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SCIENCE FICTION SCIENCE FICTION  Ambitious study of the history of the SF/Fantasy genres from a Humanistic perspective. In Six parts and with a Bibliography too. PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4 PART 5 PART 6   BIBLIOGRAPHY

CHAPTER THREE INTO THE 20th CENTURY

(VERNE, WELLS, STAPLEDON & BURROUGHS

Jules Verne (dates) offered adventurous voyages to The Center of the Earth, the Bottom of the Sea and to the Moon. These were exciting escapades; in fabulous machines. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is still awe inspiring to the younger reader; but it lacks character and human conflict. The books seen scientific for their diaries, geographical details and obscure facts and figures that give a superficial sense of realism to the works:. Even his anti-hero Captain Nemo is a little more than a cipher. We remember him for where he is and what he does. Verne claimed himself to have created a new Genre in his writings which he was certainly among the first to write so consciously. He was, as Aldiss observes, the first writer to succeed commercially in writing Science Fiction; he was even blessed by the Pope fur his troubles. His success lay not in literary greatness, or sense of humanity, but in his ability to create sensationalism; and the fact that railway station bookstalls were beginning to open in his day. What better way to escape a long train ride than imagining you're really going to the Moon?

In 1911 Catholic author, Robert Hugh Benson wrote The Dawn of All, a Utopian piece of wish fulfillment showing a future where socialism, atheism and Protestantism have given way to universal belief in Catholicism.

With H.G Wells, humanistic science fiction came back into play; his work veers between optimism and pessimism, but focuses squarely an the destiny and plight of the human race. A short story called the Lord of The Dynamos illustrates brilliantly his views on religion; it concerns a brutal racist who forces n young Negro stowaway to work in his electricity generation plant; but the Negro, Azumazi begins to venerate the dynamo as a God; which affects his ability to du his job. The boss tries to sack Azumazi, who throws him into the dynamo, killing him, and pursued by the police, throws himself in too. The moral at the end says it all; "So ended prematurely the worship of the dynamo deity, perhaps the must short lived of all religions, yet withal, it could at least boast a martyrdom and a Human Sacrifice". Wells was a satirist, warring against complacency and blind faith in the inevitability of progress to scientific enlightenment. The Time Machine, (1895) the first time travel story (bar Dickens's Christmas Carol), has the unnamed hero seeing what humans will eventually evolve into. He finds class division; The bourgeois Eloi live above ground in decadent apathy and indifference; if one of them is drowning the rest just watch; lacking any motivation to preservation of the lives of their own kind, . The working class have become the predatory Morlocks; living underground; preying on the Eloi at night. We have evolved into an embodiment of our social prejudices. It is a disturbing vision.

The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1896) demonstrates that man is not inherently evil, but inherently animal. Moreau takes wild animals and accelerates their evolution into human beings; Prendick, the narrator, isn't fooled by the Beast men; "Each of these Creatures, despite its human form, its rag of clothing, and the rough humanity of bodily form, had woven into it, into its movements, into the expression of its countenance, into its whole presence, the unmistakable mart of the beast". Moreau conditions the Beast Men to renounce their bestial savagery; and even gives them a religion; enforced through Moreau's god-playing brutality and his hell like torture chamber, the house of pain.

"Not to suck up drink, that is the Law. Are we not men? Not to eat Flesh, or Fish, that is the law; are we not men?" Moreau is feared as a God of wrath; "His is the hand that wounds. His is the hand that heals."

The beast men are forced to pray. The awful experiment fails; the animal within the creatures reasserts itself. Moreau is killed in the truly terrifying rampage; Prendick, sole survivor, tells us how, once back in to civilized society; "I could nut persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another, still passably human Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls; and that they would begin to revolt, to show first this bestial mark, and then that".

Of course it won't happen. Are we not Human?

The War Of The Worlds (1898) shows humanity's faith in its ability to overcame all obstacles destroyed by a Martian invasion force that overcomes all religious faith, and military powers. The Martians win the war; and they turn London into a new Martian landscape; The priest loses his faith; the soldier becomes a coward; people are reduced to mere existence. This is humanity humbled before forces beyond its powers of comprehension.

Stories of unstoppable invading armies were common in military, but earthly literature. Wells simply made the invading army an utterly alien one. Wells can’t resist adding a touch of evolutionary speculation to his depiction of the Martians either. "The Martians; heads, Merely heads, represent man as he might have been, for without the body, the brain would become a mere selfish intelligence. They are asexual, free of individual characteristics, and strangers to hunger. The tumultuous emotions that arise in humankind cannot deflect them from their single-minded aim - Survival'. Finally, the Martians are beaten, not by any human act, but by a lack of immunity to Earth's micro-organisms; Humanity re-emerges in cowed wariness of its limited, non-divine status.

Wells was accused of being too pessimistic; and even of being of being anti-science;

but he also saw the necessity of striving fur progress. At the end of his stunning screenplay for Things to Come, Wells summarises the fate of Humankind beautifully; Asked if there is to be no rest from toil and tragedy; the hero Cabal replies;

"Rest enough for the individual man. Too much of it and too soon, and we call it death, but for man, no rest, and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First, this little planet, with its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then, the planets about his, and at last, across immensity to the stars, and when he has conquered all the mysteries of time; still he will be beginning".

Wells gave nobility to the tragedy of our endless quest for knowledge. He was truly a Humanist; concerned with the fate of our entire species. Wells highlighted the possibilities and dangers of our questing, and boldly ongoing voyage.

Conan Doyle wrote highly irrational SF. Doyle was rapidly becoming a believer in the paranormal. Professor Challenger, hero of The Lost World novel, the first scientific Boffin, a truly ludicrous character, was the very opposite to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes always found a natural explanation for the strangest, and spookiest events. The spectral Hound Of The Baskervilles was, he proved, merely an ordinary dog, covered in phosphorous to make it look ghostly. The Sussex Vampire seen sucking the blood of a child’s neck proves to be a kind living woman rescuing the boy from a poisonous snake bite by sucking out the poison. Holmes’s catchword was "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." Sadly, the author of such wisdom never carried the message forward to his new hero. If Challenger believed in it, it was there; Challenger thumped Skeptics and doubters with his brolly, and jolly well finds Lost worlds where dinosaurs live; despite derision from sneering critics. The Lost World is important as a precursor to both King Kong and Jurassic Park; In the first the alien is destroyed by his gentle but mind boggling infatuation with Fay Wray. "It wasn't the planes that killed Kung, we are told, it was beauty killed the beast"

Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, (to leap forward for a 1990’s comparison) of which the excellent film is nevertheless a pale imitation, has inspired many more people to take an interest in dinosaurs. Interestingly, Crichton had the appalling gall to name the inferior sequel to his first dinosaur book, The Lost World, in direct homage to Conan Doyle.

In 1924, Czech. playwright, Karel Capek gave the world the stage play R.U.R. which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, and introduced the word, and concept of robots to us, though strictly speaking, his robots were androids.

FRITZ LANG - METROPOLIS (192????)

While Wells was offering erudite, intelligent parables on the future fate of Humanity, Edgar Rice Burroughs was writing fantastic, exotic fantasies that no one could have taken too seriously. His most famous creation was of course, Tarzan The Ape Man , the last lord of Greystoke, raised in the ways of the African jungle by the great apes, and renouncing the bourgeois life for the freedom of the jungle. Tarzan’s original literary adventures, (unlike the film ones) usually depicted him battling monsters and demons rather than lions and crocodiles. Burroughs even sent Tarzan to the Earth’s core, in one adventure, and seriously considered sending him to Venus in another.

More readable are Burrough’s Martian stories, featuring John Carter, finest swordsman of two worlds. Carter’s adventures usually involve little story line. His Martian girlfriend, Deja Thoris, is kidnapped by some evil megalomaniac, and Carter fights his way across an increasingly exotic, lurid landscape, fighting various monsters and mad men on his way. Burroughs has his Martians depicted naked. (Though there is no mention of sex acts in any of the stories). The people there are tall, but like humans, but their skin is either blue, or green, or red, depending which clan Carter is fighting for or against at any given time.

Burroughs doesn’t even give Carter a spaceship for his journey to Mars. He travels there by some kind of astral projection, while his earthly body rests in a deserted cave until he comes back to narrate his various unlikely, but always delightful adventures. Aldiss accuses Burroughs of ‘dishing out daydreams’. That seems unfair. Burroughs knew that his Mars was an impossible world, as unattainable in reality as Lucien’s bird-driven flights to the Moon, or Wonderland. His stories are a celebration of the imagination, and no worse for being seen merely at that level. His stories sold well. They were easier to digest than Wellsian novels, and sadly, also easier to write. Burroughs and Doyle fuelled the imagination of countless hack writers, each failing to write half as well as Doyle or Burroughs. The 1920’s saw a plethora of bad Scientification stories, and unlikely journey stories, that were soon to be labelled science fiction.

Up to the 1920’s there was no such thing as genre writing. A typical anthology of stories might have carried a love story, a western a fantasy story, and a conventional crime story, but there was a sudden increase in specialised markets for such works. Science fiction and the western parted company. Writers were now obliged to become specialists in one field or another for the magazines. Burroughs was one of the writers to make the most of this trend. So, sadly, were his many imitators. The critics began to sneer at the genre, while the public lapped it up. Short stories were particularly popular, simply because they were quick to read and digest.

There was still a great deal of good material to be found. Wells was still writing strong, and Olaf Stapledon penned one or two of the great classics of the genre. In Last And First Men (1930), Stapledon chose not to write about our immediate future, as other writers were doing, but about the next fifty million years. Stapledon shows not only our future, but that of the seventeen human races who will evolve after we have gone. The staggering time scale covered by the book gives no room for characterisation. His heroes vanish in successive waves of generation begetting new generation. We are just appreciating the species of twelve foot wide human brains in their boxes, when they perish to make way for a race of flying men (with their own natural wings). The story gives a tremendous sense of pessimism and loss, as each new civilisation crumbles in a state of barbarism and warfare. The later races struggle to escape the Earth as the Sun expands, and eventually move to the outer planets. However, the last men find that the sun is destined to shortly even consume them. Unable to develop interstellar transportation, they create pollen like seeds to cast out into space, in the desperate hope that a new human race may take root, literally on another world. Last and First Men is a true classic, with an epic, mind-boggling scope rarely tackled again by any author. His depiction of trial, failure and starting again from scratch gives a potent sense of the true human condition. We are all pioneers, paving the way for the next generation. We are the seeds of our own future. The struggle is truly eternal. Our evolution is not at an end. we are barely getting started.

When major writers like Stapledon and Wells wrote a story we might now regard as SF (and quite rightly), the critics would conveniently forget to think of it as such.

© Copyright. Arthur Chappell        

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