Stevenson, Robert Louis

Tagged: Author

(1850-1894) Scottish author, best known for works outside the sf field like Treasure Island (1 October 1881-28 January 1882 Young Folks; 1883), transposed into space as the film Treasure Planet (2002); the topography and vegetation of the Island itself are inconsistent with any planetary locale. Further well known titles include A Child's Garden of Verses (coll 1885) and Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751 (1 May-13 July 1886 Young Folks; 1886). As a student at Edinburgh University, Stevenson abandoned engineering for law after successfully completing a full course, but never practised. He travelled widely, suffered most of his life from tuberculosis, and settled in Samoa in 1890. Throughout his career he wrote tales and fantasies incorporating supernatural events, ghosts, Doppelgangers, imps and fairies and so forth, though rarely anything that might be thought of as sf. He is of initial sf importance not so much for this work, which has been conveniently assembled as The Complete Short Stories (coll 1993 2vols) edited by Ian Bell, as for the Club Story frame that governs the New Arabian Nights sequence comprising New Arabian Nights (coll 1882 2vols; cut [ie containing first volume only] vt The Suicide Club; And, the Rajah's Diamond 1894) and More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter (coll 1885) with his wife Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. The contents of the first volume of New Arabian Nights initially appeared in the magazine London in 1878 under the general title Latter-Day Arabian Nights, and are Stevenson's first mature stories; the second volume of New Arabian Nights abandons the club story format. In this early-modern use of the form, the club story framing is most important as a releaser of the tales included, so that an air of Fantastika, which is to say implications of a not quite iterated potential meaningfulness, imbues otherwise frivolous material with narrative gravity.

Other short work includes the tales assembled in The Merry Men, and Other Tales and Fables (coll 1887); Island Nights' Entertainments (coll 1893); Fables (coll 1896 chap); and Tales and Fantasies (coll 1905). Further individual tales were very frequently republished as small (almost always tasteful) booklets, but none of these is sf, and they are not given in the Checklist below; nor are the very large number of full-length posthumous collections, mostly comprising reshuffles of already available tales (though some are competently edited). His later work in particular took a pessimistic view of the human enterprise, risked touching on matters of Sex, and was persistently expurgated; The Complete Short Stories (coll 1993 2 vols), edited by Ian Bell, restores original versions.

Stevenson's longer works do not generally risk the supernatural; even his collaborations with Lloyd Osbourne, such as the mildly black comedy The Wrong Box (1889), are nonfantastic [but see below]. Prince Otto: A Romance (April-October 1885 Longman's Magazine; 1885) is a melodrama involving secret identities and intrigue set in a Ruritania that predates Anthony Hope's defining tale; and there are implications of something unnatural (and perhaps devilish) in the inexplicable survival of the evil brother in The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter's Tale (1889), whose unremitting malice drives his good (but masochistic) brother insane; they end, twinned, in the same grave. These tales are insignificant in their effect, however, compared to the immediate and lasting impact of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886; the usual vt from 1896 on being The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), whose protagonist (Jekyll and Hyde in one body) has become a central prototype and Icon of all stories where intolerable internal strife can only be made storyable when unpacked in fantastic terms. A Faustian moral fable in the form of a tale of mystery and horror (see also Gothic SF; Horror in SF), it precedes by five years Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (July 1890 Lippincott's Monthly; exp 1891), which in some respects resembles it.

The plot takes the form of a spiral which moves gingerly into the heart-of-darkness of the climax, when the already dead Jekyll's written confession of his terrible fall is discovered and presented to readers as the last chapter of the text. Years before the tale begins, Jekyll (whose name Stevenson asks to be pronounced with a long "e") has begun to use drugs to dissociate his libertine side (cf Freud's "id") from his normal self. The evil self that surfaces, Hyde, in whose person Jekyll enjoys unspecified depravities (the manuscript Stevenson brought to print gives instances of rage, brutality and murder), is less robust at first than the full man. But spontaneous metamorphoses into an increasingly dominant Hyde begin to occur, and after a temporary intermission larger and larger doses are needed for the "recovery" of Jekyll. Eventually supplies run out and, cornered, Hyde commits suicide.

Jekyll/Hyde can certainly be understood as a multiple personality (see Identity), but is seen in Jekyll and Hyde as literally two separate persons, the transformation of one into the other, through the application of the mysterious Drug, not rendered by Stevenson as simply a change of personality. Hyde's Apes as Human appearance and behaviour (see Biology; Decadence; Doppelgangers; Devolution; Evolution; Shapeshifters), and the sepulchral vision of London he haunts, can only be understood if their separateness is fully accepted. The first version (which Stevenson scrapped) was dictated by his memories of a nightmare, was perhaps more lurid than the published edition, but apparently presented an evil Jekyll using the Hyde transformation as a mere disguise; the published version transforms this sensationalism into a deep mythopoeisis, though it lacks the sexual explicitness that surfaced more and more clearly in Stevenson's late works, which were usually censored before publication. Jekyll and Hyde therefore transcends some echoes of the case of Deacon Brodie, hanged in 1788 (and also the subject of the play Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life [1880; rev 1888] by Stevenson and W E Henley [1849-1903]); and hearkens back directly to James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). The story has been filmed many times (see Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and has been deeply influential on the development of the theme of Psychology in sf.

In the last years of his life, Stevenson wrote several fantasies set in the South Pacific, in which his increasing revulsion at the excesses – and indeed the ethos – of nineteenth-century Imperialism registers clearly. His final completed work of any substance, The Ebb-Tide: A Trio and Quartette (1894) with Lloyd Osbourne, has remained obscure, in part perhaps because it is collaborative, though Stevenson himself made it clear that he had shaped the whole, and was entirely responsible for the second half of the tale, which rims if it does not wholly enter realms of Fantastika. As the criminal cast of The Ebb-Tide reaches an uncharted Island, "from the top of the beach ... a woman of exorbitant stature and as white as snow [is] to be seen beckoning with up lifted arm", evoking the very similar figure who beckons inward the protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838 2vols) at the close of that tale, and quite possibly mocking the recently constructed Statue of Liberty, whose message of hope for migrants contradicted Stevenson's sense of the disastrous consequences of the coercive occupation of the "blank" spaces of the globe by the white empires of the west. The beckoning statue's "leprous whiteness" seems to bode ill, and though it turns out in fact to be the figurehead of an abandoned ship its sepulchral message seems clear. As Rosalind Williams [see about the author below] suggests, the corrupt Utopia constructed by Attwater, the island's white ruler, may have been meant as a Parody of Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1626); she also notes Attwater's resemblance to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899; 1902). [JC/DIM]

see also: History of SF; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Medicine; Metaphysics; Paranoia; Prediction; Scientists; Theatre; Villains; Werewolves.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson

born Edinburgh, Scotland: 13 November 1850

died Apia, Samoa: 3 December 1894

works (highly selected)

collections and stories

series

New Arabian Nights

individual titles

about the author (a short sample of the huge literature on "RLS")

links

Previous versions of this entry

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