Author Archives: Mike White

End of the World 1895: Social Darwinism is Self-Defeating

H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895)

timemachineSaunders1950With H.G. Wells, science fiction left behind the 19th century and fully entered the 20th. During the new wave of future fiction published in the late 1800’s, writers came up with many of plot lines, settings, and themes that characterize modern science fiction, but it wasn’t until H.G. Wells wrote his rock solid classic, The Time Machine, that SF actually became modern. Chronologically, it’s the first book of science fiction that, to me at least, doesn’t feel obsolete.

Why? The Time Machine, after all, has scenes inspired by 19th century culture: seances in late Victorian drawing rooms and class anxieties of turn-of-the-century Britain. Wells’ radical innovation was to do away with restrictions of scientific plausibility — which ironically let him tackle the intersection of science and human society with more depth than any writer before. Jules Verne, whose classics now feel very dated, wasn’t happy with Wells’ technique:

I make use of physics. He fabricates. I go the moon in a cannon-ball discharged from a gun. There is no fabrication here. He goes to Mars [sic] in an airship [sic], which he constructs of a metal that does away with the law of gravitation. That’s all very fine, but show me this metal. Let him produce it.

- quoted in New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis, p. 32

In other words, as Kingsley Amis put it, Wells “liberated the medium from dependence on extrapolation and in so doing initiated some of its basic categories.” Extrapolation is obviously still an important element of the genre today, but Wells showed how to do it without chaining one’s imagination to the boundaries of the science of the day. By giving the imagination freer rein in science fiction – by fabricating freely – Wells could better explore the human implications of science. Continue reading

Apocalypse 1893: The Scientific End of the World

Camille Flammarion’s Omega: The Last Days of the World (1893)

FlammarionAvenueWhether fiction written early in the 19th century qualifies as genuine science fiction is debatable, but when it comes to the futuristic fiction of the end of the century, there can be no doubt. The nascent genre was quickly becoming popular, and in the two decades before World War I, science fiction became truly engaged with science — particularly the radical scientific discoveries that transformed communication, war, public health, and especially, our place in the cosmos.

Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne were the trailblazers, writing works inspired by contemporary developments in science, which both of them followed closely. Then came the French astronomer and popular science author, Camille Flammarion, the Carl Sagan of his day. His 1893 End of the World novel Omega: The Last Days of the World is a grand future history, with a mystical but secular cosmology deeply rooted in the science of the day. It’s an almost modern work of science fiction, a bridge between de Grainville’s early Gothic apocalypse and the radically new 20th century apocalyptic science fiction of H.G. Wells. Continue reading

New World Apocalypse 1889: The Last American

John Ames Mitchell’s The Last American (1889)

LastAmericanLibertyImages of a run-down Statue of Liberty against a backdrop of decaying New York are a staple of science fiction. So are visions of a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. As I’ve noted before, the fascination with ruin porn dates back to at least the late 18th century. But America was a backwater at the time – the New World (or the Western presence there anyway) was too new to ruin in futuristic visions. The very first work of science fiction set against a backdrop of ruined, major U.S. cities, as far as I can find, is the brief 1889 satire, The Last American: A fragment from the journal of KHAN-LI, Prince of Dimph-yoo-chur and Admiral in the Persian Navy, by the original publisher of LIFE magazine, John Ames Mitchell.

The book, as the title indicates, is presented as an excerpt from the journal of a Persian Naval admiral, who with his crew stumbles into New York’s harbor 1000 years after America’s demise in 1990. The Persians, who have mocking names like Nofuhl , Lev-el-Hedyd, and Ad-el-pate, comment on the follies of the lost civilization, while they themselves are portrayed as superstitious primitives who make the ancient “Mehrikans” look good by comparison. The Last American reads like a very mediocre Mark Twain — A Connecticut Yankee, published the same year, leaves Mitchell’s book in the dust. Nevertheless, Mitchell, who was surely influenced by After London, made an important contribution to the genre: satire. Continue reading

The First Modern Post-Apocalypse Novel: After London

Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885)

bankofenglandruinsGothic and Romantic writers — like Cousin de Grainville, Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, and most significantly, Mary Shelley — wrote the first important End of the World fiction early in the 19th century. But as Romanticism waned, the nascent genre languished for half a century, until it came roaring back with a new wave of future fiction that occurred during the last few decades of the century. Alongside various utopias (Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887), dystopias (Caesar’s Column), and future war stories (Battle of Dorking), post-apocalyptic fiction became popular among writers in Britain, France, and America. The familiar genre images of the primitive society, the wasted city, the ruined Statue of Liberty, the cataclysmic new ice age, and the barren, Dying Earth, was all there in the best-selling, futuristic fiction at the end of the 19th century. The genre has been popular ever since.

The first post-apocalyptic novel of this new wave of future fiction was Richard Jefferies’ 1885 After London. As we all know, End of the World fiction is most often about the end of the world as we know it and its aftermath — not about the utter extinction of humans or the complete destruction of life on earth. Earlier Romantic writers were an exception; they really did deal with the utter end of the world. But After London is about the survivors and the transformed world they’ve inherited. Continue reading

Poe’s Comet Cataclysm: End of the World 1839

Edgar Allen Poe’s The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion (1839)

Great_Comet_1861The word “apocalypse” not only means a cataclysm that ends the current world order, but also, from the word’s Greek root, a revelation of truth. Poe’s very short story about the End of the World is an apocalypse in both senses of the word. In this early instance of the cataclysmic-collision-with-celestial-object tale, Poe makes an odd mix of science and prophesy to capture the moment of “the speculative Future merged in the august and certain Present.” “Eiros and Charmion” shows us what happens when the unknown becomes the dramatically revealed known.

The story starts with Eiros waking up to the startling realization that the afterlife is real, and that he (or she — Poe doesn’t say) is in it. His old friend Charmion, who died ten years earlier, is there to welcome him, happy to see Eiros “looking life-like and rational.” Charmion informs Eiros that their earthly names have been discarded, and that tomorrow he’ll induct his friend “into the full joys and wonders of your novel existence.” Continue reading