Before Jules Verne and H.G. Wells came onto the literary scene with their scientific romances, another genius inventor took the stage: Frank Reade, the 19th century whiz kid who tackled the globe with his fleet of electronic-powered vehicles in a series of popular dime novels. Scholars like Jess Nevins argue that Frank Reade and other Edisonadeswere the proto-sci-fi figures that influenced the steampunk subgenre today. If you ever picked up a classic Frank Reade story, (there are some available online), you’ll also find that they were very much pulp stories of their place and time, filled with adventure, innovative machines, juvenile writing, and the whiff of imperialist attitudes and racist stereotypes.
The premise of Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention takes these entertaining, if flawed, stories and turns them on their head for a modern audience. Authors Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett have played with history before in their previous book Boilerplate, where a fictional robot was inserted into actual history. This time around, though, Frank Reade touts itself as the “real life biography” of Reade and his family of inventor-adventurers, who were so iconic that dime novel stories (the actual pulp fictional tales) were written about their lives. This cute idea was a trend in dime novels: Buffalo Bill and Thomas Edison, for instance, got the same treatment. While the Reade family never lived, however, the feat that authors Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett accomplish is not just re-mixing fact and fiction, but writing it in a way that reveals the double-edged sword of glory during the Age of Empire and beyond.