The Man Who Found Zero, edited by Gene Christie and issued by Black Dog Books, is an anthology of early science fiction stories originally published in the American magazine The Black Cat between 1896 and 1915.
Science fiction has a longer history than most people imagine. Some people indeed trace its beginnings back as far as 1657, to Cyrano de Bergerac's Journey to the Moon. Early tales such as these were generally closer to being fantastic adventures or satires than to what we think of as science fiction. True science fiction is an invention of the early 19th century, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 being the genre’s first masterpiece. The term science fiction would not come into general usage for another century, with terms like scientific romance being favoured in the 19th century.
By the end of the 19th century a considerable body of work had already been produced the genre, mostly in France. American authors had made their mark as well with both Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne writing important and excellent science fiction stories (Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter is a particular favourite of mine).
It was not until the 20th century that space exploration became the genre’s dominant theme. This was perhaps an advantage to the genre’s pioneers since they could unleash their imaginations in virtually any direction they chose. The stories in The Man Who Found Zero illustrate the extraordinary diversity and interest of the stories that resulted.
Some of these tales are quite whimsical. Thomas F. Anderson’s A Mental Mischance is a mildly diverting story of mind-reading gone wrong. Sam Davis’s Bigler’s Barometer is a very whimsical tale indeed of a man who finds an unusual method for predicting the weather. Charles E. Mixer’s The Transposition of Stomachs is an amusing prediction of organ transplants. W. George Gribble’s A Man and a Mermaid manages to combine whimsy with a touch of romance.
Others are rather more grim. In Jack London’s A Thousand Deaths, one of the best stories in the anthology, a man finds himself being used as a scientific guinea pig and he really does suffer a thousand deaths. It’s very creepy and it includes some fun pseudoscience. Katharine Kip’s My Invisible Friend concerns a young man seeking the secret of invisibility. It was published in 1897, four months before H. G. Wells published The Invisible Man.
In Cleveland Moffett’s fine but grisly tale On the Turn of a Coin a man has a vision of a woman being murdered and a murderer is convicted on the evidence of a dead woman.
Other stories are surprisingly (although often amusingly) cynical. Clifford Howard’s excellent The Annihilator of the Undesirable deals with a company that offers an unusual service - they will, for a very reasonable fee, entirely remove from existence anyone whom their clients find irritating or inconvenient.
And then there are stories that are simply bizarre. John Durworth’s very imaginative In an Unknown World concerns a man who sees sounds and hears sights. Ethel Watts Mumford’s When Time Turned is a gently melancholy tale of a man living his life backwards, which proves to be an oddly heart-breaking experience. Newton Newkirk’s In the Sierra Madres is particularly strange. A Mexican scientist, a man in early middle age, tells his story. It involves volcanic eruptions, the mysteries of liquid air and the adventures of three daring highwaymen half a century earlier. Wildly far-fetched but wildly original.
In Eugene Derby’s Tunnel Number Six miners in New South Wales hear a voice pleading for help - a voice that comes from behind a wall of rock where no human being could possibly be. Is the mine haunted? The explanation is extremely far-fetched but it certainly qualifies as original. Bert Leston Taylor and Edward Ward’s The Cross of Fire is also far-fetched, dealing with an extraordinary optical invention discovered in the backwoods of Maine. Eva L. Ogden’s The Cold Storage Baby is another real oddity - a missing diamond and a baby that shouldn’t be there but is and may have been in cold storage for twenty-nine years. It's a story that might possibly be too clever for its own good.
Given the popularity of hypnotism and the new “sciences” of psychology and psychiatry in the 19th century it’s not surprising to find stories here dealing with the powers of the mind. I. Crane Clark’s Where Is Robert Palmer? is such a story, and a decidedly odd one. Frank Lillie Pollock’s The Invisible City concerns an anarchist terrorist (anarchist terrorist outrages being an all too frequent feature of the late 19th century) who is also a brilliant but megalomaniacal madman with extraordinary powers of mind control. Don Mark Lemon’s The Mansion of Forgetfulness also deals with the mind although in a very different manner. Is forgetfulness better than pain? Perhaps, but not always. This is probably the single best story in the anthology, with a nice twist ending and a considerable emotional punch.
Some of the stories here are more in the style of what Lovecraft would later describe as weird fiction, with some definite hints of horror. Frederic van Rensselaer Dey’s A Witch City Mystery gives the initial impression of being very much in the Lovecraft mould, with an elderly chemist conducted some very arcane researches into the mysteries of life itself. The story ends up being not quite what we were led to expect but fascinating nonetheless.
Cleveland Moffett’s The Mysterious Card is an exceedingly clever piece of weird fiction. An American visiting Paris is handed a card by an unknown woman. Since he does not speak French he cannot read the message on the card but when he tries to have the message translated the effects are extraordinary to say the least.
Don Mark Lemon’s A Bride in Ultimate is also what I would call weird fiction and it’s a fine slightly creepy story. It opens with an American trying to explain to a French border guard that he absolutely must cross the frontier into Spain to find the man who has stolen his wife. The border guard informs him that the man in question was journeying alone but the American explains that the man was carrying a diamond and the diamond is his wife. Not in a figurative or metaphorical sense, but quite literally. It’s an unsettling and very effective little tale. Octavia Zollicoffer Bond’s story, A Rule That Worked Both Ways, is an intriguing science fictional ghost story.
Lon Arnold’s The Man Who Found Zero is the closest thing here to a space exploration story - a suicidal man is sent to the very edge of space to find the temperature of absolute zero. Frank Lillie Pollock’s The Skyscraper in B Flat is science fiction of an even more inventive bent. The moral of the story would seem to be that skyscrapers and music are a very bad combination. Surprisingly perhaps to modern science fiction readers Harry Stephen Keeler’s John Jones’s Dollar is the only story in the anthology to be set in the distant future. Compound interest might seem an unlikely subject for an SF story but that is in fact what the story is about.
The Man Who Found Zero is a remarkably diverse and interesting assortment of stories. Very highly recommended.