Forgotten Futurists: E. E. Kellett

This fine-looking gentleman, E.E. Kellett, was a poet, academic, writer and tutor. The nearest I could find to a biographical sketch of him was via an exhaustive online biographical resource of the writer Malcolm Lowry, which mentions that Kellett was Lowry’s crammer when he was trying to get into Cambridge in 1928, and that Kellett remembered by his contemporary J.H. Hays as “a Classic, Mathematician and English man of great resource and teaching power, if a boy wanted to be taught. He was a light versifier of merit and wrote for Punch and other journals.”

He’s also one of the forgotten pioneers of Science Fiction.

In 1901, early in his long career, he wrote an extraordinary short story, “The Lady Automaton,” that was published in Pearson’s Magazine. A brilliant scientist, goaded by a friend to create a “reverse phonograph” that can carry on a conversation with a speaker, eventually creates a female automaton that is generally indistinguishable from the real thing, leading to disastrous consequences. To read it now is to encounter eerie predictions of Artificial Intelligence, androids and robots–even though it was written twenty years before Karl Capek coined the term “robot.”

an original illustration from Pearson’s Magazine

Several short stories Kellett wrote later in life had smatterings of SF, and he published several volumes of his light verse, but eventually he settled into literary criticism and essays, writings books such as The Story of Myths, The Northern Saga, The Whirligig of Taste and A Short History of Religions

Science Fiction is a genre made for dabblers. The attraction of a form where your wildest ideas can be played out in fiction has appeal not only to mainstream writers like Kingsley Amis, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates and Cormac McCarthy, but to semi-professional writers who might only produce a handful of short stories. Up until the 1960s, there were probably less than a dozen writers who were making a living in the genre, and even today, the number of full-time writers in the field is fairly small.

What this Kellett story illustrates is that one really strong idea delivered with nuance can make a perfect SF story. The immediate influence of “The Lady Automaton” was fairly limited–though Julie Wosk in her book My Fair Ladies makes a connection between this story and another better known tale of “creating a perfect woman” starting with her voice, Shaw’s Pygmalion. (Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that Shaw read the earlier story.)

Amelia has an awkward moment, also from Pearson’s

But to anyone who’s gotten into an argument with Siri, worries about increasing automation, or found themselves both awestruck and disconcerted by computer milestones like IBM’s Big Blue beating Kasparov at chess and the same company’s Watson winning Jeopardy, there’s a lot of accurate prediction in this story. (As well as a lot of disturbing insights into misogyny–but we’ll talk more about that in our next Newsletter.)

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