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World’s Enough: Travels in an Adolescent Genre

Mary ShelleyMary Shelley by Miranda Seymour

Reviewed by L. J. Davis
Harper's Magazine

It was with a high heart that I set out to begin my planned survey of the science-fiction scene by reading Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio. Bear can write, something a lot of science fiction types don't do very well. He is not a stylist in the way of fantasy novelist Ray Bradbury (and thank God for that; at his lushest, Bradbury seems to be writing the stuff with an orchid). But Bear knows the difference between a girl and a woman. In his hands, different people talk like different people, not like a congeries of iterations of the author. He is at home with the language of science; when his scientists talk, they sound like scientists. In Darwin's Radio, I found to my delight, he is at the top of his form with a story about an ancient retrovirus implanted in the human genome. And the virus decided to wake up and take a look around. Great stuff.

But then a thought occurred to me: Where the hell did science fiction come from? What was the first science-fiction story, and what was it about? Science, obviously, but what kind of science?

As I was asking myself these questions, I actually thought that I knew the answers. Everybody who mucks around in science fiction does. Science fiction was invented by a teenage girl who was shacked up with the greatest poet of the age, and she was encouraged in the endeavor by a poet-nobleman with a club foot, who was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. But was that correct? I decided to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear and find out (aided by the recent and extremely competent biography Mary Shelley, but the British writer Miranda Seymour, who has acquitted herself well in the unenviable task of filling 600 pages with the details of a life of staggering triviality).

All through the long, rainy, indoorsy Geneva summer of 1816, Mary, her boyfriend, Percy Shelley, Gordie Byron, and their friends improved the idle hours (of which they had twenty-four each day) by telling one another philosophical ghost stories. Then she had a dream, and on rising she sat down to write Frankenstein.

In the preface to the 1831 edition, Mary suggests what was going through her mind. She cites, for instance, the influence of the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani, who had made a dead frog's leg twitch when he applied a current of electricity, and who temporarily believed he had discovered the force of life itself, until he gave the whole thing up as a bad job. Galvani's nephew, Giovavnni Aldini, was given a medal by the London medical establishment when he supposedly revived a decapitated corpse by giving it a good shock. Also cited is Erasmus Darwin, the poet-scientist-physician, grandfather of the naturalist, inventor of the steering wheel, discoverer of photosynthesis -- and a corpulent libertine who played the trombone to his flowers, cut a semicircle out of his dining-room table so that he could get closer to his food, and sketched the world's first known schematic drawing of a hybrid ramjet-rocket engine. Dr. Darwin believed in the spontaneous generation of life from putrefying organic matter, something that would come in handy as Victor Frankenstein assembled the modern Prometheus' body parts in those pre-air-conditioned days. Dr. Darwin had also fooled around with electricity (a thought that I ask you to hold in your mind).

As a novel, Frankenstein is a pretty punk piece of work. The good doctor is a crashing bore, the monster is no better, the book is a lot of talk, and at the end Mary can think of no denouement more compelling than to assemble her cast at the North Pole, where they close our little drama with another rousing gabfest. Nonetheless, a fragment of all this chin music is not without its interest. The thing that qualifies the book as the first modern science-fiction novel (though it is not, as I will shortly astound you by demonstrating, the first science-fiction novel) is electricity.

Only sixty-years before the teenage Mary sat down to pen her weirdly deathless classic, Dr. Benjamin Franklin had done the first basic work on the stuff before he, too, gave it up as a bad job. An American to his finger's ends, Franklin -- to his considerable annoyance -- found himself practicing pure, cutting-edge science without finding a single useful thing to do with it. Moreover, although he came within an inch of postulating the electron theory, Franklin downed tools before he found out what electricity was, which pretty much left the field wide open. Electricity could be anything, and when, in one of the most famous lab accidents in scientific history, Galvani discovered that it could make a dead frog's leg twitch he decided that it was everything, more or less. Although he later changed his mind and was honorable enough to say so, Galvani decided that electricity was the very stuff of life, the thing that animates all this self-propelled met; and in a great, mistaken, intuitive leap he decided that it could also predict the weather. He realized that he was wrong too, but not before he had festooned his shrubbery with frog body parts, observing them closely to see if they twitches at the approach of a lightening storm. They did not.

Two complete dead ends, and still nobody knew what electricity was. But Galvani's failed researches bore two strange, unrelated fruits. For years thereafter, scientists -- the word, a deliberate neologism, wasn't coined until 1840 -- went into the corpse-shocking business and found they could make cadavers do all sorts of things. If they were lucky, for example, the corpse would wink. And then Volta, another Italian who couldn't get those frog's legs out of his mind, invented the world's first reliable storage battery. He didn't know what electricity was either, but a huge Volta pile, the supercomputer of its day, was one of the first things the American renegade and scoundrel Benjamin Thompson bought when he founded the Royal Institution in London (while taking a breather from being the only American except Douglas MacArthur to serve as absolute dictator of a foreign country, inventing baked Alaska and the modern theory of hear, and getting himself ennobled as Count Rumford). And as his first hire at the Royal Institution, Thompson -- or Rumford, if you will -- chose an obscure provincial chemist named Humphrey Davy and turned him loose on the Volta pile.

With his monster battery, Davy invented the electric light and began to isolate the elements. Although he joined a long line of people who had no idea what electricity was, he laid them in the aisles at the Royal. He was a spellbinding lecturer, handsome in an androgynous way, and girls like our Mary wrote him poetry. Trolling for good scientific ghost-story material, she was reading a book of his essays before she had her dream and wrote her book. She gave Victor Frankenstein Humphrey Davy's laboratory. And because electricity could be anything and made corpses wink -- and because she apparently never read Galvani's retraction -- she let Frankenstein pump electricity into his stitched-together monster. The result was an extremely bad book that has lived on in song, story, and the silver-screen for almost two hundred years.

The history of science fiction usually begins here, with Frankenstein. The history is wrong. If we stretch our definition a bit, the world's first sci-fi author was a certain Lucian of Samosata, a Romanized Syrian whose two lunar-space operas, Icaromenippus and True History, by some incredible fluke escaped the torching of the Alexandrine Library by the Emperor Theodosius in 391. Writing in the second century, Lucian took his protagonists to the moon. There is, of course, a problem with this -- the total lack of a delivery system -- but in the hands of a true hack like Lucian all great problems are made small. In one case, his protagonist sprouts wings. In the other, he is conveyed lunar-ward by a waterspout. On the moon, we learn, the poor have wooden phalluses and the phalluses of the rich are made of ivory, which sounds perfectly plausible to me. After Lucian, the science-fiction business shuts down for 1,400 years.

It was Aristotle who did it, Aristotle and the Church in their usual poisonous combination. Aristotle had decided that a plurality of worlds -- other planets, circumnavigating our own and other stars -- was logically impossible. He also held that the moon (and other spheres that might have slipped through the net of his reasoning) was a gigantic ball bearing, perfectly circular and perfectly featureless. Among the ancients, he was fairly isolated in this opinion, as any number of cooler heads kept trying to point out to the Holy See; but the discovery that Aristotle was dead-wrong was what brought Galileo such a world of trouble and would have led to a certain death if he hadn't been the Pope's best friend. The ascendancy of Aristotle, contradicted though he was, lay in a curious circumstance: The Israelites who wrote the Bible were remarkably uninterested in the heavens. Paul mentions other worlds twice, and that's about it, giving the Church a monstrous headache. If other worlds exist, three extremely nasty questions can be asked: Did God make another world better than this? Did Christ suffer and die on other worlds? And, if not, what then? Until Galileo made his telescope and subsequent discoveries, the Church preferred not to have those questions asked. Giordano Bruno went to the stake, a nail driven through his tongue, because he asked them.

But you can't keep a good genre down, as the Church should have known, and with the revival of knowledge came the revival of science fiction. Johannes Kepler, who computed the motion of the planets, was first off the mark in 1634 with his posthumous novel, Somnium. The subject, again, is a lunar journey, and the purpose is didactic: to acquaint the common reader with Galileo's discoveries as Kepler understood them. Like Lucian, Kepler first has to get us there, and he resorts to a device that has been imitated, with modifications, right down to our own time. He puts his narrator to sleep; the novel is a dream. Then, like many first novelists, Kepler loses sight of his primary goal, and for pages and pages the book is a roman a clef in which it's payback time for his difficult mother. At some point during its composition, however, he must have woken up and remembered his goal; the dreaming protagonist leaves Mom behind and is conveyed to the moon by demons, where he finds gigantic mountains, deep valleys, and a population of serpents that live for but a lunar day. Because Kepler was certain to get into enormous hot water with his family, he put the book in his trunk and it wasn't published until after he was safely dead, but upon Somnium's publication a science-fiction boom began. The destination was almost always the moon.

The great danger in writing about science fiction is that your essay will turn into a list -- a list of the people who wrote it, a list of their amazing predictions, a list of their comical mistakes. With the dawning realization that the plurality of worlds was a fact -- not a guess, not a suspicion, and not a heresy -- it seemed as though everybody in sight grabbed a pen, only to confront the same knotty technological problem. Yes, there was a plurality of worlds. But how did you get there? You flew, of course, but how? There were few precedents.

Solomon had sent some sort of flying machine to Sheba, but Scripture was silent when it came to the specifications. King Lear's father, Bladud, had gotten himself up in a bird suit like Icarus and come to a similarly bad end, and Alexander the Great had zipped around the country in a flying throne powered by birds and a sort of carrot-and-stick mechanism. The situation had not improved since then. John Donne thought exiling the Jesuits to the moon was a bully idea, but he neglected to recommend a launch vehicle. Cyrano de Bergerac strapped on vials of dew, crash-landed in Quebec (where at least the people spoke French), and continued his journey via firecracker, with which the Quebecois were abundantly supplied. In his novel The Consolidator: or Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon, Daniel Defoe seems to anticipate the invention of gasoline but accomplishes the voyage by means of apes serving as galley slaves. Dean Swift, in Gulliver's third travel, shows the true science-fiction spirit in his elaborate description of his flying city's lodestone propulsion system, but he never gets higher than suborbital and his mind is mostly elsewhere. And this quality -- attention to detail, carried to lunatic lengths -- is on prominent display in Bishop Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moone or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither, in which the science-fiction ball really gets rolling. Bishop Godwin, not a man to pass up a good thing, and taking a leaf from Alexander's book, uses bird power -- in his case, wild swans. Nor does he stint in his description of the space vehicle itself. With smoke fairly pouring from his ears, the bishop single-handedly invents the sort of bad science fiction in which the lavishness of description is matched only by the reader's almost complete inability to understand what's going on. (How do you make a pulley out of cork?) No matter, for the bishop and his hero, Domingo Gonsales, are soon on their way, thanks to the providential fact that the moon is smack in the middle of the swans' migration route. Godwin also tried to work out the problem of gravity, and concluded that at some point (but not the atmosphere) would slacken and stop. This was fortunate. Otherwise the birds, harnessed to a passenger-bearing "engine" of his own prolix but unclear design, would have gotten tired. The problem of laying in provisions was likewise solved. Gravity, it seemed, caused hunger, and weightlessness took care of it. The book was wildly popular for two hundred years. It also marked an important science-fiction first: the uncannily accurate prediction. Bishop Godwin made his Domingo Gonsales into a prudent and forethoughtful man who subjected his "engine" to a test flight. The passenger on the test flight was a lamb. When the Montgolfier brother launched their first balloon in the real world of the 1780s, the passenger was a lamb.

The coming of the balloon marked the end of fanciful cosmic voyages and the beginning of what we now call "hard sci-fi" -- science fiction based on technologies that actually exist, or that can exist by the extrapolation of existing technologies. And the experiments of the early French balloonists marked an effective end of bird power as both a lifting and a steering mechanism. Herding birds, the French found, was remarkably similar to herding cats.

After Dr. Frankenstein's electrical adventures, it was left to Edgar Allen Poe, who seems to have done just about everything first, to take up the cudgels with "The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall." It was a description of a balloon journey to the moon taken by a bankrupt Amsterdam bellows-mender after he cunningly blows up his principal creditors with a charge of gunpowder. Like Bishop Godwin, Poe was extremely careful in working out the physics of the voyage and he gadgetry of his device; we are again in the presence of hard sci-fi. For example, he was careful to encase his balloon's gondola in a kind of airtight condom, and he equipped his bankrupt bellow-mender with something called a condenser. Poe didn't know where the atmosphere ended -- no one did -- but he knew that it thinned out. (In a subsequent essay, he revealed that he was enormously proud of his story's science.) The condom protected Pfaall from the rigors of high-altitude flight, and the condenser, well, condensed the outside air and gave him breathable oxygen. And, in another tale, it was Poe who led science fiction into the biggest dead end in literature: the underground city.

I am indebted to a splendid little book by Paul Collins, Banvard's Folly, a compendium of wildly mistaken notions, false starts, and the enormous energies expended on them, for the back story on this particular literary misdirection. Beginning in 1818, having studied (among other things) the migratory habits of the caribou, a retired American Army captain named John Cleves Symmes began tirelessly to write and lecture on the subject of a semi-hollow Earth composed of concentric spheres, though he was an indifferent writer, a poor speaker, and suffered acutely from stage fright, which eventually killed him. He believed the inner world was inaccessible, that it was somehow illuminated, and that I was almost certainly inhabited. One hundred and twenty-five years later, when radar sets were as precious as diamonds in Hitler's Reich, a radar-equipped German destroyer was dispatched to the middle of the North Sea and instructed to scan a portion of the sky midway between the horizon and the zenith. If the Earth was hollow and we lived in within it, as members of the Nazi high command believed, the radar would show the disposition of the British fleet at Scapa Flow. I am given to understand that the language of the destroyer's captain, as he performed this insane experiment, blistered the paint on his bridge.

Symmes had a young disciple named Jeremiah Reynolds, who carried on his great work and actually made a star-crossed voyage to the Antarctic in search of the elusive opening. Attending one of Reynolds's lectures in Baltimore was a certain Henry Allan, who went home and told his adopted brother, Edgar Allan Poe, all about it. Poe immediately sat down and wrote his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which ends with the hero's vessel plunging into a polar abyss as "there arose in out pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow." Pym had fallen down Symmes Hole.

So how do we get from Poe to the Nazi destroyer? We get there by way of Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton, never a man to let well enough alone, in prose or in life. Bulwer-Lytton wrote Hitler's favorite novel, The Coming Race, which on close examination is a book about how much Bulwer-Lytton hated the United States. In it, an American mining engineer tumbles into a hole and discovers a utopia inhabited by giant humanoid frogs who are also, in a way never very clear, Aryans who are destined to reconquer the surface world as soon as they decide to get around it. They live in a sort of perfect matriarchy that nonetheless has decided to allow the men to run things, and they possess a secret invisible power called Vril, which seems to be -- surprise! -- a form of electricity. (The name lives on in Bovril, the inedible British comestible that seems to be made of concentrated salt.) With Vril, the foggy Aryans power their prosthetic wings, with Vril they motivate their androids, with their Vril wands they will destroy the human race, and… I can't go on. The Coming Race is the worst novel ever written. Ever since Hitler sent the SS to search the caves of Europe, underground cities have been the obsession of every wingnut and squirrel cage in the known universe. Go to the Internet and type "Tesla" if you don't believe me. According to the Internet, Nikola Tesla, Edison's former employee and enemy (about whom we will hear more in a moment), lives on undying in a underground city with his pal and soul mate, Marconi. Every now and then, you will find, they slip next door for a cup of tea in the underground city of their neighbor, Adolf Hitler.

But while one part of science fiction was slamming into a wall, the rest of it was taking flight -- in the most literal possible way. We have arrived at Jules Verne.

It is often and truly said that science fiction is an adolescent genre -- its main appeal is to kids, mostly male kids. Usually overlooked, however, is what this means. It is precisely because science fiction appeals to kids that it is the only form of literature with profound real-world consequences. As John Donne's hated Jesuits have been known to say, if you get them young, you have them forever.

True, in his "Extraordinary Voyages," Verne took his characters for a five-week ride in a balloon to the center of the Earth (not his best effort); and Verne's best book, The Mysterious Island -- recently reissued in a much improved translation by Jordan Stump -- is only marginally science fiction (it's mostly about Yankee ingenuity, which Verne hated). But if we're looking for real-world consequences, consider his From the Earth to the Moon, in which he shot his characters out of a cannon and sent them to the moon. Among the book's most ardent fans were Robert Goddard, Hermann Oberth, and Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovski, the fathers of the American, German, and Russian space programs. Werner von Braun thought the world of it, too.

A cottage industry has spring up comparing the eerie similarities between the moon shot in the book and the moon shot in 1969, a cottage industry that, at its goofy reductio ad absurdum, tends to resemble all those mystical comparisons between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. (Verne's space vehicle was launched by a cannon called a Columbiad; the name of the command module for the 1969 spacecraft was Columbia; that sort of thing.) There were, in fact, a number of things that Verne got very wrong; science fiction isn't prophecy. To send a projectile to the moon, the cannon would have had to be 400 miles long. The shock wave from the blast would have leveled everything from Tampa to St. Pete. Verne didn't understand gravity. If you really shot people out of a cannon, the result would be a lot of bloody goo. The list could go on. But Verne, whose collection of science-factoid file cards eventually reached 200,000, knew a lot of stuff about much of the rest. He computed, almost to a penny, the cost of a real-world moon shot. He launched from a sire near Cape Canaveral. His capsule was the size of the Columbia, and, like the Columbia, it contained three men. He accurately computed the escape velocity. He made a midcourse correction. His spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific only three miles from where the Columbia splashed down. This list, too, could go on. What it says is that Verne was a pretty good amateur physicist who knew how to ask the right people the right questions. Then his imagination went to work.

Even when his imagination strayed a bit too far from science, Verne may have known what he was up to. That cannon, for instance -- it's clear from the text that he knew it wouldn't work. Still, he had to get his lunarnauts into space, and although he used rocket power for his midcourse correction, he used poetic license for his main launch -- and must have though he had a very good reason for doing so. As late as 1920, when Robert Goddard had begun to speculate on the use of rockets in outer space, no less an authority than the New York Times thundered back: "That Professor Goddard, with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react -- to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." In firing his astronauts out of a cannon, then, Verne was waxing poetic in the interest of verisimilitude. And in the fictional rockets that thundered in the Columbiad's immediate wake, the power source was usually some form of antigravity.

Indeed, a form of antigravity was the power source of the only novel John Jacob Astor IV managed to wrote in the interval when he wasn't pinching debutante bottoms, watching Teddy Roosevelt charge up the wrong hill from a fortified place of safety, and getting drowned in the Titanic. The book, A Journey in Other Worlds, is almost unreadable now -- I can't imagine a time when it was readable -- but the awfulness of Astor's book if not the exception among the many imitators of Verne. Awfulness is the rule, though some rather pretty little things managed to fall through the cracks. For a time it seemed that everybody and his brother was writing science fiction. Mark Twain did it, in a tale about television. And the Congregationalist minister Edward Everett Hale wrote "The Brick Moon" and "Life on the Brick Moon," the first short stories about an artificial satellite. Accidentally launched by two gigantic flywheels, the thirty-seven inhabitants of the brick moon communicated with Earth by dancing on their little planetoid in Morse Code. But no writer after Verne advanced the genre. Until Wells.

In many way, Herbert George Wells is the mirror image of Jules Verne; he started as a pessimist and then he cheered up. Verne cranked out his books until death found him at a good age. So did Wells. Verne, even when read in French or properly translated, is a pedestrian stylist. So was Wells; in his autobiography, he insisted that he wasn't an artist, that the ideas were what counted. And in the science-fiction novels Wells wrote before he descended into utter forgettability after 1901, one of the ideas is very new indeed: the future.

Wells did not invent the novel of the future. Mary Shelley did, in 1826, with the publication of The Last Man. Set in the year 2073, it describes (when she finally gets around to it) the extermination of humanity in a plague; but aside from balloon transport, Mary Shelley's exterminated humanity hasn't made a stride in the intervening 250 years. England is still ruled by a monarch, there's trouble in the Balkans; she doesn't do anything with the place she calls Northern United States of America; people still get around in horses; and feminists will have to stretch for reason to admire, much less read, the book. The same cannot be said for Wells. One of his earliest efforts, in 1895, was The Time Machine.

Why do we continue to read this book? We know how it turns out -- with curtains for humanity, to say nothing of the planet Earth. And Wells's science drove the elderly Verne into a swivet; when Wells brought his protagonists to their destination in The First Men in the Moon, using an antigravity substance called Cavotire, Verne angrily demanded to see this substance. In The Time Machine, there is no actual description of the time machine worthy of the name; it seems to resemble a Harley-Davidson with quartz fittings, and we never get a plausible clue as to how the thing works. Moreover, we know what Wells's all-important ideas were: the evolutionary decline of man into two races: the eloi, the weak, stupid, and beautiful descendants of the leisure class; and the morlocks, formerly the workers inspired by his study of Herbert Spencer and his pupilship under Thomas Huxley in his young days. True, in The Time Machine's later prequel, The Sleeper Awakes, Wells makes an effort to construct the actual furniture of a future time -- all the people in Britain live in four cities, he anticipates the VCR and the sound bite, the streets of London move, and the power comes form windmill farms -- as humanity descends into morlockhood. But the book, while not without its features of interest, is the lesser effort of a man whose powers are failing. We read The Time Machine because it's a corking good yarn by a writer at the top of his form. Which is why we also read -- and reread -- The War of the Worlds, Wells's best effort.

As with so many of the books under discussion, The War of the Worlds is just a little but misunderstood. Usually it's read as a screed on the evils of British colonialism and ownership by right of conquest (graduate students have to do something to earn their bread and cheese). It's generally forgotten that Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in the middle of humanity's greatest Mars fad. In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli, one of the world's foremost astronomers, believed he had detected lines on the red planet. He was very cautious about these lines, by the way; he was equally ready to believe they weren't there at all. Mars was very far away, the telescopes of the day were very small, and atmospheric distortion turned the planet into a small, blurry, orange ball. Yet Mars had polar caps -- many people had seen them -- and its markings, whatever they were, definitely changed. The moon had proven a huge disappointment; no life was possible there, but a long psychological hangover from the plurality-of-worlds movement of the seventeenth century said that life had to be out there somewhere -- God could not have created a plurality of worlds without creating creatures capable of admiring his handiwork.

Schiaparelli had carefully called his possible lines canali, Italian for "channels," but Percival Lowell, an eccentric Bostonian of wealthy descent, decided that what Schiaparelli really meant was canals. From there it was but the tiny deductive step to concluding that mars was a dying planet inhabited by an advanced race with superb engineering skills; the canals were for irrigation; anybody who could dig canals could build a telescope revealing all the delicious water on Earth; and (although Lowell didn't say it) they were coming to get us. With his abundant funds, Lowell built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, specifically to examine Mars, and soon he had a map of the agricultural areas and the irrigation system and a best-selling book, appropriately titled Mars. The book and the map were dead wrong, of course, but Lowell didn't know that; he saw what he wanted to see, and he kept right on seeing it. Nikola Tesla certainly believed him. Conducting radio experiments in Colorado Springs (and burning down the local powerhouse, because he was also experimenting with broadcast power on the nickel of no less a figure than John Jacob Astor IV), Tesla believed he had picked up a Martian radio signal. Certainly he'd picked up something; Tesla was not yet a crackpot, though he soon would be. Perhaps it was the background radiation of the universe, or perhaps -- this is a bit of a stretch -- he'd picked up the young Bolognese experimenter Marconi from halfway around the world. He hadn't picked up Mars. But Tesla, like Lowell, didn't know that. Neither did Wells. The Great Mars Fad of the 1890s gave him the best opening lines in the history of science fiction: "No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than mans and yet as mortal as his own…. Yet across the gulf of space…intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us." For Wells, after that, it was all downhill. But not for the United States. With England prostrate after the 1897 Martian invasion, America led Earth's counterattack on Mars itself, and the American space armada was led by no less a figure than… Thomas Alva Edison. Armed with an electric raygun of his own design, he melted the Martian polar cap and destroyed humanity's enemies to the last octopoid. Well, not quite. You can read all about it in Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898) by Garrett Serviss.

We have now reached the twentieth century, and before I open the envelope containing the name of the writer I propose to examine, let me tell you what's going to happen to me. My mailman will go on strike. My computer will be spammed. My telephone will utter death threats. Because science fiction is an adolescent medium. Feelings running high. They run especially high in the direction of Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clark (the only science-fiction writer to have a piece of space named after him), Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Jerry Pournelle, and Philip K. Dick. Especially Philip K. Dick. To name but a few. I'm not going to talk about any of them. The name of the winner is… Robert Anson Heinlein.

I have chosen Heinlein for a number of reasons. For one thing, as a graduate of the Naval Academy, he's one of the few sci-fi writers who's also a trained engineer, and engineering, together with a Wellsian vigor of prose and imagination, informs the best of his work. Because he was unabashedly predictive, you can play with all sorts of games with Heinlein's oeuvre; you can make another list. In just one novel, The Door into Summer, he anticipated 3-D illustrations, computer-aided design, Velcro, and cryogenic sleep.

But mostly I've fingered Heinlein because I blame him for single-handedly triggering the current sad decline of a once delightful genre. There are other reasons for the decline, of course. For one thing, the imagination can get cramped by too much knowledge. Kim Stanley Robinson's bloated Mars trilogy, for example, has won every sci-fi prize known to man, but it goes on and on (and on and on) with everything we know about Mars. Not only does it no stone go unturned but every stone is mapped and described. The science is terrific, the writing sucks, the characters never come alive, and I don't need to know it every time Mars sneezes. And while Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is a sprightly read with a nifty plot -- until the end, when book and author run short on the steam of inventiveness -- the most interesting character is General MacArthur died in 1964, and he was an old, old man even then. That's not science fiction, that's history.

Back to Heinlein. I can't forgive him for writing Stranger in a Strange Land, a book with utterly no redeeming features. The sources of its inspiration aren't hard to trace. For one thing, he always wanted to write a novel about a Martian named Smith. For another, he let his lifelong obsession with female nudity -- always one of his least redeeming features -- run away with him. And, like L. Ron Hubbard, it turns out that he always wanted to found a new religion. Well, he did, and a goofy new Age religion it is, called, for want of a better word, grokking. The younger Heinlein, when he still had his wits and skill set, would have pilloried, drawn and quartered, and generally had a high old time with anything so terminally stupid. Instead, he took the terminally stupid, and he took it seriously. Grokking, for those of you who haven't read the book, consists of understanding stuff. Totally. Mystically. Like, wow. And then you get to go to heaven. Literally. Anyone who reads Stranger in a Strange Land after reading anything, anything at all, by Robertson Davies will suffer from a serious case of embarrassment. Last, I take this book personally. Thousands upon thousands of people bought it, they ate it up, and I have to talk to them. Moreover, I have to pretend I like them; I was raised in the Old School.

Verne! Thou shoulds't be living at this hour! The house of science fiction is badly in need of cleaning.

L. J. Davis is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His next book, Fleet Fire: Thomas Edison and the Pioneers of the Electrical Revolution will be published this year by Arcade.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Darwin's Radio Used Mass Market $3.95
  2. Frankenstein (Dover Thrift Editions)
    Used Trade Paper $1.95

  3. Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of...
    Used Trade Paper $10.00
  4. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym... Used Trade Paper $7.00
  5. The Coming Race (Hesperus Classics) New Trade Paper $13.95
  6. The Mysterious Island New Mass Market $7.95

  7. A Journey in Other Worlds New Trade Paper $18.25
  8. The Time Machine (Bantam Classics)
    Used Trade Paper $4.00
  9. The Sleeper Awakes Used Trade Paper $7.95
  10. The War of the Worlds (Dover Thrift... Used Trade Paper $3.00

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5 Responses to "World’s Enough: Travels in an Adolescent Genre"

    Gray Temple October 29th, 2010 at 6:55 am

    Y'all still got copy editors at Harper's?

    s h a r o n October 29th, 2010 at 9:12 am

    Wow. Another humungous review of 6k words most of which Davis strings together in run-on sentences and other egregious errors of the English language in a manner that makes his missive a teeth-grinding as well as wonderful reading experience. Like reader Gray, this review makes me wonder what happened to Harper's that they would publish this kind of writing. (Scarier still, is the thought that, yes, Harper's does indeed have copy editors, but they were all asleep at the wheel (or their spaceship controls) for this one.

    Still and all, this quirky review is one of the more enjoyable reading experiences I've had in ages. Thanks, Powell's.

    Wing October 29th, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Not sure what this wonderful "review" had to do with the book in question, but found it archly funny and pretty darn informative. I'll watch for more of Davis' smart ass opinionated thinking!

    Barry Pegg October 30th, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Quirky. yes. Worth reading, no. This fellow has no feeling at all for Mary Shelley's ideas. The science in it is secondary to her attempt not to answer the question "how do you make a human being?' but "how do you educate one?" Her purpose is to be found in the three books she has Creature read while he hides in the pigsty and attempts to understand his unknowing hosts: Plutarch's "Lives," "Paradise Lost," and his maker's lab-notes. Ignorance of this part of the plot is inexcusable in a review attempting to place "Frankenstein"in the tradition of sci-fi, where it doesn't really belong except peripherally

    Verne November 1st, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Please don't associate my name with this high school level writing.

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