#95 = Volume 32, Part 1 = March 2005
Verne to Varley: Hard SF Evolves
Consider two novels separated by 127 years in publication, both dealing with the
moon, yet oddly alike. Both tell us something about the evolution of hard
Arguably, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the
Moon announced for a broad audience the invention of modern science
fiction—stories with the scientific content foregrounded, as much a character as
any person, and lending credibility to the imaginings to come. Verne boasted
incorrectly that “I have invented myself” this new fiction (Poe had a clear
prior claim), but he did make the new form widely popular, and became the first
and last sf writer to be blessed by the Pope for doing so.
John Varley’s Steel Beach (1992) is a rich, sprawling novel, about five
times longer than Verne’s and a thoroughly late-twentieth century take on the
technophilia Verne pioneered. Between these there are odd connections.
After his first forays into stage drama, Verne
wrote over a hundred “extraordinary voyage” novels, while Varley has about five,
counting his latest, Red Thunder (2002). Verne celebrated machines and
admired engineers, yet gave us rapt descriptions of natural wonders. Later, his
plays were amusing and hugely popular. His play Journey Through the
Impossible was only translated in 2003, and as Jean-Michel Margot remarks in
his introduction, forms a “hinge between the two halves of Verne’s life”—theater
and voyages of exploration.
Varley is also much interested in the stage, as
in his solar system rondo, The Golden Globe. He features women characters
and warmly recalls his own teenage technophilia, as in Red Thunder.
Listen as Varley’s first-person, wisecracking point of view, Hildy, surveys his
took a deep breath and smelled freshly-poured concrete. I drank the sights and
sounds and scents of a newborn world: the sharp primary colors of wire bundles
sprouting from unfinished walls like the first buds on a bare bough, the
untarnished gleam of copper, silver, gold, aluminum, titanium, the whistle of
air through virgin ducts, undeflected, unmuffled, bringing with it the crisp
sharpness of the light machine oil that for centuries has coated new machinery,
fresh from the factory ... all these things had an effect on me. They meant
warmth, security, safety from the eternal vacuum, the victory of humanity over
the hostile forces that never slept. In a word, progress. (12)
Witty, colorful, a jab at our present
environmental sensitivities, a technophile’s casual brushoff to uninspected
naturalism. Verne, too, regarded limits as mostly social. His engineers love the
technologically sweet, which in turn opens our exploring eyes to the world in
its full majesty.
Varley’s moon is humanity’s in a way that the
Earth cannot be, for we made it. Indeed, Varley’s future history (which he
points out in an afterword isn’t exactly compatible with this novel) turns about
the armature of a great tragedy: aliens arrive, kick us off our planet, and we
scavenge and scrabble for a living throughout the rest of the solar system. We
are a species forced out of our evolutionary niche, hurried along to our
destiny, cast up on a steel beach of our own making.
And it’s glorious. Varley has obviously spent a long while assembling this
novel, and it shows some structural signs of it. The plot follows a deftly
polished smartass “newspad” reporter, sprinting around his/her (sex change as
fashion statement) rapidfire world.
Tech wonders sprout before the eye. Sudden,
juicy, newsworthy events unfold, with Hildy always at the center. She hustles
stories for her newspad, The News Nipple, in perpetual competition with
The Straight Shit. It’s A Year in the Lunar Life, with rather tenuous
superstructure to keep one turning the pages.
Hildy has a nagging bit of a problem with
suicide. Why this should be occupies much musing, much of it interesting, though
without any profound conclusion. He/she passes the hundred-birthday mark, and we
become aware that this person has accumulated strikingly few close emotional
ties in all that time. Her intimates are fascinating, the best job Varley has
ever done at secondary characterization—but there’s plainly something seriously
wrong with Hildy if these are all she has in her life.
This is broader, fresher ground for Varley. It’s refreshing, not only in its
meticulously thought-through technodazzle, but in its absolute confidence that
we can save ourselves through our own crafts. I recalled several times Verne’s
offhand remark in From the Earth to the Moon, “The Yankees, the world’s
best mechanics, are engineers the way Italians are musicians and Germans are
metaphysicians: by birth” (§1).
Hugo Gernsback bought into Verne’s explorer-tinkerer
heroes when he began Amazing Stories. Verne’s Americans fit: Barbicane,
J.T. Maston, Cyrus and the crew of Mysterious Island, etc. Gernsback
featured Verne from Amazing’s first issue, his editorials making the
Frenchman out to be more of an engineer than he was. Amazing reprinted such
stories as Topsy-Turvy (The Purchase of the North Pole). This
mega-engineering fable features an explosion at Mt. Kilimanjaro designed to
right the Earth’s poles, all the better to get at coal reserves in the north;
imagine selling such a story today!
Yet sell these did, contributing to Heinlein’s
engineer-supermen to come. Heinlein seldom spoke of Verne, apparently much
preferring Wells—he remarks in Grumbles from the Grave, “The ‘wild
fantasies’ of Jules Verne turned out to be much too conservative” (149)—but the
line of descent is clear.
One could write a telling history of American sf
over the last three decades titled “The Sons of Heinlein.” From Alexei Panshin
through Joe Haldeman to Varley and beyond, many of the most innovative of us
have stood squarely in Heinlein’s shadow. Unlike Wells, Verne loved explorers
throughout his career, as did Heinlein.
Varley knows this and, as Steel Beach
darkens and wanders, he turns explicitly to what this tradition means in modern
sf. The last third of the work circles around the Heinleiners, a small,
self-selected elite who want to cast off the constraints of the moon and go
exploring, to rebuild and launch the wrecked starship named for ... guess who?
Varley is at his witty best when describing this
band of malcontents. “A lot of ship’s captains were Heinleiners, a lot of
solitary miners. None of them were happy—possibly that type of person can
never be happy—but at least they were away from the masses of humanity and less
likely to get into trouble if offered an intolerable insult—like bad breath, or
Still, Varley harbors few illusions about the
celebrated can-do style. Their tech works, all right, but “it still had
the look of Heinleiner engineering, wherein nothing is ever any better than it
has to be. Maybe if they get time to move beyond prototypes they’ll get more
elegant and more careful, but in the meantime it’s ‘Don’t bend that wrench. Get
a bigger hammer.’ Heinleiner toolboxes must be filled with bubble gum and bobby
They brusquely advertise the familiar social
libertarianism, too. Describing our age, the leader of the Heinleiners lectures:
“Any drug that dulled the senses, or heightened them, or altered the
consciousness in any way was viewed as sinful—except for the two most physically
harmful drugs: alcohol and nicotine. Something relatively harmless, like heroin,
was completely illegal, because it was addictive, as if alcohol was not. No one
had the right to determine what he put into his own body, they had no medical
bill of rights. Barbaric, agreed?”
And Hildy does, steeped in the tradition and
ethos of hardnosed, crackerbarrel, hard sf. Where did that spirit come from? The
USA midwest, surely—but also from France.
Varley’s moon as a steel beach descends straight
from Verne’s. He gives us an almost hallucinogenic urban landscape, with
cavernous bubbles devoted to immense feats of nostalgia: the Disneylands
replicating Texas (where Varley grew up, well described here) and other lost
Earthly paradises. But the restless, meandering energy of the novel is plainly
We’re more subtle now, of course. Urban preoccupations are the stuff of sitcoms
and the soaps, no longer the province of Kafka and Camus. Thoughts of mortality
and the world’s passing wonders sit in the frontal lobes, but something’s
simmering in the back.
In 1865 there were five other interplanetary
adventure books published in French, with titles like Voyage to Venus, An
Inhabitant of the Planet Mars, Voyage to the Moon, and even a survey by
an astronomer, Imaginary Worlds and Real Worlds. They featured balloons.
One writer did have a dim idea of using rockets—but his squirted water out the
end, not fiery gas. Then he ruined the effect, though, by thriftily collecting
the ejected water to use again. Elementary common sense should have told him
that such a ship would gain no momentum that way. The water’s push would be
cancelled when the water was caught.
Verne made fun of the invention, saying that his own method, a cannon, would
certainly work. (The squirter that recycles its water idea had a puzzling
appeal; it was proposed as late as 1927 by an engineer.)
He invented the expansive sense in fantastic
literature, but he did it by dreaming exactly. That’s what gave his work the
headlong confidence those other volumes of 1865 lacked—which doomed them.
His method gave many of the telling little
details which now strike us as so right. Since the USA was the most likely
nation to undertake so bold a venture, where would his veterans place the
cannon? Verne natters on about getting into the right “plane of the ecliptic”
(§5), which is a reasonable motivation, but side-steps the more detailed issue.
He knew that to artillery gunners, earth’s rotation was important in predicting
where a shell would land—while it is in flight, the land moves beneath it.
In aiming for the moon, there’s an even bigger
effect. Think of the earth as a huge merry-go-round. If you stand at the north
pole, the earth spins under your feet, but you won’t move at all. Stand on the
equator, though, and the earth swings you around at a speed of about a thousand
miles an hour. You don’t feel it, because the air is moving, too.
But that speed matters a lot if you’re aiming to leap into orbit. Verne had the
crucial idea right—that escape velocity is the essential in getting away from
Earth’s gravitational pull. The added boost from the Earth’s rotation led him to
believe that the American adventurers would seek a spot as close to the equator
as possible, while still keeping it within their nation. A glance at the map
told him that the obvious sites were in Texas or Florida.
This is exactly what happened in the American
space program of nearly a century later, when the launch site of the Apollo
program became a political football between Texas and Florida. Florida won, as
Verne predicted. Not for political reasons, though. NASA engineers wanted their
rocket stages to fall harmlessly into the ocean. He even picked Stone’s Hill, on
almost the exact latitude as Cape Kennedy, the Apollo launch site.
Similarly, Verne got correctly the shape of the
capsule, the number of astronauts (three), weightlessness in space, a
splash-down at sea picked up by the American Navy, and even the use of rockets
to change orbit and return to earth.
To give his technology authority, his characters were cool dudes of geometry:
“Here and there he wrote a pi or an x2. He even appeared to extract a certain
cube root with the greatest of ease” (§7). This is the birth of “hard” science
fiction—that variety which stays loyal to the facts, and the way engineers and
scientists work, as nearly as the author knows them. No lonely experimenters on
mountaintops, inventing Frankensteins out of dead body parts. No easy
improvising around tough problems. Verne’s tinkerers work in groups, argue, make
hard choices. Audiences of his time found such detail gripping and convincing.
Writers followed in this tradition, such as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A.
Heinlein, and, of course, the other master sf writer of the nineteenth century,
H.G. Wells. All felt that scientific facts and attitudes should serve as
springboards for imaginative flights, often to the ends of social commentary and
outright satire. Wells soon straitjacketed his imagination in the service of his
political ends, but Verne never did.
Verne influenced even those who didn’t quite
know who he was. Isaac Asimov once told me a story about when he was still a
young science fiction fan, and found himself listening to a lecture about a
great foreign writer, a master of fantastic literature. But Asimov couldn’t
recognize the name. Giving the French pronunciation, the lecturer said, “Surely
you must know Zueel Pfern,” and described From the Earth to the Moon.
Asimov replied in his Brooklyn accent, “Oh, you mean Jewels Voine!”
I had a similar experience, not realizing for
years that Verne was not an American. After all, he seemed to write like an
American and set many of his novels in the USA. In tribute, I name a character
in my first hard sf novel, Jupiter Project, after one of his.
Verne had intended to work in this scrupulous
way all along, when he was a struggling writer. Though his first love was
theater, he felt a deep affinity for scientifically plausible tales of
exploration. In 1856 Jules de Goncourt wrote in his Journal after reading
Baudelaire’s translation of Edgar Allan Poe, “The scientific marvelous, a fable
of A + B; ... No more poetry; imagination via blows of logic.... Something
monomanical. Things having more of a role than people; love being replaced by
deductions ... the foundation of the novel displaced and transported from the
heart to the head” (257-57). Verne grew up in this tradition, as Costello
remarks in his Jules Verne (78).
And what dreams Verne had! We can grasp how much
he changed the world by recalling real events which appeared first as acts of
imagination. The American submarine Nautilus, its name taken from Verne’s
Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, surfaced at the north pole and
talked by radio with the President of the United States, less than a century
after the novel was published. The explorer Haroun Tazieff, a Verne fan who had
read Journey to the Center of the Earth, climbed down into the rumbling
throat of a volcano in Africa, seeking secrets of the earth’s core. An Italian
venturer coasted over the icy Arctic wastes in a dirigible, just as Verne
proposed. A French explorer crawled into the caves of southern Europe, stumbling
upon the ancient campgrounds of early man, standing before underground lakes
where mammoths once roasted over crackling fires—as Verne had envisioned. In
1877 Verne foresaw a journey through the entire solar system, a feat
accomplished by NASA’s robot voyagers a century later.
Varley’s future tech is equally sophisticated
for our age, and far more self-aware. All the latest techs are here—nano-, bio-
and compu-tech—with some interesting blends and cross-fertilization. Horses you
can hold on your hand. Dentistry done by micro-agents in the drinking water.
There are even some new sexual kinks, though alas, it seems a fundamentally
More to the point, the ideas and inventions cohere. Today we of the hard sf
school have evolved a code of play that Varley used to fine advantage.
Memorably, at the big battle scene marking the closing movements of the novel,
he presents us with a problem. The Heinleiners have invented a special
“null-suit” that protects against everything—vacuum, radiation, bullets. But in
an assault, people shot with machine guns emerge from their null-suits a bright
lobster color, and dead.
Why? Varley lets us stew in this a bit, then
unfurls the answer: conservation of energy. Sure, you can block bullets, but
their kinetic energy has to go somewhere. A sizable fraction reappears inside
the null-suit as thermal, infrared emission, cooking the hapless folk it was
supposed to protect.
It’s a nice trick. This reader felt pleased that
he had figured it out. To me, this is as much as a hard sf writer needs to do.
I’ll admit that as a physicist I was interested enough to actually work out the
numbers, and I found, as I suspected, that it’s a good notion—but a dud. There
isn’t enough energy in a burst of machine-gun slugs to cook a person. At most
you might raise body temperature by a fraction of a degree. This is pretty
obvious, once you think about it. How many gunshot victims suffer sudden fevers
from the spent slug energy?
My point, though, is that Varley has done all
the homework a reader can expect. Foreground delights like this are an essential
to the hard sf strategy, which typically slides its deeper themes in while you
I was reminded of Heinlein’s pages of rocketry
calculations in Farmer in the Sky. Wells did much less of this, perhaps
because he had little technical education. Still, Verne was mostly self-educated
as was Wells, yet he ladled in so many calculations about his cannon and shell
that the reader of 1865 apparently didn’t mind the easily intuited, underlying
embarrassment: his moon-launching cannon would have squashed its crew at the
firing. Their author does give them some relief with a water shock absorber,
discussed in detail. But he must have known that it would not have helped much.
It is a bit curious why Verne chose this brute
force method, when the rocket was known to him—though only as a minor military
weapon and as fireworks. In Around the Moon, the sequel published five
years later (imagine having to wait that long to find out what happened to the
expedition!—readers were more tolerent then), he showed that he understood the
principles of rocketry, since he let his capsule fire several, to return their
ship to earth.
Probably Verne wanted the luscious specifics of
artillery to light up his story—to ground it in reality. People knew that
cannons worked with awful efficiency. Rockets would have seemed to his audience
rather odd, speculative and unlikely.
But in another sense, Verne was not wrong at all about artillery and outer
space. Maybe he just saw further than our time. Though rockets opened the space
frontier, through the inventions of the American Robert Goddard (an ardent Verne
fan), cannon are making their comeback.
In 1991 the US government began a research
program aiming to deliver payloads into orbit around the earth at a low price—by
using guns. The project has an uncanny resemblance to Verne’s. The barrel,
reinforced by steel and concrete, is a narrow pipe about three hundred feet
long. An explosion starts the process, driving hydrogen gas against the
underside of a bullet-shaped capsule. The goal is to place a capsule in orbit
within three years. Once there, it will use rockets to maneuver itself into a
proper, nearly circular orbit about the earth—just as Verne predicted.
Why now, nearly 130 years after From the
Earth to the Moon? Finally our engineering can deal with the massive
acceleration—thousands of times earth’s “gee.” I had mentioned this possibility
to Heinlein in the 1980s. Hearing the idea, he instantly related it to Verne,
and remarked that though he did not refer to Verne very much, he had read “the
Frenchman” at the same age as his discovery of Wells. To Heinlein, they were
both founding fathers of an aesthetic he embraced.
I rather like such resonances across the 127 years. To Verne and Wells,
predicting the future was not the main arena of what would become hard sf.
Surface detail hides the grave issues that emerge from science as a lived
experience, and I suspect form a deep portion of the world-view of even its most
By divorcing ourselves mentally from the
workings of the world, we see ourselves in stark contrast with its eternal laws,
slow movements, and grand time scales. We are mayflies compared with the swing
of planets, the lifetimes of stars. Even now, exploring missions to the outer
solar system take the meat out of a whole career to plan, design, build, launch
the vehicle, and gather in its data. So in the end, many hard sf works return to
human mortality and its implications as their profound theme.
Varley warily prowls around the expansive spirit in this novel, nudging it,
drawn like a moth to a flame it desires but cannot quite trust. Suicide echoes
in Steel Beach, a somber questioning of all exhuberance. In Varley, Camus
meets Verne, two Frenchmen who would not have recognized each other. Seldom
attentive to either women or religion, Verne the boyish rationalist did evolve
from technophile to a darker view, but his optimism never died. To a man who
says, “Why remain alive?” there is only the hard sf writer’s answer: “Because
it’s fun—and the alternative is boring.” Or so I feel. That’s the point—
ultimately, emotions drive our selves, our technology, our dreams.
And Varley? After showing in great detail
Hildy’s emotional isolation, Varley leads us to expect a rather
sentimental—though wise—finish: she finds deep personal connections, and begins
Not so. Her new romance dies in a single
telephone call—the lover hangs up, thinking it’s not really important, and
there’s a newsy crisis abuilding, after all. Her accidental but overpowering
pregnancy does not lead to happy motherhood. As a writer, I savored Varley
setting these fat ducks up in an obliging row, then shooting them down.
But what’s a cynic to do? Despite all the
wisecracking—and here Varley is second to none, including Heinlein and Haldeman—in
the end he is drawn back to the same emotional ground that animated Verne. To
me, it is a true surprise ending, because I thought Hildy was far too distanced
from her world to ever enter it so whole-heartedly.
Hildy volunteers to help put the starship
Robert A. Heinlein back together with the proverbial string and glue. She’ll
be the publicity hound for the Good Ol’ Up and Out, a role Heinlein fulfilled,
indirectly, for decades. Heinlein’s trouble as a novelist was endings, and
Varley knows that, too:
promised you no neat conclusion, and I think I’ve delivered on that. I warned
you of loose ends, and I can see a whole tangle of them. A novel which aspires
to be about a year in a life can be a bit lumpy and malformed, in the cause of
art that resembles life. But the book ends by voting for the great up-and-out,
the horizon, the frontier. What will we find out there? I don’t know either, and
that’s why I’m going along. Alien intelligences? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Strange worlds? I’d say that’s a lock. Vast empty spaces, human tragedy and
hope.... Think what a story it’ll be.... (479)
Very Heinlein. Very Verne.
Verne died only a few months before the Wright
brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina—but he had seen such
flights in his mind’s eye decades before, and the brothers had read his novels.
We now know that Leo Szilard got the idea of a fission chain reaction in uranium
after reading Wells’s The World Set Free, which in 1914 invented the
terms “chain reaction” and “atom bomb.” Like Wells, Verne worried increasingly
about the use of technology in war. Wells became a world figure, talking to
Stalin and Teddy Roosevelt, urging them toward the socialist dawn, while Verne
preferred the romantic figure of Captain Nemo. Wells seldom thought of grand
natural frontiers, and so fathered much social sf, while Verne’s heart was
always with the explorers.
Both strains echo in hard sf writers such as
Greg Bear, David Brin, Greg Egan, and Stephen Baxter today. In this sense, the
main themes of nineteenth-century sf remain strong today. It may seem ironic
that Verne’s verve for exploration and technology found a strong echo in
American sf, while in France today he has few literary descendants. But France
itself is notably technophilic, even if its literary mavens are not; it leads
the world in percentage of nuclear powered electricity.
We can get a feeling for Verne’s faith in the long range possibilities of
humanity from the remarkable memorial his son placed over his father’s grave. It
shows Verne with hair streaming, as if he is in flight, breaking free of his
shroud and tomb, rising up magnificently from the dead. Above it are simply his
name and the words, Onward to immortality and eternal youth. It’s hard to
be more optimistic than that, and Americans still can, even if the French
literary world prefers not.
Varley, too, expresses, in suitably technohip
garb, something that strikes from the same deep ground. His Red Thunder
is a direct hommage to Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo—hip, but not
cynical—and both are about amateurs going off exploring, à la Verne. After so
much sf-noir about burned-out street louts with improbable tech skills, tropes
copied from the hardboiled detectives of a half century back, Varley’s vision
seems refreshingly new, though warmly old.
Goncourt, Edmond and Jules. Journal: Mémoires de la vie littérarie. 1885.
Paris: Fasquelle and Flammarion, 1956. 256-57.
Costello, Peter, Jules Verne: Inventor of Science Fiction. New York:
Heinlein, Robert A. Grumbles from the Grave. Ed. Virginia Heinlein. New
York: Del Rey, 1989.
Varley, John, Red Thunder. New York: Ace, 2002.
-----. Steel Beach. New York: Putnam, 1992.
Verne, Jules. From the Earth to the Moon. New York: Scribner, 1873.
-----. Journey Through the Impossible. New York: Prometheus Books, 2004.
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