Tradition and liberty in science fiction and fantasy: Part Eleven – The origins of SF and fantasy
By Mark Wegierski
In these successive segments, the author intends to move in a generally more “pop-cultural” direction. The author intends to look at numerous further works in the hopes of exploring different possible futures of humankind. The author thinks that the often unconventional character of science fiction offers certain possibilities for the unblocking of conceptual paths, for the transcending of the overly outworn paradigms of various political ideologies.
H. G. Wells
Herbert George Wells is one of the most interesting writers of early science fiction, insofar as his writings were often used to convey his political and scientific opinions. In one of his earliest works, When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), serialized for a British newspaper, he shows an Englishman named Graham waking up in a world where his descendants are locked in a battle against "the trusts." Europe has apparently been subordinated to a world-government, which uses black troops. The story is notable for its prediction of aeroplanes and television. The white workers' revolt is put down with severity in Paris, but London is saved by Graham's self-sacrifice -- plunging his small aeroplane into a large aircraft transporting thousands of soldiers. Wells' politically-incorrect accents are often explained as his deliberate catering to a jingoistic audience, unreflective of his own personal opinions, while allowing free reign for his scientific extrapolations.
His very well known story, "The Time Machine", was among the first "serious" approaches to time-travel. Implicitly, it voiced a quasi-Marxist warning about the division of capital and labor leading to a future of two distinct human species -- the decaying, diminutive Eloi, and the vicious, monstrous-looking Morlocks. This kind of idea may be seen as a kind of paranoia about traditional class-divisions. Ironically, Britain and the entire West were soon to move onto the path of the consumption-society, where physical living standards and comforts rose for almost everyone, but whatever remained of the traditional aristocracy was undermined from its previously important position in society, dwindling to insignificance. The most recent filming of The Time Machine was highly ridiculous. Throwing a real spanner into the works of what may have been Wells’ message, it made the Morlocks into blue-eyed, blonde-haired beasts, and the Eloi into diminutive people of color.
The War of the Worlds, which is among the first of many science fiction works to portray an invasion from Mars, is also a rather dystopic work. Apart from the actual invasion, with the ingenious Martian death-ray machinery, there is a long passage where a man who may have gone insane tells his proposals of how the aliens are to be resisted. The man expresses contempt for bureaucrats and bourgeois, who, according to him, are just waiting for someone to arrange a comfortable but unfree life for them. Having devastated London, the aliens are felled by Earth bacteria, to which they are unaccustomed. The novel certainly displays little of the optimism in humankind, which is said to be a Wellsian trait. One wonders if H.G. Wells’ citing of Divine Providence as the agent of victory is meant to reflect a serious argument about the possible role of divine agency in the fate of our own world.
H. G. Wells also wrote, among many other works, The Shape of Things to Come, which was made into a movie in the Thirties. In it, one finds some of the nastier edge of his "progressivist" ideas, where a group of scientists ruthlessly imposes an "enlightened" order on the planet in the aftermath of a disastrous world war.
An interesting (if far too flattering) portrayal of a young H. G. Wells, occurs in the movie Time After Time. The premise is that H. G. Wells actually builds a time-machine, which the man who is Jack the Ripper steals, escaping to 1970s Los Angeles. Wells is able to follow him. Apart from the chase-plot, there are the humorous (and sometimes harrowing) scenes of Wells coming to terms with what he thought would be a super-scientific utopia. The current-day society is far more to the liking of Jack the Ripper, of course.
Jules Verne is the best known of the early science fiction writers from outside the Anglo-American sphere. His Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a beloved classic. It is interesting that in the sequel, The Mysterious Island, he had originally planned to reveal the identity of Captain Nemo as a Pole – a victim of Russian Tsarist oppression. However, as French-Russian cooperation was increasing at the time, Verne chose to make Nemo a former Hindu prince, who had fought against British imperialism. This is a fascinating example of the influence of politics on literature. Another of the best known Verne books is The Begum’s Millions – which portrays an idealistic French professor endeavoring to establish a democratic utopian community on the U.S. Oregon coast – while a dictatorial German who has inherited the other half of the fortune creates an industrial war center not too far away. The book is quite remarkable not only for its extrapolations of military technology, but also for pointing to the possibility of the emergence of a German figure quite similar to Hitler.
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward
Looking Backward (1888) is an extremely influential portrayal of a utopian socialist society. It illustrates what looks like the strangeness to our current-day society of early socialist ideas. Ironically, Bellamy’s socialist utopia of the future is in some ways far more socially conservative than today’s society.
Another author who should have been mentioned in origins of SF and fantasy (two installments ago) is Olaf Stapledon. Last and First Men (1930) is set over a two-billion year time span, with the rise and fall of eighteen distinct races of humanity. Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest (1935) is a tale of a spiritual and intellectual “superman”. Star Maker (1937) is au audacious cosmological speculation that ranges over 100 billion years. Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord (1944) is a thoughtful tale about a dog with enhanced intelligence, consciousness, and sensibility. Working far away from so-called “pulp SF” Stapledon’s works have been acclaimed as perhaps the most outstanding examples of weighty, highly philosophical SF. His carefully worked out philosophical system defies easy classification.
G. K. Chesterton
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a highly prolific Catholic traditionalist writer, is known for The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) – which portrayed an ordinary person rising up against a tyrannical socialist regime in England; as well as The Man who was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908), a fabulation which has been seen by some as proto-steampunk. His book The Flying Inn (1914) portraying a Turkish Islamic invasion of Britain, has had a certain revival in the wake of current world events.
R. H. Benson
Robert Hugh Benson, an Anglican priest who converted to Roman Catholicism, is known for his well-rendered Apocalyptic novel, Lord of the World (1907), and its sequel, The Dawn of All (1911) – both of which had considerable science-fictional aspects.
The so-called “yellow peril” subgenre
For a certain period in the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth century, various books, serials, comics, etc., based on the premise of the so-called “yellow peril” were rather popular. Among the best known examples of this subgenre was the very long book series, “Fu Manchu” by Sax Rohmer. One of the masters of American science fiction, Robert Heinlein, wrote a novel somewhat related to this subgenre, Sixth Column (1949). In the last few decades, with the emergence of Eastern Asia on the current world scene, this subgenre has been somewhat revived, but on far more sociologically sound principles, and of course far less “demonizing” of the East.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926)
This film, partially based on Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. – Rossum’s Universal Robots – is one of the greatest breakthrough movies in history. R.U.R. was one of the major works exploring the theme of machines escaping out of the control of human beings. The cityscape of Metropolis can now be seen in many, many places in pop-culture. To take only one example, there is the rock-video of the singer Madonna, “Express Yourself!” A second prominent example is the cityscape of Tim Burton’s Batman film series.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
One of the best movies of what was probably the banner year of traditional American cinema (1939), The Wizard of Oz is a very charming children's fantasy, which, because of its spectacular rendering, has become one of the most enduring of American movies, and a frequent reference point. There is a memorable reference to The Wizard of Oz in The Matrix, just before Neo is about to leave the virtual reality for the first time.
H. P. Lovecraft
Although Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s writing is usually considered to be among the best horror – rather than SF or fantasy -- ever written, he should be mentioned as an enormously influential figure. Lovecraft offered a bleak vision where enormously powerful, inhuman, monstrous entities (such as Cthulhu after which the entire, so-called Cthulhu Mythos has been named) are fated to sweep away puny humans “when the stars are right.” It’s possible to interpret Lovecraft’s writing as giving voice to a very eclectic kind of traditionalist pessimism. In his voluminous correspondence, Lovecraft not infrequently expressed racialist viewpoints, although he was personally polite to everyone whom he came into contact with. Lovecraft is an excellent example of how a troubled, highly introverted person was able to achieve truly great art through sheer willpower and creatively building on his various personal obsessions and nightmares (both those of his sleep and waking life).
E. R. Eddison
Eric Rucker Eddison is best known for his heroic high fantasy work, The Worm Ouroboros (1922) set entirely on a completely fictional “Mercury”. It is similar in spirit to the Norse sagas, and crafted with a very ornate, archaic writing style.
Mervyn Peake is known for his series of books called Gormenghast, published in the 1940s to 1960s, which have been described as a fantasy of manners, now sometimes called “mannerpunk”.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.