Science Fiction Studies

# 69 = Volume 23, Part 2 = July 1996



Paul Alkon

New Essays on Early Science Fiction

David Seed, ed. Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and its Precursors. Syracuse University Press, 1995. xvi+225. $42.50 cloth, 17.95 paper.

It is hard to imagine any serious student of science fiction who would not come away from this fine collection without a better appreciation of the genre's complex genesis, a useful reading list of hitherto unknown or insufficiently considered early fiction, and higher blood pressure. There is plenty to enlighten and occasionally annoy almost everybody.

Although I neglected to monitor vital signs, my pressure doubtless peaked upon arriving at the discussion of William Morris in Brian Nellist's "Imagining the Future: Predictive Fiction in the Nineteenth Century." He states that "News from Nowhere works so much better than most future representations because so much of it is conveyed by image.... Part of the work's persuasiveness comes from the replacing of present by the overlaid image from the future" (130). This accurately describes a conspicuous narrative technique but begs crucial questions by assuming a significant degree of (presumably) ideological or representational "persuasiveness" (or both) linked to a formal feature that hardly by itself contributes to winning over readers to Morris's argument contra Bellamy, much less to achieving greater versimilitude "than most future representations." Even if by this hyperbolically inclusive phrase Nellist only means most previous futuristic fiction, the proposition is debatable, as it is if by "persuasiveness" Nellist means that readers must find predictive force, i.e. the appearance of a plausible or likely or even possible future in Morris's technique of displacing present and past landscapes by those of his imagined pastoral future. The extent to which News from Nowhere achieves either verisimilitude or assent to its case against Bellamy, i.e. "persuasiveness" in any sense, depends mostly upon whether it is preaching to the converted. Those who do not already share Morris's outlook on industrialization will most often be annoyed, amused, or bored rather than convinced by his images of a future which to them will seem both unlikely and undesirable. Remaining among those unpersuaded that News from Nowhere works better than (or even as well as) "most future representations," I stick to my previously published opinion that, fortunately, subsequent sf writers have been little influenced by its cloying sentimentality, its Luddite attitudes, and its lack of narrative interest.

Nellist does better service in his central argument that "It is the consciousness of the present as critical which creates futures in the later novel" (117). He is right to insist that nineteenth-century awareness of the present century as a distinct era, even subdivided into decades each with its own character, provided especially fertile ground for sf. He is right to identify publication of The Battle of Dorking in 1871 as "the symbolic point at which the present can be best read by a history of the future" (119). He is right to suggest that Mary Shelley's The Last Man is in some significant ways, "alien to the premises of science fiction" partly because in it "she refuses to characterize her own time, her present, as having a distinct identity" (117). This perceptive insight allows better understanding of why, despite its explicit future setting and apocalyptic narrative, The Last Man is more marginal to the history of sf than Frankenstein, which, though set in a recent past only implicitly foreshadowing a terrible future, is arguably the genre's true beginning place. I wish that instead of so much on News From Nowhere Nellist had said something about how far his main thesis on the importance to narrative futures of a sense of the present applies to the most influential eighteenth-century futuristic fiction, Louis-Sébastien Mercier's The Year 2440, and to the greatest nineteenth-century futuristic fiction, H.G. Wells's The Time Machine.

Brian Stableford's passionate essay on "Frankenstein and the Origins of Science Fiction" deserves wide currency as both explanation of and antidote to the pessimistic technophobia that informs fiction and criticism in the dreary strain of News From Nowhere: a strain traceable less to Morris's feeble book than to the power of Frankenstein's warning against the dangers of misusing science. Stableford stresses Mary Shelley's "remarkable originality" in departing from Gothic antecedants of Frankenstein to focus instead on "modern science, not ancient magic" in ways that allowed "the exploration of imaginative territory into which no previous author had penetrated" (47-48). By stressing also the reasons why Mary Shelley's fable, given the circumstances of its creation and the prevailing attitudes of her period, was bound to be at best ambivalent about the scientist's role as modern Prometheus, Stableford is able to highlight Frankenstein's dual influence as an archetype for tales attacking science and an instigator of stories that rally to its defense. Seminal among the latter were the narratives of Isaac Asimov, who "felt that the technophilic optimism of his work, which was, of course, central to the historical development of genre science fiction, was framed in frank opposition to a 'Frankenstein syndrome'. The central myth of Frankenstein seemed to Asimov to be an ideative monster, which must be slain by heroic and sinless robots for the benefit of future generations" (48). Here in Asimov's response to Shelley, Stableford identifies sf's core dialectic.

The oddity to which Stableford invites attention is not that anti-scientific attitudes dominated nineteenth-century debates or bent Mary Shelley's imagination toward pessimistic visions, but that the friends of science and post-enlightenment rationalism are still a minority at the close of the twentieth century, and a dwindling minority at that among of all groups the readers and writers of science fiction. Stableford notes and rightly labels as "a tragedy which has caught up in its toils the entire genre of science fiction which descends from Frankenstein "the fact that "A great deal of the fiction nowadays categorized as science fiction is horrific, and much of it is born of a fear or even a deep-seated hatred of the scientific world-view, whose acknowledged intellectual triumph over older concepts of natural order seems to many observers to be unedifying and undesirable" (56, 48). After explaining why Mary Shelley could hardly have produced a more wholehearted endorsement of science even had she wanted to (as she may have), Stableford reminds us that "sad to say, it is far, far easier even today to publish and find an appreciative audience for the ten thousandth rip-off of Frankenstein (Jurassic Park, to name but one example) than it is to publish and find an appreciative audience for the kind of novel which Frankenstein might have been" (56). If this goes on, Stableford eloquently warns, our displacement of blame for the world's difficulties from ourselves to science and technology per se will encourage delusions "which might easily possess us until we are irredeemably lost in the icy wilderness of our own moral cowardice" (57).

Stableford's magnificent jeremiad is surrounded by essays that are no less worthy for avoiding millennial anxieties in favor of calm retrospection. New understanding of important eighteenth-century precursors is provided by Paul Baines in "'Able Mechanick': The Life and the Adventures of Peter Wilkins and the Eighteenth-Century Fantastic Voyage." A special strength of this lucid essay is its firm affiliation of Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels to Peter Wilkins, and (though more briefly) of all three forward to Frankenstein, Erewhon, and, ultimately "the cosmos of Asimov's Foundation saga" (21). In "Science Fiction by Gaslight: An Introduction to English-Language Science Fiction in the Nineteenth Century," Edward James provides a magisterial survey of developments surrounding and to a significant extent shaping not only the most famous works of that period but also the direction of later sf, as James elsewhere shows too from a slightly different perspective in his excellent Science Fiction in the Twentienth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Patrick Parrinder here puts sf scholarship, and especially Wells studies, further in his debt with "From Mary Shelley to The War of the Worlds: The Thames Valley Catastrophe." I suspect that most Americans, like myself, find that tuning in on the British sense of place is second in difficulty only to understanding the fluidities and rigidities of their class system over the centuries. Accordingly, readers on this side of the pond should be especially grateful for Parrinder's precise explication of the physical as well as psychological geography involved in a tradition of British sf that stretches from Mary Shelley's "unsung precursor" The Last Man in 1826 to The War of the Worlds, and also into the twentieth-century via such works as "J. Leslie Mitchell's Hunter (1934), John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951) and Brian Aldiss's Greybeard (1964)" (58). The list might be extended. Parrinder amply demonstrates that for this tradition, as for that of apocalyptic fiction, Shelley's The Last Man is of more moment than one might conclude from its overshadowing by Frankenstein in the establishment of sf as a genre. Because purely formal pressure for variation to achieve originality is for sf as for other genres as important as ideological and social influences, Parrinder does literary history a particular favor here by showing how "Wells, in a stunning reversal, transfers the pathos attaching to the Last Man to the last Martian" (71). The excellence of this essayand its special usefulness to geographically challenged Americans makes me hope that Parrinder will provide sequels on related topics, join them to a previous small classic by him on the subject, and reprise the title of that earlier essay to give us a book on "Landscapes of British Science Fiction."1

Relationships of ideology and form are analyzed by Val Gough in "Lesbians and Virgins: The New Motherhood in Herland." Arguing persuasively that "Gilman posits the possibility of a radicalized female heterosexual identity," Gough stesses the novel's notably open-ended conclusion: "in Herland, Gilman refuses the mythic resolution of lesbian-separatism or the romantic closure of heterosexuality. The question is left open, and the two utopian possibilities coexist" (208-9). Gough makes apt comparisons with twentieth-century feminist fiction and theorizing to applaud ways in which Herland "anticipates later feminist redefinitions of female sexuality and the body" (203). Happily, Gough also understands that "unlike Moving the Mountain (1911), Gilman's first and less successful utopian novel, where her heterosexual 'humanist' ideal is textually depicted in great detail," Herland achieves much of its staying power not merely from the coincidence of its ideas with those now in vogue, but from its narrative structure in which a "radicalized heterosexual ideal remains textually 'impossible', deferred beyond the end of the text" (214, n. 62; 209). Readers even now, as witness Gough's vivid essay, are thus invited to the interesting exercise of imagining for themselves utopian possibilities beyond what the story itself defines and perhaps beyond what life itselfas in Gilman's own situation permits.

Interactions of ideology and form are also examined in Tony Barley's "Prediction, Programme and Fantasy in Jack London's The Iron Heel." Many of the difficulties as well as some of the power of this problematic text, Barley shows, arise from the abundance of polemic topical allusions that prevent full engagement with the narrative's imaginary future: "The pressure of politics per se, the concentration on present-day tendencies, and the continual reminders of the real, combine to such a degree as to remove The Iron Heel from the regular generic orbits of sf. What seems to be presented as a separate future world cannot be read as such because the reader's topical awarness is enlisted precisely to prevent that" (169). Here then is a case in which allusions to the present inducing in readers acute awareness of it forestall an effective leap to the future setting called for by the narrative's primary form.

In "Imagination and Inversion in Nineteenth-Century Utopian Writing" Simon Dentith takes up the related issue of whether utopian fictions can succeed simply by or indeed in any other way than inverting present realities to imagine an opposite state of affairs. Positing such inversion as "the dominant figure in utopian writing," Dentith concludes that this utopian master trope "has both a formal and a historical aspect" because to be understood utopias must always be referred to the era whose society is inverted to produce the utopian fiction: "the imaginary is only imaginable by reference to the actual" (138). Accordingly a hazard potentially crippling to the entire genre is that each utopia is "doomed always to repeat by inversion the social order that produces it, and always susceptible to deconstruction by hindsight" (144). Such retrospective deconstruction is almost inevitable, Dentith suggests, because the actual future invariably differs in unexpected ways from utopian foretellings: "utopian anticipations, like all other anticipations...are bound to be outstripped by reality" (143). This, however, incorrectly assumes that utopias, even futuristic utopias, are or should be read primarily as prediction, whereas their function more often is to induce consideration of what ought to be done rather than anticipation of what will actually occur. Dentith confuses utopia with prophesy, although of course the two are sometimes combined.

Dentith's test cases are The Coming Race, Erewhon, Looking Backward, and News from Nowhere, with most of his discussion (alas for my blood pressure) devoted to arguing that where Bellamy fails Morris succeeds. While at least conceding that Morris is not universally persuasive, Dentith nevertheless finds that, unlike Bellamy, Morris "effects a genuine dialectical inversion of the present; that is, that his desired anticipation of the future becomes fuller and more persuasive because it can draw on the aesthetic and hence the social riches of the past" (146). This "medieval or even...barbaric past" is one characterized according to Dentith by "precapitalist forms" that offer Morris "a way of imagining human lives unaffected by market and commodity relations" (144-45). It is indeed utopian (if not worse) to imagine that precapitalist societies offered or modeled the possibility of living "unaffected by market and commodity relations." Surely it is not only unreconstructed Marxists left over from the Evil Empire who understand that all societies are affected to a significant degree by commodity relations and market forces that define the range of possibilities open to their members. In suggesting otherwise, Morris and his admirers adhere not to history but to a convenient romantic myth of the middle ages. According to Dentith, however, poor Bellamy typically "makes no effort to mobilize the specific historical gravity of an alternative mode of life" whereas "Morris can mobilize the weight of precapitalist forms" to "imagine the future in ways that are both persuasive though not to everybody and properly dialectical," thus overcoming "the trope of inversion" (148, 151). If by this Dentith only means that Morris could and did appeal in ways that Bellamy could not to those who already subscribed to romantic myths of the middle ages, well and good. To such favorably disposed readers, News from Nowhere was and will always be more persuasive than Looking Backward. But the tropes here of weight and historical gravity are misleading. An imagined future Bellamy's, for example, to judge by the great success and political as well as literary influence of Looking Backward may be as attractive and apparently substantial (if that is what historical gravity means here) as any mythical pasts, whether such pasts are presented as a lost Golden Age or work as palimpsest for an imaginary future.

In "Breaking the Bounds: The Rhetoric of Limits in the Works of Edgar Allan Poe, his Contemporaries and Adaptors," David Seed enhances appreciation of Poe's influence, concentrating mostly on how The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is extended in Verne's Le Sphinx des Glaces and Rudy Rucker's The Hollow Earth. Appearance in such company is perhaps sufficiently complimentary to Rucker, but I wish Seed had been less reticent about how Rucker's and Verne's other, and arguably more impressive, works compare with their homages to Poe. A wider but less sophisticated discussion of Verne is provided by M. Hammerton in "Verne's Amazing Journeys." This seems aimed at schoolchildren who have never heard of Verne, but provides in its nine notes no references that would be helpful to novices who might wish for more and better information, much less to those adult readers most likely to peruse Anticipations.

Stephen R.L. Clark's "Alien Dreams: Kipling" is a spirited and persuasive argument that, in ways not often recognized when the usual suspects among Kipling's stories are rounded up for histories of sf, "Kipling is a precursor of that genre, in the devices and plot-lines he contrives, in the pleasure he takes in alien worlds and new machinery, in the political ideas he uses India and elsewhere to explore, and in the philosophical concerns his fantasies reveal" (192). This essay should be required reading not only in sf circles but more widely among students of literature. Clark makes a thorough case for significant continuities between sf and forms that as in many of Kipling's tales at first seem unrelated. Clark stoutly insists that in dealing with figures like Kipling we should not be deflected by tales incorporating what may now seem to most people (or at least to most academics) alien ideologies: "If they are dreams we choose to reckon nightmares, we should still examine them and think it possible that we are ourselves mistaken" (185). In thus arguing for sufficient historical and moral imagination and humility to consider that some now unfashionable attitudes of an earlier age just might be worth reconsidering rather than ignoring or loftily castigating, Clark may be Canute ordering the sea to recede but is no less admirable for that. Willing suspension of political disbelief is rare in current criticism. Clark's survey of Kipling demonstrates that by momentarily putting aside our obsessions we may find much to learn from as well as about our predecessors. Here, as generally throughout Anticipations, it is clear that engagement with earlier sf and its precursors is no idle antiquarian exercise but a challenging opportunity to achieve better understanding of our own time.


1. Patrick Parrinder, "Landscapes of British Science Fiction," Styles of Creation: Aesthetic Technique and the Creation of Fictional Worlds, ed. George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1992), pp. 193-204.

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