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O'Brien, Fitz-James

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1828-1862) Irish-born US author, whose natal name was Michael O'Brien; active from his arrival in New York in 1852 (when he changed his name to Fitz-James O'Brien) until he died of an infected wound in the Civil War. O'Brien contributed numerous poems and minor stories to the magazines, his first work of genre interest being "An Arabian Nightmare" for Household Words in 1851; but his importance rests on a handful of brilliantly original sf tales, which were influential not only on subsequent sf but also on the development of the short-story genre.

His finest work is The Diamond Lens (January 1858 Atlantic Monthly; 1909 chap), a long, precisely detailed story about a Scientist who invents a supermicroscope and is then consumed by his morbid love for a beautiful woman he perceives living in an infinitesimal world inside a drop of water (see Great and Small). What Was It? A Mystery (March 1859 Harper's; 1974 chap) tells of an encounter with an invisible being whose nature remains an enigma, although a plaster cast made while the creature is chloroformed reveals it as a hideous diminutive humanoid (see Invisibility). These two stories, his best known, are both set firmly in mid-nineteenth-century New York, and helped establish a mode of sf characterized by surface realism. In a similar vein was the earlier "The Bohemian" (July 1855 Harper's), in which the narrator's passionate love for gold fatally induces him to have his fiancée mesmerized (see Hypnosis) in order to reveal the whereabouts of a treasure. "From Hand to Mouth" (27 March-15 May 1858 New York Picayune Newspaper) is a remarkable surrealistic fantasy in which a man sits in the Hotel de Coup d'Oeil surrounded by disembodied but living eyes, ears, mouths and hands. In "The Lost Room" (September 1858 Harper's) a strange house, whose intricate "corridors and passages, like mathematical lines, seemed capable of indefinite expansion", becomes the scene of an orgy by six male and female "enchanters" who apparently succeed in kidnapping the narrator's room into some other world or Dimension. "The Wondersmith" (October 1859 Atlantic Monthly) is notable in the History of SF, despite its fantastic framework, for its extended descriptions of an army of miniature Automata. The posthumous "How I Overcame My Gravity" (May 1864 Harper's Monthly as by Anon), though marred by the use of dream, is otherwise a singularly modern piece of sf: its core is a detailed description of suborbital flight achieved with the aid of gyroscopic stabilization. The great strength of O'Brien's sf is its inventiveness, which also became its greatest weakness whenever he allowed ingenuity to dominate the fiction. The Diamond Lens remains a masterpiece because he subordinated his brilliant invention to a profound exploration of the diseased psychology of one of the main figures of his age, the would-be lone genius (see Mad Scientist) of scientific creation.

O'Brien's works have been collected in various posthumous editions: Poems and Stories (coll 1881) edited (sometimes damagingly) by poet and reviewer William Winter (1836-1917), a member with O'Brien of the Pfaff's Cellar literary circle in New York; The Diamond Lens and Other Stories (coll 1885); What Was It? and Other Stories (coll 1889); Collected Stories by Fitz-James O'Brien (coll 1925); The Fantastic Tales of Fitz-James O'Brien (coll 1977). These were all superseded by The Supernatural Tales of Fitz-James O'Brien, Volume One: Macabre Tales (coll 1988) and The Supernatural Tales of Fitz-James O'Brien, Volume Two: Dream Stories and Fantasies (coll 1988), both edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson (1950-    ), which assembles some previously uncollected work and presents well known texts in their original magazine versions; with minor changes, the two collections were assembled as The Wondersmith and Others (omni 2008). [HBF]

Fitz-James O'Brien

born County Cork, Ireland: 31 December 1828

died Cumberland, Maryland: 6 April 1862

works (selected)


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