A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Archive for the tag “History”

REVIEW – “Hugo Gernsback: An Amazing Story”

gernsbackCNL_180_thumb[Hugo Gernsback: An Amazing Story by Luc Henzig, Paul Lesch, and Ralph Letsch (2010) Mersch, Luxembourg : Centre national de littérature]

For those not lucky enough to live in close proximity to Luxembourg, or fortunate enough to have the means of reaching Luxembourg, you might have missed out on the Centre national de littérature’s exhibition on the life and works of Hugo Gernsback,  celebrating the 125th anniversary of his birth in that country. This book is a gallery guide to the massive collection of Gernsback relics amassed from around the world to put forth a chronology of an amazing life. Hugo Gernsback: An Amazing Story is a two-dimensional recreation of artefacts to enlighten those interested in the life of the man who give the science fiction genre its moniker, with detailed commentary about the phases of his life and impact on science fiction.

Half of the book is in English, etl’autre moitié du livre, en français, s’adresse aux Luxembourgeois. Readers picking it up should not expect that every page is going to fill them with insights into Greenback’s life: only half of them will. And half of those pages are not filled with narration or analysis, but reproductions of photographs, letters, manuscripts, magazine covers, articles, etc. Fortunately, these are presented in high resolution colour, and not just the occasional glossy page with a hastily snapped photo of the exhibit. Great care has been taken in the layout and presentation of the evidence of Gernsback’s life and accomplishments, complicated by the necessity of bilingual explanatory notations. Readers might at first be confused, though, by the circled numbers inserted throughout paragraphs. Only by flipping ahead in the text will they realise these are references to the numbered artefacts, or the source of the information in the absences of a visual reproduction.

It should be noted that this is not an academic text, proposing no new theory or perspective on Gernsback beyond shedding ‘a constructive light on the merits of a man hitherto little known’ (p. 9), or at least, ‘little known’ in Luxembourg, Gernsback having moved to the US at the age of twenty. His early family life in Luxembourg is given in great detail, including several photos and letters from his descendents never before publicly exhibited. At the same time, even the exhibitors acknowledge a certain lack of documentation, such as a degree certificate to verify if a young Gernsback (never a diligent student) actually graduated from the Technikum in Bingen, Germany, which he attended in 1901 and 1902. One of the downsides to the reproduced letters and certificates from early in his life is that many of them are in French, without translation in the notes, leaving Anglophone speakers at a loss as to what exactly is being presented.

The American portion of Gernsback’s life in broken into two distinct parts: his contributions to promoting science and technology, and his literary endeavours in the nascence of science fiction. While the authors/exhibitors have been thorough in their chronological narrative, the redundancy of the introduction to each section of ‘Technology and Science Enthusiast’ becomes almost painful, five times beginning with the words ‘When Hugo Gernsback was born in 1884,’ (pp. 51-56) as if the reader is in danger of forgetting this pertinent information. This section also feature nearly 70 exhibits, with the unfortunate result that the guide reproduces less than half of them, giving readers only a source for the information, but not the evidence itself, which is at times frustrating. The subsequent section, ‘Father of Modern Science Fiction’, is dedicated to Gernsback’s publishing endeavours, starting with science and technology journals, and then moving into science fiction magazines. Here we find reproductions of letters, stories and poems by Gernsback, including the unpublished ‘Spring Poem’ from 1907:

First of all it’s raining cats,
And the cold makes die the rats.
Zephyr winds and balmy breeze
Are so frosty that we sneeze. (119)

One is left to wonder how Gernsback would feel to have such work posthumously made available to the public.

The last pages are given over to Gernsback’s legacy, including the development of the Hugo Awards for science fiction and the growth of ‘fandom’, employing the broadest definition of that word to encompass the whole of the genre. Gernsback’s efforts to create the first science fiction ‘fandom’ by incorporating the Science Fiction League in 1934 helped to revive the fading readership of Wonder Stories by making it the league’s official publication. Gernsback’s efforts in early sf had clear monetary rewards. Other fanzines rose to prominence, though, and are explored in this section, expanding the exhibit’s perspective beyond Gernsback to look at these ‘zines and letters regarding their contributors, including artefacts from H.P. Lovecraft.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in this book (or gallery catalogue as it should more properly be called) is its apparent lack of availability. Gernsback scholars or enthusiasts eager to take advantage of the rare materials presented here will find themselves looking under proverbial rocks to find a copy. But if they can, they may find a new critical insight into Gernsback that has hitherto gone unexplored.

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A Brief Lecture on Mark Twain: “Cannibalism in the Cars”

There is not a great deal that we can say about Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) that he did not say about himself. The first volume of his autobiography is 743 pages. There are two more to follow. Per his wishes, and in classic Twain style, he ordered that his complete work on himself not be published until a century after his death. So I hope you have some idea by what I mean when I say it is utterly impossible to cover even an iota of Twain’s life, accomplishments and philosophy here in 20 minutes.

It is funny that we find ourselves sitting here today to discuss classics by the likes of Mark Twain. As he put it: ‘’Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read’. But we do still read him, at every level, and continue to enjoy him, because what Twain wrote, his observations of man, religion, politics and society, even over a century later still rings true with us.

But, to start at the beginning, to ensure you leave here with enough information to possibly win a themed pub quiz, Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 under the glow of Halley’s Comet, in the state of Missouri along the Mississippi river, which would play such a pivotal role in his life, even after he settled in New York. He was the sixth of seven children, only four of whom survived into adulthood, and when his father died of pneumonia when he was only 11, young Sam became a printer’s apprentice. In 1851 he went to work for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal, as a typesetter and contributor of articles and humorous sketches. At the age of 18, Sam left Missouri, travelling around the eastern United States and working in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York City and Saint Louis. In the evenings he would sit in public libraries, educating himself. ‘Don’t let schooling interfere with your education’ is one of his oft remembered parables.

While travelling to New Orleans on a steamboat, Sam became enthralled with the idea of being a steamboat pilot. He spent more than two years learning two thousand miles of the Mississippi river, its currents and banks and inlets, before earning his license in 1859. This is where we finally get to start calling Sam by the name he is best known by: Mark Twain, ‘mark twain’ being old steamboat slang for a river depth of two fathoms, or 12 feet. This is also the time when Twain confronts one of his first great tragedies, the death of his little brother Henry, whom he had convinced to join him on the river, in 1858 on the steamboat Pennsylvania when it exploded. Twain claims to have foreseen his brother’s death a month earlier in a dream, and this spurred a lifelong interest in parapsychology. Though guilt-ridden, Twain carried on as a steamboat pilot until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1862, when travel along the Mississippi river was greatly hampered.

Though rumoured to have spent two weeks as a Confederate soldier (although Twain would later claim to be a staunch abolitionist) he had little interest in dying for anyone and Twain took off for the unsettled Western frontier, joining his brother Orion in the Nevada territory. Failing as miner of silver, Twain took up work at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he started to write humorous accounts of his travels to the West, and signing them with the nom de plume by which we know him so well.

He moved on to San Francisco, California in 1864 and a year later wrote his first nationally successful story, ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’. In 1866 he was sent o Hawaii as a travel report, and in 1867 to the Mediterranean. Initially, Mark Twain’s fame came not from his fiction, but from his comedic accounts of his travels, which were consumed by the American public. When he returned to the United States, the Scroll and Key Society of Yale University made him an honorary member. Twain was not yet 33, but already a nationally renowned writer.

By February of 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon (from a wealthy, liberal family) and settled down in Buffalo, New York, then Hartford, Connecticut, after the couple’s only son, Langdon, died of diphtheria at 19 months. Twain would go on to outlive two of his three daughters, and his wife Olivia, which probably what prompted him to one say: ‘The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.’ And for all of his humour, Mark Twain was indeed a sad man, who knew a lifetime of sorrows, and is said to have been depressed for much of his later years. He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, right when he said that he would: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” He died within 24 hours of the comet’s closest approach to Earth. The nation mourned his passing, and his surviving daughter placed a twelve foot long (id est: ‘mark twain’) marker at his grave. In his lifetime he championed abolition, suffrage for women, civil rights (going so far as to putting at least two African Americans through university), was an ardent anti-imperialist and anti-vivisectionist, and always with humour did he remind his readers of the many failings of man, god, and the government.

‘Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.’

Mark Twain’s humour is what he is most remembered for. Among his many quotable quotes (and Twain is perhaps one of the most quoted of any American in history, with several web pages dedicated just to his clever quips) Twain once said ‘Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.’ Comedy has the power to topple the powerful. Humour is a hallmark of American politics, and no one did it better than Mark Twain: ‘The political…morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.’ He had little regard for U.S. politicians, paying them the backhanded compliment that ‘we have the best government money can buy’, and marked that ‘it could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress.’ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts annually awards the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to such comedic luminaries as Tina Fey and George Carlin who frequently target the vagaries and hypocrisies of politics: ‘Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’ Nothing better embodied this mordant view of American politics than his short story “Cannibalism on the Cars”, in which men stranded on a snow-bound democratically select who it to be eaten.

cannibalism-in-the-cars

 CANNIBALISM IN THE CARS

I visited St. Louis lately, and on my way West, after changing cars at Terre Haute, Indiana, a mild, benevolent-looking gentleman of about forty-five, or maybe fifty, came in at one of the way-stations and sat down beside me. We talked together pleasantly on various subjects for an hour, perhaps, and I found him exceedingly intelligent and entertaining. When he learned that I was from Washington, he immediately began to ask questions about various public men, and about Congressional affairs; and I saw very shortly that I was conversing with a man who was perfectly familiar with the ins and outs of political life at the Capital, even to the ways and manners, and customs of procedure of Senators and Representatives in the Chambers of the national Legislature. Presently two men halted near us for a single moment, and one said to the other:

“Harris, if you’ll do that for me, I’ll never forget you, my boy.”

My new comrade’s eye lighted pleasantly. The words had touched upon a happy memory, I thought. Then his face settled into thoughtfulness– almost into gloom. He turned to me and said,

“Let me tell you a story; let me give you a secret chapter of my life– a chapter that has never been referred to by me since its events transpired. Listen patiently, and promise that you will not interrupt me.”

I said I would not, and he related the following strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.

THE STRANGER’S NARRATIVE

“On the 19th of December, 1853, I started from St. Louis on the evening train bound for Chicago. There were only twenty-four passengers, all told. There were no ladies and no children. We were in excellent spirits, and pleasant acquaintanceships were soon formed. The journey bade fair to be a happy one; and no individual in the party, I think, had even the vaguest presentiment of the horrors we were soon to undergo.

“At 11 P.m. it began to snow hard. Shortly after leaving the small village of Welden, we entered upon that tremendous prairie solitude that stretches its leagues on leagues of houseless dreariness far away toward the jubilee Settlements. The winds, unobstructed by trees or hills, or even vagrant rocks, whistled fiercely across the level desert, driving the falling snow before it like spray from the crested waves of a stormy sea. The snow was deepening fast; and we knew, by the diminished speed of the train, that the engine was plowing through it with steadily increasing difficulty. Indeed, it almost came to a dead halt sometimes, in the midst of great drifts that piled themselves like colossal graves across the track. Conversation began to flag. Cheerfulness gave place to grave concern. The possibility of being imprisoned in the snow, on the bleak prairie, fifty miles from any house, presented itself to every mind, and extended its depressing influence over every spirit.

“At two o’clock in the morning I was aroused out of an uneasy slumber by the ceasing of all motion about me. The appalling truth flashed upon me instantly–we were captives in a snow-drift! ‘All hands to the rescue!’ Every man sprang to obey. Out into the wild night, the pitchy darkness, the billowy snow, the driving storm, every soul leaped, with the consciousness that a moment lost now might bring destruction to us all. Shovels, hands, boards–anything, everything that could displace snow, was brought into instant requisition. It was a weird picture, that small company of frantic men fighting the banking snows, half in the blackest shadow and half in the angry light of the locomotive’s reflector.

“One short hour sufficed to prove the utter uselessness of our efforts. The storm barricaded the track with a dozen drifts while we dug one away. And worse than this, it was discovered that the last grand charge the engine had made upon the enemy had broken the fore-and-aft shaft of the driving-wheel! With a free track before us we should still have been helpless. We entered the car wearied with labor, and very sorrowful. We gathered about the stoves, and gravely canvassed our situation. We had no provisions whatever–in this lay our chief distress. We could not freeze, for there was a good supply of wood in the tender. This was our only comfort. The discussion ended at last in accepting the disheartening decision of the conductor, viz., that it would be death for any man to attempt to travel fifty miles on foot through snow like that. We could not send for help, and even if we could it would not come. We must submit, and await, as patiently as we might, succor or starvation! I think the stoutest heart there felt a momentary chill when those words were uttered.

“Within the hour conversation subsided to a low murmur here and there about the car, caught fitfully between the rising and falling of the blast; the lamps grew dim; and the majority of the castaways settled themselves among the flickering shadows to think–to forget the present, if they could–to sleep, if they might.

“The eternal night – it surely seemed eternal to us – wore its lagging hours away at last, and the cold gray dawn broke in the east. As the light grew stronger the passengers began to stir and give signs of life, one after another, and each in turn pushed his slouched hat up from his forehead, stretched his stiffened limbs, and glanced out of the windows upon the cheerless prospect. It was cheer less, indeed!-not a living thing visible anywhere, not a human habitation; nothing but a vast white desert; uplifted sheets of snow drifting hither and thither before the wind–a world of eddying flakes shutting out the firmament above.

“All day we moped about the cars, saying little, thinking much. Another lingering dreary night–and hunger.

“Another dawning–another day of silence, sadness, wasting hunger, hopeless watching for succor that could not come. A night of restless slumber, filled with dreams of feasting–wakings distressed with the gnawings of hunger.

“The fourth day came and went–and the fifth! Five days of dreadful imprisonment! A savage hunger looked out at every eye. There was in it a sign of awful import–the foreshadowing of a something that was vaguely shaping itself in every heart–a something which no tongue dared yet to frame into words.

“The sixth day passed–the seventh dawned upon as gaunt and haggard and hopeless a company of men as ever stood in the shadow of death. It must out now! That thing which had been growing up in every heart was ready to leap from every lip at last! Nature had been taxed to the utmost–she must yield. RICHARD H. GASTON of Minnesota, tall, cadaverous, and pale, rose up. All knew what was coming. All prepared–every emotion, every semblance of excitement–was smothered–only a calm, thoughtful seriousness appeared in the eyes that were lately so wild.

“‘Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!’

“MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: ‘Gentlemen–I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.’

“MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: ‘I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.’

“MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: ‘I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen of St. Louis.’

“MR. SLOTE: ‘Gentlemen–I desire to decline in favor of Mr. John A. Van Nostrand, Jun., of New Jersey.’

“MR. GASTON: ‘If there be no objection, the gentleman’s desire will be acceded to.’

“MR. VAN NOSTRAND objecting, the resignation of Mr. Slote was rejected. The resignations of Messrs. Sawyer and Bowen were also offered, and refused upon the same grounds.

“MR. A. L. BASCOM of Ohio: ‘I move that the nominations now close, and that the House proceed to an election by ballot.’

“MR. SAWYER: ‘Gentlemen–I protest earnestly against these proceedings. They are, in every way, irregular and unbecoming. I must beg to move that they be dropped at once, and that we elect a chairman of the meeting and proper officers to assist him, and then we can go on with the business before us understandingly.’

“MR. BELL of Iowa: ‘Gentlemen–I object. This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances. For more than seven days we have been without food. Every moment we lose in idle discussion increases our distress. I am satisfied with the nominations that have been made–every gentleman present is, I believe–and I, for one, do not see why we should not proceed at once to elect one or more of them. I wish to offer a resolution–‘

“MR. GASTON: ‘It would be objected to, and have to lie over one day under the rules, thus bringing about the very delay you wish to avoid. The gentleman from New Jersey–‘

“MR. VAN NOSTRAND: ‘Gentlemen–I am a stranger among you; I have not sought the distinction that has been conferred upon me, and I feel a delicacy–‘

“MR. MORGAN Of Alabama (interrupting): ‘I move the previous question.’

“The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course. The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs. Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin a committee on nominations, and Mr. R. M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.

“A recess of half an hour was then taken, and some little caucusing followed. At the sound of the gavel the meeting reassembled, and the committee reported in favor of Messrs. George Ferguson of Kentucky, Lucien Herrman of Louisiana, and W. Messick of Colorado as candidates. The report was accepted.

“MR. ROGERS of Missouri: ‘Mr. President The report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who is well and honorably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the high character and standing of the gentleman from Louisiana far from it. I respect and esteem him as much as any gentleman here present possibly can; but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any among us–none of us can be blind to the fact that the committee has been derelict in its duty, either through negligence or a graver fault, in thus offering for our suffrages a gentleman who, however pure his own motives may be, has really less nutriment in him–‘

“THE CHAIR: ‘The gentleman from Missouri will take his seat. The Chair cannot allow the integrity of the committee to be questioned save by the regular course, under the rules. What action will the House take upon the gentleman’s motion?’

“MR. HALLIDAY of Virginia: ‘I move to further amend the report by substituting Mr. Harvey Davis of Oregon for Mr. Messick. It may be urged by gentlemen that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness? Is this a time to be fastidious concerning trifles? Is this a time to dispute about matters of paltry significance? No, gentlemen, bulk is what we desire–substance, weight, bulk–these are the supreme requisites now–not talent, not genius, not education. I insist upon my motion.’

“MR. MORGAN (excitedly): ‘Mr. Chairman–I do most strenuously object to this amendment. The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone–not in flesh. I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance? if he would delude us with shadows? if he would mock our suffering with an Oregonian specter? I ask him if he can look upon the anxious faces around him, if he can gaze into our sad eyes, if he can listen to the beating of our expectant hearts, and still thrust this famine-stricken fraud upon us? I ask him if he can think of our desolate state, of our past sorrows, of our dark future, and still unpityingly foist upon us this wreck, this ruin, this tottering swindle, this gnarled and blighted and sapless vagabond from Oregon’s hospitable shores? Never!’ [Applause.]

“The amendment was put to vote, after a fiery debate, and lost. Mr. Harris was substituted on the first amendment. The balloting then began. Five ballots were held without a choice. On the sixth, Mr. Harris was elected, all voting for him but himself. It was then moved that his election should be ratified by acclamation, which was lost, in consequence of his again voting against himself.

“MR. RADWAY moved that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go into an election for breakfast. This was carried.

“On the first ballot–there was a tie, half the members favoring one candidate on account of his youth, and half favoring the other on account of his superior size. The President gave the casting vote for the latter, Mr. Messick. This decision created considerable dissatisfaction among the friends of Mr. Ferguson, the defeated candidate, and there was some talk of demanding a new ballot; but in the midst of it a motion to adjourn was carried, and the meeting broke up at once.

“The preparations for supper diverted the attention of the Ferguson faction from the discussion of their grievance for a long time, and then, when they would have taken it up again, the happy announcement that Mr. Harris was ready drove all thought of it to the winds.

“We improvised tables by propping up the backs of car-seats, and sat down with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days. How changed we were from what we had been a few short hours before! Hopeless, sad-eyed misery, hunger, feverish anxiety, desperation, then; thankfulness, serenity, joy too deep for utterance now. That I know was the cheeriest hour of my eventful life. The winds howled, and blew the snow wildly about our prison house, but they were powerless to distress us any more. I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction. Messick was very well, though rather high-flavored, but for genuine nutritiousness and delicacy of fiber, give me Harris. Messick had his good points–I will not attempt to deny it, nor do I wish to do it but he was no more fitted for breakfast than a mummy would be, sir–not a bit. Lean?–why, bless me!–and tough? Ah, he was very tough! You could not imagine it–you could never imagine anything like it.”

“Do you mean to tell me that–”

“Do not interrupt me, please. After breakfast we elected a man by the name of Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterward. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good. And then the next morning we had Morgan of Alabama for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I ever sat down to handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently a perfect gentleman he was a perfect gentleman, and singularly juicy. For supper we had that Oregon patriarch, and he was a fraud, there is no question about it–old, scraggy, tough, nobody can picture the reality. I finally said, gentlemen, you can do as you like, but I will wait for another election. And Grimes of Illinois said, ‘Gentlemen, I will wait also. When you elect a man that has something to recommend him, I shall be glad to join you again.’ It soon became evident that there was general dissatisfaction with Davis of Oregon, and so, to preserve the good will that had prevailed so pleasantly since we had had Harris, an election was called, and the result of it was that Baker of Georgia was chosen. He was splendid! Well, well–after that we had Doolittle, and Hawkins, and McElroy (there was some complaint about McElroy, because he was uncommonly short and thin), and Penrod, and two Smiths, and Bailey (Bailey had a wooden leg, which was clear loss, but he was otherwise good), and an Indian boy, and an organ-grinder, and a gentleman by the name of Buckminster–a poor stick of a vagabond that wasn’t any good for company and no account for breakfast. We were glad we got him elected before relief came.”

“And so the blessed relief did come at last?”

“Yes, it came one bright, sunny morning, just after election. John Murphy was the choice, and there never was a better, I am willing to testify; but John Murphy came home with us, in the train that came to succor us, and lived to marry the widow Harris–”

“Relict of–”

“Relict of our first choice. He married her, and is happy and respected and prosperous yet. Ah, it was like a novel, sir–it was like a romance. This is my stopping-place, sir; I must bid you goodby. Any time that you can make it convenient to tarry a day or two with me, I shall be glad to have you. I like you, sir; I have conceived an affection for you. I could like you as well as I liked Harris himself, sir. Good day, sir, and a pleasant journey.”

He was gone. I never felt so stunned, so distressed, so bewildered in my life. But in my soul I was glad he was gone. With all his gentleness of manner and his soft voice, I shuddered whenever he turned his hungry eye upon me; and when I heard that I had achieved his perilous affection, and that I stood almost with the late Harris in his esteem, my heart fairly stood still!

I was bewildered beyond description. I did not doubt his word; I could not question a single item in a statement so stamped with the earnestness of truth as his; but its dreadful details overpowered me, and threw my thoughts into hopeless confusion. I saw the conductor looking at me. I said, “Who is that man?”

“He was a member of Congress once, and a good one. But he got caught in a snow-drift in the cars, and like to have been starved to death. He got so frost-bitten and frozen up generally, and used up for want of something to eat, that he was sick and out of his head two or three months afterward. He is all right now, only he is a monomaniac, and when he gets on that old subject he never stops till he has eat up that whole car-load of people he talks about. He would have finished the crowd by this time, only he had to get out here. He has got their names as pat as A B C. When he gets them all eat up but himself, he always says: ‘Then the hour for the usual election for breakfast having arrived; and there being no opposition, I was duly elected, after which, there being no objections offered, I resigned. Thus I am here.'”

I felt inexpressibly relieved to know that I had only been listening to the harmless vagaries of a madman instead of the genuine experiences of a bloodthirsty cannibal.

-THE END-

 

 

 

 

 

 

Echoes: Literary and Historical Mars in the New Narrative

“We could cast our imaginations wider, to those who have tried to speak for all of Mars. To the astronomers looking at it with their telescopes, measuring all the qualities of light reflected from its surface, seeing seasons and imagining civilizations. Or to the writers inspired by those astronomical visions: H.G. Wells and Stanley Weinbaum, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Alexander Bogdanov and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Their imaginations took a point of light and turned it into a world of experience.” Oliver Morton, Mapping Mars, p. 3.

Despite the possibility of alien civilisations on Mars ground underfoot in the relentless stream of new information about the planet, the literary and exploratory history of Mars still influences contemporary authors writing under the new paradigm. The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury are the most prominently featured old literature about Mars, and the tropes of Martian life and survival in a hostile environment are still influencing plotlines. Life is the ultimate litmus test of planetary exploration in the minds of both scientists and authors. Not one of these novels (or most others published in the last two decades) skips the discovery of some form of life or fossilised evidence of its past presence. These older literary ideas are tied into historical retrospectives about Percival Lowell’s observations and NASA’s Mariner, Viking, and (later on) Pathfinder missions. In other words, there is ‘Nostalgia for an imagined Martian past and speculation about an imagined future,’ as a ‘dialectal responses to the ambiguities that Mars represents after 1972.’[1] This Martian mega-text (to borrow from Damien Broderick’s view of science fiction’s ‘interlocking web of fictive worlds’[2]) is built upon years of speculative fiction and science constantly being reinterpreted and updated, old tropes being assimilated by newer ones. Gregory Benford has noted that hard SF writers ‘hold in common the internationalist idealism of scientific bodies, and in their free trading of ideas often behave like scientists.’[3] This helps to understand the prevalent use not just of classical works, but the commonly shared sources of information, as these proposed soon-to-be-histories are written with a common historical/ literary background. Zubrin’s historian cum astronaut character is blatant in articulating the conflict between past, present, and envisioned future:

Edgar Rice Burroughs already told us about this place. Once there were canals here, and cities, capitals of mighty empires that had names like Helium, Ptarth, and Manator. […]

Ah, Barsoom, you were destroyed by the Mariner probes, which banished you into mere fiction. But now we are here to make amends. Once again, there are people on Mars[4]

It is a rather ridiculous statement to makes; Burroughs knew next to nothing about Mars (only what was gleaned from Lowell’s fuzzy observations), he merely gave it the foundations of a fictive state to exist in. But the sentiment is meant to appeal to those who are familiar with Barsoom’s influence on literary Mars. In adapting to changing perceptions of the planet, these authors are attempting to make Mars interesting again, not with fantasy, but with the facts as they are known by presenting the visage of an adventurous, dangerous new world to explore. The past literary and scientific elements are called upon to invoke a popular nostalgia, and be reconciled with the new Mars, ‘to make amends’ for the years between Viking and the mid-1980s when authors finally began to write about the Red Planet again. They also revel in the early scientific speculation and unmanned expeditions to Mars, reiterating the great efforts leading up to this point in history and the significance Mars has held in the human imagination. These novels are about modifying the mega-text of Martian literature, turning what had become fantasy into the viable, realistic mode of prediction science fiction is often perceived to be, ignoring the extent to which it comments on the present.[5] In order to reshape Martian iconography, these narratives must be woven into the scientific and literary past. Just as latter revelations in both religion and science must take prevalence over those edicts and theories which preceded them, the more recent novels of Mars establish their authority over Burroughs and Bradbury by reminding readers of the fallacious bygone, while presenting the latest NASA findings. This also requires authors to take a planet redefined in less terrestrial terms, and humanise it again with more subtle metaphors; a vision of the Grand Canyon National Park rather than a medieval palace. It is acceptable to be inspired by past literature and scientific deeds, but the ‘new’ must be embraced, or as Gwyneth Jones put it, ‘In the hierarchy of sf plausibility, technophile extrapolation from the here-and-now takes precedence.’[6] This creates a cyclical relationship between the scientists making discoveries, the SF authors incorporating these discoveries into the plots, adding their own speculation, and providing stories of inspiration for a new generation.

Many authors and scientists were influenced by these tales of Mars, and ‘No matter how whimsical the Mars of Bradbury, or Lowell, or Burroughs, the scientists who now study the planet grew up under the influence of these visionaries. Some modern scientists, like Carl Sagan, have freely admitted their debt; others function in a culture conditioned by them.’[7] They were provided with the wonderland of a living Mars. In acknowledging the influences of these works, authors are demonstrating a hope that their own stories will inspire the future. Discovering life on Mars is fictionalised wish fulfilment, whether to merely alleviate the feeling of being alone in the universe, or to prove Mars a worthwhile destination deserving of further development. The dream of colonising Mars with shining domed-cities is not (completely) dead, but has been replaced with the more realistic near-future structures of buried brick vaults and domes of rip-stop Kevlar and Plexiglas.[8] Now there is simply more science to influence the settlement plan and those writing the narratives. ‘Good science fiction works […] Largely by retaining some contact with the real world,’[9] thus, by the authors maintaining parity with the known past while incorporating newer work, it helps to maintain the verisimilitude, allowing readers to relate more fully to the idea that this is the very near future.

The historical science references, from Lowell to Pathfinder, are meant to keep the reader in the present and aware that this is not intended to be an alternative universe with an alternate history (excluding Stephen Baxter’s Voyage in 1997 which deals with an alternate history and a Mars expedition in the 1980s). Bova makes reference to the first geologist on the moon since Apollo 17 and the use of Mir 5 space station,[10] establishing a continuation of known space programmes. However, as can happen when writing in the near future, the latter element is now a dated assumption considering the destruction of the original Mir and its substitution with the International Space Station (which Landis makes use of in his novel for training the astronauts, along with the fictional Mirusha, ‘“little Mir’- a tribute to the earlier Mir space station’[11]). But it is the Viking missions of 1976 which are more frequently brought up, the first American craft to touch down on the planet and conduct basic experiments, which revealed ‘that there was unusual chemical activity in the Martian soil’ raising the question ‘Could life exist in that soil, if there was liquid water available?’[12] The scientific history raises possibilities for the authors to explore and answer, and it offers a chance for the authors to pay homage to old scientists and explores who helped to shape the new Mars. In the novel, an excursion is made out to the Viking 1 Lander (renamed the Mutch Memorial station after the death of Thomas A. Mutch in 1980) to place a plaque in honour of the geologist who headed up the team which examined the Viking photographs.

DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF TIM MUTCH, WHOSE IMAGINATION, VERVE, AND RESOLVE CONTRIBUTED GREATLY TO THE EXPLORATION OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM.[13]

The plaque was unveiled by NASA in 1981, and is still waiting for a team of explorers to go to Mars and place it with the Mutch Memorial Station.[14] Bova is fulfilling the desire of many NASA scientists, if only in fiction, and adding another thread of reality to the inter-textual web.

A significant source of history that contributes to the plot later on in Return to Mars was the historic Pathfinder mission of 1997, when NASA finally succeeded in returning to Mars after Viking. Bova’s questionably enterprising character Dexter Thumball is determined to scavenge the Sojourner rover from the Sagan site in Ares Vallis to auction off on Earth. Upon retrieval ‘they photographed the area for comparison with the catalogue imagery from the Pathfinder itself three decades earlier.’[15] Instead of a simulacrum stand-in as SF so often must do for their plots, Bova is free to utilise these real artefacts of history as part of the action. Thumball the elder later decided to trek to Mars to check on his investments, citing that ‘older men than I have gone into space, starting with Senator Glenn nearly forty years ago’[16] in reference to Senator John Glenn of Ohio setting the record for oldest astronaut in space.[17] Statements such as this are superfluous to the plot action, but contribute to the verisimilitude of a potential near-future expedition.  NASA is a civilian branch of the US government, and in a (theoretically) transparent democracy, their activities are therefore part of the public domain, and free to be assimilated into the iconography of Mars. An invented NASA mission (for that matter, a fictitious space agency) would be a distraction for readers versed in space travel history, and so it is easier for Bova, and others, to appease the informed and inform the uninitiated.

Gregory Benford utilises more scientific history than perhaps any other author during this decade, planting his work firmly in the realm of near-future. The Martian Race brings up the 1989 proposal by NASA for a $450 billion budget to reach Mars[18] and the subsequent development of the Mars Direct scenario as a more economic proposal. The history of self-contained environments, from Mir to Skylab to the International Space Station and the Biosphere II experiment (including why it failed) are all brought up, and how self-contained environments still have not been perfected.[19] One of the Viking experiments is recreated, and the scientist confirms that ‘Viking and all the other probes had fund only chemistry after all, no evidence of life.’[20] The 1997 Sojourner rover is reflected upon by one of the astronauts as ‘its plucky nosing around had got Julia started on her Mars fixation’[21] – a statement that may prove true for future scientists. Benford is keeping his narrative firmly rooted in this world, as it were, allowing space exploration history to provide a large part of the context. Besides utilising the inspirations of The Case for Mars, Zubrin himself became a background figure assisting the private enterprise as the ‘Mars guru’, and is joined at a wedding by several more real life individuals[22] (all the scientists who assisted Benford in his research, many of them former member of the Mars Underground) and the base that the astronauts establish on Gusev crater is also named after him. This is a fascinating surreality of art imitating life, as Benford attempts to make his novel as realistic as possible. Zubrin’s work and personality have become part of the new Mars mega-text.

Robert Zubrin’s First Landing is a form of self- contained mega-text as it is self-referential of the author’s professional work; its a story centred on Zubrin’s own previously published theoretical approach to Mars, and Zubrin’s characters cite The Case for Mars and the Mars Society within the narrative. As discussed in the previous chapter, Zubrin is writing with specific agenda of proselytising and recruitment. NASA is the organisation behind the expedition, and the Viking missions’ experiments mentioned (pages 33 and 43). Even Michael Carr’s book The Surface of Mars is quoted (page 184) on a trip to Valles Marineris, as is Percival Lowell’s view on the Martian need to find water (page 111). Nearly a century apart in publication, yet both considered relevant to Mars today. It appears that the Mars Society, The Surface of Mars and The Case for Mars have joined with their predecessors to become part of the mega-text about Martian exploration, as ‘most science-fiction novelists in the 1990s have jumped on the Mars Direct Bandwagon […] and a detailed secondary literature has begun to be developed’,[23] such as Expedition Mars (2004) and Marswalk One: First Step on a New Planet (2005) both of which detail the science and engineering of landing on Mars. This is significant because it means an expanding range of resources for SF writers to draw from, a growth of the secondary mega-text to Mars literature. It means, though, that writers referencing these works will continue to structure their narratives under a set of pre-determined scientific parameters. Science must invariably dictate at least a portion of the plot, which could be argued as true for all so-called hard SF.

Two novels that do not spend many words on the scientific history of Mars are Beachhead and Mars Crossing. The former merited only mentioning the Viking Landers (p. 71) and Mariner 9 probe (p. 113) one time each. While it is indeed the author’s prerogative to ignore a literary and scientific history when writing SF, Williamson (and/or his editor) misdate Asaph Hall’s discovery of the moons of Mars, marking it as 1977[24] instead of 1877. This contributes to the sense of Beachhead as being rather disconnected from the present world. NASA is not even mentioned, but instead an imagined multi-national ‘Mars Authority’ coordinates the mission. Landis at least acknowledges NASA as a force behind Mars exploration (in addition to setting some of the training on the International Space Station) and dedicates three pages of part six to looking around the Pathfinder’s landing site of Ares Vallis, one astronaut recalling that ‘As a kid, he’d spent whole days downloading the pictures of this place from the internet; it was when he’d first become interested in Mars.’[25] However, that is the extent of Landis’s reflections up actual history. He references Lowell only once, when an instructor on Earth claims to be ‘a heretic, an old-fashioned Percival Lowell who just refuses to see the evidence’[26] when he claims there has to have been life on Mars once. It is difficult to decide whether Lowell should even be categorised with the scientific or literary history of Mars, simply because his ideas were a fiction based upon blurry observations, and his greatest contribution was perhaps to the inspiration of science fiction writers for the next half century. Old literary Mars is difficult for these authors to detach themselves from, and continues to influence modern narratives.

Bova’s characters may not reflect so much upon the literary history in Mars, but the author himself acknowledges his thanks to Burroughs, Weinbaum and Bradbury; ‘The different versions of Mars that they wrote about exist only in the imagination – but that is more than enough.’[27] Bova dwells the least upon literary Mars when compared to his contemporaries, as if trying to distance himself and his more serious work from whimsical Barsoom. Lowell, though, is given a little more credit in Return to Mars when the astronauts are discussing microbes living within water-bearing boulders, which are slowly drying out: ‘It’s just like Lowell said – this planet is dying.’ Lowell having been largely discredited for his canal theory, the character qualifies this hypothesis a few sentences later: ‘Lowell’s canals were mostly eyestrain and optical illusion. But his basic idea was that Mars was losing its air and water, the whole planet was dying’.[28] To say that a planet is dying is indicative of the belief that Mars was once alive, an assumption still unverified at this point in history. Lowell’s pseudo-scientific theories have remained fixed within the Mars mega-text because his ideas were so prevalent in the founding texts, and he has not been proved entirely wrong in his ideas thus far.

Williamson utilised very little in the way of literary references. His main character comments that when he was young he read ‘Heinlein[…]. A story about the red planet. I wanted to go there’[29] which provides a realistic motivator, and upon finally reaching the planet, he greets it ‘Hello Barsoom!’[30] (With no explanation for this comment, this indicates an assumption by Williamson that his readers would already be familiar with the works of Burroughs.) But there is no further reflection upon the literary Mars, and John Clute comments that although Beachhead ‘describes an expedition to a Mars according to contemporary knowledge, […] the plot itself is redolent of a much earlier era.’[31] This is an interesting observation, because it indicates an assumption that new tales of Mars must have a narrative updated from more classical tropes, and yet the older fictions continue to shape some of the narrative despite the new scientific data. Beachhead fits less securely into the mega-text of new Mars exploration than any of the other novels from this period, because it is entirely too mired in the Barsoom-ish vision of a great Mars with ‘crystal city domes shining in the dark.’[32] Writer who followed Williamson employed less poetically imperial visages in an attempt to maintain the scientific verisimilitude, but the literature still plays an influential intertextual role.

Ray Bradbury’s work is not commonly mentioned among these texts, but in The Martian Race the astronauts ‘talked about Ray Bradbury’s sand ships, tried to imagine skimming over the undulating landscape.’[33] They even watch the film version of The Martian Chronicles, along with several other Hollywood productions such as Mars Attacks! And Mission to Mars, described as ‘good for laughs’,[34] which keeps readers aware of the more sordid film history of Mars. Later there is a fear of Martian microbes reaching Earth, spurring a less-than logical response; ‘They cited Ray Bradbury, whose fictional Martians died from earthly diseases. That it was fiction was a fine point they didn’t appreciate.’[35] (This is followed by references to ‘The Andromeda strain, the Triffids, various evolved Martians, and lots of squishy aliens’.[36]) Reflecting an interesting dichotomy, they reference inspirational science fiction, to reinforce the ambitions of newer science fiction to push for an expedition to Mars, while at the same time using a derisive tone when SF is employed to argue against the expansion of scientific exploration. To borrow from another science fiction author, as there is no more succinct term, this is an interesting case of ‘double-think.’

Burroughs is quoted most often in First Landing, as if Zubrin is single-handedly trying to resurrect the Barsoom series, and credits Lowell with spawning the field of Mars literature and exploration. Copies of the Barsoom books are brought along, and two of the characters address each other as ‘My princess’ and ‘My chieftain’[37] in direct reference to Burroughs’s novels. The historian cum astronaut (rather banally) testifies

A century ago one dreamer who led us to Mars was Percival Lowell, a scientist who thought he saw canals spanning this planet, brining water from its poles to a thirsty civilization.
[…]
Perhaps in the future some John Carter from Earth will come here to find love in the eyes of a Dejah Thoris, his beautiful Martian princess. […]
Thank you Lowell, and Burroughs, for bringing us here; thanks to all the dreamers. Humanity owes its new world to you.[38]

It is not a soliloquy that will go down in the annals of literary memory, but it drives home the belief that current (and future) Mars narratives and exploration are derivative of the contributions from Lowell and Burroughs. This novel, and the others, is not intended as a pastiche of Burroughs’s work, but the constant referencing creates an obvious simulacrum of characters and situations, attempting to balance the fiction with the overwhelming science. Instead of gradually moving away from the unscientific portrayals of Mars, from Bova to Zubrin there is a marked increase of invocation of historical texts.

The echo of Lowell and Burroughs which resonates most profoundly in all of these novels is the ‘discovery’ of life on Mars. Every novel uncovers life from the microbial to the arboreal, and evidence from fossils to abandoned ancient cities. The perception is a consensus that life simply has to have evolved on Mars at some point in the last four billion years; even historically ‘As the canal builders retreated into science fiction, the idea of “primitive” life on Mars persisted’.[39] In the simple terms of Zubrin’s biologist upon discovering coccoid bacteria fossils, ‘There was life here once! […] That’s all that counts.’[40] This sentiment is echoed by the other authors/ narratives; in Mars, when the comment is made that the scientists who discover a simple lichen will win the Nobel prize, one responds ‘But what does that matter? Nothing matters now. We have found what we came for! Whatever happens from now on, it does not matter.’[41] The authors cannot conceive of a mission to Mars that does not include the discovery of some evidence of life, as if a Mars devoid of life cannot be interesting or worthwhile in itself. Life is the ultimate justification for reaching out to another planet, and as these authors are pursing an agenda not just to entertain, but to inform and perhaps even influence, they must pass this litmus test in their own fiction.

Though the appearance of Mars in fiction over the last century may have changed from crystal palaces to arid volcano peaks, from egg-laying princesses to coccoid bacteria, the sentiment remains; Mars is the closest planet to Earth that may harbour life. In concocting new narratives of this place, there is a common web of scientific history and information that invariably shapes the environmental setting and even the plot itself is not free from textual history. Authors will read the work of both their forbearers and their contemporaries, and though they reference their common literary past, they do not reference each other’s work, as if it would tarnish their own literary/scientific/political goals. They are all writing alternative (supposedly viable) futures of Mars exploration for the opening decades of the Twenty-first century, crafted by the mega-text of previous scientific and literary aspirations. Time will determine their successful integration into and influence upon the Mars mega-text.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 270.

[2] Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight, p. 48.

[3] Gregory Benford, ‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’, in The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, ed. by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (London: Orbit, 1994), p. 15.

[4] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 24.

[5] For evidence of this, just look at such titles as Robert Bly’s The Science in Science Fiction: 83 SF Predictions That Became Scientific Reality; this notes the speculation that formaldehyde detected in Mars’s atmosphere is evidence of methane producing bacteria, thus, proof of life on Mars.

[6] Gwyneth Jones, ‘The icons of science fiction’, in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 169.

[7] Bergreen, The Quest for Mars, pp. 185-6.

[8] Zubrin, The Case for Mars, pp.175-8.

[9] Lambourne, et. al., Close Encounters, p. 113.

[10] Bova, Mars, p.47

[11] Landis, Mars Crossing, p.144.

[12] Bova, Mars, p. 125.

[13] Bova, Mars, p. 287.

[14] Malin Space Science System website. Mars Global Surveyor – Mutch Crater. <http://www.msss.com/mars_images/moc/2006/08/27/&gt;. Accessed 29 June 2008.

[15] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 355.

[16] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 504.

[17] Senator Glenn was 77 years old, aboard the space shuttle Discovery, mission STS-95 (October 29 – November 7, 1998).

[18] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 20.

[19] Benford, The Martian Race, pp. 181-2.

[20] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 259-60.

[21] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 17.

[22] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 54.

[23] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 349.

[24] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 121.

[25] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 287.

[26] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 77.

[27] Bova, Mars, p. i.

[28] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 159.

[29] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 24.

[30] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 134.

[31] Clute and Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p. 1330.

[32] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 181.

[33] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 30-1.

[34] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 325.

[35] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 109.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 222.

[38] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 38.

[39] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 150.

[40] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 64.

[41] Bova, Mars, p. 429.

A Bard for the End of the World

The Hollywood blockbuster The Monuments Men brought to light a little known piece of WWII history, the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archive (MFAA) program to save Europe’s cultural heritage from Hitler and Russian treasure hunters. In the midst of a technological war, the salvage of paintings and statuary became a cause worthy of men’s lives. Why? Because art has influence and meaning in human life, even if we’re not consciously aware of it.

In one of the more memorable scenes of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder series, Edmund Blackadder, using a time machine, finds himself face to face with Shakespeare, and asks for his autograph. Then he proceeds to assault the Bard of Avon, shouting “That is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years! Have you any idea how much suffering you’re going to cause?”[1] After this – and various other historical follies – Blackadder returns to the present to find the world worse off, and must travel into the past once more to put things right. Shakespeare cannot be remembered simply as the inventor of the ballpoint pen. Despite the suffering of countless school children, the world needs William Shakespeare to show us human society.

Humans have imagined the destruction of the earth for as long as there is writing to record it. But after thousands of years of deific causes for the big-‘A’ apocalypse, science revealed a myriad of other methods by which humanity might meet their end, from microscopic bacterium to the earth-shattering bomb.

The cultural significance of Shakespeare –and the need to preserve it – can be seen as far back as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), one of the first science fiction tales to portray a non-biblical apocalypse.  The world is ravaged by a plague in the late twenty-first century, and Lionel Varney records the fall of England and Europe amidst an ever-diminishing sphere of friends and family. Shelley liberally sprinkles Shakespeare and other poetic references throughout the novel, and even as the world is dying, Lionel notes that “Shakespeare… had not lost his influence even at this dread period.”[2] He reflects upon Shakespeare as the ‘“Ut magus,” the wizard to rule our hearts and govern our imaginations’ and removes the audience from their wretched surroundings in favour of ‘scenic delusions’ (p. 317). When he finds himself utterly alone, Lionel sets sail to look for other lands that may hold survivors, he takes with him ‘a few books… Homer and Shakespeare” (p. 354). In Shakespeare is the comfort of imaginative transportation to other pastures, and other tragedies not his own, and the reminder of better times, before the world bid ‘farewell to the arts’ (p. 246).

In the effort to begin the rebuilding of America in the wake of a limited nuclear war in Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s War Day, Shakespeare becomes one of the first points of restoration for a small town in Pennsylvania. The arrival of Britain’s Prince Andrew to tour the recovery efforts spurs a conversation about the formation of a Shakespearian society.  Amidst radiation, pandemics, and famine, the establishment of a Shakespearian society becomes a priority for the return to a sense of normality; this is what Shakespeare means: his presence in daily life is the attempt to reassert a pre-war status quo. Consider the World War II Shakespearian thespian Maurice Evans, who brought Macbeth and The G.I. Hamlet to troops in the Pacific theatre during the war. It was not that the soldiers were familiar with Shakespeare – in fact, nearly none at all had ever seen Shakespeare performed on stage  – but it was what Shakespeare meant, as a familiar, a piece of home, a touchstone with civilisation in an uncivilised location.

Perhaps the most famous example of Shakespeare’s survival in the aftermath of global collapse is David Brin’s novel the Postman, turned into the Kevin Costner-directed (and starring) film of the same name in 1997, with a heavily adapted screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland. In the original text, Gordon (the eponymous Postman) is indeed an itinerant performer of Shakespeare, delivering Hamlet from the memory of ‘a half-burned fragment’ of the play.[3] But no one in the audience can gainsay Gordon’s performance because they have no point of reference; ‘Shakespeare’ to the survivors is a historical artefact, a symbol of the before frozen in time by memory, but not a living, vibrant subject. To Gordon, the emotions evoked by his performances make him “feel like a charlatan”, a snake oil salesman offering to cure the apocalypse: “his shows brought out grand, submerged hopes in a few of the decent, older people who remembered better days…hope that, to his knowledge, had always fallen through before a weeks or months had passed” (p. 36). It is hard to hold on to Shakespeare when one does not know where the next meal is coming from, but the spark, the need for Shakespeare to remain relevant continues: “[T]he seeds of civilization needed more than goodwill and dreams…to water them” (p. 36). In the film version General Bethlehem (played by Will Patton) orders the Postman’s copy of Shakespeare burned, without the filmmaker’s ever clarifying why: General Bethlehem knows the value of such a rare book in those desperate times, a memento of the past, and destroying it will help to prevent those ‘seeds of civilization’ from sprouting further, disrupting his power.

Lest we consider this purely fictional imagining, I contacted the Folger Shakespeare Library and spoke with Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, the Head Reference Librarian, to ask about the Library’s contingencies to save its most precious documents. She stated that all of the First Folios and other important pieces are kept in a vault three stories underground – originally only two until after 9-11 – and that during World War II a significant portion of the Library’s rare materials were removed from Washington DC and sent for safe keeping to Amherst. Natural disasters and nuclear wars are no longer the only cause for concern; terrorism may also reach out to destroy not just human life, but cultural life as well. Hollinger’s premise for examining the idea of the archive through science fiction is about folding time in on itself: “science fiction [the future] historicizes the present.”[4] In our own present we see attempts by the past to preserve itself, and so emulate their efforts, preserving them and ourselves against an ever-changing world of threat. Our fictions, in turn, follow the same logical trajectory.

____________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Blackadder Back & Forth. Dir. Paul Weiland. First aired 6 December 1999.

[2] Mary Shelley, The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text), pp. 216-7. All other citations in text.

[3] David Brin, The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985), p. 35.

[4] Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 243.

After ‘Symzonia’: Critical Reception of a New Idea

The critical reaction to the publication of Symzonia was tepid: ‘It is, upon the whole, dull and uninteresting. A great deal might have been made out of the subject, for there is at least as much to satirize as in the age of Swift. The author is, however, very good natured, and if there is nothing brilliant in his observations, there is nothing to offend.’[1] The novel is treated with the same tongue-in-cheek attitude that Symmes himself was, referring to his ‘concentric’ theory as ‘the excentric theories’ that inspired the novel.[2] Duane Griffin claims that ridicule of Symmes’s theory increased because Symzonia was a satirical novel,[3] but most readers would probably interpret it as an earnest effort, not one of satire, even if there are several parallels with Gulliver’s Travels. The deficiencies of American society and politics are shown contra the perfection of Symzonia; Gulliver, unlike Seaborn, does not admit to these issues. Peter Fitting states ‘I read this novel – as have most of my colleagues in the fields of science fiction and utopia – as a satirical utopia which includes a defense of Symmes’s theory.’[4] Another contemporary reviewer of the novel actually barely references Symzonia at all, choosing instead to review Symmes’s theory and make reference to the ‘internal’ as infernals, and that moving to the inside of the earth would be financially sound, ‘for if ordinary bottom lands are notoriously fertile, what must those be, which are not only at the bottom, but on the other side.’[5]  There is also strong anti-imperial sentiment when the anonymous reviewer claims that if ‘the Internals refuse to eat, drink and smoke, as we direct, there then will doubtless be found ways to compel them’,[6] emphasising (and disparaging) the rules of colonial trade that the U.S. had within the last two generations thrown off. Hester Blum finds Symzonia to be ‘parodic…but not of the outlandishness of Symmes’s theories themselves’ and is instead ‘a critique of US and British imperialism…a jape at the genre of writing produced by imperial ventures.’[7] From the contemporary reviews, Blum may be right about how the themes of exploration and imperialism are being treated, but unlike the others, does not believe that Symmes himself is an object of derision, especially if Symmes is the one doing the writing. There is some reason to doubt some of the insincerity towards nationalistic expansion, though, because the U.S. had only recently, with the Louisiana Purchase, doubled its size. Nor could Americans have been unaware of the ever-expanding British influence across the globe.

Setting aside the satire about American society and politics, at face value Symzonia does appear to urge readers to support American exploration and expansion (as well as American ideas and American literature). The novel itself seems to stand in contrast to what some historian’s viewed as Symmes’s distinctly anti-imperial language in his known writings: ‘For Symmes, the polar entrances to the interior belong to “the world” and to the mind rather than to the factional economic and political actors that—in his age and ours—continually conquer new territory in search of wealth.’[8] While Symmes did put his theories to the rest of the world, he was looking for economic and scientific support. The petitions that went before Congress certainly emphasised the need for America to get there first, as do many later novels. Only after failing with his own people did Symmes try to join a Russian expedition to the Arctic.

It is difficult to read into the intentions of Symmes (if it was indeed Symmes, though it seems unlikely to be any other) in the publication of this story, as he never wrote any other fictional narratives, and spend the bulk of his life after this point travelling the US and proselytising his theory, in which this tale might have been a tool. Besides Symmes as the author, a case has been made for one of contemporaries, Nathaniel Ames, but few have taken up that call. There is also the interesting bit of evidence that Elmore Symmes provides in his trio of essays about his father in which he provides a copy of a hand-drawn map by Symmes, and ‘the word “Symmsesonia” is the name he desired given to a continent when one was discovered’;[9] a slightly different spelling, but the same sentiment, put on paper in 1822. The novel is the epitome of early science fiction, blending scientific fact and theory at a time when these things were in a constant state of fluctuation, for an audience that was ready to receive an exciting travel narrative not unlike those of actual accounts. Most significantly, though, Symzonia would help to lay the foundation for dozens of hollow earth stories to follow over the next hundred years.

Imaged from Elmore Symmes's article 'The Theorist, John Cleves Symmes'.

Imaged from Elmore Symmes’s article ‘The Theorist, John Cleves Symmes’.

[1] Anon., ‘Review of Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery’ in The Literary Gazette; or, Journal of Criticism, Science and the Arts. 6 January 1821 (Vol. 1, No. 1), p.8.

[2] Anon., ‘Review of Symzonia’, The Literary Gazette, p. 6.

[3] Duane Griffin, “Hollow and Habitable Within”. P. 390.

[4] Peter Fitting. Subterranean Worlds. P. 106.

[5] Anon., ‘Art. VI – A voyage to the internal world’ – The North American Review (Vol. 13, Issue 32, 1821), pp. 135-6.

[6] Anon., ‘A voyage’, The North American Review, p. 140.

[7] Hester Blum, ‘John Cleves Symmes and the Planetary Reach of Polar Exploration’, American Literature (Vol. 84, No. 2, June 2012), p. 261.

[8] M. Allewaert and Michael Ziser, ‘Preface: Under Water’ in American Literature (Vol. 84, No. 2, June 2012) p. 236.

[9] Elmore Symmes, ‘John Cleves Symmes, The Theorist’, Southern Bivouac: A Monthly Literary and Historical Magazine (Vol. 2, 1887), p. 628.

Testing Terra Cava: Science in Symzonia

LIGHT GIVES LIGHT, TO LIGHT DISCOVER — “AD INFINITUM.

ST. LOUIS, (Missouri Territory,)
NORTH AMERICA, April 10, A. D. 1818.    

TO ALL THE WORLD!
I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentrick spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees; I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.
Jno. Cleves Symmes.
Of Ohio, Late Captain of Infantry
.[1]

This announcement, distributed at ‘Circular Number 1,’ set off a century of hollow earth theories, scientific inquiry, exploration, and literature in the United States. The relationship between this nineteenth century pseudo-science (a term applied only with retrospective knowledge of the Earth’s structure) and the literature it inspired builds a case for hollow earth novels engaging in the first didactic speculative fiction based upon scientific theory. More than utilizing hollow earth science as a model for storytelling, there is also the authorial push in several of these texts to explore the Polar Regions more thoroughly to verify the theory of openings at “12 or 16 degrees” latitude. Literature, influenced by the scientific writings of proponents of the Symmes Theory, was a mode of popular engagement with the masses to build support for and disseminate information about the hollow earth.

Before John Cleves Symmes’s declaration in 1818, theories of a hollow earth based on science (and not superstition or mythology) had been in existence since Edmund Halley’s 1692 paper proposing that the Earth was constructed of a series of concentric spheres beneath the surface. His reasoning for this stemmed from his work on Newton’s Principia, in which Newton had calculated the density of the moon to be significantly greater than the Earth:

Now if the Moon be more solid than the Earth, as 9 to 5, why may we not reasonably suppose the Moon, being a small Body, and a Secondary Planet, to be solid Earth, Water and Stone and this Globe to consist of the same Materials, only four Ninths thereof to be Cavity, within and between the Internal Spheres; which I would render not improbable.”[2]

Because of this miscalculation, Halley felt the need to account for the Earth’s larger size yet smaller density, and a series of hollow, concentric spheres fit the bill. Into all of this Halley includes explanations for gravity, magnetism and hydrodynamics. The entire world system must be made cohesive in order to succeed as a scientific theory.

Symmes and his followers enacted this same attention to detail, but they substituted observations of natural phenomena for mathematics in their construction of a hypothetical terra cava. The reason for supposing the interior portions of the world to be habitable – and inhabited – did not change in the 126 years separating the publication of Halley’s paper and Symmes’s declaration: Providence wills it to be so. “Why may not we rather suppose that the exceeding small Quantity of solid Matter, in respect of the fluid Ether, is so disposed by the Almighty Wisdom as to yield as great a Surface for the use of living Creatures as can consist with the conveniency and security of the whole?”[3] The whole of Creation must be given to life and useful purpose as a matter of theological parsimony. Whereas Halley proposed that there must be some other internal structure to provide light besides the sun to provide for life, Symmes’s theory allows for the geometry of reflected light to illuminate the interior of a world that is open at the Poles.

Symmes’s work was undoubtedly influenced by both Halley, and by the American religious leader and scholar Cotton Mather, who published The Christian Philosopher, stating, “We may reckon the external Parts of our Globe as a Shell, the internal as a Nucleus, or an inner Globe included within ours.”[4] Unfortunately, Symmes left little information as to all of the sources of his argument, but he and those who followed became part of what Charlotte Sleigh describes as “The American Situation” when it came to science in America in the nineteenth century, and that was science performed as an act of imagination.[5] Existing on the sideline of science in the nineteenth century and reduced to second hand information from Europe, there was a desire in the US to develop a distinctly “American science,”[6] and Symmes’s theory certainly met the requirements. (Some went so far as to call him the “Newton of the West.”[7]) Sleigh cites Edgar Allan Poe as a proponent of this idea of imaginative science, and Poe, interestingly, was a follower of Symmes’s work.

After the publication of his “Circular Number 1,” Symmes took his proverbial show on the road, petitioning politicians to support his expedition to the Arctic, and joining forces with one Jeremiah Reynolds to travel the country giving public lectures on his theory: ‘Audiences packed halls expecting high amusement from a madman. They went home wondering if Symmes might not be right after all.’[8]  Symmes inspired fellow Ohioan James McBride to write Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres: Demonstrating that the Earth is Hollow, Habitable Within, and Widely Open About the Poles (1826), a 168-page treatise detailing every facet of the theory. Another Ohioan, Alexander Mitchell, wrote a smaller, 24-page pamphlet in the same year: A Treatise on Natural Philosophy, in Vindication of Symmes’s Theory of the Earth Being a Hollow Sphere. Between Symmes’s popular public lectures, and these publications, Symmes’s name and ideas became a part of the common vernacular. Though the legislature of Ohio and the US Congress both turned down Symmes’s petitions for federal funding of an expedition to verify his theory on several occasions[9], he found a friend in President John Quincy Adams, who pushed for the creation of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1828. Unfortunately, worn down by his constant travelling and lecturing, Symmes fell ill and died in 1829, and due to multiple delays (including being cancelled, and then recommissioned in May of 1836) the US Ex. Ex. did not launch until 1838. In its four years exploring the world, two of the six ships were lost, and while a great deal of scientific specimens were collected that would become the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection, no holes in the Poles were discovered, though 1,500 miles of the Antarctic coast was mapped and named Wilkes Land in honour of the US Ex. Ex. leader, Lt. Charles Wilkes.

The majority of works about the hollow earth in the first half of the nineteenth century were non-fiction and scientific in nature, but there were two notable exceptions: Symzonia (1820) and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). The former, published under a pseudonym, has been contentiously debated to be the work of Symmes himself, while the latter is the product of Poe’s affiliation with Symmes’s lecturing partner Jeremiah Reynolds. Though the novels that should stand on their own merit as the product of American imagination at a time when only 30 percent of books sold in the US were by American authors,[10] they were a new type of literature uncommonly seen either in the US or Europe, a fiction based upon scientific thought.

Symzonia, A Voyage of Discovery was published under the pseudonym of Captain Adam Seaborn, but many literary historians believe it to be a product of Symmes himself because of its intense engagement with his theories only two years after the first circular and before many of the details had been published. (Even the Library of Congress lists the author as Symmes in the catalogue.) Symzonia has been considered by some scholars to be the first American science fiction/utopian novel.[11] The premise is that of a rich young American explorer who believe in the Symmes theory and leads a voyage to the southern reaches of the world (Antarctica not being a known continent at the time) to find an entrance  to the interior.

The novel starts out in the vein of a voyages extraordinaire – though decades before Verne – an exotic voyage that starts in the known, mapped world, and move to the unknown to discover the previously unimagined, in this case a utopian land populated by a small, pale, brilliant race. While there are certainly other theoretical sciences found in this technologically advanced world, it is all premised upon the carefully detailed science of Symmesian geology. There is a single illustrated plate that demonstrates how the sun and moon reflect light into the earth’s interior (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Sectional world view of the concentric spheres and angles of light entering the Polar openings.

Fig. 1: Sectional world view of the concentric spheres and angles of light entering the Polar openings.

Like travel literature of the past and present century, Seaborn/Symmes sets down a map for readers to follow, but this one alters dimensional perception t o reflect a hollow earth, rather than a flat one. Symmes’s hypothesis of how light and warmth from the sun would enter the interior are explained in the figure’s key, as well as a speech by Seaborn to his crew demarcating the reasons to suppose that the high latitudes are not frozen:

  • 1st. We know that the rays of the sun, uninflected by the atmosphere, would rest upon the pole for sic successive months.
  • 2d. That a dense medium refracts, or bends the rays of the sun.
  • 3d. That the amount of that refraction depends upon the extent of the dense medium through which it has to pass.
  • 4th. That at the pole, the rays of the sun coming to it in a very oblique direction, must necessarily pass through our atmosphere a great distance than on any other part of this globe, and consequently must there be refracted in a greater degree than elsewhere…[12]

There is, instead, an ‘icy hoop’ at the lower latitudes that is not dissipated due to insufficient warmth from the sun.[13] We in retrospect, of course, know this scientific reasoning to be inaccurate, but as explorers in 1820 had not reached beyond 71° 10′ S in 1774, attained by Captain James Cook. (In the same year that Symzonia was published, though, several islands near the Antarctic mainland were discovered, and in the years that followed, several sealers reached the mainland, though did not know they were standing on an unnamed continent.) Symzonia, in its desire to maintain realistic continuity, has followed the geography of the known world up to that 71° 10′ S latitude; from here, the author’s imagination and deduction take over.

Seaborn, our narrator, makes frequent references to Symmes’s theory and its justification for his voyage, claiming to have included all the works of Symmes in his ship’s library; the only flaw in this plot device is the anachronous mention hat Seaborn set sail in 1817,[14] a year before Symmes published his first declaration. This lends to the thought that Symmes ‘Adam Seaborn’, having a clearer perception of his theory in his own mind than any other writer would, often flattering himself with phrases such as ‘Capt. Symmes in his sublime theory.’[15] Seaborn fills these pages of the journey with observations of latitude, the sun’s position, and the reactions of the compass to changes in magnetic direction. While this may not make for the most exciting storytelling, its purpose is to present the reader with a retraceable trail of breadcrumbs, moving them almost imperceptibly from the known world beyond the verge into the unknown of terra cava. Upon meeting the Symzonian inhabitants, further details explaining the hollow earth geological structure are put to page, including the distribution of sunlight across the earth’s surface and ‘the innate warmth of the earth’ actually being the absorption and equal distribution of that heat across the world, ‘in the same manner as a glass globe full of water, when set before a fire, will absorb and diffuse heat throughout the contents of the vessel equally.’[16] The purpose of using this type of homespun analogy is to help readers imagine – and perhaps recreate for themselves – visualise the proposed science from their limited experiences. This mode of home-science relatability is used in several later texts as well to make the science as easy as possible for popular consumption.

There is other science that fills the pages of Symzonia, from flying ships to massive weaponry, but for the most part, the story turns to political analogy, utopia and condemnation of certain socio-political practices of the outside world. Due to various accidents, Adam Seaborn returns to the US without a shred of evidence of his travels and discovery, and is forced to write his tale from debtor’s prison.[17] This form of narrative framed by necessity to reveal truth, without the benefit of physical proofs, only logical deductions and analogies, would continue to be emulated throughout the century of hollow earth novels that followed.


[1] David Standish, Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastic Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface. (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006), pp. 40-1.

[2] Conway Zirkle, “The Theory of Concentric Spheres: Edmund Halley, Cotton Mather, John Cleves Symmes.” Isis (Vol. 37, No. ¾, July 1947), p. 158.

[3] Zirkle, “The Theory of Concentric Spheres.” p. 158.

[4] Zirkle, “The Theory of Concentric Spheres.” p. 156

[5] Charlotte Sleigh, Literature and Science. (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), p. 97.

[6] Sleigh, Literature and Science, p. 95.

[7] David Standish, Hollow Earth, p. 62.

[8] Duane A. Griffin. “Hollow and Habitable Within: Symmes’s Theory of Earth’s Internal Structure and Polar Geograhy.” Physical Geography (2005, 25, 5), p. 390.

[9] Griffin. “Hollow and Habitable Within.” p. 383.

[10] Sleigh, Literature and Science, p. 95.

[11] Victoria Nelson. “Symmes Hole, Or the South Polar Romance” in Raritan; Fall97, Vol. 17 Issue 2, pp. 137-67.

[12] John Cleves Symmes (a.k.a. Adam Seaborn), Symzonia, A Voyage of Discovery (New York: J. Seymore, 1820, reprinted by Moonglow Books, 2009), p. 25.

[13] Symmes, Symzonia, p. 28.

[14] Symmes, Symzonia, p. 15.

[15] Symmes, Symzonia, p. 44.

[16] Symmes, Symzonia, p. 81

[17] Symmes, Symzonia, pp. 135-6.

A Letter from John Uri Lloyd on ‘Etidorhpa’

John Uri Lloyd

John Uri Lloyd

John Uri Lloyd

Cincinnati.
October 8th, 1895

Dear Prof Buck,

Please accept my thanks for your very kind letter. I have no hesitancy in saying that you will see in and through this book, much that is covered to most persons. Neither do I hesitate to say that in bringing this book before the public I bring to myself care and troubles that you cannot forsee and that I appreciate highly your words of encouragement.

It matters little who recorded the words, nothing at all, the question that concerns me is have I done my part creditably? A work must be done well or done over again and I hope that this will not have to be repeated by another person.

Some of us come into the world to teach, we cannot evade our destiny. Whether we teach from our own selves or from others, is of no moment, the important point is whether we teach properly. Will the result of our instruction tend to elevate the thought of others and thus lead to truth and self humility, to love and charity?

Etidorhpa is not an idle creation. The mission of this book is unseen by most of its readers. The thought current will be felt though by every reader and it pains me to appreciate the fact that to some the beauties of the work will serve but to deepen their hatred of conceptions holy and sublime. I will send Prof Crawford a copy complimentary in your care and will be pleased to have him read it and drop me a line. He will not agree with some portions.

You speak of taking the volume to which you subscribed. Please do not do so from any sense of obligation. While I feel that you can make good use of an extra copy, still, I do not want you to pay for a book simply because you sent in a subscription.

Today, or tomorrow, all the books for Cincinnati or vicinity will be delivered.

Very Sincerely Yours

John Uri Lloyd

Warning the Present to Preserve the Past: The Obliteration of History and Identity in Dystopian Literature

swastika-night-katherine-burdekin-cover“The fear of memory reached its height with him, and he gave us the logical and Teutonic remedy, destruction. All history, all psychology, all philosophy, all art except music, […] every book and picture and statue that could remind Germans of old times must be destroyed. A huge gulf was to be made which no one could ever cross again.”[1]

Thus explains the Knight von Hess to the Englishman Alfred in Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night. History, and the culture produced in that time, is a threat to the German Empire’s hold on the population; only ignorance and complete government control prevents rebellion. With no reliable history, people are deprived of the impetus to revolt because they do not know that life was ever any different, that the world might be a better place. Without a sense of identity, the characters are lost within the vast control of the state. This is an idea to be found in many dystopic novels besides Burdekin’s, including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Another type of dystopia is the seeming ‘utopia,’ which exists under a lack of freedom and identity, and while some knowledge of the past is recognized, it is treated with scorn and contempt. Yevgeny Zemyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are examples of this style of uniformed, automaton-inhabited utopia. While dystopia may be more concerned with the present, the authors are offering a hyperbolic representation of the future, warning of things to come if the present situation remains unchanged: “The modern dystopia […] is as much an expression of contemporary fears and anxieties as it is a further refinement of generic conventions.’[2] Because these dystopias take place in the future, their dark, incomplete view of history is meant to represent our present and near future. The intent of this paper is to examine how the authors are warning their readers about the importance of history and identity to the freedom of thought and action. With the exception of Swastika Night (which has a rural setting and high rates of illiteracy to keep the populace ignorant) the other works are set in highly mechanized societies that encourage just about every other form of entertainment than reading, and there is a general shortage of books. Living in the in the turbulent climate of the early Twentieth century (two world wars, multiple revolutions and counter revolutions, social upheaval and unprecedented government power) impressed upon the authors the need to remind readers of what would come if present history was forgotten and too many personal freedoms were surrendered. Within the stories, few characters remember the past and besides the revolutionary protagonists, few in these nightmarish societies have any desire for the products of the past or inclination to reclaiming identity.  These dystopic worlds were the authors’ plea to their contemporaries to preserve history and cultural products, because their loss would leave the future populace subjected to totalitarian control in a world that is worse off, maybe not always materially, but certainly spiritually.

From Utopias to Dystopias

Firstly, it is necessary to understand the impulse behind writing a dystopia. Despite the direness of these dystopian stories, they were meant to serve a purpose, to inspire the reader to improve upon society, as utopias do. Utopias are considered science fiction because they do not often take place on Earth or in the present (some would merely call it pastoral if it did) and have existed free from a reliance on science to bring about its utopian paradise, starting with More’s Utopia. During the twentieth century, science and technology became a tool of the writer to demonstrate ways of improving the world, but in the wake of chemical weapons and new war machines, technical innovation came to be seen as a greater threat to humanity. Writers were worried about the loss of the human soul and common history in the face of science’s advancements paired with the political upheavals and totalitarian governments of the early Twentieth century. Carl Freedman notes, ‘Utopia can never be fixed in the perspective of the present, because it exists, to a considerable degree, in the dimension of futurity: not, however, in the future as the latter is imagined by bourgeois “progress,” but rather as the future is the objective of hope, of our deepest and most radical longings.’[3] If a writer creates a utopian society out of the humanitarian desire for a better world for mankind, then the act of creating a dystopia is inspired by the longing to prevent the world from descending down a perceived path of darkness by inspiring the public to improve their present society.

There are numerous influences for dystopian novels in the first half of the Twentieth century, from the World Wars to the many revolutions that toppled the old, traditional government and social structures. The crimes against humanity, the genocides and fascist governments, were real terrors that imprinted themselves on the common consciousness of readers.

The crushing of self by the system, the denial of individuality, is nowhere more savagely illustrated in our recent history than by the Second World War, especially by the concentration camps, […] We find in these records of historical experience many of the images which recur in post-war SF: the numbered inmates, the uniformed bodies, the suffocating routine, the omnivorous machinery of death.[4]

In the fictional worlds, the populations subjected to dehumanized, totalitarian rule are controlled through their ignorance of these past events. During the rise of Hitler, the world was bombarded with images of bonfires, the burning of books that offended Nazi sensibilities. From Russia came the Five Years Plans, organizing people and production according to numbers that benefited the state, regardless of consequences for the individual. The authors, familiar with historical events and their contemporary societies, are relying on the readers to recognize the parallels in the dystopian worlds (it would be difficult to find any critic who called dystopic fiction ‘subtle’) to remember the horrors of the past – or present – and fight their return.

It is this rebellion against controlling governments (by a single individual or larger group) and the reclamation of lost history and culture that dominates these novels. While authors are warning against the mechanization of society, it is the government’s control over and use of the technology that is the real threat. If the government controls the dissemination of information, then they can shape the past and present however they please. If the government controls you (possibly from your very conception) then it controls the person you may become, shaped as they please. John Clute explains, ‘animosity against specific political programmes was the most important force provoking early dystopian visions,’ which negates the utopians ‘generalized faith in the idea of progress, both social and technological.’[5] The Western world in the early Twentieth century saw the rise of eugenics and the crimes against humanity that ensued. People were reduced to numbers and figures, calculated and ordered like machines. They saw censorship, fascism and collectivization, all of which tried to erase or rewrite history, and those who watched from the outside were horrified.

To attempt to read the great dystopian works as merely predictors of the future lessens the value of the work’s message. As Freedman puts it, ‘the negative utopias of modern literature – We (1921), Brave New World (1932), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – are drained of much of their power if we attempt to read them as complexly critical estrangements of certain actual tendencies in Soviet and Anglo-American society, but instead as factual futurology, rating Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell as though they were contestants in a guessing game.’[6] The authors of these dystopias were trying desperately to warn against these negative social developments they perceived, and would have been horrified if any of their visions came to pass; it would have been a failure on their part to properly warn the public. It would have meant people had forgotten their history.

Zamyatin and We

Once a leader of post-revolutionary Russia’s writers, Zamyatin – who opposed the push towards total social unanimity – wrote against the grain of the party line, his works were banned and he was exiled from the country. For this, he himself fell victim to his own warnings: ‘Like the rebellious poet of We […] he was literally “liquidated” – reduced to nonbeing. His name was deleted from literary history’.[7] In We, ‘Zamyatin could turn for models of his dystopia to the early experiments in social engineering conducted by the Bolsheviks.’[8] As for metaphorical historical parallels, the Benefactor deity of the story is Lenin, while the Guardians are the USSR’s Cheka[9]. Zamyatin was extremely prescient about the world to come, and only in retrospect can We be truly appreciated for its warning about totalitarian government control. The characters are not given the benefit of names, only numbers; they don’t have families, are raised in groups, and copulation is only granted with pink coupons at an appointed hour. It is almost farcical, the degree to which the government controls society and has erased the uniqueness of individuals, but this was undoubtedly Zamyatin’s goal, meant to parody the Bolshevik’s revolutionary government.

The main character, D-503 tells the story through his journal (‘record’ as its referred to in the translation) which he believes to be his own sort of poetry, meant to praise the One State. There is a contradiction of facts disseminated by the government from a quoted proclamation on page one: ‘One thousand years ago your heroic ancestors subdued the entire terrestrial globe to the power of the One State.’[10] This cannot be the case, though, because outside the city’s green walls is an untamed forest inhabited by free men (considered hairy and atavistic by D-503), who join with rebel ‘numbers’ from the city and revolt against the Benefactor and the entropic order of the One State.

What does this society know of the past? As D-503 puts it, ‘it is clear that the entire history of mankind, insofar as we know it, is the history of transition from nomadic to increasingly settled forms of existence. […] People rushed about from one end of the earth to the other only in prehistoric times, when there were nations, wars, commerce, discoveries of all sorts of Americas.’[11] This is a rather narrow, incomplete history given to the One State’s inhabitants, propaganda meant to support the controlled, static environment in which they live. D-503 mentions their knowledge of the ancient ‘irrational’ Christian religion, and how the sacrifices (executions) carried out on behalf of the Benefactor are ‘a remembrance of the awesome time of trial, of the Two Hundred Years’ War, a grandiose celebration of the victory of all over one, of the sum over the individual.’[12] History has been utilized to justify and rationalize public executions of any dissident (in this case, a heretical poet) – to the point where even the condemned willingly go without the need to be restrained because they have been trained to accept this. The only literature (as it is) which has been passed down to them is “The Railway Guide” for its meticulous organization, influencing the Tables, which schedule out every hour of the numbers’ lives. Individuals have no unscheduled time, cannot deviate from the Tables, and have no say in the running of their government (beyond having to unanimously reelect the Benefactor occasionally). To stop the brewing revolt, the Benefactor orders a surgical procedure for everyone to remove the imagination, just as Zamyatin and his fellow writers were ordered by the Bolshevik government to censor their own imaginative works to benefit the state.

The end of the book seems to be a reflection of Zamyatin’s own hopes for history, that the revolution in Russian was not over yet, and that the forces of the individual would eventually triumph over the collectivism he so detested. We was a warning to his fellows of what Russia may become if the Bolshevik’s remained in power, pushing for a static, least-common-denominator society.

Huxley and Brave New World

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World stands apart from the other dystopias discussed here due to its dry, at times sarcastic, tone. The greatest warning of the book is ‘how far we must sacrifice our individuality in the face of proliferating technology, and how far we should push the quest for pleasure.’[13]Bernard Marx and his contemporaries are swallowed up and stifled by their society, which requires a uniformity of beliefs. But just as importantly, the novel puts forward Huxley’s views of the subjectivity of history, that it is used and abused to influence the masses.

The industrial revolution served to influence Huxley’s view of the potential for a society mechanized down to the individual, most especially the advancements made by Henry Ford in the automobile industry. ‘Ford’ has become a sort of deity to the World State, embracing Ford’s own words: ‘History is bunk,’ as the Controlled Mustapha Mond explained to a class of children;

He waved his hand; and it was as though, with a little feather wisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harappa, was Ur of the Chaldees; […] Whisk – and where was Odysseus and Gotama and Jesus? Whisk – and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem and the Middle Kingdom – all were gone.[14]

Mond is the aloof, powerful, all-knowing character, like the Knight Von Hess, who through his position is permitted to indulge in history and forgotten culture: ‘There were those strange rumours of old forbidden books hidden in a safe in the Controller’s study. Bibles, poetry – Ford knew what.’[15] In a society dominated by the pursuit of pleasure, the old stories of war, religion, struggle and strife (no matter their literary value) would serve only to upset the population and social balance, and thus they are banned – ‘pornographic’ as the Controller Mond calls them in his discussion with John.[16] Their entire civilization relies on individuals following in lock step; no innovative ideas, no self-sufficiency or philosophizing.

By controlling the education of every individual through the use of hypnopaedia and Pavlovian conditioning, every person in their class – from Alpha pluses to Epsilons – is conditioned with the same thoughts, denied real independent will. Children are taught to fear books by use of electric shock and loud sirens. Reading old books might give people the wrong ideas, ideas that conflict with the State. The Director notes happily, ‘the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. […] But these suggestions are our suggestions! […] Suggestions from the State.”[17] Someone with this man’s power may be afforded some free will and thought, but not those lower in social ranking, who must be conditioned to accept the status they were born into (were created for). To break from conventional unity means therapy, a prescription for more soma, or possible exile to an island.

Personal past and identity are also discouraged, and when the Hatchery Director breaks this taboo to tell Bernard about his trip to the savage reservation, Bernard becomes uncomfortable. He knows the Director disapproves of discussion of the ‘remote past […] disapproved and yet had been betrayed into doing the forbidden thing.’[18] Not only is history denied and forgotten as detrimental to society, but even recalling personal history means asserting an individual identity and a real, certain history, a ‘forbidden thing’. There can be no past in a static world.

Huxley’s dystopia was based upon trends he detected during the inter-war period, including the rise of soviet Russia’s collectivization and forced unanimity, as well as Ford’s mechanized processes spreading to other industries. Because the World State ‘rejects everything, including literature, music, art and philosophy […] a state without a past’[19] there is nothing for the people to rally around and rebel against. It is a depressing ending because it offers no hope of change; the discontented are exiled and John the Savage commits suicide, unable to function in this world without history, literature or individuality.

Burdekin and Swastika Night

Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night is a frightening dystopia influenced by, and warning against, the Nazi propaganda of the 1930s. The loss of historical truths – and the rebellious nature of reclaiming them – in this world is central to the plot. The Nazis who have taken over the world have completely rewritten the past and eliminated literacy among the masses, because ‘information about the past and present is strictly controlled and manipulated by those in command. History, its knowledge, and memory are therefore dangerous elements that can give the dystopian citizens a potential instrument of resistance.’[20] Burdekin could only guess in 1937 about a coming war with Nazi Germany, but could no more predict its form and outcome any more than a military strategist. Swastika Night is not about alternative history, but an extrapolation of what a world ruled by Nazi party policy would look like.

Because personal identity is part of history, the conquered races have even had the practice of family names removed (Alfred’s ‘surname’ is E.W. 10762) so that there can be no filial memory or unity to encourage rebellion – this has been assisted, of course, by the relegation of women to the status of chattel. Burdekin was projecting from Hitler’s own views, as summarized by an OSS report on Hitler’s psychology: ‘His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.’[21] This ‘big lie’ is what the entire basis of Burdekin’s dystopia becomes; all of history before the supposed Twenty Year war, and much of the century afterwards is completely rewritten, and no one but Von Hess and Alfred know any differently. But a character such as Hermann, so thoroughly a part of the system, cannot accept ‘alternatives’ and is broken down by the history Von Hess reveals. The world seems beyond repair from this Big Lie.

Removing history requires removing its records, and Burdekin was undoubtedly influenced by the Nazi’s massive burning of supposedly degenerate (mostly Jewish and communist) books in May of 1933. The Knight Von Hess wrote his entire book from memory, because all other books were destroyed, and ‘He thought […] the time might come when men would again seek passionately for truth.’[22] Burdekin is making it very clear that for seven hundred years this German Empire has existed because of the propagation of lies and the deletion of history. ‘The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history.[23]’ Burdekin’s Nazi empire has removed the books, the architecture and cultural products of every other civilization under their influence, and without cultural progress, they are ‘dead’.[24]

Orwell and 1984

What is ‘memory’ in 1984? A hole, that leads to an incinerator. There is no memory or history but that which the Party approves of, and is changed on a daily basis to suit Party needs.  Indeed, one of the Party slogans is ‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’[25] The protagonist, Winston Smith, struggles to recall his own history, to find some true history in the world. For this quest, and the actions it leads him to, Winston is captured, tortured and reprogrammed by the Ministry of Love. O’Brien informs Winston, ‘You will be lifted clean out from the stream of history. […] Nothing will remain of you; not a name in a register, not a memory in a living brain. You will be annihilated in the past as well as the future.’[26] The purpose of these measures is to prevent the general populace from being inspired by martyrs to rebel against the controlling powers. As history is rewritten, so are the people, all to conform to Party standards.

Winston Smith’s profession is to rewrite history so that is remains constant with the present. If the current Oceania conflict is with Eurasia, then it has always been so, and vice versa. As O’Brian explains during Winston’s interrogation, ‘Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which makes mistakes […] Whatever the party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.’[27] Orwell’s Oceania is derived from the observations he made of totalitarianism in the Spanish Civil War and Stalinist Russia, including the purge trials in the USSR that rewrote history in order to convict old Bolshevik revolutionaries who had fallen out of favour. There are multiple historical parallels being utilized; Trotsky as Goldstien, the gulag as the Thought Police, the Hitler Youth as the Youth League and the Spies, but of course there is no history in Oceania before the party to be brought up.

The erasure of personal history is part of the removal of identity, so that individuals are absorbed into the party fold. Winston struggles to simultaneously remember and forget his own past: ‘He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been like this’[28] – a London that is decrepitly run down from constant war and deprivation. When starting his diary, Winston cannot even be sure if the year is actually 1984, cannot even pinpoint the actual year of his birth. The memory of his family is just as clouded. In this world, children are conditioned to turn in family members who appear disloyal, thought Winston sadly recalls his mother from an ‘ancient time […] when there was still privacy, love and friendship’ and she died for ‘a conception of loyalty that was private and unalterable.’[29] Orwell’s inclusion of this particular language describes the threat to the Party: citizens cannot be loyal to the family and to the government simultaneously, their loyalty must be completely to the Party. So memory of family, a sense of individuality and filial devotion, must be eliminated in favour of obedience to Big Brother.

Of the messages in 1984, Aldiss asks, ‘To whom is its warnings directed? To the voters? If so, then it is an anti-prophetic book, in that the less this fictional world becomes reality – even after the test date – the better Orwell will have succeeded in his purpose.’[30] This novel has perhaps had the most pervasive influence on society, with terms such as ‘doublethink’ and ‘Big Brother’ becoming synonymous with these warnings, keeping readers aware of Orwell’s message. As Fredric Jameson summarizes, ‘the most haunting feature of 1984 is the elegiac sense of the loss of the past, and the uncertainty of memory. The rewriting of political history in Oceania is assimilated to the personal dreams of a lost childhood.’[31] Orwell saw the totalitarian disintegration of states and was warning the reading public to not give in to censorship or rewritten history.

Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451

The last dystopia examined here is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a world where the pursuit of pleasure dominates the population, and the ignorance of history (under the guise of maintaining mental parity) is enforced by burning books. Contemporary issues heavily influenced Bradbury’s novel as ‘The censorship of books which dealt with socialism, eroticism, and sexuality in the early 1950s made the extension of Montag’s actions conceivable.’[32] The memory of Nazi book burning and the rise of television and other technological media impressed upon Bradbury the dangers of people losing themselves in fantasy worlds and willingly giving up knowledge and history.

Firemen themselves have a distorted history, and no books, no records, to correct the perversion of the world ‘fireman.’ The official story is that the firemen were ‘Established, 1790, to burn English-influenced books in the Colonies. First Fireman: Benjamin Franklin.’[33] (This is a doubly significant twisting of facts, as Benjamin Franklin did organize the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia and founded the first public lending library.) There is no recollection of classic literature, philosophy and history beyond the rebellious Montag and Faber and the ‘books’ hidden in the woods, leaving a population of babbling children incapable of thinking beyond their own petty comforts in a world of starving people. Montag lays out the argument for the preservation of knowledge to his wife: ‘Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes!’[34] In the end, a nuclear explosion has wiped away the decadent city, and Granger laments, ‘We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them’[35]– in other words, Bradbury is hoping that the memory of the past (and in his case, present) will prevent further degradation of the world.

Another aspect of the erasure of individuality is the unproductiveness of the population. Mildred only plays with her make-believe ‘family’ on the wall screens, while Montag and the firemen only destroy literature and homes. Among juveniles, breaking windows and wrecking cars is considered a pastime. Education has become anything but, a babysitting service full of television programmes and exhausting physical activities, with no actual learning or critical analysis. Universal leisure dominates this society, precluding the development of the individual soul, and those like Clarisse who try fall victim to the demand for the least common denominator. Granger offers Bradbury’s moral at the end: ‘Everyone must leave something behind when he dies […] A child or a book or a painting […] Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die’.[36] Without a thinking, productive citizenry, without an honest history, this society seems to have no soul, no ability to learn from mistakes and stop the nuclear wars. Bradbury’s warning was directed at an America he perceived to be losing touch with its past and the world, too engrossed in television and movies.

Conclusion

The history being utilized in these dystopias is the present for the authors, their warning about the shape of things to come if the world does not change. Raffaella Baccolini best sums up the importance of history to dystopia: ‘history is central and necessary for the development of resistance and the maintenance of hope, even when it is a dystopian history that is remembered.’[37] Honesty about the past, so as not to forget both the triumphs and mistakes of old, is emphasized, along with personal honesty and identity. In these dystopias, those who see themselves as independent of the state and the static/ declining civilization are the rebels who seek after or possess information about the past. These authors are imploring their readers to keep the past alive, to keep their sense of self alive and to take stock of their present world, to ensure that the dire events being portrayed never come to pass.


[1] Katherine Burdekin, Swastika Night (New York: The Feminist Press, 1985), p. 79.

[2] Robert S. Baker, Brave New World: History, Science and Dystopia (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990), p.46.

[3] Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), p. 64.

[4] Scott Sanders, ‘Characterization in science fiction: Two approaches – 1. The disappearance of character’ in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. by Patrick Parrinder (London: Longman, 1979), p. 134.

[5] John Clute and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (London: Orbit, 1999), p.361

[6] Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction, p. 55.

[7] Mirra Ginsburg, ‘Introduction’ in We by Yevgeny Zemyatin (New York: Bantam, 1972), translated by Mirra Ginsburg. p. xx.

[8] Scott Sanders, ‘Characterization in science fiction: Two approaches – 1. The disappearance of character’ in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. by Patrick Parrinder (London: Longman, 1979), p. 134.

[9] The first police force formed after the October Revolution, the precursor to the KGB, they were the spies and enforcers of the Bolshevik’s doctrine during the turbulent Red Terror and civil war.

[10] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, p. 1.

[11] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, p. 11.

[12] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, p. 46.

[13] Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree (London: Paladin, 1988), p. 229.

[14] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1989), p. 34.

[15] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, p. 34.

[16] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, p. 237.

[17] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, p. 28.

[18] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, p. 96.

[19] Robert S. Baker, Brave New World: History, Science, and Dystopia, p. 91.

[20] Rafaella Baccolini, ‘”A useful knowledge of the present is rooted in the past”: Memory and Historical Reconciliation in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling’, in Dark Horizons, ed. by Tom Moylan and Rafaella Baccolini (New York and London: Routeldge, 2003). p. 155.

[21] Walter C. Langer. A Psychological Analysis of Adolph Hitler: His Life and Legend. (Washington, DC: Office of Strategic Services), p. 51. <http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/h/hitler-adolf/oss-papers/text/oss-profile-03-02.html&gt;

[22] Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night, p. 74.

[23] Milan Kundera quoted in “’A Useful knowledge of the present is rooted in the past” by Rafaelle Baccolini, p. 125

[24] Katherine Burdekin, Swastika Night, p. 121.

[25] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1981), p. 204

[26] George Orwell, 1984, p. 210.

[27] George Orwell, 1984, p. 205.

[28] George Orwell, 1984, p. 7.

[29] George Orwell, 1984, p. 28.

[30] Brian Aldiss, The Trillion Year Spree, p. 303

[31] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2007), p. 200

[32] Jack Zipes, ‘Mass Degradation of Humanity and Massive Contradictions in Bradbury’s Vision of America in Fahrenheit 451’ in No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, ed. by Eric S. Rabkin, et. al. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), p. 184.

[33] Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (London: Flamingo, 1993), p. 42.

[34] Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, p. 81.

[35] Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, p. 171.

[36] Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, p. 164.

[37] Rafaella Baccolini, ‘”A useful knowledge of the present is rooted in the past”: Memory and Historical Reconciliation in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling’, in Dark Horizons, ed. by Tom Moylan and Rafaella Baccolini (New York and London: Routeldge, 2003). p. 116.

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