Mystery NZ author's sci-fi tale compared to Austen

An obscure book first published in New Zealand in 1881 and republished last month, is being called as significant as Pride and Prejudice.

The Great Romance deals with "ground-breaking" themes such as interplanetary colonisation by humankind, sexual relations with aliens and the problems of space flight _ including space shuttles, spacesuits and air locks _ academics and reviewers say.

Written by an anonymous author who used the pseudonym "The Inhabitant", the novella was published as two separate volumes.

The first comprised 55 pages, the only known original of which is held in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.

The second instalment is just 39 pages. A copy is still held by Dunedin's Hocken Library.

Dominic Alessio, editor of the republished work, said both volumes were published by the Otago Daily Times, with the first also produced by the Ashburton Guardian.

The book was important in the science-fiction literature genre, Dr Alessio said.

"This is the first book... that talks about the colonisation of outer space by humans. There is nothing earlier.

"HG Wells talked a little bit later about martians coming to colonise earth, but that is the other way [round]... this book was far ahead of its time."

He said the reprint had attracted glowing reviews since being republished last month by University of Nebraska Press.

"In Author magazine, this guy said it was like a university press finding Pride and Prejudice."

The Los Angeles Times reviewer Ed Park described it as a "slim, oddly proportioned book, a hybrid of utopian and space exploration narratives that reaches out to grasp the reader's hand, unexpectedly and vigorously, from the equally remote milieu of late 19th-century New Zealand".

"The unfinished masterpiece is as strong a myth as literature holds," he wrote.

Publishers Weekly claimed: "This may have been the first time that anyone described space suits, air locks or the difficulties of landing on an asteroid or entering a planetary atmosphere.

"This reprint will be of considerable interest to specialist scholars of science fiction, if not the casual reader."

The copy held by the Turnbull Library has two title pages, one listing Dunedin as the place of publication, the other Ashburton. Dr Alessio believes separate versions were produced to capitalise on different advertisers.

It was possible a third volume had also been written, but that had not yet been confirmed.

Dr Alessio, an associate professor of history and the director of the study abroad programme at Richmond, The American International University, in London, is also vice-chairman of the New Zealand Studies Association.

He said the second volume was presumed lost until it was rediscovered in the mid-1990s in the Hocken Library.

- Otago Daily Times

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