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Queer Fantasy Roots: Astral Projection, Body-sharing, and a Platonic Threesome in Cavendish’s The Blazing World

Queer Fantasy Roots

It’s become something of “a thing” lately to argue over who wrote the earliest science fiction novel, or what the foundational literature was that explores the common tropes and concepts of SFF. In my opinion, arguing over “first” or “most important” is like arguing over which superhero can beat up the others. Let’s just enjoy them all for what they are. One early novel chock-full of themes and tropes that would later become staples of science fiction is The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World published by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle in 1666.

In brief: a young woman is abducted by a would-be suitor but the ship carrying them is blown off course to the North Pole and enters a passage into an alternate world, leaving her the sole survivor. From the description of the transition and the destination, the world seems to be not so much located in the interior of the Earth, but accessed as a sort of Klein bottle concept where both worlds are “exterior” to each other. The text seems to alternate between treating the home world of the young woman (who is never identified by name — first she is simply “the lady”) as our own world, but later on there is reference to three worlds, with the third being the one the author herself dwells in, which is not directly accessible to the other two.

The “Blazing World,” as this destination is called, is clearly utopian, being united under a single emperor and a single religion where everyone lives in peace and harmony. The inhabitants are of a number of different races, partaking of the nature of various animals (bird-men, fish-men, bear-men, worm-men, in addition to unmarked humans) to each of which is attributed some inherent set of intellectual skills. Unsurprisingly given the era when it was written, there’s a lot of unexamined essentialism, colonialism, and “white savior” issues. “The lady,” by virtue of her inherent virtue and purity is instantly recognized as being worthy to be the spouse of the emperor and is thereafter referred to simply as “the Empress.”

After this elevation in status, the text bogs down in a long philosophical treatise, presented as the empress’s inquiries of the various beast-scientists as to the nature of the world she has come to rule. (The Wikipedia entry on the book suggests that this section had originally been a separate and purely factual treatise “Observations on Experimental Philosophy,” which was appended to the fictional tale in the 1668 edition.)

Eventually, the dramatized lecture on experimental philosophy shifts into a more complex story when the Empress turns her hand to religious and esoteric matters and has her beast-philosophers summon up immaterial spirits to satisfy her curiosity about the condition of the world she left behind. They discourse for some time on theology and philosophy and in the end the Empress sets her heart on creating a Cabbala. The Empress asks the spirits to recommend to her a scribe who can write up the Cabbala for her and they recommend one Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. There’s only one problem: the Duchess lives in an entirely different world inaccessible to the Blazing World, but they can procure her spirit to talk to the Empress by a sort of astral projection: and truly their meeting did produce such an intimate friendship between them, that they became Platonic Lovers, although they were both females.

This is the point at which the story becomes relevant to the Queer SF blog. In other works, Margaret Cavendish explored themes of all-female societies and the potential for romantic relationships between women. Her play The Convent of Pleasure involves a group of women shunning men and marriage to form their own society, and how the leader of this community, Lady Happy, comes to accept the love of a “princess” although, following one of the standard tropes of such stories, once Lady Happy has come to terms with being in love with a woman, heteronormativity is restored by revealing that the “princess” is really a man in disguise.

The purpose of this digression is to note that Cavendish–like a number of other intellectual women of her age–was well aware of the possibilities of romantic bonds between women. This context is relevant when we look at the self-insertion character of the Duchess in The Blazing-World. Although the language of “lovers” and romantic attachment is used between them, one shouldn’t assume that the bond between the Empress and the Duchess was meant to be understood as sexual (even aside from the immaterial nature of the astral travel). But neither should we assume that the intensely romantic and emotional nature of their bond is mere rhetoric.

The Empress expresses a desire that the Duchess should rule over a similar realm to her own, but the spirits point out that every person is capable of creating an infinity of worlds within their own imagination over which they could rule, so why be content with just one? Both women exercise this power for a while, creating and abandoning invented worlds at whim. In time, the Empress wants to visit the Duchess’s home in England for herself, so she and the Duchess travel together as “souls” (the astral projection thing again). In this form, they arrive and see the Duke going about his daily activities, but find they can’t communicate with him in this form.

Then these two Ladies Spirits went close to him, but he could not perceive them…. But when the Duke was gone into the house again, those two Souls followed him; … the Duchess’s Soul being troubled… without any consideration of the Empress’s Soul, left her Æreal Vehicle, and entered into her Lord. The Empress’s Soul perceiving this, did the like: And then the Duke had three Souls in one Body; and had there been some such Souls more, the Duke would have been like the Grand-Signior in his Seraglio, only it would have been a Platonic Seraglio. But the Duke’s Soul being wise, honest, witty, complaisant and noble, afforded such delight and pleasure to the Empress’s Soul by his conversation, that these two souls became enamoured of each other; which the Duchess’s soul perceiving, grew jealous at first, but then considering that no Adultery could be committed amongst Platonic Lovers, and that Platonism, was Divine, as being derived from Divine Plato, cast forth of her mind that Idea of Jealousie.

There follows an digression where the Duchess pleads a lawsuit against the personification of Fortune on behalf of her husband (which was a bit of a satire on Cavendish’s real-world financial woes), but eventually the three souls must go their own ways.

Upon which … the Empress’s Soul embraced and kissed the Duchess’s Soul with an Immaterial Kiss, and shed Immaterial Tears, that she was forced to part from her, finding her … a true Friend; and in truth, such was their Platonic Friendship, as these two loving Souls did often meet and rejoice in each others Conversation.

Part two of the novel goes in an entirely different direction, with the Empress raising the military and scientific resources of the Blazing World to intervene in the politics of her original homeland. (The massive info-dump of philosophical and scientific theory now becomes relevant for inventing submarines and chemical warfare.) After their victory, there is another astral travel episode when the Duchess comes to visit the Empress in spirit to be lavishly entertained by her. The story concludes with an epilogue to the reader from the Duchess, describing the supreme delights of world-building and encouraging others to do the same.

For me, it is this emphasis on the self-conscious creation of an inventive secondary world, and the exploration of its nature, properties, and consequences, that places The Blazing World solidly in the lineage of modern science fiction and fantasy. Despite the rather outdated and florid literary style, as an imaginative creation, the Blazing World ranks solidly up there with Middle Earth, Narnia, and Barsoom. For that matter, when stripped down to the essence of the plot, the story could hold its own against many a straight-forward quest adventure.

Queer Fantasy Roots explores stories and themes from history that may inspire or resonate with queer fantasy fiction being written today. Heather Rose Jones writes fantasy and historical fiction centering around queer women, and writes the Lesbian Historic Motif Blog at alpennia.com.

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