Apocalypse 1912: Salvation Through Faith in Science

Garrett P. Serviss’ The Second Deluge (1912)

Servissamazingstories21912 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.

Noah’s Ark is of course one of the great biblical apocalypses, and it has inspired all sorts of SF disaster stories. The Second Deluge sticks very close to the traditional formula: 1) A disaster is foreseen by a prophet, 2) Most people are unwilling to accept the reality of threat, 3) A small group prepares an ark in which they escape.

In this case, the prophet is an independently wealthy, iconoclastic New York scientist named Cosmo Versál. Versál has collected data that convinces him that the earth is about to pass through a watery nebula, which will flood the earth up past the tallest Himalayan peaks. Versál tries to warn the world and is of course laughed off by the establishment. He prepares an unsinkable ark out of a special metal alloy called levium, which is the only material that will withstand the the rigors of the flood. Versál distributes his engineering designs for the ark for free, hoping that others will follow his lead. But of course they don’t. The flood comes, New York is drowned in a dramatic scene, and only those in the ark survive – with a few exceptions.

Wonder_Stories_May_1934Brian Stableford described this type of early, pulpy SF as “a zygotic fusion of European scientific romance and American other-worldly exotica, lightly leavened with casually extravagant tall tales of scientific miracle-making.” It’s an apt description: The Second Deluge is little more than an SF tall tale, and it features a scientific miracle-maker of the sort that would later be familiar in the classic works of A. E. Van Vogt. The characters have goofy names: there is the somewhat wise, somewhat foolish U.S. President Samson, the arrogant wealthy businessman Mr. Blank, the doubting Professor Pludder, the believing Professor Moses, and of course Cosmo Versál (‘the entire cosmos’).

Everyone and everything in this book is a caricature. Versál, our scientist Noah, is almost never wrong, except in a few minor things. The science moralizing here is equally simple. Those who accept and believe in science are saved, and those who don’t largely perish. Versál makes a selection of 1000 chosen ones to join him on the ark (along with all of the animals of course), and they are the ones who will repopulate the world.

There is even a repentant scientist, who at first fails to believe, but is later saved when he comes around. Professor Pludder is a scientific adviser to the U.S. President. Once Pludder gets over his stubborn pride at being upstaged by a non-establishment scientist, he puts his brilliant brain to work and manages to save the President and his family.

As fiction, The Second Deluge is forgettable and boring. But its theme makes it a landmark in the post-apocalyptic genre. As far as I know, it’s the first SF deluge novel, with successors that include great works by Fowler Wright, John Wyndham, J.G. Ballard, and Stephen Baxter. More importantly, it’s an early version of the ark in science fiction, which in the 1930’s took the shape of a rocket ship – in Wylie and Balmer’s much better treatment of this theme, When Worlds Collide.

The idea that only a handful of humans can escape the coming disaster raises an important question: who gets on the ark? In the asteroid collision movie Deep Impact, the U.S. Government decides to save a core group of scientists, soldiers, engineers, artists, etc. who can rebuild civilization in the aftermath. Cosmo Versál does much the same thing, but his concerns are more explicitly eugenic, rationalized by the incorrect idea that society’s one thousand most talented people will breed a race of talented children.

Shortly after The Second Deluge was serialized, the smaller-scale but very real catastrophe of the Titanic occurred. The people involved faced some of the same survival decisions as the characters in Serviss’ book. This real-world tragedy showed just how dissociated Serviss’ fantasy vision of super-science and survival was from the actual limits of science and the complexities of human psychology.

The pulp magazine era was about to begin, and although this era produced many of the great classics of the genre, it was also, as Brian Stableford writes of the era, “from this point that the collaborative work of horizon-expansion, social extrapolation and moral re-sophistication which has been the labour and triumph of modern science fiction began anew.”

Read more entries in my post-apocalyptic science fiction series, and my other science fiction reviews.

This review is part of Vintage Science Fiction Month. Head on over to the Little Red Reviewer to read more reviews of great early science fiction for the entire month of January.

Image credits: Amazing Stories cover, November 1926 by Frank R. Paul, via The Pulp Magazine Project, Wonder Stories May 1934 cover by Frank R. Paul, via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

2 thoughts on “Apocalypse 1912: Salvation Through Faith in Science”

  1. I tried to read Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+… Found it really really awful. Burroughs is much more readable.

    Fun review.

    Also, I don’t know if you know but Stableford has published a MASSIVE series of out of print French SF novels (often from this era and before). Perhaps if you ever wanted to delve outside of the US/UK in your exploration of the SF apocalypse…

    1. I agree, Burroughs is definitely better than Gernsback. On a prose level, Serviss writes much better than Gernsback, but he struck me as more bland, without much imaginative vigor. I’m not really a huge fan of American pulp in this era, but I committed myself to work through this chronologically, for better or for worse.

      I only recently heard about Stableford’s efforts, when I saw that he also produced a translation of J.-H. Rosny’s The Death of the Earth. (My edition is by a different set of translators.) I’m eager to read more Rosny – and also find more foreign-langauge apocalypses. So far I’ve got three French and one Belgian author under review – and no Germans or Eastern Europeans.

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