ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION ON PROTO/EARLY
In early February, I sent out an email message to about a dozen and a half SFS consultants and other sf scholars who study and publish on pre-modern science fiction. The message said:
In July, SFS is planning to publish a special issue on “Proto/Early Science Fiction.” In addition to the articles, we would like to include a roundtable symposium featuring observations from a number of experts in the field. That is why I am writing to you. Would you be interested in contributing a 300-350 word blurb on the subject of proto- and/or early science fiction?
Instead of asking you to reply to a specific question, I’d rather leave the subject open. You decide what you would like to talk about. You might, for example, choose to:
- add to the debate about the historical origins of the genre, or
- discuss how modern subgenres such as steampunk hark back to their predecessors, or
- speak about the current book market for (re)publishing proto/early science fiction, or
- describe the current state of scholarship on proto/early science fiction, or
- comment on how our notions of “early” and “proto-” have evolved over time, or
- identify what you see as the enduring legacies of proto/early science fiction today, etc.
I hope you’ll consider sending us your thoughts!
What follows is the result of this CFB (call for blurbs). With one exception, these commentaries are approximately 350 words in length and are presented here in alphabetical order by last name of contributor. The one by Brian Aldiss was allowed to be somewhat longer because ... well, he is (along with Everett Bleiler) one of our venerable elders, he is a famous sf author, he has an “O.B.E.” after his name (look it up), and he pleaded with me not to chop his prose any further. I agreed.
Incidentally, I have used the phrase “proto/early sf” purposefully in order to avoid designating any given work of older sf as either “proto” (a term implying that “true” sf came into being at some later date) or as “early” (a term implying that it was born at some prior date). I confess to having also used on occasion the epithet “pre-modern”—for me, meaning any time before the 1940s—but several colleagues have informed me that using the term in this way would no doubt be problematic for most historians and professors of English literature.
Be that as it may, I think you will agree that this “Roundtable Discussion on Proto/Early SF” succeeds in capturing both the richly heterogeneous nature of the field and its surprising vitality.—Arthur B. Evans, SFS
Outside Practical Perspectives. Seeking the origins of “ur-sf” is like hunting for a needle in a forest. They began in the mists of time, with story-telling itself, with the pre-eminence of the Story. C.S. Lewis, a valuable guide to fiction, tells us that one of the functions of art is “to present what the narrow and desperately practical perspectives of real life exclude.” He knew what he was talking about. Lewis contributed stories to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Clearly, that presentation of which Lewis speaks, in order to coach conviction from its audience, must loiter somewhere on the margins of what seems to be practicable or verifiable at the time.
That little state called Christendom in the Middle Ages believed that every planet was inhabited by angel-like beings. Surely the Almighty would not have invented a planet without people, ample Adams, ever-present Eves, on it—or what were planets for?
Paul Alkon’s Origins of Futuristic Fiction points to a growing faith in machines permitting H.G. Wells’s time-travel story—advisedly labelled The Time Machine—to defy the laws of physics as then understood.
The belief that there was life on Mars was greatly encouraged, not only by Mr. Wells, but by Percival Lowell’s Mars as the Abode of Life (1909). In the 1960s, various American probes put an end to all that. Mariner probes 4, 6, and 7 revealed landscapes as inhospitable as lunar terrain. The myth died. Probably the last novel to depict autochthonous Martians was Philip K. Dick’s Martian Timeslip in 1962. Wonderful story, defunct context.
Samuel Butler uses the fireman of a steam-engine as a symbol of man’s enslavement by the machine. Steam power has taken over by junking alchemy for science and technology. Those “narrow and desperately practical perspectives” were widening, embracing the electricity of change.
In mid-century—1769, to be precise—Captain Cook’s Endeavour sailed to Tahiti to view the transit of Venus across the Sun. On board went the remarkable Joseph Banks, a true child of the Enlightenment. Banks discovered many new plant species. I grow a yellow rose, a Banksia, in my garden.
Our world was heaving itself into view. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, was devoting his energies to a preliminary version of The Origin of Species. The world was alive with new concerns.
A vivid and engaging new survey of those times is in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2008). Incidentally, he says of Mary Shelley that she invented “an utterly new form of fiction—the science fiction novel.”
This new form was perfectly respectable, except for its scorn for religion. This is where we find sf, in context, astonishing, and ultimately respected, with critical editions emerging from the Bodleian in this century.
So what happened? Why the mists of opprobrium into which the form passed?
We arrive in the early years of the Twentieth Century.
Possibly because a fair percentage of the English population live in houses with gardens, Darwin’s Origins of Species gained acceptance quite readily in England; the mutability of the vegetable bed aids understanding. Creationism has little foothold in the UK.
Still there are questions possibly never to be resolved. The state of the world in the Obama Age makes us wonder why evolution concentrated on creating skulls tough enough to survive for centuries, while the brains those skulls contained start wearing out at age eighty, or earlier. It makes you wonder about the self-christened homo sapiens, doesn’t it?—Brian W. Aldiss, O.B.E.
Good Stories? Interest in early sf shows no sign of abating. Nor should it. Mostly missing, however, is agreement on which—if any—of the rediscovered and now better understood early works have any besides historical claims on our attention. We certainly ought to know as much as we can about the place of early sf in the histories of colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, science, technology, war, gender relationships, class relationships, the evolution of genres, and much else. But to note how a work is shaped by or offers clues to the nature of such histories does not in itself tell anything about whether it displays artistic, philosophical, or other merits that warrant reading it for more than antiquarian pursuits.
There is consensus that Frankenstein, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine, and a few other early works, for all they tell us about their authors’ times and places, stay on our bookshelves and in our psyches for reasons that transcend such information. Willy-nilly there is a small canon of early sf in that league. Should there be additions? Does any proto-sf even come close? We needn’t imitate our betters by decreeing ex cathedra our own unalterable high canon (though if we did I’d rush to insist—and brook no argument—that we add A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). There ought, however, to be more concern with what a critic has recently dared to call the “beauties” of sf’s attributes. The term has a nice whiff about it of defying taboos against dwelling on aesthetics and artistry or elevating them to prime concerns. Of course early sf (like later sf) doesn’t need artistic merit to warrant study. And Sturgeon’s Law always applies. It wouldn’t hurt, however, if those doing such studies would more often note whatever beauties (of any kind) are present or lacking in works they discuss. Of his sf, and by implication all sf, H.G. Wells asked us via his Time Traveler: “taking it as a story, what do you think of it?” For early as for later sf, that is the question. —Paul K. Alkon, University of Southern California
Does It Exist? I don’t think there is any such thing as early science fiction or proto-science fiction. To have a genre or a subgenre, one must have continuity of text, and this does not exist until the nineteenth century. What one does have are isolated pockets that in one way or another resemble something more recent. To speak of occasional stories as parts of a genre reifies, in this case, for me, improperly.
Now that I’ve destroyed early science fiction, I must state my thoughts on how to study what does not exist. I would postulate that each story exists in a unique cocoon that is spun out of many elements, predecessors (or lack thereof) in form (though the biological analogy should not be overstressed); the scientific element, whether literal or modified—and if modified, in what way. It is almost a truism that modern studies of science fiction are divorced from science. On a somewhat different level, there are various systems of textual interpretation. My own preference in general is structuralism (since my background was in the social sciences where structuralism was used long before the linguists discovered it), but this could involve a contradiction with what I’ve said above.
Beyond this is the personal element, or depth analysis of various sorts relating the author to the text. There is enough material, for example, to do such an analysis of John Leonard Riddell, with his life-long fixation on the moon (and his somewhat scandalous life), but the present article was not the place for it.
Historical study may now be an old-fashioned approach, since most modern studies focus on what may be called (for want of a better label) textual structures and internal forces (often in a vacuum text). But I do not think that it should be abandoned. At the least, it provides much of the data with which other methods of study can work.—Everett F. Bleiler, Interlaken, NY
Ruins and Futurity. While composing an entry for the revised edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction on Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville (1746-1805)—specifically, on his Les Ruines [The Ruins, 1791] and Le Dernier homme [The Last Man, 1805]—I stumbled upon the realization that we needed to incorporate an entry on RUINS AND FUTURITY into this new version. It was in texts like Grainville’s, so expressly obsessed with time, that sf was beginning to smell like sf. In my glances at proto-sf, I had always balked at any sense that explorations in space—whether to archipelagos or planets—significantly adumbrated that form of fantastika that began, at the end of the eighteenth century, to become recognizable as something like sf. The transformation of proto-sf to sf, during the course of the eighteenth century, hinged, I began to think, to a dawning awareness of time. Sf is not space; sf is a body english of time.
As Christopher Woodward makes clear in In Ruins (2001), there was no such thing as a ruin, properly conceived, before the latter part of the eighteenth century, when the first painting of a ruin, so conceived, was created. As Woodward succinctly puts it: “When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our future.” The key word here is “contemplate.” For a ruin to be understood as a consequence (as an image which entails a narrative), it must be contemplated by a contemplator: which leads us straight to the Scientific Romance. The RUINS AND FUTURITY topos is an open sesame to the future, a region which gradually began to be domestically imaginable in the thirty or forty years after writers like Cousin de Grainville began to gesture forwards.
What I’d suggest is that the future (as an achieved habitation of the mind at work) could not be properly imagined until topoi like RUINS AND FUTURITY began to engineer storyable sorties into the new “territory.” Once there in the mind’s eye, we could begin to see our fate on this planet through a different lens. But that’s another story. —John Clute, London
Women, Utopias, and Early Science Fiction. In my work with women writers, proto/early sf has a name: utopia. Because women were discouraged from such public acts as writing, many women figure in the history of the origins of science fiction only because they were encouraged by the questioning form of the utopia (founded in the sixteenth century with Sir Thomas More’s Utopia). From the seventeenth century on, once the utopia has absorbed empiricism and the techniques of the narrative romance, it is a seedbed of science fiction.
For example, Margaret Cavendish incoporates utopian entries into her encyclopedic The Worlds Olio in 1655, and extends her interest into a full utopia in The Blazing World in 1666. She begins with an explanation of her joining “a work of fancy to my serious philosophical contemplations” (Cavendish, The Blazing World and Other Writings, ed. Kate Lilley [London: Penguin, 1992], 123); since the term for “science” in the nineteenth century is “natural philosophy,” Cavendish is coming very close to claiming to write science fantasy (or fiction). Certainly, Cavendish creates an alternative world, not on another planet but at the North Pole, a world not only filled with alien bearmen, geese-headed men, grass-green and azure people, and technological marvels (wind-powered engines for ships), but also progressive in its institutions and culture, with a single language that unites them and prevents misconceptions, a government that has never seen war, and a proto-theory of atoms (186).
Similarly, the technological utopia of the nineteenth century invited women to write because they could reimagine their lives rather than recording their oppressions. In Mary Griffith’s “Three Hundred Years Hence,” published as part of Camperdown; or News From Our Neighbourhood (1836), the future offers women not only
technological marvels (world-wide railroads, new forms of energy), but also social reform—slavery is abolished, women are entitled to the same education as men, a woman may divorce a drunken husband. Indeed, the novels by Mary Shelley that most people recognize as the beginnings of science fiction draw on this tradition: there is the nostalgic utopia of the cottagers in the center of Frankenstein (1818) and the dystopic future vision of The Last Man (1826).—Jane Donawerth, University of Maryland
Transforming Futures. Those of us who escorted science fiction into the formal parties of the academy in the mid-1960s labored hard to make it look respectable. That was one reason we documented its long pedigree and heritage from the literary canon. But most of us understood that despite some illustrious antecedents, true science fiction is essentially a modern—and, ever since the late nineteenth century, a largely non-literary—cultural phenomenon. For more than four decades, many of us have now been teaching sf as a defining feature of modern culture and society, central to how we modern humans imagine space, time, the macrohistory of our species, our future, and even our role in the cosmos. As Fredric Jameson has so eloquently put it, “Science fiction marks the moment in which a society realizes that it has a future, and that it is itself in its very nature and structure becoming a vast being in perpetual continual change and transformation.”
Because science fiction is an essential component of technological-scientific-industrial society, continually transforming and being transformed by science and technology, the study of science fiction is also an exploration of the history of the consciousness of our epoch as well as the dialectical relationship between that consciousness and its material matrix. The proto-history of sf sweeps from the reconceptualization of space through the early reconceptualization of time (as explored by Paul Alkon in Origins of Futuristic Fiction). Then sf emerged as a coherent cultural phenomenon along with the appearance of a semi-autonomous scientific-technical intelligentsia, an event marked by Frankenstein, so aptly labeled by Brian Aldiss as “the first great myth of the industrial age.”
Which brings us to the dark side, and why the study of the interrelations between certain early sf and twenty-first-century America may be crucial to the survival of our species. For (as I show in the new edition of War Stars) the most fateful American military decisions—from Hiroshima through Star Wars and the Project for a New American Century—need to be comprehended as anachronistic continuations of early American military science fiction with its visions of the grand Pax Americana.—H. Bruce Franklin, Rutgers University
Dime Novels and the Cultural Work of Early SF. An 1898 publisher’s blurb from Frank Tousey for its recently completed first series of 191 Frank Reade, Jr., dime novels claimed that Frank Reade and Frank Reade, Jr., were known to any boy as “the greatest inventors that ever lived,” and promised that the Frank Reade Library would “give their exploits with their wonderful inventions in detail and furnish all its readers a rare treat in every number.” “‘Noname’ will write them all,” the blurb continued, confidently adding “and you know what kind of a story he writes.” And indeed we do. We know that “Noname,” a Tousey house pseudonym most prolifically used by Louis Senarens, wrote hundreds of dime novels, nearly 300 of which featured the inventions and exploits of Frank Reade, Jr., and of Jack Wright, the boy inventors whose stories merged the narrative genius of Jules Verne with the carefully crafted public image of Thomas Edison to give science fiction one of its most lasting formulas: the Edisonade.
We also know that Edisonade dime novels—by “Noname” and many others—foregrounded a thoroughgoing racism that ranged from crude ethnic stereotyping to the almost gleeful application of technological inventions to the mass murder of dark-skinned natives wherever they might be found, thus inextricably linking technology with racism in what might be considered America’s earliest sf. We know from H. Bruce Franklin that the dime novel was “the dominant literary form in America” between the Civil War and World War I, with hundreds of millions of copies helping to create a mass reading audience. We know from Everett F. Bleiler that the dime novel’s influence was larger “than has generally been recognized” and that it “was politically very conservative and jingoistic; it was violently intolerant racially and ethnically, imbued with economic rapacity, and, as a rule, extraordinarily naïve and ill informed.”
So we know a lot about the formal characteristics of “sfish” dime novels, their provenance, and their literary influence. What we don’t know much about is their impact on American culture in promoting racism as well as in preparing the way for technological advances. Michael Denning’s Mechanic Accents points the way toward an overdue culturally-oriented exploration of dime novels we have thought of as early sf but have not so far considered outside the narrow formal context of genre history.—Brooks Landon, University of Iowa
What’s in a Name? Even Juliet, the most oft-quoted spokesperson for the contrary view, in effect admits that names make a difference (“wherefore art thou Romeo?”). And that is certainly true for what in these pages is usually designated “sf.” The history of “science fiction,” so called, isn’t exactly the same as that of the “scientific romance,” or “sci-fi,” or “science fantasy,” or “speculative fiction,” or even perhaps of the “science-fiction novel.” Moreover, the peculiarity—and maybe the singularity—of science fiction so named is the belatedness of its recognition as a genre.
How belated depends again on terminology. “Science fiction” gains currency in the late 1930s, preceded in the 1920s by “scientifiction.” Here, however, the truth that Juliet openly espouses comes into play (“A rose by any other name...”). It is arguable, for example, that sf properly speaking, has its beginning(s) in the 1630s with the appearance of Kepler’s Somnium, Bishop Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, and the first English translations of Lucian’s True History and Icaromenippus. To be sure, up to and including Poe’s problematic spoof in Hans Pfaal, those and later voyages imaginaires to outer space—mainly to the Moon—are so diverse as to constitute little more than a trope. Not until the latter part of the nineteenth century in the most highly industrialized nations, and chiefly in England and France, does sf firmly establish itself—mostly thanks to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells—with contributions from a small legion of other writers less productive in their sf output.
Concatenated as it is from a host of other literary and quasi-literary forms or types (utopian fiction, satire, the conte philosophique, the Gothic Novel, etc.), sf has long been slipstream—in an extended sense of the term. In that regard, a variant on a Borgesian principle applies: sf is a genre that creates its own precursors. Plural. The ongoing popularity of regarding Frankenstein as the “seminal” text notwithstanding, sf from the 1860s through the 1890s and beyond has many progenitors correlative to the question “Seminal of what?”
All of this is also to say that there are many more histories of sf to be written, along with a taxonomy of the kinds of histories that have already been realized or are possible.—Robert M. Philmus, Concordia University
The Necessity of Copernican Revolution. I argue that sf begins, in a meaningful sense, around 1600, coming out of the cultural and conceptual dialectic of Reformation and Counter-Reformation—which is to say the genre is a specifically post-Copernican mode. With Copernicus a properly materialist understanding of the cosmos replaced the religious one. What Copernicus did, famously, was dethrone human beings from the center of things. That’s what sf as a mode continues, at its best, to do: not merely the human landscape but the whole cosmos is its playground. It is the mode for which alterity means more than simple other human beings. It dethrones the human.
My experience of talking with sf critics and scholars on this topic is that they don’t deny that Kepler’s Somnium, Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, or Gulliver’s Travels have sf-ish aspects, but are happier calling such works “proto-sf,” “ur-sf,” or “precursors to the genre” (as though one decided that sculpture began with the work of Henry Moore, and so classified all earlier sculptural work as “proto-sculpture”). I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an unarticulated bias here. Many scholars of sf cultivated a love for the genre as children or young adults; understandably, such early reading is likely to shape one’s sense of what “proper” sf is: Verne and Wells, Asimov and Le Guin become in a generic sense normative, and examples of similar-looking works from much earlier have to be accounted for as anomalies rather than incorporated into sf proper. In other words, the problem with Somnium is that it doesn’t somehow feel like sf.
Let the Copernican revolution percolate through sf itself into sf criticism: dethrone the human subjectivity of the critic’s familiar perspective in favor of a longer durée. We need to expand our sense of the genre, dismantle the concentric circles of Gothic, Industrial Revolution, Pulp, Golden Age, New Wave, Cyberpunk, and Neo-Weird. To see sf as it really is—a momentous, half-millennium-old, materialist-sublime, cultural antithesis to the thesis of the religiously-determined Fantastic that has dominated human cultural production for millennia.—Adam Roberts, Royal Holloway University of London
The Course of Empire in Turn-of-the-Century SF. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, although the USA was experiencing unprecedented material prosperity and beginning to emerge as a major player on the world stage, novels began to appear which expressed fears of invasion and subsequent loss of national identity. Pierton W. Dooner’s The Last Days of the Republic (1880) articulates an early version of the Yellow Peril, figured by Dooner and later Jack London as an unwelcome flooding of the labor market. By the 1890s this fiction had begun to focus on military technology and even space travel. John Jacob Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds (1894) describes space travel as a progressive extension of American hegemony over the planets. Astor’s up-beat patriotism was offset by Ignatius Donnelly’s 1890 elegy on civilization as we know it in Caesar’s Column, which, like the UK author George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution (1893), explores the new technology of air power. The latter underpins H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), which presents an inverted imperial narrative where the seat of empire—London—becomes the target of invasion. That same year Wells’s narrative was pirated by the US press and transposed to the Boston area, making such an impact that Garrett P. Serviss, also that year, published a rejoinder in Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Here the “people of all the earth” unite behind the inventor-turned-warlord Edison to pursue the Martians back to their planet and wipe them out. The oscillation in American sf between optimism and pessimism reflects ambivalence and unease about the new imperial status of the USA. John W. Muller’s The Invasion of America (1916) describes the active threat to the republic posed by the older imperial nations of Europe and continues a tradition of narratives of invasion by Communists and other aliens.—David Seed, Liverpool University
The Origins of SF. The majority of early sf “finds” are presented as neglected works, implying they are minor works, outside the “mainstream.” This division takes from us a whole field of potential sf texts, though the search for early sf cries out for the broadest possible definition. The simplest way to proceed is to trace the historical origins of the two terms in the sf compound. Then we must determine what circumstances might lead a given culture to conceive of an interactive compound: science fiction.
One case where this is particularly fruitful is France. Both terms, in today’s meaning, appeared for the first time in seventeenth-century France. And they are described as interacting. Bossuet, in an Oraison funèbre [Funeral Oration] of 1673, sees his subject abandoning one kind of fiction, false, for another, truer, form. What this reader calls “truth” is neither moral nor religious authority. It is Cartesian truth—a clear and distinct idea, discerned by reason, of humanity’s situation in the physical world. Descartes’s “method” re-defined the human situation, the stuff of fiction, as the relationship among mind, body, and res extensa, in purely quantitative terms. By substituting an open-ended, transformative view of humans-in-the-world for one legislated by authority, Descartes envisions a “science” capable of changing the way humans relate to their world. In the human world of fiction, correspondingly, conventional values are challenged by concerns of a purely material nature. The cold equations have begun to recast humanity’s fictional destiny.
Descartes the first sf writer? Perhaps yes. For if this paradigm shift is the product of a Scientific Revolution, by creating the system that permits mediation between the new science and conventional structures of fiction, Descartes becomes its “author.” We see this system reshaping the deep structures of fiction, in Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves [The Princess of Cleves], and in later novels by Balzac, Zola, Proust. Descartes allows science “to write the fiction.” Up to now, no one has called these novels sf. On the other hand, perhaps (paraphrasing Bruce Sterling), France did not need to develop an sf per se, because, in the wake of Descartes, it had been living in an sf world since the seventeenth century.
The French example raises the question of the international origins of sf. Did every nation/culture involved in the Scientific Revolution experience the possibility of interaction of science and fiction at the same time? The search to determine when and how, in a given culture, interaction between science and fiction becomes possible will lead to a comparative view of the origins and development of sf in England, Germany, Russia, and the US. Only when we do this will we see what sf really is.—George Slusser, University of California, Riverside
Protos and Progress. It is difficult to avoid “the whig interpretation of history,” which sees the past as a series of contests between conservative and progressive thinkers, in which progressive victories eventually produce the status quo. Fortunately, there is no need to avoid it in reconstructing the history of sf; early sf routinely arrived with built-in apologias attempting to promote a nascent and ambitious genre and tended to be manifestly responsive and reactive, acknow-ledging earlier efforts while attempting to outperform or contradict them.
This was particularly true in France, where investigations of the plurality of worlds laid the foundations for adventures in cosmological speculation, and the philosophy of progress provided a sharp stimulus to the development of futuristic fiction. Restif de la Bretonne embedded the cosmic voyages of Lord Multipliandre in a critical commentary on the forces of inhibition and repression that were holding back human progress in Les Posthumes [Posthumous Correspondence, written 1788], while Félix Bodin published his aborted attempt to write Le Roman de l’avenir [The Novel of the Future, 1834] because he felt that the meat of the exercise lay in the explanatory preface-cum-manifesto and the appendices rather than the story itself.
This tendency to self-analysis was still strong when popular scientific romance began to take shape at the end of the century. Georges Le Faure and Henry de Graffigny’s 400,000-word Aventures extraordinaires d’un savant russe [The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist, 1888-96], was careful to embody a bibliography of its predecessors and harbored a sense of its own importance, in spite of its slapdash construction. The inspiration that Maurice Renard took from H.G. Wells was scrupulously analyzed in such essays as “Du roman merveilleux scientifique et de son action sur l’intelligence du progrès” [On the Scientific-Marvelous Novel and its Influence on the Understanding of Progress, 1909] and exemplified in such bold pioneering exercises as Le Péril bleu [The Blue Peril, 1911].
The main problem with this progressive evolution was the limited access that writers had to their relevant predecessors; the process might have proceeded more intelligently if many of these works had not been lost. Les Posthumes, which remained the most adventurous account of extraterrestrial life for more than a hundred years, became so rare that it was only known through second-hand accounts and fragmentary excerpts, and Le Roman de l’avenir was similarly lost to sight. Alas, the concluding note of any whig interpretation of history is bound to be one of plaintive regret that the progressive forces were unable to organize their battle-plans a little better than they actually contrived.—Brian Stableford, Reading
Science Fiction’s Amazing Story, and True Story. People must acknowledge and understand their real parents, however humble, to understand themselves; but they may fruitfully fantasize about imaginary parents to inspire them to rise above their environments and pursue grand ambitions. Fantasies about poor children who discover they are the heirs of royalty testify to widespread and valuable desires to transcend one’s roots.
Proto-science fiction—which I define as all science fiction which preceded Hugo Gernsback’s 1926 establishment of the genre—represents the imaginary parents of science fiction. And the genre was lucky to have them, since the stories Gernsback wrote and published were largely sorry mixtures of dime novels and popular science articles, with traces of other generic influences. If such had remained science fiction’s characteristic form, we would not be here today. But whether motivated by penny-pinching or concern for the genre’s future, Gernsback gave aspiring writers superior models by reprinting Poe, Verne, and Wells and by mentioning, or reprinting stories by, other imaginative writers; later commentators embraced additional authors like Thomas More and Mary Shelley. And eventually, some modern writers were truly following in their footsteps.
I never maintained there were no works of science fiction prior to Gernsback, only that such works were identified as science fiction long after their first publication. I objected to an apparent overemphasis on proto-science fiction in critical studies because scholars, regarding those works as science fiction’s true parents, were employing them to define the genre, leading Darko Suvin to claim that the texts most clearly part of Gernsback’s tradition were not genuine science fiction. Reading that, I threw Metamorphoses of Science Fiction against the wall and began my scholarly career, initially focused upon arguing that one could never truly understand science fiction without understanding Gernsback, its true parent. Now, if Farah Mendlesohn is correct (see her review of Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 18:3 , 123-27), I have won that argument and should stop discussing it.
I feel no hostility toward proto-science fiction and have written at length, in references and elsewhere, about several of its authors, who are worth reading, worth studying, and worth emulating. But despite the virtues of fantasizing, we must remember they are not the true parents of science fiction.—Gary Westfahl, University of California, Riverside
The Family Album. As far as I can determine, the first academic books to be published about science fiction were J.O. Bailey’s Pilgrims Through Space and Time (1947), Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Voyages to the Moon (1948), H. Bruce Franklin’s anthology Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century (1966), and Robert M. Philmus’s Into the Unknown: The Evolution of Science Fiction from Francis Godwin to H.G. Wells (1970). Collectively, they represent the first serious efforts by professional academics to explore the roots of the genre. But they don’t tell us much about how the sf community itself set about excavating its ancestry, nor about how readers and writers of the genre actually encountered the primary texts of such frequently cited ancestors as Lucian of Samosata or Johannes Kepler. This is a question which has long interested me because of the discontinuous nature of most sf histories: we can certainly find in such antecedents early examples of common sf tropes such as interplanetary voyages or utopian societies, but finding any direct linkages between these antecedents and the modern genre as it evolved in the pulps is another matter entirely.
Certainly, readers of Gernsback’s Amazing Stories must have had some awareness of Verne, Wells, and Poe since Gernsback himself reprinted these authors. The earliest presentation of what would become the field’s standard pedigree—featuring significant excerpts of these stories—didn’t appear until 1950, with August Derleth’s huge Beyond Time and Space. It was almost certainly the first book to give genre sf readers a look at those ancestral texts that would soon become central arguments for the legitimization of the field. Derleth included not only Poe, Verne, and Wells, but also excerpts from Plato, Lucian, Thomas More, Rabelais, Campanella, Bacon, Swift, Godwin, and Holberg, and even Kepler’s Somnium.
Soon after, Doubleday editor Harold W. Kuebler published The Treasury of Science Fiction Classics (1954), which included Verne, Poe, and Wells, along with Ambrose Bierce, Garrett P. Serviss, Arthur Conan Doyle, E.M. Forster, and Karel Čapek. And a few years later, Damon Knight published his two influential historical anthologies A Century of Science Fiction (1962) and A Century of Great Science Fiction Short Novels (1964). None of these later anthologies, however, was quite as ambitious as Derleth’s in including pre-nineteenth-century works, and it seems a fair assumption that, for most sf readers and a good many writers, the prehistory of sf first became a palpable presence in Derleth’s book.—Gary K. Wolfe, Roosevelt University
Monstrosity, Suffering, Subjectivity, and Sympathetic Community in Frankenstein and “The Structure of Torture”
Abstract. -- Mary Shelley’s 1818 version of Frankenstein and Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain share an interest in the essential makeup of individual identity and its dependence on communal recognition. Scarry’s model describes a process wherein the application of physical pain reverses the progress of individual self-extension, driving a victim from the larger conceptual world and back into a solipsistic bodily sensation of pain.The victim is then forced to facilitate the annihilation of his identity through acquiescence to the verbal component of torture, wherein he is required to “confess” or otherwise “betray” himself. The process as a whole acts as a medium for the torturer’s performance of power. By mapping the experience of the Creature in Frankenstein onto this model, the narrative can be read as a relentless process of annihilation that culminates in the Creature’s embodiment of the appellation “monster” in contravention of his noble aspirations and desire “to be participated” in human community. Frankenstein complicates Scarry’s model by resisting the unambiguous moral divide between innocent-victim and culpable-torturer. In Frankenstein, the torture process does not occur in a closed system; it unfolds in parallel to the Creature’s efforts toward self-extension and identity formation. Taken in concert, Frankenstein and Scarry’s “The Structure of Torture” suggest how an individual forms an identity in collaboration with, or in response to, community. Further, both individuals and the community at large bear responsibility for the world which comes into being through their interactions.
Arthur B. Evans
The Verne School in France: Paul d’Ivoi’s Voyages Excentriques
Abstract. -- During the final decades of the nineteenth century in France, the unprecedented success of Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires began to generate a host of “Verne School” imitators including Paul d’Ivoi, Louis Boussenard, Maurice Champagne, Georges Le Faure, and Henry de Graffigny, among others. They were very prolific and specialized in science-fictional adventure stories that recycled the same themes of exploration and technology and the same narrational trademarks of didacticism and Bildungsroman that characterized Verne’s most memorable fictions. This essay examines the sf works of the most popular of these Verne School writers, Paul d’Ivoi. In the history of French science fiction, d’Ivoi’s twenty-one novels, collectively titled the Voyages Excentriques, may be viewed as a kind of stepping-stone between Verne’s generally conservative “hard sf” model and the more fantastic “speculative sf” of early twentieth-century sf writers such as J.-H. Rosny aîné, Gustave Le Rouge, and Maurice Renard.
Allison de Fren
The Anatomical Gaze in Tomorrow’s Eve
Abstract. -- In the sf novel L’Eve future [Tomorrow’s Eve, 1886] by Philippe Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the female body is dissected repeatedly: a female android is technologically disassembled, a living woman is poetically blazoned, and a dead woman is cinematically deconstructed. This article explores the novel’s central thematic of dissection, tracing its rhetorical and visual coding to the anatomy theater of the Renaissance, and in particular to the work of Andreas Vesalius, to whom the scientist-anatomist Thomas Edison (a character in the novel) is explicitly compared. Within the anatomy theater, the medical investigation of the body was conducted within a highly symbolic and ritualized environment in which the act of dissection was intended not only to foster empirical analysis but also to inspire metaphysical awe. Such awe was cultivated via an anamorphic or doubled vision, which encouraged a sublime reading of grotesque phenomena—that is, a reading in which dissection is simultaneously a revelation of the interior wonders and horrors of the body and of larger, universal truths that defy both vision and intelligibility. This doubled vision via dissection is reproduced in the novel with the help of modern technological inventions that encourage the kind of “cognitive estrangement” and “sense of wonder” that will become associated with later science fiction.
Monique R. Morgan
Madness, Unreliable Narration, and Genre in The Purple Cloud
Abstract. -- This essay argues that M.P. Shiel’s 1901 novel The Purple Cloud contains pronounced traits of both science fiction and fantasy, and invites contradictory readings about which genre is dominant. After sketching the development of the narrator’s madness and unreliability, the essay explores the connection between unreliable narration and genre in Shiel’s novel. Readers can either treat the fantastical elements of the story as reliably reported or they can view them as the narrator’s delusions and can treat the novel as predominantly science fiction. The concluding sections explore other manifestations of the narrator’s unreliability and the ethical conundrums involved in pushing his unreliability too far.