[UCP Books]: The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World

 “As in her previous work, Rosalind Williams uses literature to explore the monumental shifts in human understanding of our place in nature—in this case, the realization in the late nineteenth century that human beings had physically occupied the planet and would now be re-engineering it according to their own thoughts and desires. Her writing is deeply thoughtful, particular, and well researched, and it is relevant for the troubling scientific and technological challenges of today.”

Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams

Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World

Rosalind Williams

Publication date: October 15, 2013 $30.00 • £21.50
International publication date: October 28, 2013   Cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-226-89955-8


At the close of the nineteenth century, humans began to realize that soon the entire globe would be mapped. The closing of the world frontier implied the disappearance of the unknown, the humanization of the known, and the acceleration of both. Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson were especially alert to these changes and gifted in expressing their apprehensions, as Rosalind Williams shows in The Triumph of Human Empire.

Verne, Morris, and Stevenson were unhappy with the direction in which their world seemed to be headed, and worried that organized humanity would use knowledge and power for unworthy ends. In response, Williams argues, each engaged in a lifelong quest to make a home in the midst of human empire, to transcend it, and most of all to understand it. They accomplished this first by taking to the water: in life and in art, the transition from land to water offered some release from the condition of human domination. At the same time, each writer transformed his world by exploring the literary boundary between realism and romance. Williams shows how Verne, Morris, and Stevenson experimented with romance and fantasy and how these traditions allowed them to express their growing awareness of the need for a new relationship between humans and their planet.

The Triumph of Human Empire shows that for these writers and their readers, romance was an exceptionally powerful way of grappling with the political, technical, and environmental situations of modernity. As environmental consciousness rises in our time, along with evidence that our seeming control over nature is pathological and unpredictable, Williams’s history is one that speaks to the present.

Rosalind Williams is the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is past president of the Society for the History of Technology and the author of several books, most recently, Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change. She lives in Newton, MA.

Please contact Micah Fehrenbacher at (773) 702-7717 or micahf@uchicago.edu for more information.


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