Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912)
We’re all familiar with classic scenes of a brutal post-apocalyptic world like this: A group of refugees from the pandemic is holed up in an abandoned building with a cache of food and arms, firing on a gang of assaulting raiders. Or, a former professor of English Literature, clad in goat skins and huddled around a fire, is telling his dirty, illiterate grandsons about life before civilization vanished.
Today these scenes are standard fare in post-apocalyptic fiction, from The Road to The Walking Dead. But when Jack London wrote them a century ago, they weren’t. The genre itself had been around for a long time, and many of the classic themes, settings, and catastrophes had already been introduced. However, nobody before Jack London had described a collapse of civilization so violent or an aftermath so squalid. In the century since, images of a gritty and brutal world in ruins have become almost a requirement in this genre. Continue reading
William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912)
Back in 1805, the French priest de Grainville wrote what could be considered the first Dying Earth novel. Despite many obvious science fictional elements, Le Dernier Homme was a religious fantasy, inspired by the pseudo-biblical style of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Scientist-prophets fulfilled God’s will by conquering nature with science, but in the background was an invisible world of mystical spirits who were part of God’s master plan.
A century later, a quirky British poet produced another major dying earth vision by flipping this formula: he brought the mysticism to the foreground, and put the science in the background, creating a completely secular and much darker vision of earth’s final era. William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, a flawed beast of a book, is a milestone in the genre — a forerunner not only of now-classic Dying Earth fantasies by Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe, but also of psychologically refracted post-apocalyptic visions like Galouye’s Dark Universe and Dick and Zelazny’s Deus Irae. Continue reading
Garrett P. Serviss’ The Second Deluge (1912)
1912 was a good year for science fiction — according to some, it was the best year. Certainly for pulp science fiction, it was a landmark year. Although the first dedicated pulp SF magazine, Amazing Stories, wouldn’t appear for more than a decade, two of the foundational texts of pulp SF were published in 1912: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which began as the serial “Under the Moons of Mars” in February, and Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+, whose last installment was published in March.
Another contributor to this early pulp ferment, less memorable than Burroughs or Gernsback, was the American journalist Garrett Serviss. Serviss was a popular science writer who had also written an 1898 sequel to Wells’ War of the Worlds, featuring an invasion of Mars led by none other than Thomas Alva Edison. The Second Deluge, serialized in 1911-12, is a pulpy, early instance of a classic storyline that crops up over and over again post-apocalyptic fiction: Noah’s Ark. Continue reading
J.-H. Rosny aîné’s The Death of the Earth (1910)
As I wrote when I first began this series on post-apocalyptic science fiction, what makes this genre so compelling is how its writers put our mastery of nature up against the possibility of human extinction. The extinction of a species is a routine event, and has been for the entire history of life on earth. So what about us? Will our species eventually disappear, or will our mastery of science and technology protect us from nature’s ruthless assaults?
This theme is beautifully explored by one of the early masters of science fiction, the Belgian writer J.-H. Rosny aîné. Rosny, whose career began in the 1880’s and ended with his death during the Campbellian Golden Age, can be considered the father of hard science fiction because, as his translators argue, unlike Verne or Wells, he “was the first writer to allow science to write his narratives” from a “neutral, ahumanistic” perspective.
In this way, Rosny is much like the scientifically realist Camille Flammarion; but unlike Flammarion, Rosny’s purpose is novelistic rather than didactic. The result is fiction that is as compelling as that of Verne or Wells, told in a detached, analytic style that makes Rosny’s voice unique in early SF. This voice has a powerful effect in The Death of the Earth, a ruthless evolutionary vision of human extinction, in which our species cedes the planet to a completely new form of life. Continue reading
H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air (1908)
After the First World War, as historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in her landmark history of the pre-war years, “illusions and enthusiasms possible up to 1914 slowly sank beneath a sea of mass disillusionment.” But there were some who were disillusioned long before that. In the decades leading up to the catastrophic conflict, all sorts of writers and thinkers worried about the possibility of a worldwide war, fought with technologies that were capable of causing destruction on an entirely new scale.
Concerns about a massive conflict were so serious that the major European powers held two peace conferences, in 1899 and 1907, despite the fact that they weren’t currently at war with each other. Fiction writers captured the martial zeitgeist with a steady stream of future war stories (including H.G. Wells’ 1898 The War of the Worlds), exploring military possibilities that would soon be realized.
The most bitingly clear statement of pre-war anticipation and disillusionment is H.G. Wells’ 1908 novel, The War in the Air. The book is a major genre milestone, one that explicitly lays out an important theme of the coming century: Our civilization is headed for a catastrophic end unless our moral progress keeps pace with our technological process. Continue reading