My library’s edition of J. D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder is part of The Garland Library of Science Fiction (“A collection of 45 works of science fiction selected by Lester del Rey”) but this 1911 novel about a big headed freak-child has more to do with cricket and philosophy than science fiction.
The narrator is a journalist writing a book about the son of a supremely talented bowler with gorilla-long arms whose career was cut short by injury. At first, the cricketer appears to be the titular Wonder. Then we discover the truth: the Wonder is the child, purposefully bred to become a better bowler than even the father. The purpose doesn’t pan out, however. Victor Stott is no bowler. He’s too delicate and aloof. His gaze, so penetrating and intelligent, frightens all upon whom it falls. He is a new species—a human evolved.
But this is not a horror story. Or at least not in a bloody sense. Victor does not rampage. On the contrary, he says little, processes information at an incredible pace and is seemingly perpetually bored. He lacks emotions. For example, his father leaves the family; Victor doesn’t bat an eye. Yet the scene does present a neatly scary power play: Stott Sr. has a favourite chair. He sits in it daily, obsessing over cricket. One day, Victor sits in the chair. The father tries to command the son to move; their eyes meet; and the father lowers his head and walks away forever. He has been defeated. The mother treats her son as a god.
What Beresford focusses on the most is the disconnection between Victor and his surroundings. The Wonder or “freak” is solitary. No one understands him but he understands everything. He has no companionship and no interests. The novel ends on a philosophical discussion (“The Uses of Mystery”) that suggests humanity is in its infancy and the enjoyment of life comes from the process of learning, step-by-step, at working for and then experiencing revelations. Had we all knowledge, it’s not the knowledge itself that would destroy us, but the fact there wouldn’t be more knowledge to pursue. We’d waste away like Kane in Xanadu: arrived at our goal; now what?
This places religion in an interesting spot. One of the novel’s characters is a priest. The Wonder offends him (presumably by undermining the foundation of his religion,) and the priest then tries to destroy the Wonder. The priest is not a villain—the novel has no villains—but he, the spiritual father, much like the Wonder’s biological father, ends up emasculated by the boy. Indeed, the only one untouched by the Wonder’s powers is a true idiot, a blabbering mental retard (Beresford is unkind to him.) I won’t spoil the mystery.
Although much of The Hampdenshire Wonder is journalistic, Beresford is capable of sudden shocking bursts of beauty. My favourite passage:
A spear of April sunshine had pierced the load of cloud towards the west, and the bank of wood behind them gave shelter from the cold wind that had blown fiercely all the afternoon.
It’s only one sentence but so vivid.
There’s no wrong in describing The Hampdenshire Wonder as science fiction and reading it solely because it’s a precursor to countless wunderkind stories, but it doesn’t do Beresford justice. The novel begins with the narrator in a railway carriage reading Henri Bergson and ends with a brief philosophy of knowledge. The chief emotion is sadness. Victor Stott’s life: tragic. And the presentation is always sober and understated. More than scifi, The Hampdenshire Wonder is good literature.