The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World: Books

By Wright, Tom F. | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, December 5, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World: Books


Wright, Tom F., The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World, By Rosalind Williams, University of Chicago Press, 432pp, Pounds 21.00, ISBN 9780226899558 and 9589 (e-book), Published 28 October 2013

For some years, humanists and scientists have urged us to adopt the term "Anthropocene" to refer to our geological era. In her captivating and unsettling new book, Rosalind Williams recovers an alternative term for the imprint of man. Reaching back to Francis Bacon's 1627 story New Atlantis, she borrows his language for the goal of a lost race obsessed with "the enlarging of the bounds of human empire".

The advent of an intensely humanised Earth is a fundamental geological event, but as Williams argues, this "human empire" should also be seen as "a still-unfolding event of consciousness". Opting to focus on the turning point of the late 19th century, Williams explores a key phase in this "unfolding" through the work of three late contemporary obser-vers: Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson and William Morris.

Williams' engaging blend of history of science, literary criticism and cultural studies has flowered through a series of compelling and important books. In particular, her Notes on the Underground (1990) explored the cultural consequences of the overwhelming prevalence of built-over natural environments. Returning to this theme and focusing on the period of high industrial and imperial expansion, her similarly wide-ranging new book uses three case studies to offer an account of fin de siecle anxiety that is rich in instructive parallels for our own moment of ecological alarm.

As this book reveals, two and a half centuries after Bacon, the fear of "human empire" was terrifyingly alive. Just as the "closing" of the American frontier in the 1890s generated a period of New World soul- searching, a similar ferment had been at work for a generation in a European cultural consciousness that was increasingly alert to the ambivalent prospect of the end of an unmapped world. Through Williams' lucid narrative, the Frenchman, the Scottish visionary and the English socialist emerge as troubled observers of mankind's global ambitions, allowing "a lingering trust in the path of historical progress" to coexist "with anxiety about intersecting crises that keep coming, reinfor-cing and intersecting each other, submerging and obliterating the track of progress". …

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