Science Fiction Studies

#24 = Volume 8, Part 2 = July 1981



Nadia Khouri and Marc Angenot

Science Fiction In Old San Francisco

Sam Moskowitz. Science Fiction in Old San Francisco, Volume I: History of the Movement from 1854 to 1890 and Volume II: Into the Sun and Other Stories, by Robert Duncan Milne, selected and with an Introduction by S.M. West Kingston, RI: Donald M. Grant, 1980. 2 vols. 255p. and 253p. US S15.00 each vol.

Most histories of American SF still seem to imply that "actual" SF began with the launching of Amazing Stories in 1926 or, if one goes further back into the Prehistory, with the publication of "Ralph 124C 41 +" in Modern Electrics in April 1911. Jacques Sadoul's History of Modern Science Fiction (1973), for instance, takes Gernsback's serial as an obvious point of departure, simply mentioning in a footnote that there was something he calls "Pre-SF" that existed in North America before the John-the-Baptist of Science Fiction, and cursively referring here to Sam Moskowitz's Science Fiction by Gaslight (1968). It is true that any starting-point for the history of a cultural phenomenon is to a certain degree an arbitrary convenience, but in the case of SF it is much more than that: it presupposes that there is a fundamental break somewhere around World War I. The coining of the words "scientifiction" (1926) and "science fiction" might in fact be historical indications of changes in social awareness or in institutional status. Nonetheless if one looks at the bibliographies compiled by Bleiler, Sargent, Negley, and some other sources, leaving aside tales of "pure" fantasy, spiritualism, supernatural and semi-gothic stories, it will be easily found that between 1865 and 1911, over 400 utopian and scientific romances were published in book form by American writers. This provides a clue that allows one to extrapolate about the thousands of short stories that might have been published in magazines during that period.

Not only could one contend that there is no break between this important and variegated output and the post-l911 production, but one can even say that American SF between the two wars--that so highly admired period of the "Pulps," Amazing, Science Wonder, Astounding--represents an actual regression--both in aesthetic and critical value and in sociological status, compared to what the beginning of the century seemed to promise. From the end of the Civil War to the 1910s, scientific romance, still substantially laden with utopian and satiric components, not only inspired hundreds of writers, from dime novelists to political doctrinaires, from writers for the juvenile press to recognized "high lit." authors, but also seems to have attracted a faithful and diversified readership, much more diversified in fact than the social group that will eventually constitute the "pulp" random. One arrives at the following paradox: that the so-called "pre-SF" was made up of a consistent and successful production occupying a wide spectrum in the literary institution (a production partly available today through the dozens of reprints by Gregg, Arno, and other specialized publishers); that by comparison, Gernsbackian SF, far from representing a sudden flowering, in fact manifests a thematic and aesthetic impoverishment, parallel to a loss of status that should be accounted for. The most interesting themes and formulae in the pulps attempt to revive, in glum and pedestrian ways, fictional motifs that had long been illustrated by Astor, Bellamy, Chambers, Cook, Donnelly, Gratacap, Hale, Howells, London, G. Morris, Pope, Serviss, Stockton, Twain, and Waterloo--to mention only a few names.

Though what we are saying here is not in any way original, we want to re-advocate a change of perspective that a number of critics are reluctant to adopt. We will therefore put forward this iconoclastic thesis: 90 years ago SF was quite a promising genre with a potentially powerful critical impact on American society. However, it went through a rather long period of stagnation and degeneration between 1910 and 1950. For some unaccountable reasons, this period has been called a "Golden Age" by generations of critics. It is a well-known fact that popular genres suffer intermittent crises of amnesia. Changes in publishers' tastes make obsolete entire sections of a previous production. Such an amnesia is no longer possible for SF, where consistent efforts have been made to shed light on its whole history. Yet, if the myth of the Miraculous Birth of SF after the First World War still persists, it might be due to the fact that some of today's readers remain under the influence of the ideological features of the "pulp" production: fetishized extrapolations about technological gadgets, naive fantasies of scientific progress, the magical dissolution of social contradictions and the elimination of the utopian impulse--all this linked with the shrinking of plot paradigms to the commonplaces of adventure stories. The best SF writers of the 1960s and '70s, harking back to the great tradition of American utopianism and social critique in fiction, should make us feel more clearly this continuity --and the relative slump of SF in the period between the world wars.

It is another and subsidiary paradox that the first historian that thought fit to look at pre-Gernsbackian SF was a man coming from the Fandom rather than from Academia and one of the most enthusiastic adulators of the "pulp" novelists. Sam Moskowitz is a man who elicits at the same time sympathy and exasperation. No doubt he impersonates with a quasi-diabolic perfection the absolute contrary of whatever SFS is trying to do. His flights of enthusiasm (and Mr. Moskowitz is certainly not devoid of a great faculty of enthusiasm) are to our mind frequently misplaced. He is able to praise to the skies the most garrulous "pulp" stories. He displays a certain taste for anecdotes, which is but the counterpart of a sanctimonious indifference towards theorizing. But his sins, which are many, will be forgiven, for he loved much SF under all its forms, and often the humblest ones. Who had ever heard about Robert D. Milne before Mr. Moskowitz--patiently and piously--decided to erect a two-volume monument to his glory? Certainly Bleiler does not know about Milne, whose name is absent from his famous Checklist. However Milne enjoyed an "unprecedented popularity" on the West Coast over a 30 year period (i.e., cat 1870-1900). It is right to say here why Mr. Moskowitz's endeavors are, despite everything, both touching and interesting. First he shows, as he did in his Science Fiction by Gaslight, that SF-- and especially its popular forms in mass magazines--does not begin in the 1910s and he illustrates this contention with a lot of data, titles, and storiettes. Secondly, when investigating the forgotten biographies of these ancient SF writers, Mr. Moskowitz displays a sense of the epic, of the grandiose, that almost metamorphoses his topic. A sort of poetry irradiates from his writings, a poetry that results from the attention paid to the most minute details together with a stylistic impetus and an untrammelled admiration. The death of Robert D. Milne--the key figure of what Mr. Moskowitz perhaps a bit abusively calls the Old San Francisco "Movement" of science-fantasy--is reported in a tragic but punctilious tone: this report tries to recapture, with a sort of metaphysical awe before the inexorable flow of time, a city, an epoch, the life and death of a man doomed to oblivion:

Did Milne ever enjoy the brief pleasure of reading that article [quoting him in The Forum] before, befuddled by liquor and enfeebled from its ravages and poor nutrition, he spongily started to cross Market Street at the intersection of Montgomery Street, San Francisco, Friday Morning, December 15, 1899, a few minutes after midnight? Philip Healy, grip man on the McAllister Street cable car no. 281, claimed he slowed down, rang his bell and began shouting at Milne but was ignored. The conductor, Thurston, asserted the streets were wet and the tracks slippery. A witness, liquor-store owner Harry Dobie, said that Milne, who had cleared the track, suddenly fell backward, striking his head on the car steps. (I, 251)

Remarkable for its faithfulness to details, its acquaintance with the day-to-day life of the time (accurateness is difficult to assess since Mr. Moskowitz is quite secretive about his sources), this monograph provides a treasury of data about journalistic mores, popular literary writing, and social life in 'Frisco at the end of the 19th century.

There is no doubt that not only Robert Duncan Milne but also his colleagues and friends, William Henry Rhodes, W.C. Morrow, and Emma Frances Dawson have been unjustifiably forgotten, for they played a role in late 19th century magazine fiction. In fact, Milne's talent and inventiveness at least were acclaimed by both Ambrose Bierce and Robert Louis Stevenson. Moskowitz shows clearly than Randolph Hearst, Jr., for whom Milne worked at the San Francisco Examiner, seems to have consistently dallied with the idea of using "scientific" stories as a basic ingredient for launching a mass newspaper. Ambrose Bierce was approached; and Milne, among others, regularly contributed to SF serials in the Examiner ever since 1887. The second volume published by Moskowitz is an anthology of Milne's best SF, an SF that, he shows, was "immensely popular" at the time. It displays an excellent and effective style and an original sense of storytelling.

Without trying to disparage Milne's talent, which is real, one should remark that this selection of texts illustrates a number of narrative formulae that were already profusely widespread in US and European scientific romances: fall of a comet, world collisions, utopian society, genetic engineering, matter transmitters, reverse aging, suspended animation, lost civilizations, aerial warfare, future war, and Yellow Peril, all those topoi--which can, of course, be treated in a dull or in a brilliant way--were already there as a sort of common property of SF. By focussing on Milne and his group, Moskowitz inevitably underestimates the previous diffusion of these themes and their ideological import. On the other hand, he seems convinced more than ever that the blue-print value of a short story, its interest for scientific conjecture and "prophecy," should be an important element of our literary judgment. This and his indifference to questions of literary theory and cultural studies as such lead us back to our initial disagreement with his approach, priorities, and terms of reference. It does not prevent us from admiring his freshness of mind and his bounteousness of heart vis--vis his biographies, and his archivistic passion. His two books (to be followed soon by a third one on the 1899-1906 period) shed light on an almost totally forgotten moment in the history of SF. Others will come that will invest in their research at least a degree of theoretical sophistication, but the pioneer's work also deserves praise and respect.

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