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
Louis Pope Gratacap’s The Evacuation of England (1908)
Digging the Panama Canal in 1907
One of the pleasures of reading older post-apocalyptic fiction is seeing how the major themes and plot ideas of today’s genre were first introduced more than one hundred years ago. But just because writers came up with these great ideas doesn’t mean that their books are any good. Many of them are; however the American writer Louis Gratacap’s pioneering post-apocalyptic novel wins the prize as the most turgid and unreadable novel I’ve ever read. In fact, I’ll admit it: I didn’t actually read the whole book; my reading quickly changed into a slow skim. Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute has the same opinion:
Gratacap’s range was wide, incorporating much material which has become central to sf, but his books are overlong, choked by his compulsive didacticism, and nearly unreadable today.
So why bother with The Evacuation of England? Because Gratacap came up with a major innovation that is absolutely central to post-apocalyptic SF today. To my knowledge (please correct me if I’m wrong), Evacuation is the first novel in which civilization is destroyed by a natural disaster caused by human beings. It’s the world’s first anthropogenic climate change novel. Continue reading
This week, Science for the People observes its annual holiday tradition, helping you find gifts for the science lovers on your list. Brian Clegg, John Dupuis, and Rachelle Saunders share their most-treasured science books from 2014, as well as classics to help fill out anyone’s science library. And they speak to writer/illustrator James Lu Dunbar about “The Universe Verse,” a scientifically-accurate rhyming comic book about the origins of the universe.
Visit the Science for the People blog for more information and links to the books mentioned in this episode.
*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.
Van Tassel Sutphen’s The Doomsman (1906)
The Doomsman opens in what seems to be the primitive past: A young man sits on the shore of a bay, dressed in a tunic. In the forest behind him are the heavy wooden walls of a stockade, a clue to the defensive nature of life in this sparsely inhabited country. But not everything fits. The young man is looking across the bay at a vague, dark outline of some tall structure, while in his hands he holds a book: A Child’s History of the United States. He is sitting on the shores of New York, looking out at what’s left of Manhattan.
It would make a great opening shot for a movie — a YA post-apocalyptic movie. The Doomsman is, like After London, one of the earliest examples of the post-apocalyptic YA adventure. The plot follows the familiar pattern: A restless boy is trying to understand his society and discover how it fell from its seemingly more glorious and technologically marvelous past. Excitement, danger, and romance ensue; the boy proves his manhood, discovers the secrets of lost technologies, and seeks to win the girl. (The gender pattern here wouldn’t be swapped until decades later.) Much of what appeals to us in present-day YA blockbusters like the Hunger Games is here in Doomsman, in a form that only feels a little dated. Continue reading