Clare Winger Harris might be called a pioneer of science fiction. In an era when most science fiction was male-led dystopian or utopian, Harris wrote space opera and pulp sci-fi, often published in Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories publication. Indeed, The Fate of the Poseidonia was the first of her short stories within that magazine, published in 1927.
The story, as presented in the digitized version of Amazing Stories is structured in 6 short chapters, following on from the announcement that Harris is the recipient of the $100 Third Prize. The short synopsis is the tale of a woman aboard a captured space liner – the Poseidonia – is taken to Mars during “a clandestine campaign by Martians to steal Earth’s water”.
The story begins with the narrator meeting a mysterious man called Martell at a meeting of an astronomy club, and the immediate dislike that sprung up. The meeting, of course, focuses on Mars. The story begins in 1894. Our narrator is dating Margaret. Trouble brews when she meets Martell. Human relationships, in a science fiction story. Published in 1927…not since…well, not for many a book within this list of review and comment has a woman written this type of story. Now the tale moves to 1945 when the ocean is discovered to have fallen by several feet. What could have caused this loss of water? What has this to do with Mars? How is the relationship developing between the 3 main characters? And then, the transatlantic passenger plane – the Pegasus – disappears. So a lot happens in a short space of time. Meanwhile, the narrator is spying on Martell’s apartment and spots a mysterious mechanical device. He dupes his way in when Martell takes ill and is being looked after by Margaret. He tries the device and discovers Martell’s secret. It’s not until chapter 5 when the waters fall again (seismologists report no earth tremors) and the Poseidonia goes missing, reporting a “great cloud of flying objects”… Margaret is aboard the fated vessel. Will the mysteries be solved?
The key to Harris’ short story within the pantheon of science fiction is that it is scientific (to a point). Like Shelley before her, this was no romance or other similar genre aimed at a woman’s market. There is of course, romance between the characters, but this is a driver of motivations, not the means to the end itself. Harris writes proper science fiction. Life on Mars of course has been explored by Wells and Burroughs, but this is the first exploration of non-Terran life by a female author. There’s no overt feminism in this story, but that in itself is important. This is a short science fiction story about aliens and science as told by a woman. It marks an important step in both the development of the science fiction concept – proper story-telling – and the emergence of a female voice in a male-dominated genre.
The writing itself is great, albeit of its time. You believe the characters and the scenario. Harris had a fertile and inquisitive mind and gets a lot of ideas and plot down into a relatively short word-count. This is a tale that could have been told over a novel length. Oh, and as for the Martians, their description leads the reader to think that Harris was concerned with diversity in US culture, and the suppression of the native Americans. So a bit of sub-text too.
There’s not so much in the way of science fiction warnings, or what it means to be human, or live in an advancing technological society. After all, this is a short space-opera style science fiction mystery. Not an alien invasion story, but certainly, the seed of many a future story where the aliens covert our most abundant of resource.
Harris’ The Fate of the Poseidonia should have a wider audience and respect from the modern science fiction fan. Thoroughly enjoyable and a proper science fiction story!