred’, to get the plot from a to b quickly), but an interesting and worthy entry into the history of science fiction, which should be read alongside the works of Shelley. Indeed, if you ignore its literary flaws, this is probably the second proper science fiction novel after Frankenstein. It is up to you, however, whether to take it as flattery or attack on Shelley.