After a brief Introduction, two essays deal with: 1/ “The Alternative Island,” from Morus to the planetary novel, and 2/ “The Shift to Anticipation,” i.e. from space to time, from the French revolution up to Wells. The text is taken from a first pagination of the 1979 book MOSF and has mistakes.
1/ This chapter 5 of MOSF analyzes “The Sociopolitics of Happiness: More’s Utopia and its SF Context”, mentioning also its roots in Hellenic and medieval writing; “The Dissociation of Play and Truth: Rabelais to Bacon”; a section on the satirical planetary romance of Cyrano and Swift, and its lesser followers, and an overview of the fantastic voyage from Marivaux through Voltaire and Diderot to the great Restif.
2/ This chapter 6 of MOSF is divided into “Radical Rhapsody and Romantic Recoil”. The first part analyses the blueprints of Saint-Simon and Fourier, the poems by Blake and more at length Percy Shelley. The second part analyzes Mary Shelley’s two novels, some minor writers, the opus of Poe, and Melville’s “The Bell Tower”.
Introduction to Older SF History
Let’s be realistic – let’s demand the impossible.
Anonymus Sorbonensis (May 1968)
The history of science fiction, as the genre is defined in the first part of this book, gives rise to a number of significant and fascinating problems, which can in the present state of our knowledge be rather identified than resolved. One problem is the appearance of what seem to be temporal groupings or clusters – periods with a noticeably higher frequency of SF texts, separated from each other by gaps with a statistically significant lower frequency of SF texts. I am, alas, incompetent to even enter into tribal and extra-European narrative traditions (such as the Chinese one) and their independent but rich histories.1 But the Euro-Mediterranean tradition alone, of which this second part wishes to give a partial and abbreviated overview, consists – so far as we can now tell – most probably of six clusters: the Hellenic one (from folk myths and legends reactualized in Aeschylus and Aristophanes to Plato, Theopompus, Euhemerus, Hecataeus, and Iambulus), the Hellenistic-cum-Roman one (from Virgil to Antonius Diogenes and Lucian), the Renaissance-Baroque or Columbus-to-Louis-XIV one (ca. 1500–1660), the cluster of the democratic revolution (mainly 1770–1820), the fin-de-siècle cluster (ca. 1870–1910), and the modern SF cluster in the last 50 years or so. In the meantime, in periods of absolutist practice and world view – be they Ptolemaic or Newtonian – the subversive tradition of SF was driven underground (for example, the oral literature, apocrypha, and heretical writings of the Middle Ages) or into exile (French SF between the Fronde and the Encyclopedists; or the “lowbrow” and juvenile magazines and novels of the century after Frankenstein, from which
Verne, the utopias grouped around Bellamy, and Wells emerge as volcanic
1 See Simon in Bibliography III A, and Bauer, Chesneaux, and Nuita in
Bibliography III B.
archipelagos from an ocean). Not all of this is quite clear, because SF (if one agrees to this name for the genre grouping alternative historical worlds) has been a suppressed and neglected, often materially and most always ideologically persecuted tradition: it is hardly an accident that except for conservatives such as Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Plato its first two clusters survive only in fragments and references, or that from Kepler, Francis Godwin, and Cyrano to Mark Twain its texts often had to be published posthumously.
Thus both modern and older SF are only now beginning to be identified in scholarly bibliographies, and it is possible we will fend out that its historical frequency is perceptibly higher. Nonetheless, I do not believe that new data will substantially affect the basic cultural hypothesis of a coherent literary tradition of SF as part of a popular literature that (like many forms of humor and “obscenity”) spread through centuries by word of mouth and other unofficial channels, and penetrated into officially accepted, normative, or “high” Literature and Culture only at favorable historical moments. (For example, evidence is emerging about the possibly high incidence of utopias and marvelous voyages in the period 1660–1770, but when these works were not rendered more or less harmless by the author’s timidity, as in the cases of Paltock or Fénelon, they were forbidden by the authorities, as in the cases of Foigny or Vairasse.) However, those works which did break through the surface of officially recorded and recordable “higher” culture almost by definition had to be significant; their resonance and echoes were certainly sufficient to establish an apparently tenuous yet potent and lucidly self-conscious intellectual and formal tradition. Plato, Lucian, More, Rabelais, Swift, Diderot, Verne – writers who succeeded in breaking through because of superior personal talent, or cunning and luck in finding an interstitial political time and social space in which to go public, or (usually) a combination of both factors – are therefore not merely among the fountainheads and transmitters of that tradition. Even more importantly, in view of the largely suppressed SF tradition, the achievement of each such major writer not only has to but also legitimately can indicate and stand for the possibilities of a largely mute inglorious epoch. (In this book, the first two European clusters will be dealt with only obliquely, through their effect on the Renaissance.) No doubt this perverts somewhat what “really happened” in cultural and literary history, but no more so than any historical investigation, dealing, as
Introduction to Older SF History 107
it must always, with a choice from whatever data have survived rather than wie es eigentlich gewesen (how it really was). An ideal history – especially a history of culture – would have to be a geology, interested perhaps as much in the hollows produced by absence of data as in the fullnesses produced by their presence, or a geography of the ocean depths as much as of the visible islands. I confess that this book is not such an ideal, although I propose to suggest how SF, sustained by subordinate social groups with which it achieves and loses cultural legitimacy, is like an iceberg showing only a fraction above the silent surface of officially recorded culture, and how the islands limn not only themselves but also the oceans from which they grow.
It could be argued that SF always fuses the old rhetorical trope of “the impossibilities” (impossibilia) with the equally venerable notion of the wishedfor country into a new and fertile form in which autonomous worlds are opposed to the author’s empirical environment and its norms; and that, historically, at least the initial impulse for SF comes always from the yearnings of a repressed social group and testifies to radically other possibilities of life. Nonetheless, the different historical functions and purposes in the various clusters have molded the SF tradition into different subgenres. Its central watershed is around 1800, when space loses its monopoly upon the location of estrangement and the alternative horizons shift from space to time (however this shift might be curbed by ideological hesitations about a truly different future). Some reasons for the shift to anticipation have been brought forward in chapter 4, and its meaning will be further discussed from the beginning of chapter 6 on.
5. The Alternative Island
The really philosophical writers invent the true, by analogy….
Honore de Balzac
1. The Sociopolitics of Happiness:
More’s Utopia and its SF Context
1.1. In the first part of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) a long discussion of England’s social ills culminates in Hythloday’s famous passage on the destruction of the medieval peasantry:
“Your sheep,” I answered, “which are usually so tame and so cheaply fed, begin now, according to report, to be so greedy and wild that they devour human beings themselves and devastate and depopulate fields, houses, and towns. […] there are noblemen, gentlemen, and even some abbots, though otherwise holy men, who […] leave no ground to be tilled; they enclose every bit of land for pasture; they pull down houses and destroy towns, leaving only the church to pen the sheep in […] [trans. G.C. Richards, ed. Edward Surtz]
This description, embedded in so acute an analysis of what nascent capitalism means to the people that Marx quoted it in Capital,is a masterpiece of indignant humanist sarcasm. The noblemen who rage like earthquakes razing entire districts, the holy men who are brutally indifferent to their spiritual flock and leave churches standing only as profitable sheep-pens, the land which is no longer communal tilling ground for a stable yeomanry but a private enclosure for rich landlords who throw tenants out onto the roads to beg and rob, and finally the erstwhile meek sheep which have now turned into man-devouring beasts – all this, couched in the careful verisimilitude of a traveler’s report from exotic countries, amounts to a picture of a world upside down being born in the shambles of the natural one. Rejecting all partial and reformist solutions to such radical evils, the second part of Utopia will therefore present a radically different model of sociopolitical life: a country that governs itself as a classless extended family. That country – whose punning name means a good place which is (as of now) nowhere – is an England recreated in a more perfect shape. It is an island of the same size and subdivision as England, but round instead of triangular; it has the same natural resources, pegged to an economy based on agriculture, but it is a just and happy country because it has abolished private property in land and other means of production. Instead of the monarchic pyramid in which power flows from the top down, it is, at least in principle, a democratic centralism that acknowledges no political elite, with a power pyramid established from the bottom up. Where Europe slavishly worships obscene war and gold, Utopia despises both; while it sometimes has to fight wars, it uses gold for chamber pots and slaves’ fetters. It lives a distributive, egalitarian, preindustrial communism; much like tribal societies, or medieval villages, monasteries, and guilds, it is federalist and patriarchal. Its organization is of a piece with its way of life, the best example being the network of mutually equidistant halls where daily meals are an occasion for pleasurable communion in both physical and spiritual nourishment. Hythloday’s review of such “laws and customs” in Utopia is a model of clarity and forcefulness, which answers the objections of his dialogue partners (including a “More” manipulated for self-protective irony) simply by taking to its logical end the gesture of pointing. It finds this “best state of society” based upon the pursuit of an ultimately ethical pleasure attainable only in a social order with a truly collective economy and culture. Happiness for each reached by economic justice for all is the final goal of a possible social organization – a startlingly subversive idea.
Utopia is thus the reaffirmation of a world consonant with human nature. This “new island” at the antipodes puts the upside-down monstrosity of European class society back on its feet: the estrangement is a dealienation. Yet a static human nature working itself out in a family model – both concepts taken from medieval Christianity – makes for a certain clogging rigidity of relationships in Utopia, in contradiction to its fundamental ideal of a higher Epicureanism. The Utopians possess slaves (criminals and war prisoners), an official religion (albeit mostly deistic and tolerant of all creeds but not – unforgivably – of atheists), and barbarous provisions against adultery. Also, the representative democracy is tempered by a permanent rule of the Elders, the family fathers, and of the learned. Together with a proper subsistence-economy concern for husbanding resources, this subordinates freedom to an egalitarian balance, enforced where necessary by stringent measures (for example, travel restrictions). For all its dry wit, there is an air of schematic blueprint, of groundplan without adornments, about More’s picture of Utopia. But finally, it is an open-ended narrative (the Utopians accept Greek learning and show interest in Christ’s collectivism), the first picture of an egalitarian communism with a relatively well-defined tolerance.
1.2. More’s Utopia subsumes all the SF forms of its epoch (and consequently fulfills the same function as Wells does for recent SF history). It fuses the permanent though sometimes primitive folk longings for a life of abundance and peace with a high-minded intellectual constructs of perfect – that is, communist-human relations known from antiquity on: it translates the Land of Cockayne and the Earthly Paradise into the language of the philosophical dialogue on the ideal state and of Renaissance discovery-literature as reinterpreted by More’s unique blend of medieval collectivism and Christian humanism. These forms have been discussed in chapter 3, but a brief recapitulation will point out the specificity of More’s synthesis.
Cockayne, the land of peace, sloth, and plentiful food – motifs well known already in antiquity, and constituted into a special country and topos in the Middle Ages – is already an inverted world which relates to earthly human needs, and like utopia proposes a strictly materialist solution. It can therefore be transformed into utopia by relying on human intervention instead of on a magical parallel world, and all utopias, beginning with More, will retain their abhorrence of human degradation by war, toil, and hunger. Next in the family of wondrous lands are the Islands of the Blessed at the limits of the ocean. Found already in tribal tales, Chinese and Mesopotamian legends, and Homer, such an Elysium was originally a place of magical fertility and contentment to which the blessed heroes were admitted in the flesh. In the Middle Ages such locations in far-off mountains (like the Himalayan Uttara Kuru, the echoes of which spread from China to Europe) or seas (for example, the Celtic legendary islands of sensual beauty) came to be conflated with the Earthly Paradise. It is situated in this world, and before rewritings for religious purposes its inhabitants were simply more perfect humans, endowed with happiness, health, youth, and immortality. Echoes of such folk legends are heard in Dante’s account of Ulysses’s final heroic voyage toward the Paradise Terrestrial, on which he is drowned by a jealous God intent on preserving his monopoly over the right of passage. In fact, Dante’s Comedy incorporates in its astrophysical and metaphysical universe almost all the SF elements transmitted to More through the Middle Ages, when – after Augustine of Hippo’s Civitas Dei – “the utopia is transplanted to the sky, and called the Kingdom of Heaven.”1 The Comedy subsumes discussions of several ideal political states, traditions of damned and blessed places, the search for the perfect kingdom, and Dante’s own superb vision of the perfectly just City of God.
More was well aware of such subgenres as the Earthly Paradise, but he rejected their location outside history and took at least the first major step toward instituting in the alternative island a historical rather than a magically arrested time. Bidding also “a curt farewell” to the mythical conservatism of a Golden Age of happy forefathers, he resolutely located Utopia in an alternative but humanly attainable present, momentous exactly because nonexistent among Europeans. As in Plato’s Republic (which looms large in the background of More’s work), human destiny consists of men and their institutions; but, in direct opposition to Plato, the just place can result from a heroic deed like King Utopus’s cutting off the “new island” from the tainted continent. Men’s norms and institutions are not the province of religion and magic but of sociopolitics, and time is measured in terms of creative work. That is why Utopia differs radically from Plato’s curious combination of caste society and ruling-caste communism. Plato’s dialogue develops an argument for a timelessly ideal (today quite anti-utopian) blueprint, set up in order to escape popular, monarchic, or imperfectly oligarchic government. More’s dialogue dramatically unfolds an actually
1 Lewis Mumford (Bibliography III A), p. 59.
present state of classless self-government. More lacks all sympathy for both Plato’s erotic communism and his caste system. As for the notion that a just state depends on a community of goods, More was much closer to the early Christian Fathers and peasant insurgents – like John Ball – who extolled communism than he was to Plato. Besides, this notion was so widespread in Hellenic literature before and after Plato that Aristophanes could mock in Ecclesiazusae (The Assemblywomen) a female attempt at instituting egalitarian communism without money and toil, and in The Birds a Cloudcuckooland where “everything is everybody’s” and things illegal in Athens or on Olympus are deemed beautiful and virtuous. All such references – characteristically surviving only in fragments or rebuttals – speak of a setup where:
… all shall be equal, and equally share All wealth and enjoyments, nor longer endure
That one should be rich, and another be poor.
[Ecclesiazusae,11.590–91, trans. Rogers]
Such an omnia sint communia is from that time forth the constant principle differentiating consistent utopian literature from the established society.
When Hythloday is introduced to “More” he is compared to Plato, but also secondarily to Ulysses, the hero of wondrous voyages to the island of Circe, that of the Phaeacians, and so on. The genre of imaginary voyage,as old as fiction, was the natural vehicle of the Earthly Paradise and utopian tales, though it often led simply to entertaining worlds whose topsyturviness was only playful and not also didactic. But it could also lead to just peoples in happy lands at the limits of the world, from Hyperboreans to Ethiopians, from Plato’s Atlanteans to Euhemerus’s Panchaeans (and in the Middle Ages from Mandeville’s Sumatrans to the subjects of Prester John). The most significant and nearest in spirit to More is a fragment by lambulus (ca. 100 B.C.) about the equatorial Islands of the Sun where the usual magically fertile nature enables men to live without private property and state apparatus, in a loose association of communities. In such joyous work as picking fruit each in turn serves his neighbor. They practice erotic communism, eugenics, and euthanasia (at the age of 150); the sciences, especially astronomy, are well developed but the liberal arts are more valued as leading to spiritual perfection. Writing at the time of the great Mediterranean slave and proletarian revolts, lambulus presents a plebeian Hellenic negation of the warring empires, the privatization of man, and the division of labor. His happy islanders live in the fields, under the open southern sun; and his account of their radical collectivism (found by a voyager-narrator later expelled for his harmful old habits) is the best that has even fragmentarily survived from the host of similar tales.
Such tales were renewed by the great geographic discoveries: Hythloday is also introduced as a participant in the voyages of that Vespucci who had lent his name to America and set Europe abuzz by describing the “perfect liberty” of the natives’ tribal communism and epicureanism. Thomas More transformed all such strange new horizons, with their potent dissolving effects on class society, into a systematic verbal construction of a particularized community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and personal relations are organized according to a more perfect principle than that prevalent in the author’s community (as I argue in chapter 3 that literary utopias should be defined). This estranged place is presented as an alternative history: whoever its author, however he twists utopian cognition, it always flows from the hope of repressed and exploited social classes, expressing their longing for a different but this-worldly other world. Sudden whirlpools in history which both further and permit its appearance in literature – the times of lambulus, More, Fourier, Morris, or indeed our own – have therefore the makings of great ages of SF. For utopias, being social-science-fiction, the sociopolitical variant of the radically different peoples and locations of SF, are the sociopolitical subgenre of SF.
More’s greatness resides thus not only in ethics or prose style. Utopia supplied the name because it supplied the logically inescapable Ur-model for later literary utopias: a rounded and isolated location articulated in a panoramic sweep showing its inner organization as a formal, ordered countersystem which is at the same time utopia’s supreme value. The coming about of the new order is explained by a new social contract; in More’s age, the contract-maker is usually a founding hero, but later it will increasingly be a democratic subversion – openly, as in Morris’s socialist revolution, or transposed into cosmic analogs as tenuous as Wells’s gas from a comet. Finally, though topographically closed, utopias are presented by a dramatic strategy which counts on the surprise effects of its presentations upon the reader: significant utopian writings are in permanent dialogue with the readers, they are open-ended – as in More.
2. The Dissociation of Play and Truth: Rabelais to Bacon
2.0. More conveyed “full sooth in game.” Francois Rabelais’s imaginative voyage through a sequence of wonderful places boisterously perfected such a fusion of urgent truth and witty play to deal with the full compass of earthly preoccupations and possibilities. But by the last books of his pentalogy on the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–1564) the joke had become grimmer and thinner. By the time of Campanella and Bacon, the formal exercise of utopia had dissociated intellectual gravity from plebeian play; in the process, “truth” itself grew increasingly ideological.
2.1. Gargantua’s and Pantagruel’s sallying out of Utopia to Paris and the ends of the world, and their insistence on the drink and food of the body as well as of the spirit, are emblematic of Rabelais’s integration of sensual with philosophic materialism, of folk chronicles about the deeds of enormous and valiant giants with an uproarious intellectual critique of the sum total of contemporary life. This critique is inescapable because it reaches from rational argument and farce to the colossal deployment of synonyms and neologisms, idioms taken literally and fields encompassed encyclopedically. Language itself is no longer god-given but a medium of human labor, enjoyment, and folly; it is formally presented as such in the SF parable of the congealed words in The Fourth Book. The sequence of events, too, bodies forth a gay and dynamic process of imbibing knowledge from the various provinces of reality passed in critical review – from war and education in the first two books, through marriage and sex in the third, to the wondrous and horrible islands of religion, law, and finance in the fourth and fifth books. The basic attitude of this work is “a gaiety of spirit” equated with the wine of the grape as well as the wine of learning and freedom, of friendliness and life itself. Such a draught is a blasphemous transubstantiation in which matter becomes its own conscious and cognitive enjoyment, substituting for service of the divine (divin) that of the vine (du vin). The folk enjoyment in gigantism is not separated from goodness and wisdom. Rather, matter is treated as not only the sole reality but also the supreme good, of which there can never be too much. Rabelais’s whole work is one huge navigation toward liberated matter and unalienated man. This cognitive “imaginary voyage” is the exploration of a dangerous freedom: “You must be the interpreters of your own enterprise” is the final conclusion.
Thus “pantagruelism” is the liberation of a human quintessence from the impure actuality, an unbridled creation of a new human nature scorning contemporary unnatural Europe – as when Pantagruel transforms the bad, aggressive king Anarch into a good though henpecked hawker of green sauce. It oscillates between sheer fantasy and simple inversion. The latter is seen in the anti-abbey or “free university” of Thélème, set against the old educational and monastic institutions. Formally, this is the most clearly utopian passage in Rabelais, though it is not his boldest creation but an elite assembly of young people noble enough to follow the inner-directed commandment “do what you will”. More importantly, “pantagruelizing” entails assimilating the whole reality of that age and regurgitating it transmuted by his laughing philosophy, just as Gargantua comprehended whole countries in his throat and regurgitated the narrator who visited them. To that end, Rabelais employs with a serene greediness all available SF traditions and all forms of delighted estrangement – Greek satire and medieval legends, marvelous voyages such as Navigatio Sancti Brendani,Plato and Villon, More and Lucian. Almost incidentally, he produced some episodes of SF that will stand as its constant yardstick.
2.2. Rabelais adapted the episode in Gargantua’s throat and the whole marvelous voyage in the second half of his opus from the classical tradition subsumed in Lucian of Samosata. In True Histories (ca. 160) Lucian laughingly settled the score with the whole tradition of vegetative myths, from the mythological tales themselves, through Homer’s voyages, to popular Hellenistic adventure romances. His narrator’s journey to various wondrous islands, flight to the Moon, Morning Star, and Sun, life inside a huge whale, in Cloudcuckooland, on the Island of the Blessed, and so forth is a string of model parodies, each translating a whole literary form into a critical, that is, cognitive, context. The island of vine-women is a parody of Circe’s and other islands of erotic bliss, the war of the Selenites against the Heliotes introduces aliens and combats more grotesque than in any romance or myth; but both are also models for later SF meetings and warfare with aliens. Lucian uses the mythical scheme of journeys based on the cycle of death and rebirth, darkness and day, closing and opening, for ironic subversion. Its spectrum ranges from ironic events, situations, and characters, through parodic allusions and wordplay, to direct sarcasm. For example, his tongue-in-cheek extrapolation of colonial warfare into interplanetary space is rendered utterly ridiculous by a farcically pedantic and scabrous description of the semi-human Selenites. Lucian’s whole arsenal of demystification amounts to a value system in which vitality is equated with freedom. Being confined to the country within the whale, with its oppressive fish-people, is Lucian’s equivalent of an infernal descent, after his flight through imperialist heavens. “Lucian the Blasphemer” presented the nonexistent “quite lightly, quite easily, as if he were an inhabitant of the Fortunate Isles themselves.”2 His humanistic irony embodied in aesthetic delight became the paradigm for the whole “prehistory” of SF, from More and Rabelais to Cyrano and Swift.
2.3. In More and Rabelais this tradition led to the “alchemical” procedure of creating a new homeland by a transmutation of the baser elements in the old country (England or the Touraine), so that Rabelais’s fictive narrator could call himself “abstractor of the Quintessence.” Actuality proved different: the marvelous countries became colonies, More died beheaded, Rabelais barely escaped the stake, knowledge and sense were again viciously sundered by religious wars and monarchist absolutism. In the profound crisis of the age, the first wave of the revolutionary middle class had separated itself from the people, and had been destroyed or absorbed by church and state. At the beginning of the seventeenth century this was clearly spelled out by the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, the heroic philosopher who had proclaimed an infinite universe with an infinite number of autonomous and equivalent worlds.
- Ernst Bloch (Bibliography II), 1:507.
The new power cast a spell even over utopographers. Shakespeare allotted a conservative function to the wondrous place in the western seas by placing the educational island of The Tempest under the rule of monarchist magic; by dividing its servant-aliens into one representative airy, angelic if repining, goody and one earthy, sexually and politically libertine, subversive, in a word demonic, baddy; and by using it for a laboratory demonstration of the supreme necessity for vertical political order. To round things properly off, he also included in Gonzalo’s speech an Aristophanically unfair sideswipe at the older “contrary” utopianism of freedom: the new “commonwealth” is in a propagandistically disingenuous way made to fuse utopian, primitivistic, and downright silly traits, so that it could be only too flippantly refuted. When that speech does touch upon the central Morean contradiction of a vertically ordered, patriarchal freedom, the matter is not explored but used as a sleight-of-hand substitution for the virtuous simplicity of Montaigne’s cannibals; therefore, their happy primitive communism leaves a sour aftertaste in Shakespeare’s reversion of Caliban. Beyond this, The Tempest is an anthology of elements of and views on a new locus – with the exception of any sympathetic to egalitarian community, which is ruled a priori out of court in the travesty of the plebeians’ attempt at a bestial takeover. Hierarchy, the aptly named Chain of Being as sternly benevolent salvation from dystopian chaos, clearly prevails. Yet the Shakespearean tension of Christian humanism – and beyond that, of the poet in class society-produced also, in Miranda, a naively pure glance at the (if only potentially) “beauteous mankind” and “brave new world,” and in Prospero’s “revels” speech a melancholy adieu to even the grandest verticals of human society and life as “insubstantial,” transient stuff of space and time. True, the official ideology of Elizabethan morals and politics – indeed of politics as personal morals – colors all the supple and masterly estrangements occurring within the “sea-change” that affects in different ways all the dramatis personae on this new island with the only too familiar absolutist relationships. Nonetheless, and most importantly, the other pole of the Shakespearean tension created Ariel, the emblematic cosmic representative of the tempestuous and metamorphic island; the yearnings for self-governing freedom, to be repressed in a colonial island or civil society, were judged allowable at least for a pure spirit. The rich Renaissance lyricism hides a syllogism that already prefigures Swift’s dry Houyhnhnms: if only intelligent beings (psychozoa) were not men but possessed another nature, a radically different common-wealth “by contraries” – or the perfect anarchism of a fusion with nature – might be possible: and beautiful beyond our ken.
2.4. Disbelieving in a changeable human nature, utopographers had to cast about instead for better powers over it. Among a host of less consistent attempts, the nearest to More was Doni’s sarcastic “World of the Fools” (in I Mondi,1552), but even his plebeian egalitarianism succumbed to the pessimistic and static view of the age. Most memorably, in southern, Catholic Europe Tommaso Campanella reinstated astrology, that fantastic pseudo-science of absolutism, as the guiding principle of his City of the Sun (bp. 1623);3 and in northern, Protestant Europe Francis Bacon, in New Atlantis (bp. 1627), perspicaciously discerned a natural science acting as esoteric religion to be the wave of the future. Campanella, though formally prolonging Iambulus’s and More’s line, describes a perfect theocracy somewhere behind India, in the seas of the old caste empires and on an island so large it is almost a continent. The traditional utopian abolition of private ownership, along with stimulating ideas on dignifying labor and on education, is mystifyingly incorporated into a monastic bureaucratism with an impersonal, militaristic order that regulates all relations, from times for sexual intercourse to the placement of buttons, in strict and grotesque detail fixed by astrology. For the explosive horizontal of the Renaissance, Campanella substituted a dogmatic vertical that descends from the Sun of Power to men. More’s urbane talk between friendly humanists has in Campanella rigidified into a one-track exposition from one top oligarch to another.
Bacon’s “great instauration,” based on the rising force of capitalist manufacture and its technological horizons, was in the following three
- Since in this unseemly and subversive genre it is not too rare that books get published much later than the normal few years after the known date of composition – as in the cases of Campanella, Bacon, Kepler, Godwin, and Cyrano – such book publication is in this work indicated by its date being preceded by “bp.”
centuries to prove more virulent than Campanella’s monastic nostalgia. For Bacon the social system is an open question no longer; rather, the key for transforming the world is a power over nature exercised by, and largely for, a politically quite conservative, quasi-Christian priestly hierarchy. The organized application of technology in New Atlantis is not a breakthrough to new domains of human creativity or even (except for some agricultural and biological techniques) of natural sciences; the only use mentioned for “stronger and more violent” engines is in artillery, for the old destructive purposes. Conversely, science becomes a patriarchal, genteel, and highly ceremonial religion, one that could be characterized – much as its later offshoot, Saint-Simonism, would be – as Catholicism minus Christianity. Scientists are a self-sufficient aristocracy of experts manipulating or “vexing” nature and other men; as against Plato, More, and Rabelais, their “science does not so much exude from wisdom as wisdom exudes from science,”4 and gold is not a sign of baseness but of permanent abundance in possessions and power. The very name of Bacon’s country aims to improve Plato both by correcting his account of Old Atlantis and by presenting a New Atlantis the old perfection of which has withstood not only political but even geological contingencies (the narration ends with an indication that its science can prevent earthquakes, floods, comets, and similar phenomena).
The major positive claim of New Atlantis is that it delivers the goods – abundance of things and years, and social stability – by employing the lay miracles of science. In Bacon’s historical epoch, even such a filling in of extant technical possibilities, without a radical change in human relationships, constituted a huge and euphoric program; the goal of the “research foundation” of Salomon’s House is formulated as “the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” But though this science is guarded by experts who can, interestingly enough, refuse to divulge dangerous discoveries, it is by its own definition ethically indifferent: nuclear bombs and gas ovens in concentration camps will be some of the “things”
- Howard B. White (Bibliography III C), p. 106; see also passim, especially pp. 223–25 and 171–72.
possible to effect. New Atlantis is starry-eyed over inquiring into the “secret motions and causes” of fruits, winds, sounds, and clocks, yet it does not think of inquiring into motions and results with respect to the mother of the family, who is condemned to ritual seclusion, or to the population sundered from Salomon’s House. The work thus gives a foretaste of that combination of technology and autocracy which in fact became the basis of European empires at home and abroad. At this point in history, the utopian tradition fell under the sway of an upper-class ideology which staves off human problems by technocratic extrapolation, by quantitative expansion promising abundance within a fundamentally unchanged system of social domination. Bacon’s “science” thus turns out to be as mythical as Campanella’s astrology, though more efficient. As a verbal vision, New Atlantis, with its heavy-handed, propagandist insistence on a power hierarchy, on opulence, and on resplendent signs of public status, and with its stifling world which becomes interesting only when grandiose projects are enumerated, is in fact much inferior to the fanatic splendor of The City of the Sun. It is symptomatic of the quality of imagination in the ensuing age that this work (one of Bacon’s poorest) should have become the master of its thought. The “outrageous piece of ‘miraculous evangelism’” which founded New Atlantis, its stuffy ceremonials and barbarous human relations, completes the picture of this “curious alliance of God, Mammon and Science.”5
Thus the developing utopian tradition dragged into the open the latent contradictions in More’s crypto-religious constructing of Utopia. After the Rabelaisian flowering, Campanella and Bacon mark a reaction against Renaissance libertarian humanism; the logical next step was the end of utopia as an independent cognitive form. Official repression would have worked toward this in any case; but it would not have succeeded so swiftly and well had not the utopian camp been betrayed from within. Having lost a fertile connection with popular longings, utopia – with a few partial exceptions in the eighteenth century – disappears from the
- First quotation from R. W. Chambers (Bibliography III C), p. 362; second quotation from V. Dupont (Bibliography III C), p. 146.
vanguard of European culture until Fourier and Chernyshevsky. Ironically, Bacon fought medieval scholasticism but inaugurated a new dogmatism of technocracy, and Campanella rotted for decades in papal prisons but announced a return to the closed, mythic world-model of Plato. History is cruel to “final solutions.”
3. Monsters and Satellites: The Satirical Defence of Man
3.0. Expelled once again from official culture, significant SF shifted from utopian seas to the planets, which were the forefront of attention after Copernicus and Galileo. This detour led to Swift and reclaimed the wondrous islands for an oblique, satirical defense of basically utopian values by way of a sharp critique of the authors’ anti-utopian actuality.
3.1. The “planet romance” (roman planétaire) presented a critical mirror to corrupted sublunary Earth by means of Lucianic islands in the sea of ether, mainly by means of the Moon. “Am I doing anything more monstrous [than Campanella, More and Erasmus] if, in a vivid description of the monstrous habits of our age, I transpose the scene from Earth to Moon for the sake of caution?” asked Kepler plaintively after his Dream (bp. 1634). In it, scientific speculation about other inhabited worlds turns into a vivid description of Selenite biology and civilization determined by such cosmographic factors as the search for water. Wells’s Cavor was to remember this first attempt at a scientific exobiology and cosmo-ethnology. Similarly, the hero of Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moon (bp. 1638) finds giant Selenites whose social class depends on height and resistance to light, and who live in a kind of Earthly Paradise (at the time often located on the Moon) kept pure by deporting unsuitable babies to Earth. This subgenre produced in Savinien Cyrano’s two novels constituting The Other World (bp. 1657–62) a masterpiece of embattled wit.
Cyrano’s first narrative, The States and Empires of the Moon,plays on the opposition of “moon” and “world”:
… they [the Moon authorities] dressed me with great splendour as a mark of shame; they made me ride on the platform of a magnificent chariot, drawn by four princes who were yoked to it, and here is what they made me announce at every crossroads in the town:
“People, I declare unto you that this moon here is not a moon, but a world; and that that world down there is not a world but a moon. Such is what the Priests deem it good for you to believe!”[trans. Geoffrey Strachan]
A supple alliance of simple inversion (the dress and chariot) and sophisticated satire on the ideological use of language (the proclamation) is here used for a burlesque debunking of such earthly authoritarianism as the Inquisition’s against Galileo. The Moon is literally an upside-down world: in it, youth – the time when vitality is at its height – is revered instead of age, and noblemen wear bronze reproductions of genitalia in honor of creation instead of the sword, an instrument of destruction. This inclination to make love, not war, is of a piece with universal sexual rights of each to each and condemnation of warfare as dishonorable whenever one side has any advantage over the other. But Earth-bound criteria of truth are also demolished when confronted with the revolutionary vision that other planets of our Sun (and, by implication, of an infinite number of other stars) are inhabited by conscious beings: the universe has no privileged center. Sometimes Cyrano uses this cosmological, personal, and political declaration of autonomy for seriocomic exaggeration, as in the episode of the “thinking cabbage”; yet his high-minded vision of interdependent independences lends itself to witty association with a thoroughgoing materialist atomism in physics, amounting to a total rejection of the religious and absolutist world view. Even the extinction of individuality in. death is only one phase in the omnipresent metamorphoses of creative matter, and it is therefore met with joy instead of grief. This deep and intimate concern for natural sciences is integrated into a sequence of satirical intellectual adventures, into a quest for knowledge as freedom – poles apart from Bacon. To cite one example, the argument of an interlocutor on the Moon that all matter is pervaded by emptiness and has thus the freedom of movement permitting “all things to meet in every thing” is not only a brilliant “experimental though imaginary verification” of philosophico-scientific value,6 it also grounds Cyrano’s libertarianism in the very structure of the universe. To cite another, the Bible is satirized when the prophet Elijah arrives into Lunar Paradise by throwing a condensed magnet repeatedly upward from his iron chariot; but his flight also sketches some technical problems, such as braking during groundfall. Cyrano’s apparently whimsical yet profoundly consistent and dialectical use of innovating imagination, in both the boldness of its atheist philosophy of science and cosmology and its poetical wit, would remain unsurpassed until the nineteenth century.
As Cyrano rises from Earth he encounters beings with progressively more refined senses and therefore greater intelligence: the “demons” from the Sun, for example, can sensually comprehend magnetism and tides (gravity). Conversely, when he first encounters the quadrupedal Lunarians he believes them to be beasts, and for them his bipedal stance is monstrous. Monstrosity leads to rejection; rejection by the powerful leads to expulsion or imprisonment. Cyrano’s opus is built on an alternation of prisons – into which the unlucky narrator is continually clapped by various superstitious or power-hungry authorities – and escapes: ideologically and physically closed systems down here ruled by priests of all stripes are transcended by fantastic means in the direction of another world up there. The means range from light-heartedly or irreverently burlesque to technical: from dew, beef-marrow, and sacrificial odors (tending respectively toward the Sun, the Moon, and God) to the first SF use of multistage rockets. The flight from one world or existential situation to another is as a rule accompanied by some approximation to death (unconsciousness, for example) and results in what might be called debrutalization (rebirth, rejuvenation). Cyrano’s characters are often interchangeable; like his protean matter, they can split and recombine. The narrator himself changes roles and situations. His situations are “metaphors realised by true metamorphoses”,7 and his roles are manipulated with great skill to expose all the possible nuances of false and true monstrosity, as seen from both his side and that of the other races. This satirical technique hits its goal – the oppressive relations
- H. Weber (Bibliography III D), p. 28.
- Maurice Blanchot (Bibliography III D), p. 560.
prevailing on Earth – both by direct invective and by sarcastic praise, and it will be systematized to overwhelming effect by Swift. The alternation of microscopic and telescopic vision (which will be further developed in Gulliver’s Travels) is introduced by Cyrano in his discussion of the two infinites of greatness and smallness:
… there are infinite worlds within an infinite world. Picture the universe, therefore, as a vast organism. Within this vast organism the stars, which are worlds, are like a further series of vast organisms, each serving inversely as the worlds of lesser populations such as ourselves, our horses, etc. We, in our turn, are also worlds from the point of view of certain organisms incomparably smaller than ourselves, like certain worms, lice, and mites. They are the Earths of others, yet more imperceptible. […] [trans. Geoffrey Strachan]
And Cyrano continues this humorous yet implicitly serious vision (it led Pascal to panic vertigo) by ironically imagining a louse circumnavigating the world of a human head, among the tides of hair combed forward and backward.
Cyrano learned much from Rabelais, and the passage quoted above stems from that of the peoples in Gargantua’s throat. But repression weighed much more heavily on him, a member of the small and isolated, if highly talented, circle of libertines, freethinkers, and burlesque poets permanently threatened by sword and stake. In The States and Empires of the Sun his satire grows more caustic with greater elevation from Earth, but also much more allegorical and recondite. The Moon narrative kept the mannered sensibility under uneasy but effective control. But the murderously unsettled times made impossible the sovereign enjoyment signified by Rabelais’s giants; Cyrano himself died young of a mysterious accident, probably a political murder by clerical enemies. Even his charmingly whimsical yoking together of elements from disparate fields (ranging from the Apocrypha and folktales to the new philosophy understood as delight) and his characteristic paradoxes and sallies of wit show the tenuous-ness of his sociopolitical position between a browbeaten people and a triumphant obscurantism. His narrative moves through rapier flicks of ironic conceits or “points”; it is on a constant offensive defense, in permanent acute denial. Innocently sensual pleasure is forced to define itself as heresy, stressing what it is against rather than – as in Rabelais – what it is for. Cyrano’s great Epicurean tale, encompassing both sarcasm and tenderness, accommodating the fantastic and the comical along with the ironically cognitive, was the culmination and swan-song of libertinism. A monument of European mannerism and French prose, it is also a forgotten masterpiece of SF.8
3.2. Jonathan Swift drew on the tradition of the imaginary voyage – camouflaged into the newly popular form of real travel accounts from the South Seas – to the point of making it the basic form of Gulliver’s Travels (1726). After Lucian, More, Rabelais, and Cyrano, the satirical-cum-utopian tradition also had an offshoot in numerous contemporary pretended travels – such as Foigny’s A New Discovery of Terra Incognita Australis or Vairasse’s History of the Sevarambi,both dating from the 1670s and of lasting fame though often officially persecuted – which put political satire and reforms into the mouth of virtuous and expository natives. Swift ironically manipulates many elements found in this range of sober and tall-tale journeys, from isolated borrowings to the matter-of-fact tone and a protagonist constantly claiming travelog exactness. Into this framework he drew the folktale wonders of giants and dwarfs, floating and magnetic islands, monstrous or rational beasts, transforming them into precisely observed, scientifically justified, Rationalist possible islands; but simultaneously he used these islands for radical subversion of Rationalism, for direct and indirect ethicopolitical satire of the English and European civilization. This makes Gulliver’s Travels “at once science fiction and a witty parody
- The thesis could be defended that only systematic repression has prevented Cyrano’s historical influence from being comparable to More’s or Wells’s. What happened to his writing is representative of the fate of a whole tradition: the posthumous publication of The States and Dominions of the Moon in 1657 was heavily censored and altered. An original MS was discovered only in 1861, another in 1908, and the first critical edition published in 1910. The MS of the States and Dominions of the Sun was stolen on his deathbed and never found: the published version is incomplete. The third part of this trilogy, The Spark,has never been found. The first complete edition of the two novels comprising The Other World,then, was published in 1921, the first popular edition only in 1959. In the meantime, Cyrano entered popular consciousness in Rostand’s crude bourgeois falsification of a long-nosed Gascon sentimentalist.
of science fiction.”9 Its basic concern is with the most radical anthropological question: What is Man? In order to suggest an answer it destructively recapitulates the development of SF.
In Lilliput, it is the tradition of enchanted islands of human dominion that is refuted. Where Gulliver – the average “gullible worm” of his civilization – is physically superior, he does not know how to control himself, his base vanity, and political snobbery, but grows as petty as his environment (which stands for the English court and politics). In Brobdingnag Swift employs the same basic device of materializing ethical qualities in order to refute the tradition of enchanted islands of lusty and benevolent nature. Where Gulliver tries to live up to lofty models, he is prevented both by his prejudices and by crushingly superior outside forces. Swift’s satire functions by always having it both ways: whether Gulliver be subject or object of satire, Swift’s spokesman or butt, the immoral European civilization is always subjected to many-sided ridicule. As we share the narrator’s terror when faced with the colossal Brobdingnagian life-forms, we feel helplessly delivered into their power; as we side with the magnanimous Giant King (especially in the overwhelming gunpowder discussion), we feel the preposterous, bloodthirsty vanity of this bourgeois Everyman, representative of “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth.” Further, the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians are men viewed through the two ends of that “pockets perspective” which turns up so often in Dr. Gulliver’s pockets. Vision too is both literal and cognitive: in the First Voyage, Gulliver is myopic, in the second he possesses microscopic sight and shrinks appalled from the craters in the breasts of giant court-ladies. Swift inverts the cheerful relativism of Cyrano’s infinite series of mites (not only the techniques of shifting satirical vision but also a number of situations in the Travels,including Gulliver in his cage, owe much to Cyrano); he has us look with disgust upon the corruption of the body politic in Lilliput, the land of man as paltry political animal, and of the body physical in Brobdingnag, the land of monstrous
- Samuel Holt Monk, “The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver,” in Frank Brady, ed. (Bibliography III E), p. 70.
animals and dangerous bodies. By what Gulliver discovers in them and what they reveal in him, these terrifying islands function as a magnifying lens, a spyglass for Man’s moral and material pettiness.
The post-Baconian descriptive precision is inscribed and yet mocked in Gulliver’s very style. Right from the beginning it is “peppered with citations of numbers, figures, dimensions […] [and] approximates an ideal of 17th Century scientists: […] ‘so many things,almost in an equal number of words’.”10 The style is itself a cognitive instrument turned against its Baconian originators – the middle class in alliance with the despots, the optimistic Rationalists, the projectors, the Royal Society scientists. Their irrationality is sarcastically revealed by reducing it to the absurd in the most meticulously and pedantically rational manner.
In the Third Voyage Swift shows directly this dehumanized science, its lifestyle and consequences. Working against life, it sterilizes man’s relations to man and to nature. The Laputans – the first “mad scientists” in SF – have one eye turned “up to the zenith” of mathematical abstraction, and the other inward, as befits a subjective Individualism. They know neither man’s place in the world nor direct, sensual as well as cerebral, relations between people: they have no poetry, their food and clothes are shaped geometrically, women assiduously cuckold their husbands with strangers, and their science is useless or – still worse – useful to political tyranny (the marvelous flying island of Laputa is used for bombing rebels, a maneuver which, however, proves powerless against a united colonial people). To Swift, Rationalism had – by accepting the quantified world view, the bourgeois emphasis on counting, weighing, and measuring, and the resultant cosmology of mechanical balance, of bodies and motions in a “value-free” space – betrayed the true, communal, and value-imbued possibilities of human reason. The most comical examples in the Third Voyage, the Word Engine and the Thing Language, are taken from the fundament of Newtonian “natural philosophy,” mathematics, and from the social science most intimately impinging on human consciousness, linguistics. But the comedy is black; Swift’s critique is not simply moralistic but
- Robert C. Elliott (Bibliography III E), p. 199.
also epistemological. The Newtonian model’s absolutist pretension that its linguistic and mathematic formalizations have finally revealed reality and are therefore ends unto themselves, regardless of science’s practical incidence on human lives, is treated by Swift as a logical tool or whore (la puta) of political oppression. Indeed, the grotesque misery of Lagado – of a piece with and in fact the final consequence of the capitalist mercantilism directly stigmatized in book 4 – shows that this science is a road ta ruin for the whole society. Such alienated knowledge is sterile and obscene; it is symbolized by the project of extracting food from human excrement as well as by the smooth, opaque, and crushing “adamant” bottom of the flying island. Man as the scientific master over (instead of partner with) nature is refuted in these distorted islands of new knowledge; they are a retraction of Bacon’s New Atlantis, together with which they founded the tradition of modern SF as companion of modern science.
The frequent critical harpings on the incoherence of Swift’s Third Voyage overlook such an ideological consistency and gradation. The tour of the Academy of Lagado, for example, progresses from practical projectors through “advancers of speculative learning” to “political projectors,” who include experts in taxing and finding out conspiracies. Beyond Lagado, the probing into history and philosophy in Glubbdubdrib shows up modern knowledge as mere fashion and modern politics as decadent when compared to the ancient times, especially to the heroes of freedom from Brutus to More. The dialectics of this Voyage culminate in the nightmarish Immortals of Luggnagg: Swift’s supreme value, human life, turns into an obscene malediction when delivered to quantity (empty duration) without the qualities of youth and health. In a sarcastic eversion of the Baconian clerical elite assumed to constitute “a living treasury of knowledge and wisdom,” the reader is shown how infinite quantity becomes infinite disgust. The quantitative vision of nature, like all knowledge that is not applied to the happiness of people – all the science and politics that do not “make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before” – is thus a counsel of death, of the obscene death-in-life of the Struldbrugs.
The satire of Man’s politics, his body, and his intellect in the first three voyages leads to the great opposition of the disgusting Yahoos and the rational Houyhnhnms in the Fourth Voyage. The good old times of early Lilliput and the moderation of the Brobdingnag King culminate in the Noble Horses; equally, the abuse of reason for immoral ends in politics and science is offset in their reasonable and virtuous country. But here the question “What is Man?” becomes quite inescapable. The fashionable answer for Swift’s time was “the rational animal.” Accordingly, the European Everyman is placed between creatures who are not just optically and ethically different humans: the Houyhnhnms are rationality without humanity, and the Yahoos humanity without a prideful pretense to reason. Gulliver (and his reader) cannot in this voyage hold apart from the aliens encountered, he is coinvolved in the confrontation of reasonable and animal species in Houyhnhnmland; shockingly, it is the horses who are nobly reasonable and the Yahoo-men who are disgustingly ignoble and brutal. No doubt such a confrontation was known from Ovid through the sixteenthcentury vogue of conversations with temperate beasts that culminated in Cyrano’s quadrupeds and Sun birds. But all those writers condemned an unnatural human civilization; Swift takes to task human nature itself, the generic pride of man as such. The Houyhnhnms, living without knowledge of such abominations as money, government, war, laws, or lies, are an (at times faintly comic) ideal within a moral fable rather than a direct and perfect model. Indeed, being biologically different they can not be physically imitated by humans, as Gulliver’s ludicrous attempts make plain. Yet at the same time they possess a definite ethical superiority over a world where one is exposed to “the sight of a lawyer, a pick-pocket, a colonel, a fool, a lord, a gamester, a whore-monger, a physician, an evidence [police informer], a suborner, an attorney, a traitor.” Gulliver is consequently at the end, notwithstanding all his pitiful Rationalist literalness, much like Plato’s escapee from the cave of shadows: he has seen the truth but cannot communicate it to the purblind. Overridingly, the Noble Horses are the measure of what the Yahoos and men – worshipping power, gold, and excrements – are not.
Rejecting the constitution-mongering of so many middle-class “State novels” from Harrington to Fénelon, Swift – who was in a way the last of Renaissance humanists – looks back to More’s radical hostility against the encroaching capitalist and Individualist civilization. But in a much more corrupted age Swift’s is an integral monitory view which illuminates not only politics but also science and ideology. His narrator is “More’s Hythloday [dressed up] to look like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe,”11 whose fantastic findings recoil back on everyday English life like More’s – only more savagely. True, when he finally finds utopia, it is the inimitable life of another species. But the fact Gulliver’s Travels being published and thus reinserted into social practice turns its extreme anti-utopian despair into a critique of the anti-utopian world which it mirrors. The more passionate and precise Swift’s negation, the more clearly the necessity for new worlds of humaneness appears before the reader. Swift was living in the heyday of bourgeois ethics, of political arithmetics treating people as computable economic atoms (see his Modest Proposal,that unsurpassed masterpiece of fantastic essay as a radical pamphlet). At a time when capitalist empires begin to span the globe, when “all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind,”12 he defeated this totalitarianism by means of a sarcasm just as total. He might have detested man as a species, but parallel to such an ideology he also provided evidence for his indictment springing from a civilization where “the rich enjoyed the fruit of the poor man’s labour, and the latter were a thousand to one in proportion to the former.” What is seen through both ends of Swift’s spyglass in the first two voyages, in the distorted mirror of the third, and the inverted world of ethicobiological absolutes of the Fourth Voyage, is our own civilization, revealed as monstrous and inhuman, simultaneously comic and pridefully bestial. The resulting horrifying comedy is rendered in an apparently icily emotionless style of empirical realism which, turning the age’s basic vision against itself, gives Swift’s lucid bitterness its quite exceptional corrosive power. Using the parallelism of material and moral, Swift channels the tremendous energies of idioms and metaphors to his purpose. The rope-walking or crawling of
- John Traugott, “A Voyage to Nowhere with Thomas More and Jonathan Swift,” in Ernest Tuveson, ed. (Bibliography III E), p. 161.
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party,in their Selected Works in One Volume (London, 1968), p. 38.
politicians in Lilliput resurrects a dead cliché into visual and connotative concreteness, so that the inherent absurdity is imaginatively liberated to produce once more an estranging shock of recognition. The ideological and linguistic norms of European practice had glossed over, killed these metaphors, but by an uncompromising insistence on their plebeian signvalue Swift rediscovers their deep – political and philosophical – truth.
Thus, if Swift is – quite literally – reactionary, his is a radically conservative or “Tory anarchist”13 reaction against the shameless perversions of knowledge, optimism, and dominion brought about by Individualism. If he is the opposite of a didactic utopian, he is a bitter ally of utopia. Though the reader leaves Gulliver alienated in his stable within the larger alienation of England, the values implicit in his travels remain. In such a thorough review of the human condition, it is significant that Swift’s sarcasm stopped short of the Giant King’s pacifism and the fighting solidarity of Lindalino, of the women and illiterates who prevented the introduction of “thing language” in Balnibarbi – in brief, of the ethics and politics associated with Brutus and More. One should not give to these glimpses of a common body politic a significance which the Travels themselves will not sustain; but historically that unscathed hope is a signpost for subsequent SF. It will have to deal with Swift’s discovery that man’s body, this battlefield of vitality and putrefaction, is his truth. After Gulliver’s Travels,it is impossible to believe in a merely institutional, static utopia which does not face the nature of man. The new Heavens and new Earth demand a new Man, and the following age, from Blake and the Shelleys to Morris, will explore this dialectical feedback. Swift himself remains the great and desperate champion of an integral Man against the terrible pressures of Individualist monstrosity. Only somebody who deeply cared about man’s potentials could have been so outraged at his Yahoodom. By this utopian outrage, in his imaginary voyages and marvelous islands, Swift created the great model for all subsequent SF. It is a wise interweaving of utopias taking on anti-utopian functions and anti-utopias as allies of utopian-
- George Orwell, “Politics vs. Literature,” in Denis Donoghue, ed. (Bibliography III E), p. 354.
ism; of satire using scientific language and technological extrapolation as a grotesque; of adventures in SF countries, artificial satellites and aliens, immortals and monsters, all signifying England and the gentle reader. All the later protagonists of SF, gradually piecing together their strange locales, are sons of Gulliver, and all their more or less cognitive adventures the continuation of his Travels.
3.3. Swift (and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) stimulated an outburst of fantastic voyages in England and France. The Moon had already been used for crude political and economic satire in Defoe’s Consolidator and the pseudonymous Voyage to Cacklogallinia. For the first time since the Renaissance, muted utopian themes appear on the stage, culminating in Marivaux’s plays The New Colony (bp. as late as 1878), The Island of Slaves (1723), and The Island of Reason (1727). The playful imagination of these pieces, for all the compromises inherent in public harlequinades, at times touched the most sensitive nerve of the period between Molière and Beaumarchais – the striving for class and sexual equality. Holberg’s Niels Klim (1741) laicized the subterranean voyage for satirical purposes. The voyages to planets culminated in Voltaire’s civilized irony of Micromégas (bp. 1752), which brought the gigantic planetary visitors to Earth in order to explode yet again, after Cyrano and Swift, more directly and obviously than they did, the Rationalist notion of the great heights mankind was supposed to have finally scaled. But the writings of almost all the major French philosopher of the eighteenth century – Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and Voltaire’s Eldorado in Candide,Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage (1772) and Sade’s island of Tamoeé in Aline and Valcour – incorporate some utopian passages for mental experiment, contrast, and satire; more than 1000 editions of such writings were published before the French Revolution. The imaginary voyage had become so popular that it could be parodied by “lying voyages” such as Münchhausen’s. A recurrent figure was, from Montaigne’s Cannibals to Rousseau’s primeval communists, the savage whose natural nobility confounded the hypocrisy of Christian Europeans; Denis Diderot’s Tahiti may be seen as only the most consistent, complex, and charming indictment of the bad European life seen against the sexually, ideologically, and economically free island life far away. One of the most interesting alliances of lower-class literature and such libertarian ideology was Nicolas Restif ’s Flying Man (La Découverte australe,1781), in which the Rousseauist hero invents wings in order to fly away with his upperclass beloved to some yet unspoiled Earthly Paradise, there to enjoy a new social and natural deal. He later flies with her and their children to the Antipodes and settles down as king of one of the marvelous countries (of giants, beast-men, and the like) they visit. This naive, often crude blend of imaginary voyage, technology, and utopianism, cosmic eroticism and folk evolutionism, escapism and plebeian revolt, indicates the vast possibilities of a popular romanticism. But its development was unfortunately cut short by the collapse of the democratic revolution in the nineteenth century.
6. The Shift to Anticipation: Radical Rhapsody and Romantic Recoil
I prophetic see… William Blake
0.1. If SF is historically part of a submerged or plebeian “lower literature” expressing the yearnings of previously repressed or at any rate nonhegemonic social groups, it is understandable that its major breakthroughs to the cultural surface should come about in the periods of sudden social convulsion. Such was the age of the bourgeois-democratic and the industrial revolutions, incubating in western Europe from the time of More and Bacon, breaking out at the end of the eighteenth and in the nineteenth century. The high price of industrial revolution as a result of the repeated failures of the political ones caused in SF too a shift from the radical blueprints and rhapsodies of the revolutionary utopians in the epoch of the French Revolution to the Romantic internalization of suffering. The inflection is visible in Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, while Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the US Romantics are already on the other side of this ideological shift. The irresistible march of palaeotechnic steam and iron machinery at the middle of the nineteenth century, along with the concomitant growth of the proletariat, prompted SF to examine more directly the machine’s potentialities for human good and evil. At last, at the Victorian peak of bourgeois exploitation of man and nature, SF turned, more or less sanguinely, toward the horizons of a new revolutionary dawn.
0.2. However, this age was not simply a major social convulsion comparable, say, to the Reformation. The instauration of capitalist production as the dominant and finally all-pervasive way of life engendered a fundamental reorientation of human practice and imagination: a wished-for or feared future becomes the new space of the cognitive (and increasingly of the everyday imagination, no doubt in intimate connection with and dependence from the shift from the social power of land to the power of capital (see chapter 4, 2.4.). In SF the horizon within which the novum is developed was originally a space existing alongside the author’s empirical environment, which is thrown into question by the radical otherness and/ or debunking parody conveyed by the alternative location. As we saw in in chapter 5, the space was an as yet unknown island beyond the fabulous seas; or (probably an even earlier paradigm) a valley beyond the mountain ranges, if not indeed a subterranean enclosure; or finally an extrapolated planetary island in the ocean of ether (Moon and Sun from mythological tales and Lucian to Cyrano and Verne, other planets from the eighteenth century on). In its Renaissance heyday, this ideal alternative was informed by the wish that the “normal” space might, by a homeopathic magical infection, begin metamorphosizing into a configuration of more humane or humanized actuality, into – as More’s title said – the best state of the commonwealth and the new island of Utopia. The alternative space was aesthetically structured by a central but static philosophical (rather than natural-science) cognition.
By the eighteenth century, in the increasingly activistic dynamics of hope and fear, SF begins turning (first in the technologically and ideologically most advanced bourgeois nations, England and France) to a time into which the author’s age might evolve. This turning, that cuts decisively across all other national, political, and formal traditions in culture, has so far not been adequately explained. The frequently articulated thesis that it occurred faute de mieux,because the white patches on the map of the globe which might validate a different microcosm were fast disappearing, is unconvincing. Not only did many white patches remain right up to the development of a viable aviation (and they were abundantly used by SF as late as Wells and E.R. Burroughs), but there was at hand the whole tradition of planetary novels and subterranean descents. Clearly, the deeper reasons have to do with the quantification of everyday, economically based practice – the enthronement of commodity fetishism and money as the universal yardstick for life values – as well as of the “natural” sciences. For the first time, capitalist technology had united the globe, though in a discordant unity undreamt of by the reasonable cosmopolitanism of the Stoics or Renaissance humanists, and pregnant with the most destructive collisions of nations and classes. The same technology had made mass social change in one lifetime the rule rather than the exception. This turning point in history is thus the one at which each succeeding generation becomes itself a turning point. In SF as well, after an interlude of revolutionary anticipation that was, from Condorcet to Percy Shelley, focused on prophetic visions of immediately attainable human possibilities and validated by a dynamic philosophy of humanity, the alternative time came to be situated in an anticipated future, and SF finally grew to be aesthetically structured by a “positive” scientific cognition. It is against this norm that we must understand all subsequent nineteenth-century SF, which gradually spread through more nations as capitalism, technology, and the reacting expectations of a radically better or at any rate different future themselves spread through the contracting world, and as “world literature” in Goethe’s sense loomed on the cultural horizon. This holds true even when the anticipatory norm seems to be – but is in fact not wholly – transgressed, as in Mary Shelley and Jules Verne.
1. Radical Rhapsody
[The poet] beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.
P. B. Shelley
1.0. When Time is the ocean on whose farther shore the alternative life is situated, Jerusalem can be latent in England:
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
Blake’s preface to Milton fuses the stronger collective activism and the Biblical tradition of such future horizons: “Jerusalem is called Liberty among the children of Albion” (Jerusalem). In the Bible, old Hebraic communism – the desert tradition of prizing men above possessions – intermittently gave rise to expectations of a time when everyone shall “buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah) and when “nation shall not life up sword against nation […] but they shall sit every man under his vine and under fig tree; and none shall make them afraid” (Micah), even to “a new Heavens and a new Earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind” (Isaiah). Christ’s communism of love was resolutely turned toward such a millennium. Throughout the intervening centuries heretic sects and plebeian revolts kept this longing alive. Joachim Di Fiore announced a new age without church, state, or possessions, when the flesh should again be sinless and Christ dissolved in the community of friends. By way of the seventeenth-century religious revolutionaries this tradition led to Blake. His age witnesses a new, lay prophetic line from Babeuf and Shelley to Marx, fusing poetry and politics and inveighing against the great Babylon of class-state, “the merchants of the earth” and “the kings of the earth who have committed fornication with her” (Revelation). As of Blake’s time the future is a new existential horizon corroding what he calls the “apparent surfaces” of the present, etching it in as unsatisfactory. As in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, “the great succession of the ages begins anew.”
1.1. Except for some insignificant precursors, SF anticipation began as an integral part of the French Enlightenment’s confidence in cognitive and social progress. Its “drawing-room communists” Mably and Morelly drew up blueprints transferring Plato’s argument against private property from heavenly ideas into nature’s moral laws. At the conservative end of the oppositional political spectrum, Sébastien Mercier’s hero, who wakes up in Year 2440 (1770 and 1786), dwelt in the first full-fledged utopian anticipation: in it, progress had led to constitutional government, moral and technical advances (to wit: a phonograph playing recorded cries of wounded is used to educate princes), and a substitution of science for religion. The noblest expression of such a horizon was Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès l’espirit humain (Sketch […] of the Progress of Human Mind,written in 1793), which envisaged a turning point in human history – the advent of a new man arising out of the “limitless perfectibility of the human faculties and the social order.” Perfected institutions and scientific research would eradicate inhumanity, conquer nature and chance, extend human senses, and lead in an infinite progression to an Elysium created by reason and love for humanity. Condorcet tried to work toward such a state within the Revolution, just as did François “Gracchus” Babeuf, in whom culminates the century of utopian activism before Marx. Equality, claimed Babeuf, was a lie along with Liberty and Fraternity so long as property (including education) is not wholly equalized through gaining power for the starved against the starvers. An association of men in a planned production and distribution without money is the only way of “chaining destiny,” of appeasing the “perpetual disquiet of each of us about our tomorrows.” For a great hope was spreading among the lower classes that the just City was only a resolute hand’s grasp away, that – as Babeuf ’s fellow conspirators wrote in The Manifesto of the Equals – “the French Revolution is merely the forerunner of another Revolution, much greater and more solemn, that will be the last.” Even when Babeuf as well as Condorcet were permanently silenced and the revolution was taken over by Napoleon, even when anticipatory SF turned to blueprints of allembracing ideal systems eschewing politics, it remained wedded to the concept of humanity as association. This may be seen in Blake as well as in Saint-Simon and Fourier.
1.2. The latter two great system-builders of utopian anticipation can here be mentioned only insofar as their approaches are found in and analogous to much SF. In a way, the whole subsequent history of change within and against capitalism has oscillated between Saint-Simon’s radical social engineering and Fourier’s radical quest for harmonious happiness, which flank Marxism on either side. Henri de Saint-Simon anticipated that only industry, “the industrial class” (from wage-earners to industrialists), and its organizational method are pertinent in the new age. The “monde renversé” where this “second nation” is scorned must be righted by standing that world on its feet again. This full reversal means in terms of temporal orientation “the great moral, poetic, and scientific operation which will shift the Earthly Paradise and transport it from the past into the future” (Opinions littéraires, philosophiques et industrielles),constituting a welfare state of increasing production and technological command of a whole globe by a united White civilization. This “Golden Age of the human species” is to be attained by “a positive Science of Man” permitting predictive extrapolation. Saint-Simon is the prophet of engineers and industrial productivity, applicable equally to a regulated capitalism or an autocratic socialism. The Suez Canal as well as Stalin, and all SF writings in which the hero is the “ideologically neutral” engineering organizer – from Verne to Asimov or from Bellamy to the feebler, utopian Wells – are saintsimonian.
For all his rational organizing, Saint-Simon had forsaken eighteenthcentury Rationalism by answering the great Swiftian question “What is Man?” in terms of economic life rather than of “nature” and “natural rights” – even if he then retreated to positing three separate human natures or psychophysiological classes (rational, administrative, and emotive) whose representatives will form the ruling “Council of Newton,” the college of cardinals of his “New Christianity.” Charles Fourier went much further, basing a radically humanized economy entirely upon a complex series of desires. Civilization “thwarted and falsified” them whereas it could and should have increased gratification of all passions-sensual, collective (desires for respect, friendship, love, and a reconstituted family), or “serial” (desire for faction, variety, and unity). It is a world turned inside out (monde à rebours)in which the physician has to hope for “good fevers,” the builder for “good fires,” and the priest for “the good dead;” where family means adultery (and Fourier enumerates with witty glee 49 types of cuckolds), riches mean bankruptcy, work is constraint, property ruins the proprietor, abundance leads to unemployment, and the machine to hunger. Against this Fourier elaborated a method of “absolute deviation” which was to lead to a world where both work and human relations would be a matter of “passionate attraction.” Men and their passions are not equal but immensely varied, like notes in the harmonic scale, colors in the spectrum, or dishes at a gastronomic banquet, and have to be skilfully composed in a “calculus of the Destinies.” Corresponding to the potential harmony of the “social movement” are series of animal, vegetable, geometric, and cosmic relationships. There will accordingly be 18 different creations on Earth in this passional cosmology; ours is the first and worst, having to traverse five horrible stages from Savagery down to Civilization before ascending through “Guarantism” (the economicosexual welfare state of federated productive associations or phalansteres)to Harmony. At that point humanity will have cleansed the Earth of sexual and economic repression, illnesses, nations, a production sundered from consumption, and the struggle for existence; and the Earth – itself a living being in love with another bisexual planet – will respond by melting the polar ice, turning the oceans into something like lemonade (all of this elaborately justified by physics), and producing useful “anti-beasts,” such as the anti-lion, as well as new senses for men. The blessed life of Harmony and the succeeding 16 creations (the last one sees the end of the globe) will turn inside out the procedures of class power: courts and priests will be Courts of Love and priesthoods of sex, armies will clean, plant, and reconstruct, work will become play and art, and “abnormality” the mainspring of society. Fourier’s shattering interplay of maniacal poetry and ironical dialectics, rooted in the deep longings of the classes crushed by commerce and industry, in a genuine folk imagination with its immense strengths and foibles, will reappear in garden cities and kibbutzim, communes and “retribalization.” In his exemplary scenes and characters-witness Nero becoming a respected butcher in Harmony, much like Rabelais’s King Anarch – he is himself writing warm SF. In spite of the important modifications, this will be reproduced by the rare but precious visions fusing relativist sociopolitics, erotics, and cosmology in SF, from Blake and Shelley through Defontenay and Stapledon to Le Guin and Delany.
1.3. Blake and Shelley too rejected the orthodox division of man into body versus soul and of society into classes, as well as the merely given “human form.” Blake, championed Man’s individual and collective “imaginative body” rising as a Brobdingnagian giant into a projected free fulfillment simultaneously economic, sexual, and creative. The hypocritical and cruel civilization of Church, Army, Palace, and Merchant, with its principle of selfhood, brings about jealous possessiveness with regard to children and women, shame in sexual love, and slavery to hunger and toil. Money, the cement of this fallen society, murders the poor by stunting and the rich by corrupting their imaginative needs, thus engendering sterility: the prophetic revolutionary or “Reprobate” is the creative counterauthority to the official “Elect,” and his followers constitute the “Redeemed.” Therefore, Blake sang the giant American and French Revolutions in his Promethean “Orc cycle” of the 1790s – from The French Revolution, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, America,and Europe to The Four Zoas – which announced the end of post-Genesis history and the advent of a new divine Man in a realm of freedom (a term Marx too would use). Revolution is identical with imagination and life, and absolutely unavoidable; but if its beginning is in politics, its end is in a joyous Joachimite Jerusalem where the body personal and the body politic will have been redeemed. The world as historical process is experienced and indeed co-created by poetic vision. However, as the American and French experiences turned to bourgeois rule and aggressive conquests, and as English repression grew virulent, Blake’s earlier work remained unpublished and unfinished. Orc aged into his Rationalist skygod antagonist Urizen; Blake came to stress timeless religious apocalypse and compensation through art instead of the imminent passage through the Earthly Paradise of sexuality and benevolent nature to the Eden of creativity. His fantasies of cosmogonic history read like a gigantic inventory of later “far-out” SF, from Stapledon and E.E. Smith to Clarke and Van Vogt. But unlike their impoverished strainings into cosmic sensations, his estranging of Newton’s world model converts it into a richly (if confusingly) metamorphic creation. Even the most opaque pseudomythology in the later Blake retains the estranging principle of multiple vision which sees the unfallen world within the fallen one, and the cognitive orientation of an “Innocence [that] dwells with Wisdom.” In his last year, in a time of bread riots, he persisted in his biblical communism: “Give us the bread that is our due and right, by taking away money or a price, or tax upon what is Common to all in thy Kingdom.”
1.4. Percy Bysshe Shelley was separated from Blake by the crucial impact of the French Revolution – visible in utopian literature, for example, in the vigorous political and agrarian democracy of several works by Thomas Spence (Description of Spensonia,1795) – and by an upper-class education. Both these factors set him irrevocably against Christianity, which he identified as tyranny; his poetry marks the gradual reorienting of the revolutionary imagination toward political parable and historical vision rather than religious myth, toward Hellenic, Gnostic, and scientific rather than biblical and Miltonic traditions. From his youth he had apparently constructed a cosmic, scientific, and political anticipation for himself in which chemical philosophy would synthesize food as well as dot oceans with and transmute deserts into gardens, electricity would unlock the secrets of nature, and balloons ensure the abolition of slavery in Africa (all themes that were to pass into SF through the adventure popularizations of Verne). His first major work, Queen Mab (1813), is an embattled vision of humanity’s past, present, and future that draws on contemporary natural sciences as well as philosophes like Condorcet and their English systematizer William Godwin for the future ideally perfectible society. Godwin’s Political Justice – invoking Plato, More, Mably, and Swift’s Houyhnhnms – pleaded for property to be equalized so that men could change their character, abandon war and the monogamous family, and finally become immortal by control of mind over matter. Shelley fleshes out such a Rationalist anarchism in his anticipation of a harmonious Earth rejoicing in the perpetual Spring of a fertile and gentle Nature, where “All things are recreated, and the flame / Of consentaneous love inspires all life.” In the notes to Queen Mab,Shelley develops his views on labor (reducible to two hours daily) as the sole source of wealth, as well as on the inexorable change of the Earth’s axis in “a perfect identity between the moral and the physical improvement of the human species” and the speeding up of the mind’s perception to vanquish time by “an infinite number of ideas in a minute.” Such horizons, along with the poem’s forceful attacks on the ruling political tyranny, capitalist selfishness and corruption, church and religion, made of it, despite legal persecution, the bible of English working-class radicalism from the Owenites to the Chartists and beyond.
Queen Mab is the concluding chord in the great sequence of societal and cosmic anticipations accompanying the democratic revolutions in America and France. From Diderot and Condorcet to Blake and almost all the European Romantics, two generations shared the expectation of an imminent millennium of peace, freedom, and brotherhood:
Not in Utopia – subterranean fields – Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world Of all of us – the place where, in the end, We find our happiness, or not at all!
[Wordsworth, The Prelude]
But the revulsion from the results of revolution “was terrible,” observed Shelley in the preface to his Revolt of Islam (1818):
Thus, many of the most ardent and tender-hearted […] have been morally ruined by what a partial glimpse of the events they deplored appeared to show as the melancholy desolation of all their cherished hopes. Hence gloom and misanthropy have become the characteristics of the age in which we live, the solace of a disappointment that unconsciously finds relief only in the wilful exaggeration of its own despair.
The shift of SF location from space to the present or immediate future – that is, to a radically alternative historical turning, fusing the present with the future – was (we can now see) arrested by a politically caused “moral ruin,” and rechanneled either back into mythical timelessness or into the staking out of anticipation in distant futures. These alternatives develop at that historical moment into different – twin but opposed – genres and atmospheres. A fantasy more tenuous, internalized, and horrific than the later Blake emerges as a new shudder and genre in Romantic melodrama, tale, and narrative poem. In particular, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner,using scientific observations and the polar voyage as metaphor for the breakdown of human relationships in an alienating society, had a profound effect on Mary Shelley and Poe, and through them on much subsequent SF. On the other hand, Percy Shelley is (together with Fourier) the great poetic forerunner of the SF anticipation saved from arid Victorian political or natural-science didacticism by also being a parabolic analogy. In the hands of poets, whether in verse or prose, such analogy, simultaneously collective and intimate, has cosmic pretensions over and beyond sociopolitical (later also technological) anticipation; rather than extrapolation, it is an alternative.
The Revolt of Islam itself is a not quite focused “alternative history” about a loving pacifist-revolutionary couple who are defeated politically but not ruined morally because they keep faith with their personal love as well as with the future vision of “divine Equality.” Laon and Cythna must die in this “Winter of the world,” but “Spring comes, though we must pass, who made / The promise of its birth.” Parallel to the satirical comedy Swellfoot the Tyrant,a sarcastic political travesty of Oedipus Rex as beast fable, Shelley’s culminating statement comes in Prometheus Unbound (1820). This “lyrical drama” is a delicately tough parable or dialectical allegory in which the notions (whether lyrical images or dramatic personae) flow into each other in iridescent and eddying metamorphoses, aesthetically and philosophically no less breathtakingly novel and daring than consistent. The characters are therefore subversive, self-renewing processes rather than fixed correspondences. Subject to this caveat, Prometheus may be said to stand for the Humanity that created evil in the shape of its oppressor Jupiter, and also for intellect and intellectuals as champions of the oppressed. In order to escape the fate of the French Revolution or of Blake’s Orc, he renounces hate, in spite of torments by Furies, who stand for the forces of court, church, war, commerce, and law and also for ethical anguish and despondency: outer political and inner psychological tenor are convertible in this multiply woven “fable.” Jupiter is thereupon toppled by Demogorgon (the subterranean and plebeian titanic Necessity of nature and society, and also subversive imagination, associated with volcanic and earthquake imagery), who has been contacted by Prometheus’s bride Asia (Love or overriding human sympathy). Imagination, Love, and Hercules (Force both as strength and as armed insurrection) liberate Prometheus and bring about a renewed peaceable life on “Fortunate isles,” where evil and ugly masks have been stripped off all nature and man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, – but man:
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree; the king Over himself; just, gentle, wise; – but man:
Passionless? no: […]
Nor yet exempt, tho’ ruling them like slaves, From chance, and death, and mutability….
In the final act even this Earthly Paradise is after “an hundred ages” superseded by Time stopping in a full unfolding of human psychic and cosmic potentiality. The universe too grows Promethean, and the newly warmed and habitable Moon sings a paean of loving praise to redeemed Earth in a lyrical finale of surpassing power, imbued with the peculiar Shelleian
“liquid splendor,” often in images of vivifying electricity. The cosmic drama ends in such a libertarian, gravityless, “uncircumscribed” counterpart and counterproject to Dante’s mystic rose of light and musical harmony at the end of Paradiso.
Shelley’s expressionist lyricism, using poetic abstraction as an “intelligible and beautiful analogy” with the most precise apprehensions of mind and nature and their most sensitive historical oscillations, gives poetry the power to comprehend all knowledge. Politics, cosmology, and natural sciences such as chemistry, electricity, and astronomy are potential liberators of humanity. They are equally based on labor and Promethean thought:
Our toil from thought all glorious forms shall cull,
To make this Earth, our home, more beautiful,
And Science, and her sister, Poesy,
Shall clothe in light the fields and cities of the free!
[The Revolt of Islam, canto 5]
And humanity cannot be made whole again (he resolutely agreed with Mary Wollstonecraft) as long as “Woman as the bond-slave dwells / Of man, a slave; and life is poisoned in its wells.” Loving women are equal, if not indeed privileged, bearers of human redemption in all of Shelley’s major poems.
Parallel to such poetry of cognition, Shelley’s estrangement is the most delicate yet vigorous personal emotion at the sight of life enslaved, approaching it always “with a fresh wonder and an insatiable indignation”1 – a line such as “Hell is a city much like London” (Peter Bell the Third)being quite Swiftian. Often at the limits of the expressible, “With thoughts too swift and strong for one lone human breast,” his insight into scientific and political thought as strife and sympathy between men, cosmic nature, and time makes of Prometheus Unbound “one of the few great philosophical poems in English.”2 In it, outwardly exploding love overwhelms gravity, setting humanity off on its cosmic voyage, world without end. This antigravity is “[in terms of space] the pull of the void itself, in terms of time it is
- H. N. Brailsford (Bibliography IV A), p. 158.
- Carl H. Grabo (Bibliography IV A), p. 198.
the future, which is also an absolute emptiness, waiting for man to ‘invent’ it.”3 With it culminate the tensions and resolutions of the cosmico-political revolutionary utopianism in Shelley’s opus, strongly imbued with political alternative, Lucretian cosmic and anthropological speculation, humanized science, and indeed utopian romance from works such as Paltock’s Peter Wilkins (1750) and J. H. Lawrence’s matriarchal Empire of the Nairs (1801). In their texture and structure, Shelley’s significant poems “are microcosmic revolutions which help ‘quicken’ the unborn worlds whose outlines they reflect and describe.”4 Though the integral revolutionary and utopian optimism of Shelley’s is a lone, soon-quenched blaze halfway between the cosmic voyages of Rabelais or Cyrano and those of the Leninist “storm and stress” of 1915–25 (Mayakovsky’s or Krleža’s, for example),5 it is a proof that SF can be supreme poetry: and vice versa.
2. Romantic Recoil
Forward, forward, ay and backward, downward too into the abysm…. – Alfred Tennyson
2.1 Mary Shelley was the daughter of two prominent radical writers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern
Prometheus (1818) as her husband was preparing to write Prometheus Unbound. Yet in this revealingly flawed hybrid of horror tale and philosophical SF she indicated with considerable force the widespread recoil from Promethean utopianism, that “disappointment that unconsciously finds relief only in the wilful exaggeration of its own despair” which was to become a dominant tendency in subsequent English-language SF. The
- Christopher Small (Bibliography IV A), p. 239.
- Gerald McNiece (Bibliography IV A), p. 135.
- See on Mayakovsky chapter 11, and on Krleža my essay “Voyage to the Stars and Pannonian Mire,” Mosaic 6 (Summer 1973).
novel’s theme is twofold: the unfolding of Frankenstein’s hubris in creating artificial life is intertwined with a parable on the fate of an alienated representative individual – his Creature (called “monster” only twice, I think, in the text). A series of paralogisms and contradictions emerges from the opposition of these two themes and characters.
A comparison of Mary Shelley’s stance to the radical Romanticism of her husband can best identify the main contradictions. Both Victor Frankenstein’s resolve to “pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (chapter 3), and Walton’s parallel resolve to discover (for the Romantics practically a synonym of “invent” and “create”) the unfrozen, warm geographic and magnetic pole, the hyperborean utopia of “a country of eternal light” and “a land surpassing in wonders and beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe” (Letter 1), represent favorite, permanent, and passionately held ideals of Percy Shelley. True, in such a philosophical romance, the discoverer-inventor’s desire to learn “the secrets of heaven and earth […] the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man” (chap. 2) might be punished by the Powers That Be. But a suffering Prometheus would remain as unbowed as Lucifer in Paradise Lost,romantically reinterpreted after the image of all the subversive poets, philosophes,and scientists, all the utopian enthusiasts in the spectrum that runs from Rousseau through the “philanthropic” revolutionists (notably the Illuminati who hailed from the same university of Ingolstadt where Frankenstein studies and fashions his creature)6 and through Condorcet to Byron. No doubt: the central grandiose event of the age, the French Revolution – the awful course, consequences, and lessons of which shaped both Shelleys and guided all the other influences on them – was a burning disappointment. But for Percy Shelley it had at the same time “created and nourished hopes that could never die,” and his programmatic passion became to discover the causes of and remedies to the corruption within
- On the Illuminati and their importance for the Shelleys’ understanding of the French Revolution see the persuasive indications of McNiece, pp. 22–23 and 96–99.
men and society that had led to its failure.7 Obversely, though sharing his anguish at that failure and his belief that one major cause for it was hateful violence on both sides, Mary Shelley was nearer to her father in stressing the supreme necessity for civil order, and therefore the unacceptability of sudden radical change and the proneness of the lower classes and fanatic intellectuals to bloodshed. The Promethean inventor was for her possible and impressive, but his invention was from the outset doomed to failure. Such a “fit of enthusiastic madness” (chap. 24), transferred from the ideal realm of artistic shaping and marvelous voyage of discovery to actual philosophico-scientific intervention in everyday social life, grew for her into a blasphemous horror tale, one related to Walton as an awful warning not to pursue discovery by solitary imagination, which will inevitably sunder him from warm fellow-feeling. As he was rendered friendless by Romantic poetry, science, and utopian travel dreams, so too had Frankenstein spurned languages and politics, recapitulating in his personal history the exclusion of human values from the “objective” post-Baconian science. Just as Walton is ruthlessly prepared to sacrifice his crew and his own life for the advancement of knowledge, which he equates with dominion over nature in the name of an abstract mankind, so had Frankenstein quite scientifically concluded that “to examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death” (chap. 4) and proudly gone about creating a quasi-human being with the aid of a merely analytical science. Of the two traditional Promethean pursuits of animating and shaping man, he had succeeded in the first but failed in the second: Prometheus pyrphoros,the subversive thief of the “divine spark,” had unaccountably become divorced from Prometheus plasticator,the artist-molder of human clay. As in some horror tales of blasphemous alchemists and their elixir of life (Godwin’s St. Leon,for example), the resulting creation is sterile and indeed demonically destructive of all values. When the Promethean overreacher finally acknowledges the Tightness of Jovian power and its values, he turns into a rightly punishable Faust. What Orwell would expose as brainwashing, Mary Shelley shows as just expiation.
- McNiece, p. 41.
However, if Frankenstein’s Creature is sterile, it is living; if botched, it is suffering. For Percy Shelley, electricity was vital energy imbued with natural human sympathy, while the “calculating faculty” or principle (Defence of Poetry) – the calculation of mechanical and social power – informed both unimaginative technology and the ideology of private profit. Mary’s Frankenstein, on the contrary, used electricity precisely with mathematics and charnel-house dissection, as a quantifying rather than qualitative tool. His theme is in the tradition of the Gothic story, in which the universal horror and disgust at his creature would simply prefigure its behavior and its hideous looks testify to its corrupt essence. Yet the Creature’s pathetic story of awakening to sentience and consciousness of his untenable position as a subject (for whom “he” is used right from the moment of animation) provides an almost diametrically opposed point of view. His theme is both the compositional core and the real SF novum that lifts Frankenstein above the level of a grippingly mindless Gothic thriller. The objective eye looking at empirical surfaces, that orthodox organ of things as they are, is balanced by the inward sympathy with the Creature’s subjective feelings. Far from being foul within, he sets out as an ideal “noble savage,” benevolent and good, loving and yearning for love. His is not the Individualistic quest of superior discoverer-geniuses like Frankenstein and Walton, but a humbler and more basic search for human solidarity and communion. His terrible disappointment and alienation is that of the typical Romantic hero – as he himself points out, of Goethe’s Werther or the Romantic Lucifer – wandering outcast through the icy landscape. Mary Shelley’s very important contribution was to find an objective correlative for her characteristic ideological oscillation between Shelleyan rebellion and Godwinian protesting quietism by transferring this outcast status into the strategic halfway house between orthodox theology and radical politics: into biological necessity. The Creature is caught between his vital spark of freedom and the iron grip of scorn and persecution that arises from his racial or species alienness.
The aspect in which the Creature is a representative of suffering Mankind oppressed by a hidden and at least indifferent (if not evil) Creator is still astoundingly alive as well as directly on the axis of the main, heretic SF tradition that links Swift to Wells. We are back on the shores of
Houyhnhnmland as seen by Godwin: a “sensitive and rational animal” (chap. 24), less guilty than man, is again demystifying human history, politics, psychology, and metaphysics, as, for example, in the Creature’s bizarre education by proxy that recapitulates in brief the Romantic world view:
The strange system of human society was explained to me. … I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were, high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of those advantages; but without either, he was considered […] as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few! And what was I? I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. […] Was I then a monster […]? [chap. 13]
However, the More-to-Diderot tradition of “contrary” SF is not only continued by the Romantics but also undergoes a metamorphosis at their hands. The addition of “sensitive” to the definition of man as a rational animal that (as is discussed in the preceding chapter) dominated Swift’s whole epoch points to a great shift across the watershed of the failed democratic and costly industrial revolutions. Humanity is now being shown up not only as irrational but also as cruel, in impassioned rather than satirical accents, by a suffering and wronged creature who wants to belong rather than by an enlightened and wondering observer. This shift corresponds exactly to the shift from far-off spaces to the present that should be radically transformed, from More’s or Swift’s static juxtaposition of islands and cities to the dynamic mutual pursuit of Frankenstein and his Creature across the extreme landscapes of lifeless cold and desolation, from behavioral to sentimental psychology, from universal human nature to mutual relationships of men and women in society. Life, the central category of the Romantics, “is opposed to being in the same way as movement to immobility, as time to space, as the secret wish to the visible expression.”8
This hallowed status of sentient life and its genesis was threatened by a capitalist social practice – including ever more prominently a use of physical sciences – that substituted “mechanical or two-way time for history, the dissected corpse for the living body, dismantled units called ‘individuals’
- Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London, 1970), p. 278.
for men-in-groups, or in general the mechanically measurable or reproducible for the inaccessible and the complicated and the organically whole.”9 Among other consequences, this led to a growing preoccupation and fascination with automata as puzzling “doubles” of man. Before Mary Shelley, such a semi-alien twin had either been treated as a wondrously ingenious toy (in the eighteenth century) or as an unclean demonic manifestation (in most German Romantics). In the first case it belonged to “naturalistic” literature, in the second to horror fantasy. The nearest approximation to an artificial creature seen as perfect human loveliness but later revealed to be a horrible mechanical construct was provided by E.T.A. Hoffmann in The Sandman (1816). But even he oscillated between fiends and physics, and his Olimpia is seen solely through the perceptions of a dazzled observer. Mary Shelley’s Creature is not only undoubtedly alive though alien, fashioned out of human material instead of the inorganic wires of puppetry, and unmistakably this-worldly, he is also allowed to gain our sympathy by being shown from the inside, as a subject degradingly treated like an object. However, because of the “exaggerated despair” which Percy Shelley accurately diagnosed, it is not only human society that is monstrous in its dealing with the Creature, but he too is “objectively” a Monster: sentient and intelligent though inhuman, animated creature without animating harmony, starting out like a newborn baby yet from no woman born – the intolerable paradox, in brief, of living and unnatural.
In a book pervaded by the pathetic if again paradoxical sympathy between man and inorganic nature, both the thermo-dynamic metaphors and the compositional metonymies meet in the body and its psychophysiology (that is to say, again in biology). The devastation of feeling has a correlative in the icy landscape and isolated characters; the ever narrowing imaginative vortex plunges through the three narrations from the North Pole into the inner warmth of the Creature and his observation of the family sentiments, at whose center lies the feminine and Mediterranean
- Lewis Mumford (Bibliography III A), p. 50.
warmth of the Safie story,10 only to reascend back into the killings, masculine loneliness, and final coldness of death at the top of the world. The hidden marvelous voyage of (not merely in) the text is a double inversion of Dante’s or Milton’s descent in that, first, the chthonic warmth of the Earth’s center is positive and vivifying, a deep and consoling “maternal nature” (chap. 9), and second, the protagonists are barred and driven away from this Earthly Paradise into the outer darkness of mutual pursuit, misery, and commiseration, into the Coleridgean hell of dazzling icefields: “For Mary Shelley, there are only lost paradises.”11
Frankenstein’s relationship to his Creature remains thus unclear: their two themes and viewpoints contradict each other. If there is a moral focus to this parable outside of vaguely Christian melodramatics, then the Creature is that focus, so that the reader cannot treat him as a Gothic Monster, merely validated by science rather than by demonology. But conversely, if one is to look at this novel as SF, a whole cluster of fundamental but unresolved cognitive questions appears: and centrally, why did the Creature have to be hideous or the Creation botched? Frankenstein’s unmotivated creative haste might conceivably (though I do not think so) be put down to Mary Shelley’s technical clumsiness: even then, why should alienness have to be equated with hideousness? The tenor and the vehicle are startlingly discrepant – a signal that strong psychic censorship is at work. Yet the vitality of the parable shows that Mary Shelley’s personal history and imagination fused here with the passions and nightmares of a whole social class – the intelligentsia in capitalism, oscillating between radical titanism and conservative
- I am indebted to Marc A. Rubenstein’s stimulating insights (Bibliography IV A) into the “maternal” metaphoric system hidden in the novel and opposed to its “masculine creation,” even where I largely disagree with the uses he puts them to. See also James Rieger (Bibliography IV A), pp. 79–81, 156, et passim, who rightly refers to
Symmes, Poe, and the Hollow Earth theory. In fact, Frankenstein is structured as a Maelstrom the vivifying center of whose spiral can only be tantalizingly approached before the reader-voyager is symmetrically spewed out. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (see chapter 7) is an optimistic counterproject belonging to the same morphological family, and explicating (probably by way of Poe) a number of Frankenstein’s structural implications.
- Jean de Palacio (Bibliography IV A), p. 41.
recuperation. Both of these positions are viewed in the wavering light of Mary Shelley’s central ambiguity: the interfusion of an understanding sympathy with a guilty horror at the subversive novelty, the radical Other. As in Percy Shelley, “new chemistry is but old alchemy writ legibly; both are ciphers for politics.”12 Victor Frankenstein and his startling creation are a scientific cipher for an overhasty radical intellectual at the time of the French Revolution animating (like the Ingolstadt Illuminati, so well known to the Shelleys) the “[hardly adequate] materials” (chap. 4) of the broad popular forces. The philosophe-scientist who awakens and animates these victimized masses with “no kind of property” in the hope of a new and glorious creation finds that persecution and injustice exacerbate them to the point of indiscriminate slaughtering. Such a hypothesis, in which the novel is the emblematic selfawareness of a wavering and guilt-ridden rebellious intelligentsia looking at the implications of the French Revolution, can solve he unexplained (and as far as I can see otherwise unexplainable) cruces of the Creature’s unsuccessful fashioning and the universal revulsion felt for it. Mary Shelley’s reservations about the effects of revolutionary animation went much further than her husband’s and amounted almost to a guilty retraction. The frozen whiteness, for example, which is for Percy Shelley the element of a tyrannical Jupiter (as with Blake’s Urizen or Nobodaddy), is in Mary returned to the scene where the overreachers who attempted to break through the “ideal bounds” of natural and divine order “and pour a torrent of light into our dark world” (chap. 4) get their pathetic but finally appropriate deserts. The perversion of their utopian dreams results in a gloom and misanthropy that, as Percy suggested in the preface to The Revolt of Islam,was rooted in the moral ruin and revulsion from the French Revolution, as a consequence of which “misery has come home, and men appear […] as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood” (chap. 9).
This also explains why both Frankenstein and the Creature decline from great expectations and naive optimism to self-devouring, mutually obsessed, and community-destroying loneliness. If there is little logic of events in the plot, there is a logic of feelings, which can alone unify the not
- Rieger (Bibliography IV A), p. 29.
quite compatible aspects of the Frankenstein-Creature relationship. This relationship is, incongruously, one of creator and creature, of two biological aliens, and finally of a soon repentant intellectual animator and a soon exasperated plebeian force. Frankenstein and the Creature may also be in some ways comparable to Freud’s Ego and Id, but they are not reducible to such a Jekyll-and-Hyde constellation. Just as in Blake and Percy Shelley – or in The Tempest – the relationships in Frankenstein body forth a collective rather than private psychology. The Creature is warmer and finally more intelligent than his creator, like Milton’s Adam turned Satan; nor can Freudianism explain why the lower class of Id, that plebs of the psyche, must always be deemed destructive and lawless. Indeed, a more revealing parallel is (with all due reservations) to be found in the Creature’s exchanging an admiring, Miranda-like naive and benevolent wonder at humanity for a Calibanic rampage of slaughter: the ideal Godwinian anarchist finds he can become a social being only by perpetuating society’s most cruel norms. H.G. Wells was to describe his novel of the indifferent creator painfully fashioning monstrous creatures, The Island of Dr. Moreau,as a theological grotesque (see chapter 9). Frankenstein’s peculiar historical position and advantage is that on the one hand its biology partakes of a political as well as a theological grotesque, while on the other its pioneering scientific horizons proved more potent than Blake’s or even Percy Shelley’s heretic but archaic abstractions. Biology, the Romantics’ central science in a spread that runs from Shelley’s electric fluid to Goethe’s Ur-plant, can in its “objective” version disjoin ethical ideals, such as compassion for the Creature, from living reality, such as that of his crucial ugliness: “I compassioned him, and sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened, and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred” (chap. 17). Biology is thus the privileged form of pseudo-scientific critique of revolutionary utopianism: “if Prometheus, in the romantic tradition, is identified with human revolt, is the monster what that revolt looks like from the other side?”13
- M. K. Joseph (Biliography IV A), p. xiv.
Not that Mary Shelley was a Social Darwinist avant la lettre (although once outside Percy’s magnetic field she soon reverted to a staunch upholder of bourgeois law and order). In fact, the paradoxes of a novel based on the principle of human sympathy yet also guilty of a racism which betokens total failure of sympathy14 could find a resolution only in the peace of universal death. The Creature’s fiery self-immolation on the ice can finally reconcile action and suffering, warmth and coldness, revolt and consolation, and return the uncouth product of masculine creation into the womb of maternal nature, to the entropic rest of the ultimate generic anti-utopia of
- A very curious feedback system between fiction and social history, that confirms the position of Frankenstein’s Creature within what one might call the Caliban Complex of bourgeois imagination, with particular reference to England’s tropical colonies and its darker races, can be found in the fact (which I take from McNiece, pp. 29 ff.) that Percy Shelley read very carefully Bryan Edwards’s History of the West Indies and its lengthy account of the savage Black and mulatto revolt in San Domingo in 1791, attributed by the author to incitement to “subversion and innovation” by visionary intellectuals and politicians from Paris, and replete with strongly imagined scenes of mass murder and cruel butchery as the inevitable result of “the monstrous folly of suddenly emancipating barbarous men” (both quotes from Edwards). Mary must have either read or at least known of it, since Percy’s reading is recorded in her journal for 1814–15. Reinforced by absorption into Frankenstein’s Creature as seen by right-wing simplification, the same ideology reappeared in Canning’s 1824 speech in the House of Commons against freeing Black slaves in the Antilles (which I take from Palacio, pp. 649–650). In spite of its length, the pertinent fragment must be quoted: “In dealing with the negro, Sir, we must remember that we are dealing with a being possessing the form and strength of a man, but the intellect only of a child. To turn him loose in the manhood of his physical strength, in the maturity of his physical passions, but in the infancy of his uninstructed reason, would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance [i.e. Frankenstein]; the hero of which constructs a human form, with all the corporeal capabilities of man, and with the thews and sinews of a giant; but being unable to impart to the work of his hands a perception of right and wrong, he finds too late that he has only created a more than mortal power of doing mischief, and himself recoils from the monster which he has made.”
For Mary Shelley’s political slide after the 1820s, see Palacio pp. 194 ff., 218 ff., 230 ff., et passim, and on Frankenstein’s conservative aspects Christian Kreutz (Bibliography IV A), pp. 144–152.
Death. This final horizon will recur in Wells’s Time Machine and, as I argue in chapter 10, a whole wing of subsequent SF. In it, as in Mary Shelley’s revocation of the radical rhapsodies, it is possible to initiate a revolutionary novum but not to curb its destructiveness. The pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness ends in misery, bondage, and death as the novum, in a supposedly inevitable Faustian hubris, oversteps the familiar, “natural” boundaries of order. Mary Shelley’s faithful transcription of this central antinomy of bourgeois practice is much superior to any orthodox demonology, as well as to any Panglossian optimism that (in SF, say, from Godwin to Asimov) blandly denies the existence of such antinomic evil. But it is also cognitively inferior to a dialectic which she herself adumbrates at the end of the novel, when Frankenstein can acknowledge that his Promethean creation of life has, in the best demonic tradition, boomeranged into death for all his dear ones, and yet can still exclaim: “I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.” In this view he was an improper Prometheus or bearer of the novum – a truly new one, with more patience, love, and success, was to be presented in Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound.
Mary Shelley’s other SF novel, The Last Man (1826), is a renewed reversal of the perspectives in Prometheus Unbound. It first fashions a somewhat rosewatery romance out of the political liberation of Percy’s poem, and then reverses its cosmic optimism by sending upon mankind a plague that leaves the sole survivor finally even more isolated, but also more privatized, than Frankenstein or his Creature. The shift of the locale into the historical future (the “tale of the future” becomes six times more frequent after 1800)15 both enlarges the loneliness of the desert island tale to inescapable planetary proportions and translates the apocalyptic or simply melodramatic fantasy tale into a black SF anticipation. Mary Shelley’s novel canonizes a tradition adumbrated in several works which followed the debacle of eighteenth-century hopes and often posited a new ice age (Cousin de Grainville’s prose epic Le Dernier homme translated as the “romance in futurity” Last Men,Byron’s poem “Darkness,” and others) by imparting a realistic believability to their topoi of lone landscapes and
- My calculation, based on data to be found in Ian Clarke (Bibliography I).
ghostly cities. This makes The Last Man a precursor of the SF biophysics of alienation which extends from Poe and Flammarion to The Time Machine and beyond. But the more complex Frankenstein remains her permanent contribution, claiming for SF the concern for a personalized working out of overriding sociopolitical and scientific dilemmas. It compromised with horror fantasy by treating them largely in terms of a humorless if not hysterical biology, thus announcing the legions of menacing aliens and androids from Melville, Wells, and Čapek on. Yet even the inconsistent sympathy and responsibility for the Creature which are established in the novel transcend the contrived coincidences, sensational murders, and purple patches of the novel and indeed of most SF writing on this theme (not to speak of Hollywood movies, which as a rule revert to one-dimensional Gothic Monsters). The sense of urgency in Frankenstein,situated in an exotic present, interweaves the characters’ intimate reactions with their social destiny, an understanding for Promethean science with a feeling for its human results, and marries the exploratory SF parable with the (still somewhat shaky) tradition of the novel. This indicated the way SF would go in meeting the challenge of the cruel times and of Swift’s great question what was human nature – to be answered in terms of the human body and of social history.
- However, the way proved long and thorny. A number of scattered SF writings in Europe appeared in the second third of the nineteenth century with the revival of utopian expectations and Romantic dreams on both slopes of the watershed constituted by the failed 1848 revolutions. In Russia Odoevsky wrote a mild anticipation, The Year 4338 (discussed in chapter 11). In France Louis Geoffroy’s Napoléon apocryphe, 1812–1832 (1836) and Charles Renouvier’s aptly titled Uchronie (1857 and 1876) introduced into the novel the “alternative history” that was to reach a bittersweet consummation in the twentieth century with and after Anatole France’s Penguin Island and On the White Stone. Emile Souvestre disguised a sermon on the immorality of mechanical progress, which had destroyed the old pieties and would therefore be destroyed by God, as possibly the first systematic anti-utopian anticipation in Le Monde tel qu’il sera (The World as It Shall Be,1845); and Etienne Cabet set a treatise expounding authoritarian collectivism and thinly disguised as fiction in the fittingly regressive spatial location of Voyage en Icarie (1840); both were only less insipid than Lamartine’s dream of a petty-bourgeois European confederation translated as France and England (1848). The most significant echo of warm, Fourierist utopian enthusiasms was C. I. Defontenay’s Star (1854), which used a revived interest in the planetary novel – marked already by Restif ’s Les Posthumes (1802) – for a vivid description, in prose mixed with verse, of a whole solar system with different humanoid species, their physics, politics, and ethics. A utopian humanism and sensibility, which even supplied samples of Starian literature, vivifies Defontenay’s narration of their history, which includes a cosmic exodus and return. This work is a lone masterpiece not to be equaled before Stapledon and C. S. Lewis, if not the 1960s. The publication dates of two books written in the same period by exiled workers testify in mute eloquence to the repressive reasons for Defontenay’s loneness and such cosmic flights: the Chartist John Francis Bray’s A Voyage from Utopia (bp. 1957) attempted to merge Swiftian techniques with radical socialist propaganda; and the Fourierist anarchist Joseph Déjacque’s L’Humanisphère (partial bp. 1899, full 1971) gives a vituperative and rhapsodic vent to his visions of sexual, religious, and sociopolitical libertarianism in 2858. Charles Henningsen’s voluminous romance Sixty Years Hence (1846), echoing Byron and the Shelleys in its avenger-hero and critique of an extreme plutocracy, though in prudence published anonymously, had a somewhat better fate, probably because of the sentimental and scientific melodrama it deftly fused with politics and economics.
- In the United States, too, utopian writings – popular since the secularization of the first colonizing impulse – showed some signs of reviving. But such attempts at utopian colonies as Cabet’s Icaria or the Brook Farm venture failed, and the detachment from – indeed hostility toward – the everyday world increased among North American writers of the midnineteenth century. Living in the country in which the bourgeois way of life progressed most rapidly, these writers recoiled from its optimism most thoroughly. Instead of treating the wondrous novelty in terms of Prometheus, the revolutionary, they came to treat it in terms of Faust, the overreacher who sold his soul to the Devil. Already Goethe had adopted Faust as symbol of the permanent dynamism borne by the bourgeois, and Mary Shelley had substituted him for the Greek Titan midway through Frankenstein. The most prominent of the SF recoilers who followed them were Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. The first often used allegorical fantasy, the second a more or less imaginary voyage, and the third both. In some cases, admittedly marginal to the ensemble of their work, such narratives bordered on or passed into SF.
One of the strong American literary traditions was that of the world supplying moral symbols for the writer, and in particular of the adventurous voyage as an inner quest. It flowed from various updatings of Pilgrim’s Progress,beginning with Joseph Morgan’s Puritan allegory The History of the Kingdom of Basaruah (1715), and into the Enlightenment world vision explicated in Joel Barlow’s Columbiad (1787), a not quite felicitous precursor of Queen Mab. This tradition approached SF in the degree in which it adopted a consistently this-worldly novum, as in Brockden Brown and Washington Irving (whose History of New York contains a satirical SF sketch, midway between Voltaire and Wells, of Lunarians dealing with Earthmen as Whites did with Indians). Fenimore Cooper also wrote two crotchety and rather perfunctory novels satirizing upstart politics, the better of which, The Monikins (1835), at times rises to bitter socioeconomic lucidity. The tradition culminated in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings as the working out of hypotheses with a symbolically collective rather than individualist character. In short, “there was no major 19th-century American writer of fiction, and indeed few of the second rank, who did not write some SF or at least one utopian romance.”16
Hawthorne usually equivocates between the natural and the supernatural, so that the hypnotism and other controlling influences are never cognitively dominant in his major romances. Even in the stories that hinge on the scientist-artist, the somewhat melodramatic allegory suggests that his Faustian urge is unnatural – at worst criminal, as in “The Birthmark,” and at best useless except for his inner satisfaction, as in “The Artist of the Beautiful.” Only in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1846) is Hawthorne momentarily prepared to envisage an alternative world and person on their own
- H. Bruce Franklin, Future Perfect (Bibliography IV A), p. x.
merits. Though Beatrice is not given as spirited a defense as Frankenstein’s Creature, she is at least an innocent and wronged Alien and exercises considerable passionate attraction (analogous to and probably as a parable for the Fourierist ideas which Hawthorne was to renounce as senseless and wicked after his Brook Farm experience, itself comparable to a poisoned Eden). But finally, her father’s revolutionary countercreation is dismissed in an ending more akin to exorcism than to SF.
2.4. On the contrary Edgar Allan Poe took to an exemplary extreme both the autonomy of his imaginary worlds and the isolation of the individual who does not relate to a coherent community but to some metaphysical principle. Poe was economically more exposed to a consistently capitalist society that was finding the artist unnecessary except as a leisure-time entertainer for marginal social strata. History and community meant to him merely a rapidly expanding “dollar-manufacture,” a hateful democracy or mob rule, so that his typical protagonist – raising the stakes in comparison with the revolts of the first Romantic generation – ignores almost all human interactions, not only in politics and work but also in sex and knowledge. Science, technology, and all knowledge have become Mephistophelean instead of Promethean powers, fascinating but leading only to dead-ends and destruction; “Poe confronts and represents, as few authors before him, the alienated and alienating quality of the technological environment.”17 Therefore he constructed a compensatory fantasy world connecting an exacerbated inner reality directly to the universe. But this fantasy is a kind of photographic negative of his environment. Feeling is dissociated from the intelligence and will that had normally acted upon a socially recognizable reality, and a subjective timelessness (indeed a dream time or nightmare time) or instant apprehension of horror efface any objectively measurable or progressing duration: personality and consciousness are here disintegrating. In the actuality “time-keeping had merged with record-keeping in the art of communication.”18 Poe was with Mary Shelley the first significant figure in this tradition to make a living by writing for periodicals (both of them
- David Halliburton (Bibliography IV A), p. 247.
- Mumford, p. 136.
even wrote stories to fit an illustration in a yearbook or magazine, as did many authors of later SF); accordingly, he concentrated on the obstacles to communication. Communication is for Poe a maze of masks, hoaxes, and cryptograms, typified in the manuscript put into a bottle, falsely sent or mysteriously received, revealing truth ambiguously if at all.
Most of Poe’s tales exist within the horizons of terror, of flight “out of space – out of time” (“Dream-land”); they are horror-fantasies pretending to a private supernatural reality that is in fact based upon prescientific lore. In this light, Poe is the originator of what is least mature in the writing commercially peddled as SF – an adolescent combination of hysterical sensibility and sensational violence, a dissociation of symbol from imaginative consistency of any (however imaginary) world, a vague intensity of style used for creepy incantation. His protagonist is often “the perpetual American boy-man” with a somewhat hysterical urge “to express himself […] above, or away from, or beyond our commoner range of experience”; T.S. Eliot, acknowledging his “very exceptional mind and sensibility,” has even suggested that Poe’s intellect was that “of a highly gifted young person before puberty.”19 Though this may not be fair to Poe, who at his best knew how to present his limitations with ironic distancing, it accurately pinpoints the emotional age of his imitators in the no-man’s-land of fantasy passed off as SF, from the work of Haggard and Lovecraft to Bradbury and Beyond.
Three groups of Poe’s works have a more direct claim to attention in this overview: those marginally using some SF conventions, those using SF for comic comment or ideological revelation, and those dealing with cosmological speculations. The first group comprises the poem “Al Aaraaf,” the dialogues “Eiros and Charmion” (which mentions for the first time the destruction of Earth in a conflagration caused by a comet) and “The Power of Words,” and the tales of oceanic descent culminating in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). Pym appropriates the extraordinary-voyage tradition for a metaphysical (and, in the Tsalal episode, passably racist)
- First quotation Edward H. Davidson (Bibliography IV A), p. 214; second quotation T.S. Eliot, “From Poe to Valéry,” in Eric W. Carlson, ed. (Bibliography IV A), pp. 212–13.
quest for purity in the unknown, presents an interesting use of correspondences between the world and the protagonist, and possibly ends with the Pole being an entrance to the hollow Earth popularized in the pseudonymous Symzonia (1820). The second group used contemporary popular SF interests for anticipations like balloon flights across the Atlantic or – in the wake of George Tucker’s A Voyage to the Moon and Richard Locke Adams’s celebrated “Moon Hoax” – to the Moon, and suspended animation (in “The Unparallelled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” “The Balloon Hoax,” “Some Words With a Mummy,” “Mellonta Tauta,” “Von Kempelen and His Discovery”); but again, it transmuted them into hoaxes and satires of present-day certainties of progress. “The Man That Was Used Up” (1840) in this group is the first tale about a man almost totally composed of artificial organs. The most substantial among these stories, “Pfaall” (1840) and “Mellonta Tauta” (bp. 1850), are most strongly science-fictional. The interplanetary flight prepared by an amateur inventor in his backyard, the verisimilar flight perils and observations, and the glimpses of grotesque yet kindred Aliens in “Pfaall” gave the cue to much later space-travel SF. More subtly, so did the future inventions, political satire, and barriers to understanding of the reader’s times in “Mellonta Tauta” (as also, retrospectively, in “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade”) to later time-travel SF. The three “mesmeric tales” culminating in the scientifically motivated horrors of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (bp. 1850), whether used for revelation of Poe’s cosmology or tongue-in-cheek sensationalism, are ancillary to his fantastic system of correspondences. This third group is subsumed under Eureka (1848), Poe’s crowning piece of essayistic SF, which explicates the highly heretical, complex web of analogies and conversions by which, in Poe, life does not end with death, sentience is not confined to organic matter, cosmogony is analogous to individual sensibility and creativity (as in “The Power of Words”), and the universe is God’s coded monologue. Such mechanistic metaphysics leads finally to solipsism: whatever the writer can imagine is as good as created, and conversely all that is created is imagined. No wonder Poe appealed to later lonely writers.
In fact, Poe’s influence has been immense in both Anglo-American and French SF (the latter has yet to recover from it). Though his ideology and time-horizon tend to horror-fantasy, the pioneering incompleteness of his work provided SF too with a wealth of hints for fusing the rational with the symbolical, such as his techniques of gradual domestication of the extraordinary and of the “half-closed eye” estrangement just glimpsing the extraordinary. With Poe, the tradition of the moral quest became urbanized, escapist, and unorthodox. His influence encompasses on the one hand the mechanical marvels of Verne and the dime-novels, and on the other the escapist strain in some of the “hardest” U.S. SF, for example, Robert A. Heinlein’s time-traveling solipsism. Both are blended in the Wellsian grotesque tradition, from some of Wells’s cumulations of believable terrors to, say, the symbolical tales of James Blish or Damon Knight. Poe’s notes stressing verisimilitude, analogy, and probability for the wondrous story made him also the first theoretician of SF.
2.5. Herman Melville’s whole opus is “a major contribution to the literature of created societies,”20 for he took the Faustian quest more seriously than Hawthorne and less necrophilically than Mary Shelley and Poe. Mardi (1849), though somewhat formless, is an iconoclastic “extraordinary voyage” among islands of unsatisfactory mythologies, politics, and philosophies that blends memories of Polynesia with elements from Rabelais. “The Tartarus of Maids,” a revulsion against sexual physiology masked as a burlesque alternative, is on the margins of SF by virtue of its sustained parallel between organic creation and paper production (just as Frankenstein’s uncouth creation is in some ways analogous to the novel, Frankenstein). Most interestingly, in “The Bell-Tower” (1856), the “practical materialist” merchant-mechanician protagonist “enriched through commerce with the Levant,” rising as a new force in a feudal society, and raising his tower with the clock and the “state-bell”, is a potent symbol for rising capitalism and the emblematic U.S. Liberty Bell. But his bell has been cast with an admixture of workman’s blood, and the automaton created by him to be the bell’s ringer, the “iron slave” who represents the servitude of Negroes and all workers, finally slays his master. The complex – even if not always congruous – religious, sexual, and political symbolism makes this the nearest that mid-nineteenth-century narrative prose SF came to a Blakean
- Franklin, p. 135; see also his stimulating discussion of “The Bell-Tower,” ibidem.
approach. The American SF story continued to be well represented into the second half of the century, especially by some of Fitz-James O’Brien’s tales, which culminated in the somber story of microscopic fatality and elective affinity “The Diamond Lens” (bp. 1881). But he was killed in the Civil War, and the ensuing Gilded Age was not propitious to sustained SF, which revived only with Bellamy.
3. And so the period that opened with universal anticipations of liberation, with Blake’s and Percy Shelley’s rhapsodies, found its central expression in the anguished immediacy of Frankenstein’s costly failure and ended in the symbolic gloom of representative writers from what began as liberty’s first and last frontier but turned out to be a Liberty Bell fracturing because it was cast with an admixture of toilers’ blood. As Wordsworth precisely noted: “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof comes despondency and madness” (“Resolution and Independence”). These words can be seen as a characterization of the age more than of the poets it molded, turning them from Shelley’s unacknowledged legislating to Melville’s passionate witnessing.