The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

The Worst Science Fiction Novel of the 19th Century

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A number of science fiction novels were published in the 19th century which hold up today and can genuinely be considered as good literature: Walter Besant's The Inner House, Joseph Nicholson's Thoth, and H.G. Wells' Time Machine. But the good novels are far outnumbered by the bad ones. The borders and matter of the science fiction genre were not consolidated during the 19th century, nor was a standard of professionalism in the genre set, and a number of bad writers produced wretched science fiction during that century.

Nonetheless, there is one novel which outstrips all others in its combination of unreadability, cliché, and thematic foulness: An Entirely New Feature of a Thrilling Novel! Entitled the Social War of the Year 1900, or Conspirators and Lovers. A Lesson for Saints and Sinners.


The Guilty Party

The Social War's author, Simon Mohler Landis (?-1902) , certainly has a record to match his novel. A Pennsylvanian clergyman, Landis claimed to be a doctor, although no proof of this could be found. He was forced to declare bankruptcy at least three times in the 1850s and 1860s, and all of his property was seized and sold by the county, yet within a few years he had always recovered and seemed to be prospering, through a combination of lectures and selling products like Dr. Landis' Celebrated Patent Compound Electro-Magnetic Hot and Cold Air Bath and the Patent Compound Male and Female Magnitude Syringe and Organic Bath. In 1865 he founded the "First Progressive Church of Philadelphia," and as its pastor wrote and A Strictly Private Book on Marriage: Secrets of a Generation (1870), a sexual education book that was so explicit (by the standards of the era) in the ensuing trial for obscenity the book was described as "so lewd and filthy, and obscene that it is unfit to be spread upon the records of this court…and hence to read in the presence of a public audience."

Landis was jailed for five months, then released. He moved from Philadelphia to New York City, then to Detroit, then to Boston, publishing an account of his trial (Prison Life Thoughts) and polemics against doctors, self-abuse, and free love. He died in Boston in 1902.


The Guilty Novel

The Social War was Landis' only work of fiction. Self-published in 1872, Landis turned it into a five-act play in 1873, although there's no record of it being successfully performed. Similarly, sales records are unavailable for The Social War, but its rarity (in print-it is widely available electronically and on microfilm) would indicate that it did not sell well.

And no wonder. Reading it is a painful experience.

Part of the problem is the prose style. Though published in 1872, The Social War reads as if it were written 40 years earlier. By turns impenetrably thick and bombastically hyper-emotionally, The Social War has dated very badly. Choosing a section at random:

The horses ran furiously away; Victor sprang back to the coach, and with the strength of a giant rolled the equipage aside, which relieved the sire; but, Oh! Horror, there was the most gloriously beautiful daughter, for whom the sire prayed for a safe deliverance, dead to all appearances; quickly Victor Juno raised her to his arms, and being a physician, took a small vial from his pocket, and placed to her lips a few drops of unfermented vegetable liquid, which immediately caused slight signs of life!

"Sire," cried Victor Juno, "shall I take the liberty to do my utmost-I am a physician-to restore your daughter?"

"Ten thousand dollars and an everlasting indebtedness to you, sir, for her restoration," responded the old gentleman.

"I'll safe her without dollars or indebtedness, or I am not a normal Naturalist," ejaculated Victor Juno.

The hero now speedily removes the jewels, satins and silks from her swan-like neck and Venus chest, and applies his powerfully magnetic hand upon the nape of the neck, and centring his giant will into his fingers, sends messengers of grace to the nervous centre of the prostrate form of the loveliest of her kind, and in a moment Miss Lucinda Armington opened her eyes, and gave a benignant look into the fiery and heaven-inspired eyes of our hero; and thus the life of the one became the joy and resurrection of the other.


400 pages of this is heavy going.

The Guilty Ideas

But there are any number of novels of earlier decades and centuries, bearing outdated styles but still worth reading because of the novels' ideas. The Social War is, in some ways, imaginative, but its ideas and themes are thoroughly repugnant.


The Social War is about the conflict between the American society and the Naturalists, a military secret society led by Victor Juno. Juno is a physician who believes in using animal magnetism rather than medicine to solve sickness. But Juno is also a minister obsessed with society's sinfulness, and he lectures about this sin at length.

Juno is opposed by organized religion, the medical establishment, and most of all the Conspirators, who are led by three people:

Rob Stew, "what the New Testament would call a Judas Iscariot, a viper, scribe, hypocrite and pharisee. A man who can dissemble and adapt himself to any kind of villainy, who goes about praying and exhorting, claiming to be a chosen vessel of the Lord!"


Joe Pier, who "has many refined, tender and noble feelings, but being one of those milk-and-water creatures who has no mind of his own, nor enough talent to succeed in life without some one to keep him stiff in the back bone, he is just the miserable, though useful instrument in the hands of a Judas-like Deacon Rob Stew-to aid in proselyting [sic] millions to the faith of blue-stocking orthodoxy."

Nancy Clover, "a finely formed female, of profound talent and wheedling capacity. She has the faculty of LOVE OF POWER immensely developed, in addition to a mountain of Self-conceit, which makes her bold and dauntless. Moreover, she possess almost a talismanic power to make every one fall in love with her, whether man or woman, and she always plays upon the lute-strings of affection of those whom she wishes to control, before she attempts to use her LOVE OF POWER over them."


The Conspirators and their followers have power in Philadelphia, but Victor and the aforementioned Lucinda Armington and her father do not bow to them, and the Conspirators kidnap and torment Victor and Lucinda, with Stew repeatedly attempting to rape Lucinda.

The New Utopia

Eventually Victor summons the forces of the Naturalists, who seize weapons and capture the Conspirators. A civil war breaks out, and after the usual plot twists, including the Victor's near-death-by-firing-squad, the Naturalists win. Juno has Stew castrated and the other prisoners of war shot. ictor then declares that the United States will be a theocracy-because "God is a dictator." Victor's ten point rule:

All money must be deposited into the Treasury

The "owners of filthy luchre" and those who have "sinned by indulging in unhealthy habits, such as rum, tobacco, medicine, profanity, licentiousness, and so forth" must "give up your sinning or die!"

"Idleness shall be a felony" and "obedience and submission to fixed law or death is the edict."

Each man, woman, and child must work at least two to three hours every day.

The Naturalists' soldiers were healed without medicines, therefore…medicines, fashions and all artificial and useless things must be abolished instantly!

Self and selfishness for mere isolated gratification shall be treated as a virulent disease, and such invalids must instantly be placed into the institutions of instruction until healed, or remain there for life."

Immigrants must abide by the new ways and are "positively forbidden to introduce, or themselves use, on our soil any agencies…that are prohibited by this proclamation and the new constitution.

No one shall be permitted, under the penalty of death, to destroy or remove valuables from the United States.

Those who do not understand how to act will be esteemed good citizens by instantly applying for information to any of the Secret Order of Naturalists.

Provisions, clothing, tenements, and all necessary things shall from this day be supplied to each as they need, and no one shall usurp more than his or her necessities demand, under the penalty of being imprisoned in the institutions of instruction."


Juno also forbids the free press, and decrees that all who wish to be married must be virgins ("in a natural state." Those who have previously libeled or slandered Juno are branded on the forehead. The parents of weak and sickly children are to be imprisoned. Stew, Pier, and Clover are sentenced to "be branded with our disgracing motto on their foreheads, cheeks, arms, legs, feet, trunk and each one have the letters B and C cut through their ears; after this is done, they shall all four be imprisoned for life in one room, unless I pardon them, where they shall work four hours a day, and be kept as a free show to all the world."

Then two years of famine and pestilence are sent to the United States by God, "to aid the cause of reform, by destroying those who led dissipated lives." The Naturalists are spared, but no one else is, so that "the path for the Naturalists was cleared of all its deteriorating rubbish, and the work of God and man went exultingly along."


As can be seen by the above description, The Social War is reprehensible trash, the most objectionable utopia of the 19th century, and the worst science fiction novel of that period.

Image via Shutterstock.