Round Numbers

The big SF anniversary of 2009, according to the Americans, is Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday in January. Though Poe is best remembered for horror, crime and florid melodrama, he wrote some pioneering SF like "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" – whose hero quite literally flies to the Moon by balloon. Perhaps the most macabre aspect is the title of this story's (abridged) 1965 magazine reprint: "Hans Off in Free Pfaall to the Moon".

Another author born in 1809 was Alfred, Lord Tennyson, mysteriously not selected as a Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks choice even though he gave the Arthurian fantasy industry a huge boost with his poem cycle Idylls of the King. Thus Tennyson's literary heritage extends to Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Spamalot. Also from 1809 there's the quirky Russian author Nikolai Gogol, whose fantasies include that influential vampire story "Viy".

A century further back: 1709 saw the birth of Dr Samuel Johnson, whose short novel Rasselas features discussion of utopias, dystopias, weather control and a (failed) flying machine. Foreshadowing the insane production rate of some 20th-century SF hacks, Johnson scribbled this book in the evenings of a single week to pay for his mother's funeral.

1609 is more of a stretch, but it's the death year of two wise men who acquired a reputation for magical dabblings: Doctor John Dee of England and Rabbi Loew of Prague, both frequently encountered in fantastic fiction. (They're characters in John Crowley's very fine Aegypt sequence, for example.) According to legend, Rabbi Loew created the original Golem to defend the Prague ghetto against anti-semitic attacks. This tireless, magically animated clay robot reappears in scores of fantasies, from Gustav Meyrink's The Golem (1915) to Piers Anthony's interminable Xanth series and Terry Pratchett's Feet of Clay.

So much for the deep past. Looking back just a single century, 1909 wasn't a terribly good year but did produce some still-remembered stories. The most famous is E M Forster's "The Machine Stops", set in a future of pampered couch potatoes who are helpless when the system fails. Meanwhile Ambrose Bierce wrote "Moxon's Master", whose chess-playing robot turns murderous when its creator makes the mistake of winning.

Also in 1909, H G Wells published one of his best social-comedy novels, Tono-Bungay, named for the book's lucrative patent medicine: "slightly injurious rubbish at one-and-three-halfpence a bottle". The story takes a brief SF turn with an expedition to steal a load of radioactive ore called "quap", which contains the element canadium and proves to have weird side-effects ...

Other sf/fantasy books of 1909: L Frank Baum's fifth Oz volume, The Road to Oz. G K Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross – a theological thriller that influenced C S Lewis's That Hideous Strength. William Hope Hodgson's creepy The Ghost Pirates. The expanded chapbook version of Rudyard Kipling's 1905 story predicting a transatlantic airmail service, "With the Night Mail". Winsor McKay's second collection of his famous Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strips. Maurice Maeterlinck's fairytale play The Blue Bird, which is where the Blue Bird of Happiness originated. (Not a lot of people know that.) Beatrix Potter's starkly harrowing The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. Bram (Dracula) Stoker's mediocre The Lady of the Shroud. And P G Wodehouse's The Swoop!, a little-known satire on the then-popular subgenre of stories about England being invaded. I've actually read most of these, but not the French prehistoric fantasy filmed in 1981 as Quest for Fire, nor the year's best-titled though utterly forgotten SF novel: John Mastin's Through the Sun in an Airship.

A 1909 death: George Meredith was a major 19th century novelist who wrote one bizarre Arabian-Nights fantasy, The Shaving of Shagpat. The style is exotic, knobbly and eccentric in the extreme, but if you can cope with that it's genuinely worth a look.

1909 births: August Derleth, whose best work is mostly forgotten but whose Arkham House published the first H.P. Lovecraft collection – after which Derleth wrote embarrassingly many "posthumous collaborations" expanded from Lovecraft's unfinished drafts, brief notes, laundry lists ... Edgar Pangborn, the underrated SF author whose A Mirror for Observers won the International Fantasy Award. And E S Turner, whose Boys Will Be Boys is a classic survey of the rousing adventure stories – including SF – published in boys' papers, from Billy Bunter to Dan Dare and beyond.

Now I think I hear our editor muttering, "That's enough centenaries ..."

David Langford has no round-number anniversaries this year, but his old Oxford college is 500. Happy birthday, BNC.