Yesterday’s Technological Tomorrows?

By Paul Kincaid

A review of Futures of the Past: An Anthology of Science Fiction Stories from the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, with Critical Essays, edited by Ivy Roberts. McFarland, 2020, 196pp. 978-1-4766-7810-8.

For a literature supposedly intent upon the new, the inventive, the futuristic, science fiction seems inordinately interested in its own past. I am as guilty as anyone of this, which may be why I notice the phenomenon so much. But the question is: what are we looking for in the past, and (a very different question) what are we finding? Generally, the past is assumed to hold the key to where we are now and what we might become. That, however, is far from always being the case. The history of science fiction is extraordinarily full of false trails, dead ends, U-turns, twists, side tracks, abrupt changes of direction, and so on. Somehow, where we are today emerged out of the mess of what we once were, but in retrospect the route is neither clear nor consistent. Simply diving willy-nilly into the science fiction of days gone by, shining a light at random onto a story over here, a novel over there, offers no clue as to how or even if those writings are connected. And it offers even less of a clue about the evolution of what came after.

That, in a nutshell, is my problem with this latest selection of hoary tales from the dusty and neglected by-ways of science fiction’s infancy. Or rather, since the various contributors seem wedded to Gary Westfahl’s bizarre argument that true science fiction only came into being with the launch of Amazing Stories, this is science fiction from before there was science fiction. There are seven stories and three novel extracts gathered here, the earliest of which was written in 1826 (though not published until 1863), and the most recent published in 1923. Ten pieces of writing drawn from near enough a century of science fiction, each accompanied by an introduction (to call them “critical essays” as the subtitle does is, to my mind, to over-inflate their role); there should be enough here to forge a narrative, give us a perspective from which to consider where we come from and where we might be going.

Ivy Roberts, in her introduction to the volume, assumes there is such a narrative. These stories, she says, engage readers “in modes of questioning historical fact and future knowledge … [and] … demonstrate the peculiar ways in which science fiction merges historical-cultural contexts, speculations on the future, and facts from science” (2). In so far as this tells us that stories emerge from the cultural context in which they were written, and reflect, in the case of science fiction, a range of contemporary thought, whether an (often imperfect) grasp of the state of scientific knowledge or speculations on what the future might hold, this in fact tells us nothing, or at least nothing that isn’t common sense. It doesn’t come close to summarizing the story this volume is meant to tell us about the evolution of science fiction. In its all-encompassing academic-speak, it doesn’t even come close to fitting each of the fictions gathered here.

There are broader narratives to be traced through the various stories gathered here, though they are not always apparent from the critical apparatus that accompanies them. I was surprised, for instance, at the frequency with which ideas of suspended animation crop up in these stories. It is there right at the start of the book in “Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman” by Mary Shelley. Shortly after the publication of Frankenstein (1818) she had begun writing “Valerius: The Reanimated Roman”, but the story was never completed and today only fragments survive. Then, in June 1826, a French newspaper, Journal Du Commerce De Lyon, published a report that the frozen body of an Englishman, Roger Dodsworth (born 1629), had been found in the Alps and subsequently restored to life. This report was picked up by a London magazine, The New Times, and subsequently a host of other British newspapers. The hoax gained quite wide currency and, given the interest in reanimation evinced by her earlier aborted story, it must have been irresistible to Shelley. She was one of a number of writers who produced humorous and satirical responses to it. Her piece was submitted to New Monthly Magazine in 1826 but not published, though the editor held on to the story until after her death and included it in his semi-autobiographical Yesterday and To-day in 1863.

There is a lot to be explored here. One assumes that the idea of being frozen and then brought back to life must have had some currency before being employed in a hoax by an obscure regional newspaper in France (or are we to suppose that the Journal Du Commerce De Lyon gave birth to the whole notion of cryogenics?). There was, of course, a tradition of tales about people who have fallen asleep for an extended period, and Shelley, who had likely read Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), acknowledges this when she insists that “Mr. Dodsworth did not sleep” (19). Shelley saw, therefore, that the story of poor Roger Dodsworth was doing something new, though how new is a question that must be asked. Just as we must ask what was the relationship between Valerius and Dodsworth, and how close Shelley’s version of Dodsworth adhered to the original hoax (we know that Shelley carefully set her story further in the past than the French paper did, but we don’t know if that was the only difference). We also don’t know why the editor of New Monthly Magazine chose not to publish a new piece by the famous if, perhaps, still anonymous “author of Frankenstein” when just about every one of his rivals was using the hoax as a springboard for satire; but why, having rejected it, he then held on to the piece and published it nearly 40 years later. All of these key questions are passed over in silence in the story’s introduction by Joanna Harker Shaw.

Where Shaw does, briefly, shine is in her account of the satirical content of the story. Dodsworth has remained invisible since his rescue; as Shelley rather caustically puts it: “We have since heard no more of him, and various plans for public benefit, which have started in philanthropic minds … have already returned to their pristine nothingness” (18). This gives Shelley the freedom to imagine the conversation between Dodsworth and his rescuer, Dr Hotham. Dodsworth, she imagines, was a Royalist who was travelling in Europe to escape the Cromwellian republic, and therefore is now anxious to hear of the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Hotham is a high Tory for whom, after the rebellions of 1715 and 1745, the Stuarts are traitorous. Thus, although both men are conservative in their politics, each sees the other as a radical or a Republican. It is a clever conceit, though perhaps one whose relevance is less apparent the further we are from the intricacies of Stuart and Hanoverian politics. What is evident, however, is that the focus of the story is entirely upon the past and the present, the future intrudes not one iota. Indeed science, given that no attention is paid to how Dodsworth might have survived or been revived, is similarly absent. And on a meta level, it is hard to say that this story contributed in any way to the future evolution of science fiction.

Other than that little-feted original appearance, Shelley’s story was virtually unknown until the revival of interest in her work in the 1980s, so it is unlikely to have played any part in the development of the science fictional idea of cryogenics. But the idea won’t go away. It crops up again in 1879 in Edward Page Mitchell’s story, “The Senator’s Daughter”. Like Shelley’s piece, this is a satire, its target the racist opposition to Chinese immigration in America at the time. So, although the story is futuristic (Mitchell’s stories were full of extraordinary innovations, including teleportation, time travel and the telephone, generally deployed in a jokey way), the focus is, as with Shelley, resolutely on the present. We are not expected to believe in the technology, except as a vehicle for the satire.

The story concerns a Congressman of “pure Mongolian ancestry” (57) who falls in love with the daughter of a very conservative Senator, though interestingly the Senator is from Boston, not the South as he would inevitably be if this story were written today. But apart from the political advance of Congressman Wanlee, while Mitchell’s future may be technologically advanced it is socially regressive. A father, if he objects to his daughter’s choice of husband, has the legal right to subject her to suspended animation by a “frigorific process” (69) that is seriously debilitating since the body cannot take in food but still needs sustenance (a twist on cryogenics I don’t recall seeing elsewhere). Fortunately, Wanlee is a passionate advocate of the idea that all living things must be respected. He goes beyond being an extreme vegetarian who even contemplates the possibility that animals may be given the vote, and advocates the same freedom for vegetables, hence he eats only pills. This would become a characteristic of much mid-century sf, though I doubt very much that the idea has grown from this particular story. The daughter pulls the rug from under her father by going voluntarily into suspended animation, having first eaten a load of Wanlee’s pills to sustain her.

“The Senator’s Daughter” was published anonymously in the newspaper that Mitchell edited, and the story wasn’t more widely known until it was rediscovered by Sam Moskowitz in the 1970s, so again in evolutionary terms it is a dead end. But the idea of cryogenics persists, like some Victorian fever dream. For Shelley it marked a journey from the past into the present; for Mitchell it was a way of putting the present on hold; the next time it occurs in this volume, however, it really does take us far into the future.

The most significant occurrence of suspended animation we are presented with here comes in a novel, In the Deep of Time, by George Parsons Lathrop, based on ideas he and Thomas Edison had concocted some years before for a novel that never happened. Serialised in several American newspapers beginning in December 1896, it tells of a young man at the end of the 19th century who, broken hearted at the failure of a love affair, takes part in an experiment in cryogenics and wakes up several hundred years in the future in an apparent utopia. The story was republished in the UK in the spring of 1897, just two years before H.G. Wells published When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), which tells of a young man at the end of the 19th century who is heartbroken at the failure of a love affair and falls asleep only to wake several hundred years in the future in an apparent utopia. Ivy Roberts makes no mention of Wells in her introduction to this extract, though the coincidence of the two works suggests either that this was an idea that had at last found its time, or that there was some sort of connection between the two, either of which should merit some exploration.

Of course, Lathrop (with Edison) was not writing about suspended animation, any more than Wells was. It was simply a conveyance, a way of moving a character from one time to another, so that 19th century eyes could report to 19th century readers on the many technological marvels of the centuries to come. Like the traveller who finds himself in Thomas More’s Utopia, or Mark Twain’s Court of King Arthur, the journey doesn’t matter, only the destination. But the nature of that journey persisted, resurfacing yet again in the extract from H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook (1919). Haggard is, to be honest, less interested in suspended animation than any of the other authors that feature it in this book. For him, it is, as it is for Shelley, a way of bringing the past into the present, but he has no interest in the disorientation of one age viewing another. This novel, as Riccardo Gramantieri points out in what is one of the better introductions in this volume, “follows the same generic adventure plot found in She and its sequels” (138). In those earlier books, Haggard had drawn on theosophy and spiritualism to explain his immortal queens, but here he replaces that with the scientific wonder of the age, radium, in a rather perfunctory nod towards the scientific romance. In other words, what Gramantieri isn’t quite saying is that set dressing is all it takes to earn a place in this collection. An old man and a beautiful young woman are found perfectly preserved in a cave on a remote island, and what is this arranged under their bodies in the caskets? Why, it’s radium. Okay, that explains everything now on with the familiar romantic tale he has told so many times before.

Setting aside Haggard’s careless handwaving, that is still four out of ten stories that involve suspended animation in one form or another. What this might say about scientific ideas or aspirations throughout the nineteenth century, whether it is coincidence or continuity, goes unmentioned. And despite the fact that three of the contributors have written introductions to two separate stories, Rob Welch, Riccardo Gramantieri, and Ivy Roberts who also edited this volume, there is no cross-referencing, no themes are picked up and traced through the volume. Perhaps no-one even noticed that four of these stories involve suspended animation.

What does get remarked upon is Radium. Marie Curie’s discovery in 1898 marks, for B.F. Ruth’s narrator in “In 1999” (1921) looking back from the end of the century, “the actual conception and birth of the principles upon which today’s science is founded” (166). More precisely, before the deleterious effects of radiation became generally known, radium was where science and magic seemed to unite. It was the wonder substance, used or at least advertised as being in medicines, cosmetics, toothpaste, cocktails, and a host of other products. For pulp writers at the time, it meant that any amazing effect could be pulled out of the hat, and by dropping the word “radium” it became science. Ruth’s story, the only one he ever had published, takes the form of a public address looking back on the scientific achievements of the twentieth century from 1999. It is typical of the optimism that radium induced, assuming the problems of the age would be solved by technological innovations, though, as Ivy Roberts points out in her introduction, many of these innovations were drawn from “the pages of Gernsback pulps” (155). The story is not very well written, and is virtually unknown to anyone who doesn’t spend their lives scouring the pulp magazines of the 1920s. Like the Mitchell, it is probably an evolutionary dead end, and given that it is hardly breaking new ground or using sf for original effect, and there were many other stories of technological optimism doing much the same thing, often better, one can only wonder why it warrants a place in this collection. But, like the Haggard before it and G. Peyton Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom” (1923) after it, it drops the magic words, radium and radioactivity. The avidity with which the introductions to these three stories fix on the idea of radioactivity suggest that the lock-step of science fiction and technological advance is the real focus of the book. 

Except that that doesn’t even apply to these three stories. Haggard’s novel, like all of his work, is backward-looking, romantic, and uses technology as little more than a form of magic. Ruth does little more than catalogue the technological innovations that emerged from the pages of Hugo Gernsback’s magazines. While the best of the three, Green Peyton Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom”, really pays little attention to technology, but instead takes an idea that had appeared and reappeared since at least Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens” (1858) and dresses it up with notions taken from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the revelations of the structure of the atom. The narrator is fitted with a device that will allow him to grow exponentially, and as he expands into space his perspective constantly changes. He sees the planets spin around the sun like electrons around the nucleus of an atom. Then, as he grows ever larger, other solar systems come closer and closer, until they resemble elements, and he eventually realises that he is swimming in the sea of another reality. But when he reverses the process, he can no longer locate the Earth because temporal relativity meant that the few subjective hours of his journey had been the equivalent of the entire life cycle of our solar system.

Just as these three stories from the so-called “Radium Age” dispel any notion of a necessary relationship between science fiction and the technological future, so the same applies throughout the rest of the book. We are not talking about a consistent or coherent vision of science fiction, technology, or the future, anywhere in this book. There are visions of a technological future. For instance, Beth Atkins argues, in her introduction, that Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” (1845) should be read as “an allegorical journey exploring the 19th century scientific imagination” (26). Scheherazade has run out of story ideas to keep her husband intrigued from one night to the next, and thus, incidentally, to keep herself alive. So she begins to describe wonders from 19th century science couched as strange encounters on a voyage by Sinbad, only for her husband to lose interest and kill her in the end. Atkins argues that Scheherazade transforms “scientific facts into mystical fictions” (33) and so fails because she hides the clarity of science under the shroud of the occult. Which is a reasonable argument, except that she tries to support this by quoting another critic, Jerome Denuccio, who suggests rather more convincingly that Scheherazade fails because the marvels of her tale “lie outside the compass of the king’s experience” (quoted, 34). Atkins doesn’t seem to notice that this is the opposite argument to her own; where Atkins argues that the science is occluded, Denuccio is saying that the science is too clear. Reading the story I’m inclined to side with Denuccio – the man who “directed the sun to paint his portrait” (46), for instance, is having a photograph, or more accurately a daguerreotype, taken – though I can’t help feeling that the trigger for the king losing his temper is that Scheherazade doesn’t actually tell a story, but rather presents a litany of extravagant and ridiculous encounters.

Both Lathrop’s novel, so intent on the Edisonian inventions it describes that the narrator is more interested in the character of the weapon used against him than the threat it poses, and Ruth’s litany of Gernsbackian devices, read like a more rational version of Scheherazade’s last tale. But all three suffer from the same problem: they are not stories. To recite one device after another is to avoid the things that keep us engaged in reading any fiction, drama, character, and the like. They are not even visions of the future. Every extravaganza that Scheherazade recounts is already in the past of the author, Poe; every technological development featured in the talk by Ruth’s narrator was to be found in the speculations of Gernsback’s magazines; every marvel encountered by Lathrop’s narrator has been dreamed up by Edison as something that Menlo Park might turn its attention to. And these are the three stories that most closely align with the technological future.

Several of the stories gathered here display no notion of the future. Haggard and Shelley, for instance, both look to the past as the lens through which to regard their present. And while the extract from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s At the Earth’s Core (1914) does feature a new device, a vehicle for penetrating the ground, it is no more the subject of the story than suspended animation is the subject of the stories by Shelley or Lathrop. As in those works it is simply a conveyance to carry us from the author’s present into the landscape of the story. And that story, as in so much by Burroughs, is a retreat to the primitive and romantic past.

“Runaway Cyclone” (1896) by Jagadish Chandra Bose similarly takes no view of the future, but rather presents differing perspectives on the present. The story, first published in 1896 (as “Niruddesher Kahini”), revised and expanded in 1921, but not translated into English until it appeared at Strange Horizons in 2013 in a translation by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, is generally reckoned to be the earliest Bengali science fiction story. It is very possible, therefore, that unlike so many of the stories in this anthology that seem like evolutionary dead ends, this story did play a significant part in the history of science fiction, at least in the history of Bengali science fiction. Unfortunately, the introduction, by Christin Hoene, while being amusing about the origins of the story (it was written for a short story competition sponsored by a manufacturer of hair oil and the rules dictated that the hair oil must feature in the story), tells us nothing about the story’s position within Bengali science fiction. Did it kick start science fiction in Bengal? Or was it ignored? Did it prove influential on the Bengali sf that followed? Or did Bengali sf take a completely different path? We will never know. The brief introduction to the story’s first appearance at Strange Horizons, by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh, at least provides a context by demonstrating that there was already a significant body of science fiction in the sub-continent even if not previously in Bengali. 

The first part of the story presents a Western, scientific perspective as a potentially devastating cyclone is detected approaching Calcutta. But the scientific minds are mystified when the cyclone fails to materialise. In the second part of the story we switch to the ordinary, practical perspective of an Indian traveller on a boat caught in the path of the storm. Remembering the saying about pouring oil on troubled waters, he empties his bottle of hair oil into the rough seas, and the storm is immediately calmed. It is a sharp and witty tale that pokes fun at Western science in a way that seems antithetical to the technological perspective that this book seems to propound. 

Then there is “Moxon’s Master” (1899) by Ambrose Bierce, for my money the best story in the book. When he republished it in his 1962 anthology, A Century of Science Fiction, Damon Knight called it a robot story; in his introduction here Rob Welch insists it is an AI story. I think they are both wrong. The story harks back to the so-called “Mechanical Turk” and other chess-playing automata of the 18th and 19th centuries, and in particular to Edgar Allan Poe’s exposé, “Maelzel’s Chess Player” (1836), which revealed that the device was operated by a man concealed within it. This resemblance to Maelzel’s device prompted E.F. Bleiler, in 1985, to argue that Moxon’s device was itself a hoax, a suggestion that Welch rejects on the grounds that the unknown operator would therefore have committed murder, and also that the clues to suggest there is an operator are “rather too obvious to be taken at face value” (105). I am not inclined to reject such a reading simply because it is too obvious, particularly when the alternative is to suppose, as Welch does, that the device is an early AI. I am not sure that murder committed by AI is any less troubling than murder committed by a human operator.

Bierce is very clever in the way he plays with ambiguity throughout the story. At one point Moxon asks, “is not a man a machine?” (108) moments before he says that his machine “lost its temper and cut up rough” (110), so it is difficult to determine whether the language is being applied to a person or a thing. And even at the end, moments before the device kills Moxon, the narrator observes the device shrug, a gesture shocking because it was “so entirely human” while at the same time he hears the unmistakable “whirring of wheels” (114). That is why it is impossible to agree with Welch just as it is impossible to agree with Bleiler, because Bierce made his device both human and non-human, and there is no way of distinguishing between the two. It is, in a way, a story about technology, but it is at the same time anti-technological. And it is, need I add, a story in which the future is once more absent.

You can take this volume as a rather random selection of early science fiction, some good (“Moxon’s Master” and, rather to my surprise, Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom” stood out for me), but most, frankly, indifferent. But that is not how this volume is presented. There is, supposedly, an academic underpinning to the work, an insistence, both in the title and in the various introductions, upon ideas of the future and of technology, both of which are largely absent from the majority of the contents. I could not discern the historic or critical infrastructure for the specific selection of these stories, and the various introductions, many of which are scanty or presenting arguments for which the subsequent story is its own counter-argument, failed to convince me that there was a point to the book. And little details, such as the fact that the first three introductions each adopted completely different protocols for quotations, made me think there was a carelessness in the assembly of the book. There is interesting stuff here, but in the main it is not what we are presented with.

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Paul Kincaid is the author of many works of SFF criticism, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014). He has received the Thomas Clareson Award and has twice won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award, most recently for his book-length study, Iain M. Banks (2017).

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