By Andreya S. Seiffert
Abstract: This article discusses the novelette “The Inheritors” by John B. Michel and Robert A.W. Lowndes, first published in the October 1942 issue of the pulp magazine Future Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Lowndes. The article shows the story’s pioneering approach to discussing environmental issues long before this theme appeared frequently in science fiction. The hypothesis defended in this article is that this pioneering was only possible because Michel and Lowndes were part of The Futurian Society of New York. The group was a creative force that operated in the early 1940s and brought a new perspective to science fiction at the time, with the climatic discussion of “The Inheritors” being part of it.
As I write this article, the news I’m hearing this week is quite worrying: flooding in Nigeria, fires in Greece, record deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, which may now be generating more greenhouse gases than it is absorbing. A UN report reinforces what many have long known: humans are the cause of climate change, which is expected to intensify in the coming years.
Climate is a concern for many current science fiction authors, especially in the subgenre known as climate fiction or cli-fi. The purpose of this article is to show how a 1942 novelette, written by Futurians John B. Michel and Robert A.W. Lowndes, anticipated this concern and brought this discussion to science fiction at the time.
Science fiction started to discuss ecological issues mainly from the 1960s onwards, in line with ecological movements. Rebecca Evans points out that this was a two-way relationship, as the environmental movement also relied on science fiction to elaborate their communication strategies:
As environmentalism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, it took shape as a necessarily predictive as well as descriptive ﬁeld. Many of the environmental disasters that activists, writers, and policymakers sought to address were at least partially located in the future, objects of prevention as much as cure. Another way to put this is that, as environmentalism developed, it borrowed from SF speculative strategies in general and the genres of apocalypse and dystopia in particular. Enjoining the public to see in the present the early stages of ecological disaster, environmental advocates produced a variety of speculative writing that, like so much dystopian ﬁction, warned of what was to come.
(Evans, 2018, p. 436)
Thus, in the 1960s and 1970s, the environmental movement sought inspiration in science fiction and science fiction began to debate, increasingly, themes such as pollution, overpopulation, and extinction of species, among others. This does not mean that before that there were no stories that had already covered such topics, but they had been less frequent. Science fiction, as John Rieder points out, has its origins closely linked to colonialist thinking, and is impregnated with such thinking: “I am not trying to argue that colonialism is science fiction’s hidden truth. I want to show that it is part of the genre’s texture, a persistent, important component of its displaced references to history, its engagement in ideological production, and its construction of the possible and the imaginable” (Rieder, 2008, p. 15). If science fiction has addressed environmental issues since its beginnings in the 19th century, albeit on a smaller scale, they often appeared linked to colonialism:
Environmental devastation, species extinction, enslavement, plague, and genocide following in the wake of invasion by an alien civilization with vastly superior technology—all of these are not merely nightmares morbidly fixed upon by science fiction writers and readers, but are rather the bare historical record of what happened to non-European people and lands after being “discovered” by Europeans and integrated into Europe’s economic and political arrangements from the fifteenth century to the present. (Rieder, 2008, p. 124)
Prior to the New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s, science fiction involving environmental issues included, for example, Jules Verne’s Sans Dessus Dessous (1889), E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909), John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), John Cristopher’s The Death of Grass (1956), and Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune. The 2021 film adaptation of Dune is yet another indicator of the urgency of climate issues in our time.
In the short fiction of the ‘pulp era’ of the 1930s, environmental themes were relatively rare. In most of the stories published in pulps, the focus was on scientific and technological advances that would lead to a great future, with little reflection on their environmental impacts. Many stories were about space travel and, although they portrayed other planets, the ecological aspects were seldom highlighted. But there were, as this article will explore, some exceptions.
The early 1940s was a period of intense activity and transformation for the science fiction pulps. In 1941, there were at least twenty-two different titles devoted to the genre. The fan group The Futurian Society of New York, founded in 1938, was part of this moment, and its members were responsible for six different publications: Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl; Stirring Science Stories and Cosmic Stories, edited by Donald Wollheim; and Future Fiction and Science Fiction Quarterly, edited by Robert Lowndes. About the importance of Futurians to science fiction, Brian Attebery points out:
One group, the Futurians, included many of the most important writers in the next generation: Frederik Pohl, Damon Knight, Judith Merril, Cyril Kornbluth, Isaac Asimov and James Blish. Three of those, Blish, Knight and Merril, also became important critics, pointing out logical flaws in sf stories and praising those writers who embodied scientific ideas in compelling narratives. Their efforts, and the willingness of fans to explore new fictional directions, helped transform the genre into something more sophisticated than its pulp beginnings (Attebery, 2003, p. 38).
Through their interventions as authors, critics, editors, and publishers of science fiction — and of course as fans — , the Futurians were able to innovate and reshape the genre of science fiction. Most Futurians published their stories in the early 1940s in magazines edited by the group’s members. The exception was Isaac Asimov, who preferred to publish in Astounding Science Fiction, edited by John W. Campbell Jr. Astounding is perhaps the best-known magazine of the period that later became known as the “Golden Age” of science fiction. But Astounding was far from being the only space in which science fiction was reinventing itself. The Futurians were an immense creative power, as Mike Ashley highlights:
Under Lowndes’s editorship Future Fiction and Science Fiction Quarterly were transformed. This was because Lowndes was able to rely upon his close colleagues in a fan organization known as the Futurians (…). In fact the depth of talent in the Futurians provided a most welcome breath of fresh air to science fiction. Outside of the writers that Campbell was developing at Astounding, they were the most creative force in science fiction (Ashley, 2000, p. 149).
The story that will be analyzed here, “The Inheritors”, was written by Futurians Lowndes and John B. Michel and published in Future Fantasy and Science Fiction (Future Fiction‘s new name), edited by Lowndes, in the October 1942 issue. “The Inheritors” tells the story of a group’s survival in an underground city after countless wars have destroyed the Earth:
The precise spot occupied by the prostrate body had once been a farm in southern Ohio. Once—two hundred years before—it had borne green grass and laughing plants beneath a great, burning sun. The seasons had come and gone, the balmy Spring, Summer, the crisp Autumn, Winter. The land had remained the land. Sweet-smelling, green, drenched in light and sun and air. Southern Ohio. A mighty plain of waving wheat drinking from the warm, wet earth. Earth, damp with clean rain. Earth smelling of earth.
The wars came and changed this land. The metal monsters of guns and armored tanks swept over it and churned it and buried it. The seasons came and went and presently the land bore a new crop—of bones and rotting flesh and fragments of bombs. The sweet air was filled with the roar of cruelly clawed birds, birds that spat thunder and flame and obscured the sun. The rains came again and washed away the earth and exposed naked rock. And then the gas. The gas rolled in from the ocean and the northern lakes and from far above. It covered the land in thick clouds and buried it forever from the light of day and the light of night. It combined with the soil and the rocks and changed them into hissing slime. The people who used the land vanished. They went into the earth in giant steel fortresses and forgot the land and the smell of it and the sunlight and natural air. Because all this had been taken away. After a time they forgot what they were fighting for and fought blindly, fortress against fortress, with weapons mighty and irresistible. Presently nothing was left but a scarred surface and here and there at indistinguishable points, the fortress cities, immense masses of steel and glass, battered, pitted, buried away from even the gloomy ruins of the earth’s surface, filled with complicated machinery that whirred and banged and filled the endless hours with endless roaring, powered by obscure energies, djinns pouring forth hour by hour and day by day instruments of warfare.
Earth was dead—a heaving ball of ooze-covered rock and water, bubbling eternally as the explosive weapons fired from the cities beneath and burst at the surface, aimed nowhere, directed by caricatures of humanity, men with but one intent and one purpose, to fight, to fight, to kill and destroy (p. 55).
The story tries to imagine the physical and psychological consequences of human beings living underground in an endless war, and how these consequences intertwine:
The skins of the fortress people were a ghastly shade of green, except for the rims of the eyes which were dead white. The eyes themselves were completely colorless, the pupils shading into the oyster white of the irises. As a result of the introduction of synthetic food due to the loss of the earth’s surface as source, their whole systems had become enervated and weakened. The physiological processes of life in the human animal had grown sluggish, almost inoperative. They found it impossible to synthesize several of the less important vitamins and were at the complete mercy of what were once minor respiratory infections. The life of the City, apart from its ceaseless production of materials for war, was a constant battle against disease and unconsciousness. Most of them were never completely aware of their environment. A sort of apathy tinged with resignation had gripped them, letting go only now and then to allow them to realize the full hideousness of their position (…) They were too full of poisons and toxins to think very clearly. (p. 57)
The City also suffers from a steady and gruesome loss of its population to “the Enemy.” It is not clear who the Enemy are, nor whether they lurk in the shadows, or are wielding their mysterious lethal force from afar. Apathetic, residents continue to attack the surface, as they have always done, without any clear sense of who or what their target might be. The situation, however, becomes more dramatic every day and the city eventually decides to send representatives to surrender. After finally stumbling upon what they take for the Enemy city, however, they find only a single dying man. ‘“You have won,” he said simply. “I am the last”’ (Lowndes and Michel, 1942, p. 67).
Before he dies, the man relates the final days of this city. His story matches their own — torn apart by a mysterious Enemy whom they cannot find, nor begin to understand.
In the closing passages, one member of the expedition recalls the wars and destruction on Earth, and then elaborates his theory about the identity of the Enemy:
“When I was young,” he began, “I studied such things as history and biology. There was still a little time for learning then.
“This world—outside—wasn’t always as it is now, John. I suppose you realize that, have always realized it more or less. All of us do.
“Once it was clean and beautiful and men lived on it. They didn’t have to go underground because they got plenty of light from the Sun—and heat, too. And the atmosphere was clear. You could see the sky most of the time and when night came, you could see the moon clearly. There are other things up there that you could see, too, and it never really got dark.
“Then the wars came and cities above the ground—that’s where they used to have them—were destroyed, and all the—trees?—yes, trees and other growing things were destroyed, too. I think the color of the growing things was green and the sky was blue. But the wars changed all that. Poison gases of all kinds were dumped into the atmosphere and all over the ground. Bombs of all kinds blew the earth into bits and opened big holes in the earth, letting out more gases. Until at last the surface of the earth was just a big cloud of poison gas and fog like you see now.”
“I was coming to that, John. This is only a theory—a guess on my part, because no one can be sure whether it’s right or not. But I think all this made something happen on earth. It brought into being forces which weren’t there before. And those forces reacted on each other and produced new forces and those in turn set other things going, until a new form of life appeared. A form particularly adapted for just such conditions as these. To this new form of life, all this is natural and clean and beautiful as the earth we once knew—the one none of us has ever seen, John—was to us.
The character says that, just as the dinosaurs were annihilated from Earth, now it’s the turn of humans. For him, this new form of life is still in its primitive form, but he wonders if one day it will be big, “as big as we were in our time,” and concludes melancholically: “I wonder if it’ll wipe itself out with wars the way we did” (Lowndes and Michel, 1942, p. 68). “The Inheritors” builds, therefore, a tragic future for humanity. This scenario begins with wars, goes through the devastation of the Earth, and ends with the extinction of homo sapiens.
“The Inheritors” appeared a few years before the theme of radioactive pollution would come to dominate science fiction. It belongs to an era whose environmental preoccupations are air quality, industrial waste, and war pollution. But according to Stableford and Langford, authors of the entry “Pollution” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, such science fiction (like most of the realist fiction of the time) assumed that progress would be in charge of “sweeping the dirt away”. Even from the 1970s onwards, when ecological issues started to appear more frequently in science fiction, these stories often preferred “heroic, technological resolutions to crises (rather than the open-ended and ongoing process that ecological plots might suggest) (Murphy, 2009, p. 377).
By contrast, “The Inheritors” distances itself from these scientific-technological resolutions. There is an attempt to construct a machine to detect the Enemy; it fails dismally. Nor is there a hero-protagonist who, with his ingenuity, saves himself and others, as was common in stories published in pulps. In fact, there is no real protagonist. The story is written with a third-person narrator and the focus shifts between various characters. The choice to construct the story in this way shows an attempt to express the apathy developed in people forced to live underground. No character stands out, no idea can take them out of the situation they find themselves in. The decision to follow the path of destruction was made long before by others, and they can only continue.
The destruction of the Earth caused by humans was not common in science fiction, as Sherryl Vint comments: “Early sf offered spectacles of disastrous destruction of cities and their populations but — unlike more recent works — did not posit anthropogenic causes” (Vint, 2020). “The Inheritors” was also a pioneer in putting human beings as agents responsible for their own destruction.
As stated earlier, the Futurians sought to renew science fiction. In launching themselves as writers, they moved between genres to create something new and experimental. The group tried to dismantle some old notions about science fiction. For them, it was literature, and like any narrative, it was possible to experiment with it. They even created a sort of writing seminar within the group, as Lowndes reported to Damon Knight:
The Cabal was a literary workshop, really. We met at Cyril’s place once a week, and each one of us was supposed to bring a manuscript to be read (…). And as it turned out, a fair number of manuscripts that were read at the Cabal were later sold and published (…). If either Donald or myself felt a story was good enough to use, we’d accept it on the spot (Knight, 2003, l.1462).
Another Futurian innovation was writing collaboratively. In the April 1940 issue, Pohl had a 10,000-word hole, which his colleagues were willing to fill. Richard Wilson and Cyril Kornbluth made an initial version, which Dirk Wylie “homogenized” (Rich, 2009). The practice of writing together that seems to have begun at Astonishing Stories soon spread to the other pulps edited by the Futurians. Altogether, the Futurians published twenty-two stories together from 1940 to 1942, in the different pulps run by the members of the group. For any literary coterie, this is an extraordinary level of collaboration.
“The Inheritors” belongs to this set of stories written by two or more Futurians. In addition, it also transitions between genres: so much so that one editor, Donald Wollheim, saw fit to include it his 1949 Avon Fantasy Reader anthology and his 1955 Terror in the Modern Vein. Of course, all these genres have their similarities, and are produced in dialogue with each other. It is also worth remembering that science fiction borrowed several elements from other pulps when it started to have a magazine all to itself, from 1926 onwards:
Many contributors to the early sf magazines were experienced pulp writers, not specialists in scientific speculation but adaptable professionals willing to supply the new market with variations on what they had been writing for detective, western or general adventure magazines (Attebery, 2003, p. 35).
The Futurians grew up reading these stories and were inspired by them to write their own. One reader, commenting on “The Inheritors” in the February 1943 issue of Future Fantasy and Science Fiction, is unsure whether to classify the story as science fiction or fantasy. In any case, the story pleased the readers, and in that same issue, Lowndes published the score it got among readers. With a point system ranging from 1 (highest score) to 5 (lowest), “The Inheritors” came in first, with 1.56.
The Futurians cared profoundly about the future, something the group’s name suggests, but they were also constantly shaken by the present. At the time of original publication (October 1942), the world was undergoing the devastation of World War II. Thus, one might think that the authors of “The Inheritors” feared for the future – not just the environmental future, but also the political future of the world. It is worth mentioning here that Michel, Lowndes, and the other Futurians supported the entry of the United States into World War II, in December 1941. The club even published a note in the magazine Future Combined with Science Fiction, edited by Lowndes, in the April 1942 edition:
The Futurian Society of New York declares its unswerving sympathy and loyalty to the great struggle being carried on by four fifths of the population of the Earth, headed by the alliance of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China against the barbarian thrust of the Nazi-Fascist-Japanese Axis. It makes this declaration in the firm conviction that the further progress of science and civilization, upon which the visions and dreams of science fiction are mainly based, is dependent entirely upon an Allied victory. The shape of the Future is being decided on the field of battle of the Present. Science-fiction readers, writers and enthusiasts have no other possible choice but to do all in their power to aid and speed the triumph of civilization over fascism. To this end, the Futurian Society appeals to all other science-fiction clubs, and to publications and readers to issue similar declarations and to do all in their power to help the United States to absolute victory. (signed) John B Michel. Director. (Michel, 1942, p. 34).
This stance surprised many fans, as a few years before their position was precisely the opposite (Moskowitz, 1954). Michel and Lowndes even tried to enlist but were turned away due to health problems (Merril, 2002). So they continued writing and editing science fiction pulps – but not for long. With the entry of the United States into the war, the pulp publishing market suffered a major setback. Before long, the country imposed a war-time rationing of various items needed by magazines (such as paper, ink, and metal movable types). In addition, it became increasingly difficult to find material to publish, as several authors were called to serve in the armed forces. The number of magazines dropped dramatically: “Most of the magazines survived 1942 and a few survived 1943, but few made it right through the war. By 1945 there were only 7 magazines compared with the peak of 22 in 1941” (Ashley, 2000, p. 164). Of the magazines edited by the Futurians, none survived the war. In the following decade, Lowndes returned to editing the two pulps, while Wollheim and Pohl devoted themselves to other projects, and Michel moved away from science fiction.
Recent environmental science fiction has focused, above all, on describing dismal futures due to climate change: “the environmental SF of the last quarter-century has largely employed what Gerry Canavan calls ‘apocalyptic ecological critique,’ approaching environmental issues ‘in almost exclusively negative terms’” (Otto, 2018, p. 581). Thus, the current production connects with the story written by Lowndes and Michel nearly eighty years ago.
As I have tried to demonstrate in this essay, “The Inheritors” anticipated many issues regarding science fiction and the environment. Pollution, caused by human beings themselves, is the reason for their annihilation and no technical or scientific advance can reverse it.
When writing about the future, the Futurians did not intend (or not only) to guess what tomorrow would bring, but, above all, to have an impact on that future. Using time as the raw material in their stories, they sought to shape the present so that the future would go in a certain direction. Thus, many of the representations in their stories were how they believed the things represented should be. In the case of pessimistic stories, such as “The Inheritors”, the formula was the opposite: when describing a completely devastated Earth, the objective was to intervene so that this scenario would never be confirmed. Today, eighty years later, this issue is more urgent than ever. We are very close to the point of no return from climate change; some experts believe we may have already passed that point. We can’t just wait for our bleak future like that of the underground city dwellers in “The Inheritors”; it is necessary to act and fast.
Andreya S. Seiffert has a PhD in Social History at Universidade de São Paulo (Brazil). Her thesis about The Futurian Society of New York is available (in Portuguese) at: https://www.teses.usp.br/teses/disponiveis/8/8138/tde-10032020-155227/en.php Contact: email@example.com
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