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Science Fiction
American History Through Literature 1870-1920. Ed. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst. Vol. 3. Detroit, MI: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006. p1015-1018.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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In the period following the Civil War (1861–1865), American writers worked in several of the common forms of science fiction. On one hand, they wrote fiction that focused on the growing technological and scientific development; on the other, they dealt with the social consequences of this new knowledge. Some also used science and technology merely as props in tales of romantic adventure.


America has contributed substantially to the development of science fiction, a literary genre that seems at home in industrialized, scientific cultures. In the nineteenth century, every major American fiction writer of canonical stature wrote works that could qualify as science fiction, given a definition broad enough to include utopian visions. The contribution of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) is of such magnitude that it is difficult to imagine the shape of science fiction without his influence, and he stands with Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells as an architect of the genre.

Writers of the post–Civil War period also had their influence, practicing varieties of the genre that are still recognizable to modern readers. Then as now, "hard" science fiction, focusing on scientific facts and real feats of engineering, occupied one end of the spectrum while a "softer" form based on social developments occupied the other. The early twentieth century saw the appearance of heroic science fiction, a form in which larger-than-life heroes fight monsters and save princesses on alien worlds.


In at least one case, somewhat "hard" science fiction comes from a surprising source, Mark Twain (1835–1910), who is often identified with the rural settings of his best-known work. But Twain had an avid interest in science and the newly emerging technologies and it is not surprising that this interest should find its way into his writing.

His story "The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton" (1878), introduces the telephone, a device Alonzo, who is unable to read his own clock, uses to call his aunt to learn the time of day. While on the line, he manages to speak to his aunt's houseguest, a young lady—Rosannah—with whom Alonzo is soon enthralled. What makes the story science fiction is that Alonzo's call is long-distance, reaching from frozen Maine to his aunt's home in rainy and gloomy San Francisco—which comes as a surprise to the reader. Telephones were available for home installation in 1878, but long-distance calling was not available until 1915. The science fiction element makes it possible for people on opposite ends of America to become acquainted and interested in each other. Within weeks—time to exchange photographs—the pair's conversations flower into full-blown love.

Although we first see the positive possibilities of the new technology, events take a disastrous turn. Rosannah's former suitor, taking exception to the loss of her attention, sets out to foil her new romance. Illustrating the ills that might attend a telephone-only relationship, the disappointed suitor, disguising his voice as Alonzo's, speaks to her in a way that cools her interest in Alonzo. She never wants to speak to him again. But, as readily as they are parted, the two lovers are reunited by telephone, and, in another surprise development for the reader, they are married by telephone, though Rosannah by this time is in the Hawaiian Islands while Alonzo has never left Maine. The power of the new electrical device to transcend space and time and affect personal relationships is clearly illustrated. In this instance, however, Twain stops short of spelling out the social implications. He puts most of his energy into the literary forms he handles with confidence, parody and burlesque, which he applies here to Victorian courting practices, drawing on the strength of his comedic talent rather than his vision of the future.

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Readers of today may be surprised that Mark Twain was aware of the awesome dimensions of time and space as they were newly described by science. "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" (published in two parts in 1907 and 1908), which he was working on as early as 1868, would strike even twenty-first century readers as astounding. In this dream tale, the recently deceased Captain Stormfield is on his way to his final destination, about which he assumes the worst. As it turns out, however, he arrives in heaven. The cognitive issue is immediately broached when we learn that the departed Captain Stormfield is traveling at 186,000 miles per second, the scientifically calculated speed of light. In fact, this particular piece of data introduces the novelty at the heart of the story, the awesome scale and diversity of existence in a universe in which humankind occupies only one very small corner. So vast is the universe that a slight navigation error delivers Stormfield at the wrong heavenly gate, billions of miles from the one he should have entered by. Heaven is fathomless, and souls from all parts of the universe are pouring in by the millions. The celestial clerks he encounters have never heard of San Francisco, or California, or, for that matter, America. When he finally identifies his point of origin as the "World," the clerk scoffs: "There's billions of them." At that point, he gives up his place in line to "a skyblue man with seven heads and only one leg" (Twain, Science Fiction, p. 26). When the clerks finally locate Earth on a map, they find that it is designated as "the Wart." As might be expected, Mark Twain is mindful of the humorous potential of the material.

Even his bona fide science fiction masterpiece, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), avoids directly confronting the catastrophic potential of technological know-how wedded to rampant capitalism. Instead, Twain transplants this development to the medieval era, where Gilded Age readers could observe the disastrous consequences without being directly threatened by them. This science fiction device—time travel—allows him to entertain with broad humor (depicting medieval peasants perplexed by modern technology) while presenting a bleak social vision in which, according to contemporary accounts, his readers had less interest.


By contrast, Jack London (1876–1916) is more concerned with using science fiction as a means to make his readers directly confront social issues. For example, "The Enemy of All the World," published in 1908, is set in 1933 to 1941. While London pays lip service to technological gadgetry, he focuses primarily on the predictable actions of human beings. A disgruntled genius, in an attempt to realize the fantasy of ultimate power, sets out to destroy everyone who has offended him. The agency of destruction is a technique he has discovered by which he can deliver an electrical charge to any location he chooses, thus making it possible to explode rounds of ammunition in firearms that others are holding or ignite explosives stored aboard ships or anywhere else. Eventually, the evil culprit is captured and executed, and the secret of his deadly invention dies with him. As much as this aspect of the story captures the reader's interest, the story's thematic strength lies in London's treatment of the events leading up to the genius's disgruntlement. He is refused medical treatment by his family, persecuted by the press for statements that they misinterpret, unjustly beaten by a man who suspects him of cheating with his wife, and falsely imprisoned for murder. London implies that the injustices that society inflicts on the unfortunate may have negative repercussions for that society.

In "The Scarlet Plague," London depicts an epidemic, the Scarlet Death, that in the year 2013 will all but wipe out humanity. While he expends some effort to explain the technical aspects of the plague, his interest is in the behavior of the human species, seen without romantic bias. As the plague begins to decimate the population, panic and chaos produce extraordinary selfishness as well as great heroism and sacrifice. But it ends in death to all but the one in a million who, irrespective of social class, are immune. The insight of the oldest survivor is that civilization will rise again, then fall once more, just as past civilizations have come and gone one after another. He accepts the fact that human nature is flawed and will never achieve perfection. In fact, the technologically advanced civilization that has just collapsed was far from perfect. Similar to what we see in The Iron Heel (1907), the ruling property owners have established a new nobility that holds itself far above ordinary workers. In one major scene, the brutish chauffeur of a powerful family is now the lord and abusive master of a woman who was once heir to one of the great fortunes. Culture, the story suggests, can preserve social relationships for the moment, but in the long run, nature will wipe the slate clean.

In The Iron Heel, London systematically works out the class conflicts of the world to come. It is a grim future in which worldwide capitalism beats down organized labor (though we are told that ultimately labor will prevail). The science of the story is not drawn primarily from the hard sciences that underlie technology; rather, London bases his projections on the behavioral and social sciences—the "soft" sciences—and in doing so anticipates the utopian visions that mark the rest of the twentieth century.

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Ambrose Bierce (1842?–1914), known for his bitter irony and cynicism, was not immune to the allure of science fiction. He wrote a number of stories for straightforwardly sensational purposes—ghost and horror tales—and on at least a few occasions ventured into reasoning about the inexplicable, which led him to science fiction.

"Moxon's Master" (1910) is a remarkably timely story given the current interest in artificial intelligence. In arguing with a friend (the narrator of the story), Moxon presents a series of definitions, theories, and examples to assert that we cannot preclude the possibility of a thinking machine. The story comes to a disastrous conclusion when a chess-playing automaton, enraged at losing a chess match, attacks and kills his creator, Moxon. What Moxon has been arguing in theory, he has, to his misfortune, brought about in fact, the creation of machines that think (and also become angry). While the purpose of the story is to entertain the reader through mystery and terror, Bierce does not take the more direct route to these effects, that is, he does not invoke the supernatural. By appealing to science, he places the terror in our world of possibility, not in a supernatural world of impossibility. In so doing, he enhances the terror of the story.

Bierce used a similar strategy in "The Damned Thing" (1893), in which a seemingly supernatural creature mauls and kills a human being. The reader learns, however, that the creature may not be super-natural; it may simply exist in a part of the color spectrum that human beings cannot detect. Thus, the story raises the fear that dangers lurk in the completely real, but totally unperceivable, domain outside human sensory perception. Bierce's use of scientific explanation to increase the terror—an approach drawn from Poe, among others—remains one of the standard techniques of science fiction.


Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950) is the science fiction writer who found the most receptive audience during this period, and it is therefore instructive to consider the nature of his ideas. In A Princess of Mars (1912), the first of his ten Martian tales, his hero, John Carter, travels to his destination in a most unscientific fashion (essentially, he wishes himself there). Burroughs's Mars—known by the Martians as "Barsoom"—is consistent with many of the "facts" available at the time. In the late nineteenth century, the Italian astronomer G. V. Schiaparelli (1835–1910) reported seeing through his telescope a Mars covered with "canali," by which he meant channels, or natural waterways, but many readers saw the word and envisioned constructed waterways, Martian "canals." No amount of later correction could dispel the popular mis-conception. Between 1896 and 1911, the American astronomer Percival Lowell (1855–1916) added to the misunderstanding by publishing a series of books—with titles such as Mars as the Abode of Life (1908) and Mars and Its Canals (1906)—building on the notion that intelligent life on Mars could have been responsible for planetwide engineering projects by which an ancient race fought to preserve a dwindling water supply. This is the world Carter finds, a dry and ancient planet that is losing its atmosphere and whose life forms (some of them intelligent) are threatened with extinction.

Because there is less gravitational pull, John Carter finds—with scientific plausibility—that his leaping ability is far greater on Mars than on Earth. (Mars's gravitational pull is about one-third that of Earth.) Thus Carter has a strength and speed advantage because Martians are "muscled only in proportion to the gravitation which they must overcome." Burroughs populates the planet with the confidence of a trained zoologist (or exobiologist). Carter notes that "a multiplicity of legs . . . is a characteristic feature of the fauna of Mars. The higher type of man and the one other animal, the only mammal existing on Mars, alone have well-formed nails, and there are absolutely no hoofed animals in existence there" (p. 18). Writing with certitude, Burroughs convinced many readers of the concrete actuality of his alien world. When over-whelmed by the absence of facts, however, he appeals to the miraculous technology of a climate machine, which is his explanation for the presence of a breathable atmosphere on what is, scientifically considered, an oxygen-depleted Mars.

Burroughs usually did not pursue careful scientific reasoning, and the direction he took made for a popularity and fame that he might not otherwise have achieved. His themes are power, domination, and sub-mission, with some references to love, honor, and revenge. The plots are driven by flight, pursuit, capture, and recapture. While these narratives may serve as dark allegories, they are not the science-based visions that science fiction promises.

In the end, it was Burroughs's intellectually vacuous science fiction that captured the attention of the general population. To this day, nonspecialist readers have to be reminded that Mark Twain, Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce even wrote stories that could be classified as science fiction.


Primary Works

Bierce, Ambrose. Ghost and Horror Stories. Edited by E. F. Bleiler. New York: Dover, 1964.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars. 1912. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

London, Jack. The Iron Heel. 1907. New York: Sagamore Press, 1957.

London, Jack. The Science Fiction Stories of Jack London. Edited by James Bankes. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1993.

Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. 1889. Edited by Bernard L. Stein. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Twain, Mark. The Science Fiction of Mark Twain. Edited by David Ketterer. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984.

Secondary Works

Alkon, Paul K. Science Fiction before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Franklin, H. Bruce. Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Ketterer, David. New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1974.

Steve Anderson

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Anderson, Steve. "Science Fiction." American History Through Literature 1870-1920, edited by Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst, vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 1015-1018. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 17 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3470800222

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