The Wonder: Too cool for school

The Wonder by J.D. Beresford science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Wonder by J.D. Beresford

The Wonder by J.D. Beresford science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAs I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere, one of the pet themes of both Radium Age and Golden Age sci-fi was that of the ubermensch (superman) or the wunderkind (child prodigy), as the case may be; individuals who, as a result of a mutation or genetic engineering, and whether deliberately or accidentally created, came to possess mental and/or physical abilities that separate them from the ruck of humanity. I have already written here of such ubermensch novels as Seeds of Life (1931) by John Taine, in which Neils Bork, a lab worker, is changed after being exposed to a massive dose of X rays and electricity; Odd John (1935) by Olaf Stapledon, in which a mutant from birth, John Wainwright, seeks out other examples of “Homo superior”; The New Adam (1939) by Stanley G. Weinbaum, which tells the story of Edmond Hall, a man with a superhuman brain; Dragon’s Island (1951) by Jack Williamson, the first novel to use the term “genetic engineering”; and Mutant (1953) by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, in which the hard-radiation detritus following a global war creates the telepathic race known as the Baldies. Kat has written of A.E. van Vogt’s classic novel Slan (1940), featuring Jommy Cross and another genetically manipulated race, and I have also written here of Norvell W. Page’s famous novella of that same year, “But Without Horns,” in which three FBI agents go up against mental mutant John Miller. But now I would like to tell you of the latest ubermensch tale that I have experienced, and it just happens to be one of the very first in this well-traveled genre: The Wonder, by J.D. Beresford.

The Wonder was the English author’s second novel, following The Early History of Jacob Stahl, and was initially released by the British publisher Sidgwick & Jackson as a hardcover volume in 1911 (when Beresford was 38), bearing the novel’s original title, The Hampdenshire Wonder. In 1917, for its U.S. release, the publisher George H. Doran truncated the title to the one we are familiar with today. Befitting its classic status, the novel has seen at least a dozen other releases over the decades; the volume that I was fortunate enough to acquire is the 1999 one from Bison Books, which includes a nice little introduction by Jack L. Chalker. As for Beresford himself, he had been born in Cambridgeshire in 1873 and worked as both a dramatist and journalist before becoming an author. By the time of his passing in 1947, at age 73, John Davys Beresford had come out with some 30 novels, plus five books of short stories and the first study on the works of H.G. Wells.

In The Wonder, his first work of science fiction, Beresford gives us the story of Victor Stott, as told by a nameless narrator who, like Beresford, had once been a journalist and was now endeavoring to become an author. It seems that our narrator had first encountered Stott in a railway car, in which the 21-month-old child had been making his fellow passengers uncomfortable by dint of his bald and hydrocephalic-appearing head, his silent air of complete abstraction, and his overpowering and intimidating gaze. Our narrator would later learn that the child had been fathered by Ginger Stott himself, who had once been the most famous cricket bowler in all of England, and whom our narrator had covered and reported on for his paper. He had later visited the Stott household, and had learned of Ginger’s great disappointment with his son. Ginger, following his forced retirement from the game after a hand disfigurement, had hoped to train Victor to become an ace cricket bowler as well, but now looked upon his progeny as nothing but a “blarsted freak.” The child’s mother, Ellen Mary, however, had practically worshipped her son, and deemed him something new and extraordinary, devotedly caring for him after Ginger abandoned the family.

Our narrator had been absent from England for personal reasons for the next six years, but manages to fill us in on what happened while he was gone. Victor Stott, it seems, had remained silent, for the most part, until he was 4 ½. His only reading material till then was an old cricket magazine and the family Bible, both of which he’d already blasted through, even at that young age. But the strange child’s life would soon be changed when Henry Challis, the local landlord and magistrate – and a dilettante anthropologist – offered Stott the freedom of his personal library, which supposedly contained 40,000 to 50,000 volumes. (I am so jealous of that man!) Challis and his assistant, Gregory Lewes, had watched as young Victor slowly and silently began to read the dictionary and then, over the course of three weeks, the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, from A to Z! (“So elementary … inchoate … a disjunctive … patchwork,” Stott told the two upon his completion.) As the years passed by, Victor had slowly absorbed much of the vast knowledge from this storehouse of books, still largely keeping to himself, communicating little, and remaining friendless. An attempt by the local Education Committee to get Stott to attend school, spearheaded by the scandalized minister Percy Crashaw, had turned into something of a mockery when Victor was able to instantly answer all their many test questions. Indeed, young Stott’s only concern in life seemed to be avoiding the attentions of an older boy, the mentally handicapped child known in the small English town of Pym as “the Harrison idiot,” who was apparently the only person around not intimidated by the so-called Wonder.

Our narrator had returned to England when Victor was all of 8 years old, and had taken a new interest in the child after settling in Pym to try to write a book on philosophical matters. Our narrator had actually been able to build up some kind of rapport with the ugly and uncivil child, taking him for walks and warding off the annoying harassments of the Harrison boy. It seems that he had come quite under the dominating influence of The Wonder, and had resolved to study him and perhaps even understand him. Unfortunately, most of what Victor told him was of so recondite a nature as to be completely incomprehensible; a way of thinking completely different from any other person’s on Earth. Victor had by then advanced to a mental plane so high as to practically make him an alien amongst his own kind. It was a tragic state of affairs, truly, and still another and perhaps even greater tragedy lay not very far ahead…

In his introduction to the Bison edition, Jack Chalker says of The Wonder “For 1911, this is pretty solid science fiction,” and I suppose that he is right, although the book strikes me as being only marginally in the sci-fi vein. Rather, I would categorize the story more as a tragic tale about an unfortunate misfit outsider, one whom author Colin Wilson would undoubtedly call an “evolutionary throw-forward.” The book is tragic not only because of what ultimately transpires to young Victor Stott (but then again, how many of those genetic marvels in the books mentioned up top ever got to live happily ever after?) but because of the effect his final fate has on those who know him. Also tragic is the fact that despite his remarkable ability to read quickly, memorize everything he takes in, and synthesize all the accumulated wisdom contained in Challis’ library, Stott can in no way share his astounding knowledge with others. The lad is not featured in the book as often as you might expect, and rarely deigns to speak to others. And on those few occasions when he does open up, he is apt to say something like this:The Wonder by J.D. Beresford science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

Pure deduction from a single premiss, unaided by previous knowledge of the functions of the terms used in the expansion of the argument, is an act of creation, incontrovertible, and outside the scope of human reasoning…

Statements such as these leave our poor narrator (and the reader) scratching his head in confusion, as well as frustration. All that wisdom in Victor Stott’s 8-year-old noggin … but with no way to communicate it to the adult dunderheads around him! A tragedy, indeed! Ultimately, young Stott, ill mannered and taciturn as he may be, makes for a truly fascinating, mysterious and pitiable character, and every moment that he is present is a captivating one. We surely do not care for the little tyke at first, but by the novel’s end, he surely does manage to gain our sympathies.

For the rest of it, The Wonder is unfailingly adult, intelligent and highly literate, with casual references to such luminaries as Matthew Arnold and William Ernest Henley scattered about. The book conveys a wonderful feeling of both time and place, and its small-town rural setting in the early 1900s is beautifully brought off by Beresford. Strangely enough, the book does not feel dated at all, despite having been released 111 years ago (as of this writing). It is a very English affair, however, and you just might need to look up some minor matters, such as what a “Borstal Institution” is. The Wonder is also filled with well-drawn secondary characters, especially Challis, who emerges as the book’s most likable character. And Beresford, as it turns out, is an absolutely splendid novelist, even so early on in his writing career, and a highly controlled one, at that. I love the ambiguous ending that he gives us, with the author of Victor’s ultimate fate remaining a mystery (I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers here) … although the culprit is strongly suggested. Many folks have drawn parallels between Beresford’s work here and his own life, and I suppose their arguments are valid ones. Beresford had suffered from disabling polio as a child, apparently, and had later become an Agnostic, despite his upbringing in a religious family headed by a clergyman father. Thus, his sympathy for the physically offputting Victor, and his antipathy to the rector, Crashaw, can perhaps be understood. Also, H. G. Wells’ father, Joseph Wells, had been a famous cricketer, and as an authority on all things H. G. Wells, Beresford would surely have been aware of that. But whether these bits are autobiographical in nature or not, the author still turns in some masterful work here. As for Victor Stott himself, this wunderkind was almost certainly inspired by the real-life German prodigy Christian Heinrich Heinecken (1721 – 1725), the so-called “Infant Scholar of Lubeck,” whose life is alluded to by Beresford somewhere in his book. (I urge you to look up the facts on this amazing kid; he truly was a wonder!)

The Wonder is not a book filled with action scenes and melodramatic episodes, per se, but several sequences do manage to stand out: Victor’s birth, for example, and the various reactions of his doctor, midwife, and wet nurse; Victor’s initial entry into the world of books; his examination by that stuffy Education Committee; and the tragedy of his ultimate fate. And talk about Beresford’s novel not feeling dated! Get a load of this passage, in which Challis tells Victor about mankind of the early 20th century:

…We are swayed even in the making of our laws by little primitive emotions and passions, self-interests, desires. And at the best we are not capable of ordering our lives and our government to those just ends which we may see, some of us, are abstractly right and fine. We are at the mercy of that great mass of the people who have not yet won to an intellectual and discriminating judgment of how their own needs may best be served, and whose representatives consider the interests of a party, a constituency, and especially of their own personal ambitions and welfare, before the needs of humanity as a whole…

This could almost have been written today, no?

Actually, this reader has surprisingly few complaints to lodge against Beresford’s work here. Yes, some of his passages can be accused of being a tad overwritten (“’I give way,’ was the characteristic of his attitude to Crashaw, and the rector suppled his back again … and made the amende honorable…”), and the fact that the novel jumps about in time can make the story line a bit challenging. Also, readers who are not fully versed in the game of cricket will be at a decided disadvantage during the novel’s first 40 pages or so. (I watched a six-minute online video on the game and then had no problem keeping up at all!) But that’s about it. The Wonder actually proved a very satisfying reading experience for me, albeit a somewhat depressing one. I now find myself wanting to experience some more of Beresford’s sci-fi/fantasy works, such as the postapocalyptic novel Goslings (1913), the utopian affair What Dreams May Come (1941), and The Riddle of the Tower (1944). I’ve actually had a copy of Goslings sitting on my shelf, unread, for quite some time, and am now looking forward to reading it one day soon…

Published in 1911. Nothing will ever mystify or challenge the Wonder. He masters entire libraries and languages with little effort. No equation, no problem is too difficult to solve. His casual conversations with ministers and philosophers decimate their vaunted beliefs and crush their cherished intellectual ambitions. The Wonder compels obedience and silence with a glance. His mother idolizes him as a god. Yet no one is more hated or alone than the Wonder. This is the chilling tale of Victor Stott, an English boy born thousands of years ahead of his time. Raised in the village of Hampdenshire, the strangely proportioned young Victor possesses mental abilities vastly superior to those of his fellow villagers. The incomprehensible intellect and powers of the Wonder inspire awe, provoke horror, and eventually threaten to rip apart Hampdenshire. Long recognized as a classic of speculative fiction but never before widely available, The Wonder is one of the first novels about a “superman.” J. D. Beresford’s subtle and intriguing story of a boy with superhuman abilities paved the way for such noted works as Philip Wylie’s Gladiator and A. E. van Vogt’s Slan

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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