Ramón y Cajal was one of those bright-eyed rationalists who ran hither and yon through the 19th century as if they were children in a toy shop. The son of a poor but ambitious surgeon, he was born in rural Spain, studied medicine, qualified as a physician, taught at the University of Zaragoza, conducted groundbreaking experiments in neurobiology, won the Nobel Prize in 1906—and wanted all his life to be an artist. The five stories here were written in the 1880s, but not published until 1905, by which time the author had come under the influence of the “Generation of ‘98” (i.e., Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, and other intellectuals who looked for a reconstruction of Spanish society after the debacle of the Spanish-American War). Heavily influenced by Jules Verne, they nevertheless seem darker and less utopian than most early science fiction, intimating doubts regarding the arc of scientific progress that were unusual for the time. The serum developed in “For a Secret Offense, a Secret Revenge,” for example, becomes a tool of social oppression, while the freethinking convert from Catholicism in “Natural Man and Artificial Man” seems to find less solace in his new faith than he did in his old one.
A time capsule for those interested in Victorian intellectual life, but a collection that will seem oppressively pedantic to most contemporary readers.