But we wonder, proceeded the Spirits, that you desire to be Empress of a Terrestrial World, when as you can create your self a Cœlestial World if you please. What, said the Empress, can any Mortal be a Creator? Yes, answered the Spirits; for every human Creature can create an Immaterial World fully inhabited by Immaterial Creatures, and populous of Immaterial subjects, such as we are…
I asked my cousin if she knew any older classics written by women. Having read it for a college class, she came up with The Blazing World, saying, “it’s pretty wild.”
That’s an understatement.
It’s tempting to try to market this book as a “first.” First sci-fi novel, first utopian fiction by a woman, even first Mary Sue are some titles I’ve seen bandied about. I think that’s because it’s easier than trying to describe the actual story, which, as stated, is wild.
In short, a woman gets kidnapped by a man who wants to marry her, but a storm kills her captors, and she drifts to another world, the Blazing World, that can only be reached through the North Pole. She quickly becomes Empress, does some science, makes friends, and eventually goes back home to take over the world. Simple stuff, you know?
The story can be a bit hard to get to. The language is archaic and littered with run-ons. The Blazing World was published sometime between Shakespeare and Gulliver’s Travels, and if you’ve read the latter, you’ve got a solid idea of how readable the prose is.
Another similarity with Gulliver’s Travels is the plethora of references to contemporary science and politics– in this work, more science than politics. This is because it functions as a companion to Cavendish’s scientific work, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. To be clear, her grasp of science is about as strong as that of any educated person in the 1600s, which is to say, laughably poor in the eyes of a modern reader. That being said, given the information available at the time, Cavendish’s arguments are lively and fairly reasonable. A large portion of the novel consists of exposition in the form of extremely detailed world-building, which is where she lays out most of her philosophical and scientific ideas.
It’s really a testament to the human imagination that Cavendish creates a world that is so absurd, yet so internally consistent. She puts many modern fantasy writers to shame in terms of sheer creativity, nothing like the recycled fairy tales and faux-medieval settings that have crowded the landscape. In this sense, The Blazing World is a sci-fi novel: it looks toward the future rather than the past. It’s concerned with innovation and possibility.
Does Cavendish have a flair for intricate plots and surprise twists? Not at all. She is bullishly straightforward, and this is what gives the book its “Mary Sue” flair. The main character becomes the Empress of the Blazing World right out of the gate, and she is beautiful, intelligent, and powerful beyond reason. Like a child playing pretend or a 7th grader writing her first fanfiction, Cavendish gives the Empress everything she could want and more, describing her bejeweled outfits and chariots in excruciating detail.
Interestingly, the Emperor who the Empress marries to gain her title plays very little role in the story. Instead, the two principal characters are the Empress and her best friend, the Duchess of Newcastle. …Wait a moment. The Duchess of Newcastle? Wasn’t Margaret Cavendish the Duchess of Newcastle? Yes, Cavendish did the self-insert hundreds of years before it became a fanfiction trope. She also centered her narrative around female friendship, or “Platonick Lovers,” rather than romance, which is pretty rad.
In the end, the beauty of this book is in the nature of the Blazing World itself, and the text repeatedly reminds the reader that we, too, can create and rule worlds that belong only to ourselves just by imagining it.
From a literary perspective, The Blazing World is a hot mess. From a historical perspective, it is a funky, ostentatious, and beautiful relic of a woman who had the means to be bold, educated, and creative way back in the 1660s. I recommend it to anyone with a curiosity about the history of women in fiction, or anyone who didn’t want to bash their head in after reading Gulliver’s Travels.
Rating: 2/5 stars.
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