Science Fiction Studies

#95 = Volume 32, Part 1 = March 2005

Gregory Benford

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 science fiction.

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 world:

I 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 inappropriate laughter.”

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 pins.”

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 seeking something.
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.

Consider Verne.

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 limited medium.
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 are distracted.

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 Analog-style practitioners.

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 anew.

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:

I 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: Scribner, 1978.
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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