Science Fiction Studies

# 16 = Volume 5, Part 3 = November 1978

John M. Christensen

New Atlantis Revisited: Science and the Victorian Tale of the Future

By the mid-nineteenth century the Baconian dream of material progress seemed a reality; man's dominion over the natural world had been enormously increased by achievements in the various sciences and the practical application of their methods and discoveries. Salomon's House had a secure foundation in the New Atlantis of Victorian England, and as the province of empirical science was extended to include all aspects of life, the optimism of the positivists grew boundless. G.H. Lewes strikes the keynote of their confidence: "When science has fairly mastered the principles of moral relations as it has mastered the principles of physical relations, all knowledge will be incorporated in a homogeneous doctrine rivaling that of the old theology in its comprehensiveness and surpassing it in the authority of its credentials."1 Continued material progress and prosperity appeared certain, and the future promised a more equitable social order based on demonstrable laws of human behavior. With the visible products of the industrial revolution and Darwin's confirmation of the evolutionary process, the idea of progress became axiomatic in the nineteenth century.

Darwin provided a central metaphor for his age, and virtually no mode of thought — social, political, religious, aesthetic — was untouched by the concept of evolution. This concept (or rather the version of it popularized by social theoreticians like Lewes and Herbert Spencer) afforded many a rationale for faith in endless progress through human endeavor and technological advance. It also generated a convenient fictional vehicle for expressing anxieties about an increasingly urban industrial world and about the implications of evolutionary speculation itself. That vehicle was the quasi-utopian tale of the future.

When the Director of the Cheltenham Library, writing in 1873, noted the sudden increase in works of "an utopian character," he was describing the budding genre as precisely as possible.2 It is the metaphor of evolution that informs the sixty or seventy futuristic fantasies published in England between 1870 and 1900, and in this respect they depart significantly from the paradigm of their literary ancestors. For the most part they are not static visions of an earthly paradise; instead their perspective is kinetic, assuming a continual evolutionary growth and flow. They are also remarkably diverse, ranging from full-blown triple deckers intended for the circulating libraries to short pamphlets detailing the harmonious efficiency of socialist societies on the political horizon.3

Still, these works do have something in common with their predecessors. It seems probable that, as Northrop Frye, among others, has observed, utopian fictions are most frequently produced when the fundamental assumptions about the social order begin to erode, and a typical utopia thus contains "if only by implication, a satire on the anarchy inherent in the writer's own society."4 These fictions of the future were not simply a whim on the part of a literary generation, but rather a response to very real, and often disturbing, changes in the fabric of contemporary society.

Taken as a whole, the Victorian tale of the future is a pessimistic genre, anticipating the dystopian tradition of the twentieth century, represented by such works as Zamyatin's We (1912), Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and Orwell's 1984 (1949). This pessimism is not surprising, for the genre receives its central impulse from the disparity between what science appeared to promise and what it had failed to do, between mid-Victorian optimism and the "settled state of baffled judgement" characteristic of the late Victorian frame of mind.5

Certainly Science could not be blamed for all the social, political, and religious upheaval that plagued the late Victorian period, but just as certainly it seemed to have its hand in them. The mechanical sciences had been instrumental in bringing about the technological revolution of the eighteenth century, a revolution that fostered the urban, class-conscious society of industrial England. Worse, the biological and physical sciences, by leveling an attack at the foundations of orthodox religious faith, had radically upset man's assumptions about his place in the natural order and about his own spiritual and physical being. As the problems of the contemporary world grew more complex and frustrating, historians of the future issued bleaker prophecies and dire warnings. Frequently Science was their scapegoat.

In M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901) an analogy is explicitly drawn between the Biblical Tree of Knowledge and modern science. The poisonous cloud that exterminates mankind — leaving only a second edenic couple — is interpreted by Shiel's Adam as a providential scourge, a punishment for man's efforts to unravel the secrets of the universe. The indiscriminate hostility toward scientific inquiry suggested by this interpretation informs several tales of the future, and its source is easily identifiable. The cosmology implicit in the new sciences denied man his unique relation to a transcendent reality, reducing him to a mere cog in a vast machine — without even a spectre of the deist's primum mobile standing behind it.

Shiel's novel is typical in another important respect. All sorts of catastrophic events occur in these tales, and many of the explanations for them are reassertions of a theocentric perspective. Frequently, this perspective is distorted by its very opposite — the evolutionary view — and a kind of double vision results. This confusion is best illustrated by Fergus Hume's The Year of Miracle (1891), in which a plague ravages the population of London. We learn that Hume's narrator, the "prophet" who unleashes the Burning Sickness, has been chosen by God to punish the sins of Western Europe, but even he describes the plague's effects from two distinct frames of reference. On the one hand he suggests that it is an act of Providence, divine retribution for the sins of a decadent society: "They [the wealthy of London's West End] sang, they danced, they feasted, they sinned, nor dreamed that the Angel of Death was hovering over them; but the handwriting was on the wall, and the days of their wickedness, their luxury, and their idleness were drawing to a close." On the other hand, the effect of the plague is described in terms clearly attached to a strident social Darwinism: "A great number of the poorer classes had been swept away, and in this case of survival of the fittest those left in England to rebuild London, and the social life of the British people, were mostly either physically or mentally strong."6

A similar confusion of perspectives is found in Kenneth Folingsby's Meda (1891). Here the city dwellers are destroyed, it is hinted, because they have offended God by becoming gluttons and by obscuring the natural beauty of His creation with hideous urban centers. But the means of their destruction implies a perspective contrary to the theocentric one Folingsby wishes to affirm; as the climate changed over the centuries, it favored and preserved those self-disciplined few who fled the cities and became accustomed to the rigors of country life.

In both Meda and The Year of Miracle the will of a purposeful, righteous deity is grafted onto the random, morally neutral evolutionary process. Viewing the future through their specially designed bifocals, Folingsby and Hume were able to salvage the old cosmology, to snatch it back from the "touch of cold philosophy," as the Romantics had done before them.7

If at first the new sciences seemed to hold great promise, their shortcomings quickly became evident. As the empirical mode of inquiry gained acceptance as the only valid source of knowledge, the reality it could describe was reduced to a set of physical laws and chemical reactions. Even worse, the investigations of men like Huxley and Tyndal, who championed the new sciences, strongly suggested that man might be no more than a biologically determined species with no meaningful volitional capacity, incapable of genuine moral or ethical activity.8 Science, then, could provide several facts, theories, and inferences about the physical universe and man's relation to it, but they seemed either inadequate or, in a disturbing number of cases, frankly appalling. Nascent in the late Victorian frame of mind was a sensibility articulated for the twentieth century in Joseph Wood Krutch's The Modem Temper (1929). The mechanistic conception of the cosmos was oppressive; the significance of human life diminished in a cold, inanimate, and indifferent universe.

The bleaker implications of this view receive their fullest statement in the closing sections of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895). When the Time Traveler reaches the end of his journey, he finds there is a world without human life, a nearly barren earth "come to rest with one face to the sun."

I cannot convey the sense of abominable desolation that hung over the world. The red eastern sky, the northward blackness, the salt Dead Sea, the stony beach ... the uniform poisonous-looking green of the lichenous plants, the thin air that hurts one's lungs: all contributed to an appalling effect. I moved on a hundred years, and there was the same red sun — a little larger, a little duller....9

There is no providential scourge invoked here; this desolate landscape is the product of evolutionary forces that lie at the imaginative core of Wells' novel. It is an entropic vision, depressing because it implies the futility of man's efforts in a universe whose energy is limited and whose physical processes are not only indifferent, but possibly inimical, to this presence. Darwin had provided a metaphor which could be optimistically interpreted, but in point of fact his theory of evolution in no way guaranteed perpetual progress — or even the continued existence of man. Of what value, then, were the material advances of civilization or participation in an altruistic Religion of Humanity, if mankind might simply be extinguished by the random processes of natural selection? Considered against a vast backdrop of time and space, in which unconquerable forces ran their random course, the monuments of civilization — material and intellectual alike — appeared frail and impotent.

Impotence, entropy, enervation are stock themes in the tale of the future, and their relation to the supposed "advance" of civilization is explored at length in Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871). The dreams of positivists like Lewes have been realized by the subterranean society of Bulwer's novel. The Vril-ya are descendants of the same parent stock from which their terrestrial cousins have evolved, but they are mentally superior and technologically more advanced. The discovery of Vril, the "all permeating fluid" capable of "being raised into the mightiest agency over all forms of matter," has enabled the race to master its environment and secure nearly universal prosperity. Moreover, Vril has made warfare — or any sort of violent conflict — inconceivable since its destructive powers are available to all. Crime and poverty are virtually nonexistent, women have achieved equality with men, and religious controversy has ended in a universally shared, non-dogmatic faith in a benevolent deity and life after death. As the narrator says, the society of Vril-ya, having realized "the dreams of our most sanguine philanthropists, almost approaches to a poet's conception of some angelical order."

Still, the narrator, undoubtedly speaking for Bulwer, rejects this demi-eden, and the terms of his rejection challenge the fundamental assumptions of utopian vision. The harmonious society of the Vril-ya excludes competition, rendering it incapable of producing those "individual examples of human greatness which adorn the annals of the upper world." For Bulwer, strife, competition, suffering, and folly are inherent in the human condition; utopian schemes of perfect harmony and contentment are vain dreams, inconsistent with human nature. As his narrator insists, the goal of "calm and innocent felicity" is a futile one, which if it could be achieved would only lead to enervation and ennui.10

Although this assault on the utopian imagination is not explicitly directed at the sciences, it partakes of a late Victorian preoccupation that is integrally related to them. The March of Mind, the empirical Zeitgeist stalking the mental corridors of the nineteenth century, seemed, to some at least, to have depleted the world of mystery and deprived man of vital energies.

Fears that modern life was being emotionally and spiritually impoverished as progress was increasingly identified with scientific and technological advance receive their most sustained treatment in Francis Power Cobbe's The Age of Science (1877). In Cobbe's satire scientific interests dominate all modes of thought and behavior. As the vocabulary of newspaper articles suggests, the citizens of this supremely "rational" age are thoroughly acquainted with the technicalities of all branches of scientific research. Indeed, it is a crime punishable by flogging (an oddly unscientific punishment) for parents to allow their children to miss any of the classes in science provided by the state. The abolition of the churches and the establishment of Westminster Abbey as the forum for all medical conventions is indicative of Science's ascendancy in the minds and hearts of the people.

The essential dreariness and imaginative vacuity of this society are suggested by the state of the nation's arts. Scientific treatises have replaced poetry and fiction, while the admired precision of photographic reproduction has rendered the visual arts of portraiture and landscape painting obsolete." An age in which facts and figures dominate men's minds, as in The Age of Science, or in which technology has brought complete material security, as in The Coming Race, is potentially an age of sterility and enervation. The decay of the arts motif represents a fear that the society of the future will be so technological, so utilitarian, so materialistic as to undervalue basic spiritual and emotional needs of the individual.

Cobbe's work explores another theme prominent in the tale of the future: moral relativism. In the age of science moral considerations have been superseded by the interests of generic classification; the rightness or wrongness of an action is less important than the identification and explanation of the principles which govern it. Insistence on a strictly "scientific" or "objective" attitude has led to attenuation of ethical perception. Despite its accumulation of facts and theories, Science, Cobbe maintains, can provide no moral guidance, no ethical imperatives. And it is the figure of the scientist, who appears in several guises, that is frequently associated with moral and social anarchy in the tale of the future.

W.H. Mallock's Professor Darnley in The New Paul and Virginia (1878) is an excellent case in point. Darnley embodies the positivist spirit, and it is his belief that an ethical system can be constructed on a purely rational basis that damns him in Mallock's eyes. Shipwrecked with a few others on an island of material abundance, Darnley preaches his Gospel of the Kingdom of Man, a parody of the Comtian Religion of Humanity. Comically, but ruthlessly, Mallock exposes the moral vacuity he believes to lie behind the positivist creed, reduced to utter absurdity in Darnley's Gospel. Egoism is the essence of the Kingdom of Man.

As the Professor turned his eyes toward the starry heavens a sense came over him of the eternity and the immensity of Nature and the demonstrable absence of any intelligence that guided it. These reflections naturally brought home to him with more vividness the stupendous and boundless importance of Man. His bosom swelled violently, and he cried aloud, his eyes still fixed on the firmament, "Oh, important All! oh, important Me!"

In scenes like this Mallock debunks the Religion of Humanity and its dependence on a displaced religious impulse. Ironically, the Professor's own Gospel has made him insensitive to the sufferings of others and the integrity of human life; he is unmoved by the death of an old woman, explaining to his disciples that she "simply conformed to the laws of nature."12 Darnley's entire outlook is "scientific," and it is precisely this strict adoption of a purely empirical, "objective," frame of mind that receives grimmer treatment in Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).

Wells' novella is not properly a tale of the future; rather it follows the Renaissance paradigm of an ideal state remote from civilization, as in Bacon's New Atlantis (1627). Here, however, the paradigm is negatively mirrored, for on Moreau's island science has produced only intense suffering and grotesque parodies of human life. Moreau's literary ancestors are Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll, but to an even greater extent he has been corrupted by his dedication to his research, and he acknowledges the result himself: "To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter. The study of Nature makes man at last as remorseless as Nature. I have gone on not heeding anything but the question I was pursuing."13

Moreau's view of nature as "remorseless" is drawn from the darker conceptions of the natural order prompted by Darwinian evolutionary theory. But his insistence that the study of nature makes man "as remorseless as Nature" is the significant proposition. As Huxley had argued in "Evolution and Ethics" (1893), man is to preserve civilization and progress not by adapting himself to the processes of nature, but by checking them at every step. Moreau's cardinal sin is that he has identified himself with an amoral nature and abdicated all ethical responsibility, thereby excluding himself from the human community. Moreau represents a perversion of the scientific spirit, and his nightmarish world of Beast People is its product.

Moreau's experiments are confined to his island world, but in other tales of the future the mad or demonic scientist is at work in society, threatening to disrupt its very foundations. In J.S. Fletcher's The Three Days' Terror (1901), Count de Renville (probably modeled on Wells' Moreau; his island retreat swarms with the results of his experiments in vivisection) heads a secret society that threatens London with an awesome explosive. The Count's avowed purpose is to force reform and the establishment of a more equitable social order, yet he precipitates nothing but disorder and destruction. Hume Nisbet's The Great Secret (1895) also has its anarchists, and their melodramatic leader, Dr. Fernandez, is the type of mad scientist whose evil doings are the obsession of countless late-night movies. "To be able to annihilate Europe — nay, the entire globe — with a single touch, leaving his own sympathizers unhurt as spectators, would be an achievement worthy of his brain if accomplished at the precise moment of his calculations." And like Moreau, he has lost all moral perspective: "He was a scientific fiend ... who to discover a single scientific secret would coldly mutilate half of humanity."14

The association of science and anarchistic activity is revealing. Anxieties about the entire complex of social, political, and religious upheaval in late Victorian society have been focused on a convenient scapegoat. True enough, there are a few harmless, even attractive, scientist types in the tale of the future. Wells' resourceful and perceptive Time Traveler is one. But more often the scientist is negatively portrayed, or his supposed ethical attitudes are voiced by the most callous of villains. Hiram Hancock, for example, in W. Laird Clowe's The Great Peril (1893) views his attempt to brainwash the British public as a "kind of laboratory experiment."15

The futuristic fantasies of this period appeal to the stock prejudices of the intellectual public — and to a very modern sensibility created, in part, by what Raymond Williams has described as the decline of the "the knowable community."16 Society seems too complex for the average individual to comprehend or influence; it appears to be coming apart at the seams, and somehow the "experts," the technicians, the scientific elite are at fault. Of course there are optimistic tales of the future like Edward Maitland's By and By (1873) or A. Blair's Annals of the Twenty-ninth Century (1874) in which technology is the handmaid of Christian concord. But after the mid-eighties the optimistic tales tend to be more like W.H. Hudson's A Crystal Age (1887) or Morris' News From Nowhere (1891) in which all evidence of industrial England has been obliterated by the centuries and Science has lost its hold on the minds of men.

For many, the Baconian dream had become nightmare. The old cosmology had been displaced by an unfamiliar and frightening new one; life had lost meaning, vitality, and direction. The disenchantment with Science that pervades the Victorian tale of the future finds vivid expression in a contemporary poem, James Thomson's City of Dreadful Night (1874). Presiding over the northern crest of Thomson's weary but sleepless city is a "bronze colossus of a winged Woman." The woman, "low seated," leaning forward "massively," holds a pair of compasses, the symbols of science and guidance, and "gazes/ With full set eyes, but wandering in thick mazes/ Of sombre thought beholds no outward sight."

Her subjects often gaze up to her there:

The strong to drink new strength of iron endurance,

The weak new terrors; all, renewed assurance

And confirmation of the old despair.17


1. G.H. Lewes, "On the Dread and Dislike of Science," Fortnightly Review, 29 (1878), 815.

2. Quoted in I.F. Clarke's "The Nineteenth Century Utopia," Quarterly Review, 296 (1958), 81.

3. See I.F. Clarke, The Tale of the Future: From the Beginning to the Present Day, 2nd ed. (London, London Library Association, 1972). Clarke's bibliography contains an introduction and lists all tales of the future published in England. Utopias and tales of the future were written throughout the nineteenth century, but there is a marked increase in their production after 1870. In the thirty-three years from the beginning of Victoria's reign in 1837 to 1870, only about twelve such works were published. But nearly the same number were published in the decade following 1870, and over fifty such fantasies appeared in the nineties. My figures are based on Clarke's bibliography, exclusive of "invasion novels" and works by foreign authors published in England. Figures vary according to the manner in which certain works are categorized; for example, Wells' War of the Worlds could be considered either an invasion novel or a tale of the future.

4. Northrop Frye, "Varieties of Literary Utopias," Utopias and Utopian Thought, ed. Frank E. Manuel (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1966), p. 70.

5. Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1957), p. 21.

6. Fergus Hume, The Year of Miracle; A Tale of the Year One Thousand Nine Hundred (London, George Routledge and Sons, 1891), pp. 66, 146.

7. John Keats, Lamia (1820),II, 1. 23.

8. Huxley's "On the Physical Basis of Life" (an address delivered in Edinburgh on November 5, 1868 and later collected in Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews, 1871) certainly points to such conclusions, though Huxley refuses to insist upon them. Indeed in the last sections of this address he argues that volition does count for something in the course of events and warns against strict adoption of a materialist position. "Evolution and Ethics," his famous Romanes Lecture of 1893, clearly demonstrates Huxley's conviction that man is capable of meaningful ethical decision and morally responsible activity.

9. H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895; rpt. New York, Berkeley Highland Books, 1969), p. 128.

10. [Edward Bulwer-Lytton]. "The Coming Race" (1871), in Bulwer's Novels and Romances (New York, J.F. Taylor, 1897), xxiii, 439, 440.

11. See Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography (London, Allen Lane, 1968).

12. [W.H. Mallock], The New Paul and Virginia; or Positivism on an Island, ed. John D. Margolis (1878; rpt. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1970), pp. 37, 61.

13. H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896; rpt. New York, Airmont Publishing Company, 1966), p. 73.

14. Hume Nisbet, The Great Secret; A Tale of Tomorrow (London, F.V. White and Company, 1895), pp. 73, 72.

15. W. Laird Clowes, The Great Peril; and How It Was Averted (London, Black and White, 1893), p. 9.

16. See Raymond Williams, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (New York, Oxford University Press, 1970).

17. James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night (1874), XXI, 11. 1, 6, 8, 12, 13, 14, 81,83,84.

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