The overlap between science fiction and other genres

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8 May 2008


The overlap between science fiction and other genres
Andy Sawyer
Thank you for inviting me to talk here.

Many people listening - certainly those on the panel - have read exactly the same books about the history and definition of sf as I have; in some cases will have written them. So I'm not going to talk in depth about sf's history or start defining it, though I'm going to flirt with both. Those who know what I'm talking about when I say "cognitive estrangement" can take a break for a few minutes. I will try to be brief.



1 - We all know sf when we see it

SLIDE 1 - "ODD JOHN".

BUT

we disagree about how to classify it.

Brian Aldiss considers Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) to be the first novel that we can unambiguously point to and call science fiction.  Adam Roberts pushes the beginning-point further backwards, suggesting that the moon-voyage in Lucian's True History, or medieval imaginary voyages - what Peter Nicholls in an influential essay called "Proto-science fiction?" were much closer to "true" sf than we tend to think, and that the Reformation and the Enlightenment had a lot to do with setting the parameters for what we call sf. Others are more particular. Gary Westfahl, in Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction suggests that the man responsible was Hugo Gernsback, who first used the term "science fiction". (Or rather he didn't, but the man who didwasn't actually talking about science fiction.) Gernsback certainly published the first magazine dedicated to science fiction, or at least the first in English. Except that he didn't call it "science fiction".

Are we confused, yet?

All this is very interesting, and we can certainly argue that we can point to something which we can call science fiction (if we agree who "we" are in the first place). But even if we take on board literary-critical discussions about "hybridity" "permeable boundaries" or "fuzzy sets", I think assuming that we have to assign a particular literary text to a named genre works only in so far as we take on board that we're engaging in ideological argument as much as literary classification. And it certainly doesn't help in any informed discussion. When a major British author writes a science fiction novel and tells us that she hates science fiction, but that her next project is going to be a children's book about a robot, there's a problem somewhere. I want to start by thinking about classification, and suggest that something might be really quite close to sf when on the surface it isn't. Then I will move on by taking a quick look at the one moment in time when you can point to something which we might call science fiction and consider it as a genre (at least from the viewpoint of sharing specific conventions of content), and move to the point where people started recognising it, and asking whether whatever it was that they recognised could be called genre anyway.



1a - Classification

As a librarian, I'm interested in classification, but the classification of knowledge is tricky. Those of us who grew up with British Public Libraries will be familiar with the Dewey Decimal Classification - a fine attempt to organise the entire body of knowledge.



[SLIDE  2 - DEWEY SUMMARY]

Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) devised in the 1890s the system of dividing knowledge into ten classes (technically, nine, from 100 (Philosophy), 200 (Religion), 300 (Social Sciences), 400 (Language), 500 (Science), 600 (Technology), 700 (Arts and Recreation), 800 (Literature) to 900 (History and Geography). A separate category 000 (General or Miscellaneous) picks up entire bodies of knowledge, such as those built around computing, which are difficult to slot into a system which basically assumed that we knew more or less everything.

The result was that "Miscellaneous" was cunningly renamed "Computer science, information & general works". You can see the logic in this; the progression in the DDC sequence moves from the general (great wide all-encompassing things like Encyclopedias and the Internet), through Religion and Science to the particular (History, which of course is about specific things like dates). We can see that there's an interesting science-fiction Fourth Dimension aspect to this whereby Geography (space) is essentially subordinate to History (time), but we can also see that it's curiously associated with what we as human beings (and human beings living in a particular subset of that great classification 900) think is central to us.

Classification of literary types (genres) is similarly complicated.

It is MORE than allocating a space in a sequence on the shelves for a book on a particular subject.  There is the (sadly apocryphal) story of how D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was dismissively reviewed by a country sports publication because it didn't say much about actual gamekeeping. What we call genre is as much commercial marketing as literary taxonomy, and genre comes and goes with public taste. Most general (rather than specialist literary-historical) reference to Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, for instance, would nowadays use the language of the detective novel or draw attention to its relationship with colonialism rather than use the apparently more nebulous term "sensation novel".

Many of the basic tropes of sf - artificial intelligence, time travel, faster-than-light travel - are certainly scientific extrapolations but also re-invent in terms of the modern, technological world basic folk-tale motifs: the demon or golem, the dream-vision, the magic carpet. We've got some useful theoretical models by people like Rosemary Jackson (Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion) and Tzvetan Todorov with his tripartite spectrum of the marvellous (where the supernatural is seen as a distinct "other realm" of angels, devils, gods and fairylands as real as the world we live in, the uncanny in which a rational explanation is eventually given (so, for instance the ghost I see or the alien that abducts me is a projection of my own psychological state) and between them the fantastic, the region of hesitation between the two that submits to no explanation at all, but the actual practice of readers and writers seem shut out of the dialogue here.

I want to contend that instead of trying to "fix" sf we recognise, in practice,  that it is usually something else as well as sf - which is one of the reasons why discussing what sf is, is so thorny - or so interesting. There is, for example a wide range of sf/fantasy romances (see http://www.specromonline.com/index.cfm?pg=1). I was tempted to say that this is a kind of marketing expansion into new territory for the romance until I delved a bit further and found some very familiar names, like Anne McCaffrey and Catherine Asaro. I think it very possible that many readers of this category will be reading it for reasons entirely other than the reasons I'm going to (at least subliminally) attribute to people who think of themselves as predominantly science fiction readers. However, I think it very probable that many readers of the sf romance will be reading it because they a) like romances and b) like science fiction rather than because they simply want soap operas in space rather than Brighton.


2 What do we do when we sf?

[SLIDE 3 - What do we do?]

Paul Kincaid recently published a book entitled after one of the essays in it, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction. In it, he considers the "family resemblances" between the various sub-divisions of the kind of fictions we claim fall under the banner of sf. This is not a misheard plagiarism of that (although it may be a knowing homage). I want to explore sf as a process, and how this makes things messy when we consider it as a discrete, single entity.

Darko Suvin's comment on pastoral on p. 9 of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction is interesting. Suvin is talking about his definition of science fiction as

[SLIDE 4 - COGNITIVE ESTRANGEMENT]

"a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alter­native to the author's empirical environment."

Vargo Statten's SF Magazine  may not be the best example of how this process is done, but if we examine the cover of the April 1928 Amazingwe get some idea.

[SLIDE 5-CLOSEUP OF Amazing April 1928]

The eye - of the reader, or perhaps the writer - is full of a set of images which can be considered as the "march of humanity" from primitive days towards the freedom and liberation science and technology brings. Close observers will note that these wonders are virtually all weapons of war. Science fiction, according to Suvin, is a way of contemplating and interrogating these wonders, using, in a large part, cognitive models drawn from the very subject it examines. Other literary modes - myth, fantasy, the folk tale, horror - possess what Suvin calls "estrangement" or the positioning of the world of the fiction in a world which is not, and not meant to be, ours. But only sf (Suvin argues) uses this positioning as a means of understanding (cognition), reflection and arguing. Folktale and fantasy

 "use imagination . . . as an end sufficient unto itself and cut off from the real contingencies".

Being a third son and therefore bound to win the princess in a folk tale is a wish-fulfilment fantasy, not an engagement with the question why poor sons of woodcutters never actually get princesses, or why there are woodcutters and princesses at all. Fantasy and horror, and ghost stories, are even less congenial to sf. The introduction of magic or the supernatural to the real world undermines what seems to be the fundamental sense that the sf world is the real world in some sense: that its laws are, or are extrapolated from, our laws. In other words, there is a connection between the real and the imaginary- this is an imagined future, an imagined place in our universe, an imagined (alternative) history. We are here and we can imagine not only there but how we got there. It's not altogether clear why the formal distinction (an imaginary location like the planet Mars can be used to comment upon our world) is, necessarily, so separate from the generic distinction (if Mars, why not Middle-earth?). Why should fantasy be "cut off from the real contingencies?" Although it's arguably the case (in formal terms) that an imagined future such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars is a different use of the imagination from an imagined past such as Tolkien's Middle-earth, while a ghost story that "explains" its spooks might well be an interesting sf story but will not, usually, chill us.

It's safe to point out that Suvin has somewhat modified his views here. [see "Considering the Sense of 'Fantasy' or 'Fantastic Fiction'"inExtrapolation 41 (Fall 2000)] A fantasy where someone engages with the laws of thaumaturgy, as in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station or (for satirical effect, any of Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" fantasies involving Ponder Stibbons and the wizards of Unseen University) is closer to this definition of science fiction than a spaceships-and-aliens shoot-em-up likeStar Wars.

And Suvin specifically notes something that puzzled me for a long while: that "The pastoral, on the other hand, is essentially closer to SF . . . This approach relates to SF as alchemy does to chemistry and nuclear physics: an early try in the right direction with insufficient foundations."

This seems very odd, but, I think it is (broadly speaking) right, and if we unpick it, it suggests something about what sf does and why something like this

 [SLIDE 6 - Shepherd's Calendar]

Has a family resemblance to this.

[SLIDE 7 - ROBOT]

The pastoral as writers like Spenser and Philip Sydney developed it, building upon Classical Greek and Roman models, seems wholly unlike even proto-sf. Pastoral is full of homespun shepherds competing with other to see who could create the most tuneful love-songs, poignant laments, and witty attacks on rivals for the hand of a fair shepherdess, but both its poets and its readers saw it as essentially allegorical. We can  look beyond Arcadia and its rival lovers to the real world of Spenser's or Sydney's England and the detailed and specific controversies over the shape of the Church, or the duty of the Monarch to the Realm. Suvin says that pastoral's "imaginary framework of a world without money-economy, state apparatus, and depersonalizing urbanization al­lows it to isolate, as in a laboratory, two human motivations: erotics and power-hunger."  The pastoral writers or readers are not interested in the kind of things that interest the science fiction writer or reader - technological and social change, knowledge and understanding - but they are doing the same thing:

"isolate[ing], as in a laboratory".

Suvin's model of pastoral as an "early try" towards the science fiction mode seems a bit like praising stone age shamans for prefiguring modern theories of climatology in "Thunder god" myths. But I do think he is correct in suggesting that pastoral is in some way operating in a manner later to operate in many forms of science fiction. Pastoral and sf (and fantasy, despite Suvin) operate in a number of parallel ways. Among them are the use of an imaginary or "estranged" setting, the presence of a set of thematic and verbal conventions which the reader is well aware ofas conventions, a detailed attention to language especially language which evokes highly visual responses (what Wolfe calls the "icons" of sf ).

These are areas of literary thought-experiment.

SF is something that happens in a literary text when one or more stimuli are present. It is a process. A verb, even?

Suvin's title - Metamorphoses - is important.  I have a suspicion that few readers of the book ever get beyond "cognitive estrangement", but the implication of the title is there, always, as a reaction to something that happens to a greater or lesser extent in the world. It's dealt with using specific literary techniques - here, those of the realistic novel and various narrative modes rooted in the late 19th century - but also increasingly, despite Suvin's obvious unease, those of what for convenient shorthand I'll call post-Tolkien fantasy.   There is some fascinating late 17th/early 18th century sf if you look for it, including Kepler's Dream  written in 1630, Bishop Godwin's The Man in the Moone (1634), and Cyrano de Bergerac's L'Autre Monde (1657), plus Russen's Iter Lunare (1703) and Defoe's Consolidator (1705).

Allan Chapman's Gresham College talk of October 2004, "The Jacobean Space Programme - Wing, Springs And Gunpowder: Flying To The Moon From 17th CenturyEngland" sets the background to this and is a useful introduction to that great man Bishop John Wilkins of Chester.

The pastoral writer, though, is not interested in creating new versions of Arcadia, on the earth or the moon and I think this is an important difference. I want to illustrate this difference by looking at something which I hope doesn't overlap too much with the later discussion of 19thcentury sf, because I think it leads us into what I mean by my subtitle.


3. The Woman Who Built Science Fiction

[SLIDE 7 - THE MUMMY]

In 1827 an interesting thing happened. A young woman named Jane Webb, recently orphaned and hoping to earn a living through literature, published "a strange, wild novel" called The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century.

The action begins in 2126. England has gone through numerous political changes and is now Catholic in religion and ruled by a despotic Queen. The complicated plot involves an invasion from Ireland, the strange electoral politics by which the next queen is to be chosen, and the revived mummy of the Egyptian Pharoah Cheops, who acts as a kind of moral chorus to the events of the story.  Central to the argument for suggesting that this weird Gothic romance is a science fiction novel are three factors.

First, it is set in the future. This itself is innovative: at that time fiction set in the future was rare. I. F. Clarke's The Tale of the Future gives 1664 as the first date in which a "future-fiction" was composed, and it was well into the second half of the 19th century before such fictions became anything like commonplace. The techniques of the historical novel need to be developed before we explore the future: the pastoral is not a territory of the past.

Second, the revival of Cheops' mummy is not (as might possibly be expected) by supernatural means, but through "new technology": specifically electric current from a "galvanic battery".

And third, the recent technology of ballooning is extrapolated into the normal mode of transport.


[SLIDE 8 - BALLOONS]

The first flight in a hot-air balloon was in 1783. By the early 1820s, the popular press was printing images showing how this new technology would appear in the future. Jane Webb would probably have seen some of these. Almost certainly, she would have read a novel published the year before The Mummy! appeared:  The Last Man, by Mary Shelley, the author of a much more famous novel, Frankenstein (1818). In The Last Man Shelley had also written about a future England where ballooning was common:

[It is the year 2073, and the narrator is concerned with the health of his friend Adrian in Edinburgh.]

"this very hour I will engage a sailing balloon; I shall be there in forty-eight hours at furthest, perhaps in less, if the wind is fair." (Last Man)

By page 24 (of the abridged version of The Mummy) we hear the Duke of Cornwall ordering "get a balloon ready and let us be off directly!" More so: Edric, who has ambitions to revive the dead, is planning on travelling to Egypt by balloon.

In her introduction, Webb presents her account of the 22nd Century as an answer to her search for literary novelty. "[T]he deep mine of invention cannot be worked out; there must be some new ideas left, if I could but find them," she writes; to be answered by the spirit of her inspiration offering a "Chronicle of a future age." Writing the future is something unknown, untried:

"I read your thoughts,"[says the spirit] "and see you fear to sketch the scenes of which you are to write, because you imagine they must be different from those with which you are acquainted. This is a natural distrust: the scenes will indeed be different from those you now behold; the whole face of society will be changed; new governments will have arisen; strange discoveries will be made, and stranger modes of life adapted"

This - the idea that the future is very much a legitimate area of literary speculation, and that the future will be very different indeed from the present - is the heart of many forms of what we now call science fiction.

But there's more to it than that. The creation of artificial life by means of passing electric currents through dead tissue is, of course, the means by which Victor Frankenstein created his "monster". Furthermore, Frankenstein's creature acts as commentary upon humanity's moral failings in very much the same way as does Cheops in The Mummy!

If, as some have suggested, the crystallisation of science fiction is the point at which one can point to other, similar works, then 1827, the year of a novel which bears such remarkable and obvious homage to Mary Shelley, must be that point. Here, if anywhere, sf becomes a genre.

Although The Mummy! did not make Webb's fortune, it changed her life. In 1830, a reviewer and landscape architect named John Claudius Loudon asked to be introduced to the anonymous author of the novel that had so impressed him. Shortly afterwards, they were married, and Jane Loudon became a best-selling author of handbooks on gardening and horticulture. It is tempting to speculate, however, what would have happened if she had remained a writer of popular speculative novels. Could she have been an earlier version of H. G. Wells? Or would The Mummy! with its acute summary of the very nature of science fiction, have remained a one-off?

This idea presented to the readers of Shelley and Webb - that FLIGHTwould be the new mode of transport of the future - was taken up towards the end of the 19th century. I think that this idea of flight as a kind of shorthand of "the future" is one of those rather obvious ideas that we accept without fully understanding what an interesting notion it is. It certainly is a kind of shorthand for the series of quite fundamental changes in the social order opened up by, say, the coming of the railway in Europe and America. At the beginning of the century, Mary Shelley and Jane Webb with their balloons were suspecting this ; by the end, writers of scientific romances like George Griffith's melodramas, The Angel of the Revolution (1893) and Olga Romanov (1894) or Kipling's "With the Night Mail" (1905) had much clearer and much less cosy suspicions of what might happen.

Without going into great detail, I'd like to argue that the whole series of flight narratives starting with Shelley and Webb, and stopping by Edgar Allan Poe's satires of the craze like "Hans Pfaal" and "The Balloon-Hoax", we get a kind of default imaginary otherworld which is getting very close to the way twentieth century science fiction assumed well before the fact that space travel was possible. Both are kinds of Arcadia, in which we can set questions which trouble us, but once again, the SF view of Arcadia is one of fascination with the possibilities set up by constructing it. Arthur C. Clarke's Prelude to Space , for instance, isn't about predicting space travel, but it is about encouraging the idea. There was no doubt, by the end of the 19th century, that powered flight was going to happen and it would change the world  - indeed quite a number of writers had, well before the success of the Wright Brothers, anticipated Arthur C. Clarke and the British Interplanetary Society in assuming space travel as well.

Wells pulled many of these images together. "I suppose they have flight", wonders the protagonist of The Sleeper Awakes (1910: originallyWhen the Sleeper Wakes, 1899). Wells's career generally can be seen as a matter of establishing the ground rules for science fiction, even though quite a number of its exponents, arguably including Wells himself, seem unwilling to be identified with it.

In the introduction to the 1933 collected Scientific Romances, Wells refers to fantasy rather than anything like "science fiction" as the central "mode" within which he is writing. His stories are not meant to be "possible":

"They belong to a class of writing which includes the Golden Ass of Apuleius, the True Histories of Lucian, Peter Schlemil and the story ofFrankenstein [which Wells actually misreads here]. . . .  They are all fantasies . . . they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream."

But he also went on to write

"For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader to play the game properly, he must help him in every possible unobtrusive way todomesticate the impossible hypothesis. He must trick him into an unwary concession to some plausible assumption"

Words like "hypothesis" and "plausible", and phrases like "an ingenious use of scientific patter" are keys to how Wells is considering this relationship between science, or the scientific method, and fiction. Wells's insistence upon a "rigorous adherence to the hypothesis" is perhaps what he is flagging as new, even though he firmly places what he is writing as part of the tradition of literary fantasies used as satire. Science, especially the biological implications of evolution and the political metaphors which arise from that, gave Wells and others a whole new range of subject matters and literary devices.


4 - The Man Who Took SF Apart

However, what we call science fiction had other roots. Technically, thefirst science fiction magazine appeared in 1923.



[Slide 9 - Science and Invention]

Hugo Gernsback was a Luxembourger who emigrated to the USA in 1904 and became involved in the then cutting-edge technology of Radio. He founded the magazine Modern Electrics in 1908 and became interested in the vast range of science-oriented fiction which was being published in the magazines of the time. Originally, he devoted his own magazines to far-fetched speculation about new technologies like television, but became more and more interested in the way fiction could explore how the world would be changed by these technologies.


[SLIDE 10 - AMAZING NO 1]

Gernsback's launch in 1926 of Amazing Stories, the first English-language magazine specifically devoted to what he called "scientifiction" (scientific fiction) and later "science fiction", was well overdue "there were already magazines devoted to Detective Stories, Westerns, Railroad Stories and Weird Tales, as well as general story magazines likeArgosy. As a niche market, sf was seemingly late in finding its niche: many of the specific genre magazines published stories which we would now call sf, suggesting, possibly, that what we call sf is more than just a simple category but a way of thinking which goes beyond category. By the beginning of the 20th century readers of popular and serious fiction alike were well prepared for speculations about powered flight, life on other worlds, the social implications of mass technology and urban living, and evolution through biological or mechanical manipulations. Why bother to hive this off into a marketing category, when we didn't seem to need a specific genre category for fiction influenced by the implications of current science and technologies'

But this Gernsback did, partly through a belief that this would prepare his readers for the best of all possible worlds - one in which everyday life was transformed through the appliance of science while remaining resolutely the same in essentials.

[SLIDE 11 - AMZ EDITORIAL]

In the editorial of the first issue, Gernsback wrote "By "scientifiction" I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story - a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision . . . " and went on to claim instruction as perhaps the most important quality of these fictions:

An engraving of "Verne's tombstone at Amiens portraying his immortality" heads the contents page.  "Extravagant Fiction today . . . Cold Fact Tomorrow" is the masthead of the editorial promising a "new sort of magazine": a magazine that will entertain, instruct and, well, amaze.  "[T]hese amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading-they are always instructive. They supply knowledge . . . in a very palatable form." 

This sounds like "science fiction as easy learning", and it's easy to misunderstand. Gernsback's defenders have noted that he stressedinspiration - the visionary quality of his authors" stories. His detractors have called this a mere marketing ploy to make readers of his magazines - or their parents - feel good about gosh-wow adventures.

Naive - even cynical -  Gernsback may have been but he was not altogether wrong. In the emblem for science fiction he published on the cover of Amazing, September 1928 a series of cogs link "fact" and "theory" against a symbolic universe to create "scientifiction".  The "symbol for scienctifiction" printed on the front cover of AmazingSeptember 1929 and, in logo form, in several subsequent issues, showed us what Gernsback understood by the term: fact and theory (science and fiction) linked by cogwheels into the imagination of the writer, whose pen gives us the apotheosis and summary of this mechanism; "scientific fact and prophetic vision".


[SLIDE 12: AMAZING SEP 1928]

There is a sense in which this hybrid kind of fiction links the two cultures of Humanities and Sciences.  It does this in a number of ways:

by being in some ways about the sense of wonder instilled by contemplation of the physical universe,

by suggesting that it's somehow understandable and that we can play literary games with our understanding of it,

by use of thought-experiments

and by extrapolation.

But the biggest problem is how - in literary terms - it does this, and  Gernsback, and subsequent editors and writers, found this a problem.

Gary Westfahl says that Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C41+ , serialised 1911-12 in Modern Electrics was "the first conscious attempt by an author to write science fiction." (Westfahl, Extrapolation, Summer 1994, 113)  Gernsback, according to Westfahl, in his Amazing editorial and other writings, some way identified a kind of writing which hadn't so far been described.


[SLIDE 13 - Ralph 124c41+]

Even its strongest defenders would not deny the limitations of this early form. Notable features of Ralph are its wooden style and clumsy plotting. Aldiss (Trillion Year Spree) calls Ralph a "tawdry, illiterate tale". Despite the claims that he was describing the future, Gernsback's technology is almost indistinguishable from magic. The point of the story is to show off marvels with a little melodrama and romance to keep the reader reading. The girl is in trouble but Ralph's know-how saves the day. Gernsback slows down to describe the various inventions: the "Language Rectifier," the "Telephot", the  "Teleautograph" (fax?). There is weather control.  Ralph is a gadgeteer, an engineer rather than a speculative scientist. This is technology rather than science.

The final chapter has Ralph bringing Alice back to life. He needs the "rare gas" Permagatol but there is none. Naturally, he invents a substitute. "The gas he evolved was Armagatol . . ." (181) You might just as well write, "And then we were saved . . ."

The climax here is the power over life and death, the same theme asFrankenstein;but unlike Frankenstein there is no agonising over its morality. The science is equally glossed over, but Mary Shelley is perhaps deeper involved in the scientific background to her story.  What exactly does this teach about science? Does Gernsback even consider questions of ethics?

The fact that Ralph 124c41+ is a serial, very possibly composed without any overall sense of structure other than a desire to show what could be done and entertain readers with marvels, is key to its failure as a novel. Westfahl writes  "Ralph fails to satisfyingly fulfil any of the generic models - melodrama, travel literature, the gothic novel, the utopia, and satire - that it draws upon . . . Nevertheless, Ralph is an exciting book." (p 112).

 It had the value of novelty, of "attempting to combine features that had never been combined before and achieve goals that had never been attempted before." "[L]ike a mechanic, Gernsback had taken apart the engine of science fiction to see what made it work - but he could not put it together again." (Westfahl, 93) The story, says Westfahl, involves prediction, the utopia and the travel tale, melodrama/horror and scientific education and entertainment; the problem, for Gernsback and for science fiction, was to balance these often competing elements and make them work. He tried again with Amazing Stories.



Consider the stories in Amazing no 1.

The cover (by Frank R. Paul), which appears to show a party of fur-clad skaters against twin mounds of ice topped by sailing-ships, over which ringed Saturn looms, illustrates Verne's "Off on a Comet" (aka Hector Servadac).

The names of Verne, Poe, and Wells were prominent inside and outside. Verne's story is one of his comparatively few space stories although, as we read in the introduction, "the author here abandons his usual scrupulously scientific attitude" as he gives us the story of how a comet knocks a piece off the earth, flies it and its inhabitants around the solar system, and replaces it again. Wells's "The New Accelerator" is a "scientific romance" in the original sense of the word - a playful speculation on how we might vary our perceptions of one Wells's favourite subjects. Time. A drug speeds up the protagonist's perceptions. Amazingspent the next couple of years reprinting Wells, and although he was well-known already the result was that he was - and still is - central to the sf field. The Poe story is one of his best. "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" fuses genuine sf and horror as the narrator describes an experiment to see if hypnotism can carry consciousness beyond the point of death.

None of the other three stories are well-known, although two at least are worth remembering. Austin Hall's "The Man Who Saved the Earth" is an interesting take on the "Martian Invasion" theme, set in a "period of Utopian quietness" but its verbose and rather pompous style means that you have to work hard at discerning the (perhaps unintentional) coldness at its heart. G. Peyton Wertenbaker's "The Man From the Atom" (written, apparently when the author was 16) deserves notice for its Wellsian impact. Clearly influenced by The Time Machine it tells of an invention that shrinks or grows the subject so that he is travelling through the macrocosm - solar systems on our scale are atoms on a vaster one. Returning, the traveller finds that time on our scale has shot by and he is stranded in the future. George Allan England's "The Thing From Outside" is a horror tale about a mysterious being in the Canadian wilderness which references Charles Fort to good effect. It manages to come both within Hugo Gernsback's definition of the speculative ("everything in the universe is a natural force") and argue with it ("But how about thingsoutside the universe?")

The most interesting thing about Amazing no 1 is the fact that there are no original stories in it. True, Gernsback is making a point in featuring the three "giants" so prominently, but the other three stories are all reprints, two from Gernsback's own Science and Invention and the third ("The Man Who Saved`the Earth" ) from All-Story. Imagine launching a new magazine today consisting entirely of fairly recent reprints! Gernsbackwas trying to break a new market, and to many of his readers all if not most of these stories will be being read for the first time. Nevertheless it's this as much as his rather earnest justification for charming romance, scientific fact and prophetic vision all stirred together which strikes you when you read the magazine. Gernsback was saying, it seems, "Look, here's what I'm talking about. It's a new form taking shape. Let's have some more!"

There's also a definite mixture of generic forms. The Poe story is, perhaps the more obviously an "overlap" story : it's frequently published as a horror story, with its reliance upon classic images of horror centre around mortality and the body, but Mesmerism is a genuine if fringe science and the idea of hypnotising a dying man has an appalling fascination. "The Thing From Outside" is also horror. "The Man From the Atom" and "The New Accelerator" are scientific romances focussed around the excitement and intrigue of an idea, something also to be found in the Verne story. The utopian element in "The Man who Saved the Earth" reminds us that there is a fourth name in Gernsback's editorial, Edward Bellamy, author of the late 19th century utopian Looking Backwards. But would we be able to find a common denominator in these stories if they had not been brought together in an accident of publication'

What we now call SF, the histories tell us, crystallised out of several genres, including the general adventure romance re-interpreted under the influence of the era of inventions. We see the result of speculations about the future, but but also influence of other modes such as the 'lost race' sub-genre, and especially another "new" genre, the detective story in which a savant also discovers the truth about the world.  The Detective - Edgar Allan Poe's Monsieur Dupin, or Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, is the person who finds things out, who solves a mystery. From Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood  and

Wilkie Collins The Moonstone we get a vast range of stories which are completely generic, in the sense that we know exactly what to expect, but also demand to receive it in the dress of novelty. We have stories in which the detectives are medieval monks, classical Romans, contemporaries of Ben Jonson, cats, or robots - the tone or plot of the traditional detective story is perhaps the most obvious area of overlap with science fiction.



BUT - by the time Gernsback identified a new kind of writing - Poe, Verne, Wells, it was already impure. What we recognise as SF starts in the blender, as a mixture, and it continued so.


© Andy Sawyer, 2008

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