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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reading: A Bid for Fortune or Dr. Nikola's Vendetta by Guy Boothby

A Bid for Fortune or Dr. Nikola's Vendetta, by Guy Boothby (first published 1895) is the fourth volume in the Classic Australian SF series, issued this year from Chimaera Publications. It tells the story of Dr. Nikola, a mysterious and charismatic villain with enormous ambitions that are never fully defined. He is an international criminal mastermind who possesses unexplained paranormal or supernatural abilities. Even his henchmen are clever, striking, and dangerous antagonists in their various ways.

Throughout the narrative, Nikola's aim is to get his hands on an oriental artifact that has fallen into the possession of Mr Wetherell, the rich and urbane Colonial Secretary in Sydney. Prior to the main story, Wetherell has rebuffed several attempts by Nikola to obtain the artifact, a small wooden stick that supposedly contains great power. Nikola continues to seek it, and to be revenged on Wetherell for frustrating his plans.

Apart from a brief prologue, the novel is narrated by Richard (or Dick) Hatteras, a tall, strong, energetic, and highly-competent young man who becomes involved after he rescues Wetherell's daughter, Phyllis, from a bunch of local ruffians. Dick and Phyllis soon fall madly in love, which leads Dick into conflict with Dr. Nikola when the criminal mastermind kidnaps Phyllis.

Dr. Nikola himself is a memorable character, surely (as Ian Irvine mentions in his introduction) an influence on many later super criminals such as Fu Manchu and James Bond's arch-enemy, Blofeld. Though Dick Hatteras boasts of his forty-six inch chest and great strength, he invariably comes off second best in his confrontations with the villain, whose abilities go far beyond mere physical strength. After several confrontations, Dick admits that he fears the man. This is no hackneyed clash between good and evil, with good winning through superior strength and resourcefulness. Indeed, Nikola is no ordinary villain - though his deeper motivation is not revealed, and his aims may be entirely malevolent, he is also portrayed as charming, courteous, and even generous in his own way.

Though Guy Boothby was an extraordinarily prolific author - he had published over 50 novels by the time of his death at the age of 37 - he shows no sign of having written A Bid for Fortune in a hurry. The plot is well-structured, even if many of the events are over the top, as one expects in melodrama (I'm not thinking here just of Dr. Nikola's striking appearance and manner, or even his extraordinary abilities, but also of such details as the way Dick and Phyllis so quickly fall in love and the dogmatic manner in which Mr Wetherell refuses either to countenance their romance or to give his reasons).

Boothby followed up with another three Dr. Nikola novels, none of which I've read. It would be fascinating to obtain these and see how the mastermind's career continues and how he is ultimately foiled once and for all (if that's what happens). Meanwhile, A Bid for Fortune is another great escapist read, with the fantasy element adding colour and texture to its melodramatic narrative.

For my next post in this series, I'll get to Catherine Helen Spence's early feminist utopia A Week in the Future.

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