Brian Stableford, though perhaps best known for his science fiction, is also a scholar of fiction at large. The isfdb lists more than 30 works of non-fiction under his name, the overwhelming majority of which are in some way linked to speculative fiction. The first a study of the works of James Blish (1979), the latest is a collection of essays on decadence (2010). But it is sixteen years earlier which saw Stableford digging into the latter subject, but in fictional form. The novella “Le Fleurs du Mal” published in 1994, Stableford uses ideas from the literature of the 18th and 19th century to tell a science fictional story that paints Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oscar Wilde in the technicolor of future bourgeoise. Oh, and there’s a little Sherlock Holmes thrown in for good measure.
“Le Fleurs du Mal” (translated as “The Flowers of Evil”) takes Hawthorne’s short story "Rappaccini's Daughter" and cross pollinates it (sorry, couldn’t resist) with Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to examine the human side of extended life for the affluent. An idea fruitfully examined in other such novellas as Robert Silverberg’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and Frederik Pohl’s “Outnumbering the Dead” among others, Stableford puts his own spin on things by making the story something of a whodunit while focusing on the artistic, profligate side of genetic/biological manipulation of the human body. Presented with an underlying purpose, the serial killer mystery mode is used to examine a future wherein the rich are able to rejuvenate themselves and genetics can be engineered across flora and fauna, that is, rather than thrills and chills.
Flower geneticist extraordinaire, the brilliantly handsome Oscar Wilde is admiring his third rejuvenation in a mirror when a note arrives, asking him to go to the home of Gabriel King, a prominent businessman he once worked with. Arriving at the home he discovers detective Charlotte Holmes already investigating the death of King. A most bizarre death, all that remains of King is a bare skeleton wreathed in flowers. Wilde quickly recognizing the flowers as the work of one Rappaccini, video footage reveals the presence of a woman in the apartment just before King died. Another note arriving soon thereafter requesting Wilde and Charlotte to proceed to another location, they find there another flower-wreathed corpse. What follows is a journey around the world and into the mind of a murderer bent on beauty, revenge, and something more.
Where Silverberg and Pohl examined the humane aspects of im/mortality, Stableford looks at the idea with more of an artistic eye, the humanity innately seeping through. Stableford’s style crisp and smooth, he even has time to lay down a few aphorisms of his own (in honor of Wilde, obviously) outlining the human involvement with, and reaction to, the manifestations of decadence possible via genetic and biological science of the future. Stableford’s later “Mortimer Gray’s History of Death” perhaps a more ambitious novella, “Le Fleurs du Mal” is, if anything, at least an original take on the subject of human self-indulgence in extended life with suitable dabbling in literature of old.