Forgotten authors No.28: Matthew Phipps Shiel

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The Independent Culture

HG Wells and MP Shiel were contemporaries, entering and leaving the world within a year of each other, but Wells's reputation as the father of science fiction has continued to grow, while Shiel has disappeared from bookshelves. Both were socialists with an interest in future fiction and scientific romances – and there is evidence that Wells was influenced by Shiel – but Shiel was a West Indies-born author writing in the flamboyant style of the decadent movement. Around the turn of the century he created the first future-history series in science fiction (although, more fairly, the books offer three unconnected alternative futures) with a trilogy that began with The Last Miracle. This was followed by The Lord of the Sea, based on a critique of the private ownership of land, but Shiel's reputation rests mainly on the third part of the sequence, The Purple Cloud. It's an apocalyptic novel that brushes off casual readers with a series of false starts, but settles down to become a truly extraordinary work of fiction.

The book was produced at a time when there was great interest in the unexplored Arctic, and tells the tale of a man named Adam Jeffson who travels there, only to return and find the earth laid waste by a vast purple cyanide cloud. Without the constrictions of a moral society, and crushed by the burden of terrible isolation, Adam wields a power that tips him from eccentricity into megalomania. Dressed as a sultan, he takes explosives from the Woolwich Arsenal and burns London down. Laying waste to cities becomes a habit, a cry of rage for his imprisonment on earth, and he destroys nations before meeting another survivor, a woman in Istanbul who may have the key to his survival.

Shiel wrote 25 novels, but many are bland romances produced more for profit than the passion of language that shows in The Purple Cloud. Shiel's private life was, it seems, as decadent as his early writing. He served 16 months' hard labour in prison for molesting his 12-year-old stepdaughter, and showed a penchant for underage girls throughout his life and his fiction. He also reckoned himself the King of Redonda, a small inhospitable isle in the West Indies – though this may have been concocted as a joke at the expense of critics. His trilogy was published out of sequence, having first been serialised, and The Purple Cloud is now available in a beautiful edition from the specialist publishers Tartarus Press.