(CLASSIC: first published in McClure’s Magazine (USA) and The Windsor Magazine (UK) 1905)
“With the Night Mail” isn’t actually a short story. It’s a journalist’s account of a voyage with the Trans-Atlantic mail, embedded in a magazine with a host of advertisements, book reviews, answers to correspondents’ queries and other “apparatus” surrounding it. But it (first published in 1905) is set in the world of the year 2000 (the original magazine versions have different dates) and this world is remarkably different from Kipling’s own. The story extrapolates from the conquest of the air foreshadowed by the dirigible airships of the time and, especially, the experiments of the Wright Brothers in 1903. The “Aerial Board of Control” – a kind of international Air Traffic Control system – monitors and directs commerce. Nation-states are a thing of the past. War (apart from the occasional policing action) has ceased. Kipling builds up his picture of the future by addressing us as readers in this future. Throughout the story, there are two “readers” addressed: the reader in 2000 who is part of Kipling’s fiction, to whom the world of the mighty airships needs no introduction but who might need guidance about how the technology works and the “real” reader of the story, to whom Kipling must allow access into all aspects of this transformed future. His detailed and often amusing adverts and asides allow us – who now live in the future he imagined – to explore the differences between his “real” and “imagined” worlds. It is one of the first and best examples of a story which is fully immersed in a possible future.
(MODERN: from What I Didn’t See and Other Stories, Small Beer Press)
A woman disappears in the African jungle, possibly abducted by gorillas, and after having had an affair with one (or more?) of the men in her party. “What I Didn’t See” is a kind of “answer-story” to James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Women Men Don’t See”, using some of the themes of alienation explored by Tiptree (Alice Sheldon) but also drawing upon a real African expedition in which one of the participants was Tiptree/Sheldon’s mother. It’s a story about viewpoint and relationships (and about how the truth about relationships can be obscured by blurred or deliberately skewed viewpoints), but it’s also a story about different views of otherness. What the narrator didn’t see is crucially important, but can we work it out from her account? “What I Didn’t See” is a story of deferral – of explanation and even genre. There have been huge arguments as to whether this story, so deeply imbedded in science fiction and a whole range of semi-fantastic images from Tarzan to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is sf at all, even though it won an award in the field. We never reach the point, as we do in “The Women Men Don’t See,” where aliens appear. But it is a story which is exploring the alien in our world just as Tiptree does, even though to some extent it reverses it. And if science fiction did not exist, nor could this story.
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