H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898)
During the new wave of future fiction of the last decades of the 19th century, stories of catastrophic future wars were especially popular. The trend began in 1871 with George Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking”, a story about a surprise invasion of England by something that sounds like the Prussian military. Writers continued to present increasingly elaborate visions of ever more destructive weaponry right up through the outbreak of World War I. And then there was H.G. Wells, who in 1898 took this popular and overworked late-Victorian genre and completely transformed it into modern science fiction with the classic story of alien invasion.
Swapping Martians with Germans isn’t the only feature that makes The War of the Worlds so different from what came before. Most writers were largely interested with the military and geopolitical aspects of future war, but Wells was interested in the civilians. In fact, War of the Worlds isn’t really about the Martians or their advanced technology; it’s about our cosmic insignificance, and how we react when the security of civilization is demolished. Continue reading
Neal Stephenson and Arizona State University want scientists and engineers to think bigger – with science fiction. Therefore, they’ve created Project Hieroglyph: “If we want to create a better future, we need to start with better dreams.”
Some of those dreams are laid out in a new anthology of stories and essays, many of which you can now read online. The book features a skeptical foreword by Lawrence Krauss, and a bullish preface by Neal Stephenson. Some comments should be made about Stephenson’s claims regarding the relationship between science and science fiction, but those are for another day. In the mean time, check out the project, it’s well worth your time.
Gabriel Tarde’s The Underground Man (1896)
In the decades before the First World War, End of the World visions were influenced by major scientific discoveries of the 19th century. People became aware that the sun, the earth, and the human species itself were moving on a historical trajectory, one that would come to an end naturally, without any need for some divine entity to drop the curtain. The astronomer Camille Flammarion explored different natural scenarios for the End of the World in his 1893 novel La fin du monde, while H.G. Well’s pathbreaking The Time Machine (1895) described the evolutionary deterioration of humanity and the gradual extinction of all life on earth under a dying sun.
But French sociologist Gabriel Tarde would have none of this cosmic fatalism. In his brief, bizarre 1896 novel, Fragment d’histoire future (published in 1905 in English under the title The Underground Man, with an introduction by none other than H.G. Wells), the extinction of the sun is the best thing that ever happens to us. Living deep underground, cut off entirely from nature, surviving humans have a perfect society where they go about nearly naked in the geothermal warmth, eat synthetic food, and devote all their efforts to happiness and aesthetic achievement. Continue reading
H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895)
With 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
Camille Flammarion’s Omega: The Last Days of the World (1893)
Whether 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