Before the movies

This blog concerns science fiction films, not literature. But it would be unwise not to pay some homage to the roots of the genre. Here then, is a small essay on the origins of science fiction.

More perhaps than in any other genre, science fiction literature and films evolved side by side. One may say that the invention of photography and moving images marked the point in technological advancement that made true science fiction possible. Nonetheless, the roots of the genre lie much deeper in the annals of time.

There are almost as many suggestions about which is the first literary work of sci-fi as there are scholars who make them. Johannes Kepler is one frequently mentioned author, so are Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

But there are also those who would argue that science fiction is actually as old as literature itself. Scholar Pierre Versins, among others, have called the Epic of Gilgamesh the first work of science fiction – a work that also just happens to be the oldest surviving piece of literature, written down on clay tablets dating as far back as 4000 years ago.

Gilgamesh wrestling Enkidu at the gates of his city. Spoiler: it ended in a tie.

Gilgamesh wrestling Enkidu at the gates of his city. Spoiler: it ended in a tie.

To be honest, it is hard to find much science in this fiction concerning demi-god and tyrant Gilgamesh and his road to redemption and enlightenment. It is a really fun read and I recommend it, among other things it contains the story of the wild man Enkidu, created by the gods as a rival equal to Gilgamesh, who can only be tamed and civilized by having sex with a temple prostitute for seven days straight. There’s also the slaying of the Bull of Heaven (singlehandedly by Gilgamesh, of course), a tree ogre who calls Gilgamesh and Enkidu silly names (and then gets killed, too), scorpion men and stone giants that that Gilgamesh kills apparently for no reason other than “a spontaneous fit of rage”.

But it has been called science fiction for two main reasons: the first is, as Versins points out, the way it deals with the human mind and the world. Gilgamesh seeks to understand and travel the world around him, and both he and Enkidu treat the fantastic things they encounter with a logical and scientific approach, even though much of the story is concerned with gods and magic. The other is the quest for eternal life. The egomaniac Gilgamesh seeks to find immortality by travelling across the world to find the one person whom the gods have bestowed it upon before, only to hear that it is impossible, save by finding a plant that grows at the bottom of the sea, that will restore his youth. The point here, says Versins, is that the answer of eternal life is not sought in religion or magic, but in nature, hence in science.

Themes related to science fiction can also be found in many other myths, such as the Hindu epics. Ramayana describes flying machines able to wipe out entire armies and travel through space. The Rigveda describes mechanical birds “jumping into space speedily with a craft using fire and water … containing twelve pillars, one wheel, three machines, 300 pivots, and 60 instruments. The ancient Mahabharatha (900 BC) is probably the first text to tackle the concept of time travel. The biblical Book of Revelations’ doomsday scenario has been compared to sci-fi, and many old Greek texts have hints of science fiction. One of my favourites is the myths of my own country, the Kalevala, which features Sampo, a magical machine – pictured by Elias Lönnrot as a mill – forged by the god Ilmarinen, that produces flour, salt and gold out of thin air. One Thousand and One Nights features numerous robots, intergalactic travels, aliens, underwater worlds and many other features that are now staples within science fiction. Even if the aforementioned myths do not qualify as science fiction as such, many of the foundations of the genre can be found in these stories.

The defending of Sampo, as re-imagined by Don Rosa.

The protection of Sampo, as re-imagined by Don Rosa (adding a certain sci-fi flare of his own…).

A Voyage to the Moon (and Beyond)

For centuries the main source of science fiction-like literature were the stories of so called “Fantastic Voyages”. The best known of the fantastic voyages is probably Homer’s Odyssey, even though it is fantasy, rather than sci-fi. The earliest (surviving) of these works that scholars tend to partially label as science fiction is Lucian’s True History (200 AD).

Lucian of Samosata's ship getting swept up to the moon by a tempest.

Lucian of Samosata’s ship getting swept up to the moon by a tempest.

True History is actually a parody of some of Lucian‘s predecessors, who would write fantastical stories of incredible journeys and pass them on as truth. The book also starts out as a regular “voyage story”, but quickly the narrator and his ship are swept off by a storm that takes them all the way to the moon! There they find themeselves in the middle of a space war between the King of the Moon and the King of the Sun, and take part in fighting against and with soldiers riding on gigantic flying vegetables and insects. The celestial bodies are perhaps for the first time described as inhabitable worlds with different geographies, biologies and physics than our own.

Oh and there are moon spiders! How awesome is moon spiders in the 2nd century?

Back on Earth they get trapped in a gigantic whale, and finally reach the mythological Fields of Elysium, where Lucian engages in lengthy philosophical discussions.

These discussions on philosophy and science are also prominent in many of the later Fantastic Voyages. Most of the books are very tongue-in-cheek and very often seem to be out to ridicule or parody either earlier voyage descriptions or prevailing scientific, religious or philosophical discussions at the time they were written. One exception is Dante’s masterpiece The Divine Comedy, which rather than ridicules, cements the view of the church on matters of moral and afterlife (Dante famously travels to the heaven of the afterlife, and there describes it in scientific terms with the actual celestial bodies).

Since literacy was still reserved for the upper classes, often academically or religiously educated, much of the literature was meant to debate rather than entertain. This was the age before newspapers, magazines, radio or internet, so debates were primarily conducted via letters or publications. Quite often books were written simply as answers to books written by other people. In matters of philosophy, politics and religion, removing the debate in question from the realities and schemes of the existing world and putting them in “vacuums” so to speak, was an effective device of clarifying arguments and pointing out follies in other people’s views. With the Age of Enlightenment when science and astronomy was all the rage, putting these vacuums on the moon or Mars was a natural step to take.

Abraham Ortelius' map of Thomas More's Utopia.

Abraham Ortelius’ map of Thomas More’s Utopia.

The Enlightenment also envigorated the debate on space, the celestial bodies, the stars and the universe, and often pitted these discussions against the religious ones. Many of the Fantastic Voyages also discussed in length different religious dogmas and practices of alien worlds, either to promote the author’s views or ridicule others’. This was often done in a humorous way, and sometimes large portions of the books were intended merely to entertain the reader, and it is in these we tend to find elements of science fiction.

One of the frontrunners were 16th century philosopher Thomas More, who described a journey to the land Utopia (he invented the word, and it has stuck since then) – a perfect society, that has many parallels with the socialist utopia later dreamed up by Karl Marx and others. The lack of hard science in this vision makes it hard to classify as sci-fi, although it may be seen as a futuristic tale.

The book that both Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov regard as the first science fiction book is German scientist Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (The Dream). It started out as a student thesis defending Copernicus’ notion of the rotation of the Earth, but he later added a dream framework in which he describes in detail a journey through space to the moon, aided by demons who then proceed to give him a lengthy lecture on life on other planets. It is also something of a cloaked autobiography of Kepler’s, and touched upon his struggle to free his mother from the inquisition that jailed her for witchcraft.

Directly inspired by Copernicus and Kepler was the Briton, Church of England bishop, Francis Godwin, who wrote Man in the Moone, published posthumously in 1638 under the pseudonym Domingo Gonsales (also the name of the narrator/protagonist). It describes the Spanish Gonsales, who, stranded on the island St Helena, trains a flock of swans to lift him in the air, and how they accidently fly all the way to the moon with him. The book is to a large extent a religious discussion concerning a protestant utopia on the moon (this was during the strife between catholics and protestants in England). But the actual description of space travel is quite fun and the book has a few nice quirks – H.G. Wells is said to have enjoyed it immensely. Funnily enough, Cyrano de Bergerac’s Comical History of the Empires and States of the Moon, that was released just a few years later, parodies Man in the Moone. The French catholic Bergerac meets “a small Spaniard” on the moon that has been reduced to the state of pet monkey – obviously a pun on the protestant Francis Godwin. When Bergerac describes his rocket powered spacecraft (seriously, in 1657!) that brought him to the moon, the Spaniard asks how he dared use such means of travel. Bergerac smugly answers that the “Spaniard took the birds that he first intended to use”.

"A small Spaniard" on his way to the Moone.

“A small Spaniard” on his way to the Moone.

The pinnacle of the early Fantastic Voyages is nevertheless Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726. It was, in fact, a lengthy treatise on author Jonathan Swift’s contempt for the petty rivalries of British politics and religious squabbles, as well as a very enjoyable philosophical critisicm on the misplaced pride and arrogance of man. Luckily most of these discussions are cleverly woven into the exciting narrative, thus avoiding the yawning reflexes of many of the book’s peers.

Swift was in many ways one of the forerunners in the field of the modern novel, which is one of the reasons the book still holds up today. His themes are numerous, and often appeal to a broad spectre of readers, rather than to a learned clique. Especially his first two chapters about the travels to the lands of Lilluput and Brobdingnag are staples of children’s literature, and known to most people today through a simplified children’s version.

As to the science fiction element: not only are we dealing with mini-people and giants, there’s also a notion on technology. Perhaps the single most sci-fi feature of the book is Laputa, a flying city built upon a huge disc, propelled by an anti-gravitational device. This may be the first depiction of the flying saucer, even though it is clearly inhabited by earth people, strange though they may be.

The flying city of Grandville may well be the first literary account of a flying saucer (detail from a drawing by J.J. Grandville).

The flying city of Laputa may well be the first literary account of a flying saucer (detail from a drawing by J.J. Grandville).

Putting Science into the Fiction

The Fantastic Travels of the 17th and 18th centuries included a vast array of travels to the moon and the stars, to the centre of the (hollow) earth, and to many extraordinary places. But the one who is ultimately responsible for putting science into science fiction is Mary Shelley, who started dabbling with dead bodies and artificial resurrection in the early 19th century, first with the defining and groundbreaking Frankenstein in 1818, and later the short story Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman in 1826, followed by the (post-)apocalyptic The Last Man the same year.

Frankenstein sent ripples through the literary world, that we even today don’t seem to have fully recovered from. Not only was it the defining piece of gothic literature and monster horror, but also a seminal work of science fiction, probably for the first time taking the theme of the mad scientist and placing it in a contemporary setting, using humans as test subjects for modern science gone astray. Although the science itself is very vaguely described in the book – Shelley superficially outlines a combination of chemistry and alchemy to kickstart her assembled creature – the basis rests on the theory of galvanism, much debated at that time, which studied the electrical stimulation of muscle tissue. Numerous themes from the book have since been reproduced over and over in literature and films of science fiction. These include the juxtaposition of god vs. science, the creation that turns on its creator, the question of artificial intelligence, and so on. Through the years the means of creating beings have switched from galvanism to organ transplant, robotics, radioactivity, enhancement drugs, cloning, stem cell research, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, but the underlying story tends to remain true to Shelley’s masterpiece even when authors try their best to steer away from it.

The 19th century saw a gradual shift that started during the Age of Enlightenment: urbanisation, industrialisation and a budding movement of socialism and humanism that brought forth the notion of schools and learning for the working and peasant classes. The birth of the modern novel in the late 17th century had also widened the appeal of reading for leisure rather than learning and debating.

How Frankenstein was imagined before Boris Karloff. From the first edition, illustrated by Theodore Holst.

How Frankenstein was imagined before Boris Karloff. From the first edition, illustrated by Theodore von Holst.

The 19th century was an age when science took huge leaps forward in all branches, steam ships and trains made distant travels possible for a wider range of people, machines were doing ever more work in the factories, telegraphs and phones made news travel around the world at lighting pace. Advances in optics made possible the study of molecules and bacteria, and at the other end of the spectrum, gave us the chance to look farther and farther into space. Europeans and Americans expanded their maps with explorations in the vast jungles of the Amazon, the snowy mountains of Himalaya, the deserts of Africa, the remote islands of the Pacific and finally the last icy frontiers of the Poles. The surface of the Earth were all but explored, and so the journies of fantasy had to find other worlds to invade, the deep oceans, the bosoms of the Earth and the planets and moons of outer space. And then of course, there was the amazing discovery, the taming of the power of the lightning – electricity.

The huge steps forward in science also inspired many writers to speculate about how science would influence the world of the future, thus firmly cementing the genre of science fiction. Lord Byron’s Darkness, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and Jean Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s La Dernier Homme were three early examples of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic science fiction/fantasy, and had a strong influence on later post-war and nuclear holocaust books and films. Emile Souvestre, Jane C. Loudon and Louis Geoffroy speculated in the future, as did noted litterary star Victor Hugo with his long poem The Legend of The Centuries, that, among other things, features a starship. The idea of time travel also became a popular theme. The first author to use this as a central plot device in a novel was Russian Alexander Veltman in his book Predki Kalimerosa: Aleksandr Filippovich Makedonskii (1836), where the narrator travels back in time to meet Aristotle and Alexander the Great, and then returns to the 19th century.

And of course, the moon, stars and planets had lost none of their appeal, on the contrary, now instead of fantastical tales as frameworks for religious debate, authors were seriously starting to imagine trips to the moon and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Apocalyptic upheaval and the end of the world were popular topics in art in the early 19th Century, and inspired many authors. The painter of this one, John Martin, was a good friend of Mary Shelley, who wrote the apocalyptic novel The Last Man.

Apocalyptic upheaval and the end of the world were popular topics in art in the early 19th Century, and inspired many authors. The painter of this one, John Martin, was a good friend of Mary Shelley, who wrote the apocalyptic novel The Last Man.

Still in the realm of the satire is George Tucker’s imaginatively named A Voyage to the Moon, written in 1827 and widely considered as the first American science fiction novel. Another American, Edgar Allan Poe, also dabbled in the genre with his only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and the short story The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, both examples of the sort of Fantastic Voyages in a style later popularized by Jules Verne, who indeed saw Poe as one of his great influences. He even wrote a sequel to Poe’s novel. Astromer Camille Flammarion speculated on alien life, while Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Coming Race describes a highly evovled underground people with telekinetic powers and advanced technology.

But all of these authors, including Mary Shelley, only made forays into the world of science fiction, and we were still waiting for the first full time science fiction author, which we finally got in 1864 with the publication of French author Jules Verne’s third novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, arguably his first all-out science fiction work.

Let’s first put one thing straight: in the blog I look upon science fiction in its broadest possible definition. There are hardliners who champion the idea that the writings of Verne are not science fiction – Jules Verne himself was one of them. Although the term had not been coined yet, Verne on numerous occasions declined to be called a speculative scientist and said he only wanted to describe the world. The fantastical elements were often simply means to move the protagonists along, and he often described technology and notions he did not himself believe were possible. But to see all of Africa, one had to invent a steerable balloon, and to describe the moon, he had to find a means for the characters to get there, so he fabulated, as he would put it. Nevertheless, most of his ”inventions” have a more or less sound base in science – or at least some scientific theory, as the much debated hollow Earth concept (although there is no evidence that he himself believed in it). And with the profound influence he has had on sci-fi and science itself, there can be little doubt that Verne should be listed in the canon of early science fiction.

Disney's rendition of Jules Verne's Nautilus.

Disney’s rendition of Jules Verne’s Nautilus.

Verne actually started out as a playwright and wrote a few short stories, librettos and song texts before he was hired to write adventure stories in the line of Victor Hugo and James Fenimore Cooper. The editor of a planned family magazine wanted him to elaborate on his short story called A Voyage in a Balloon. The fleshed out story became the serial Five Weeks in a Balloon, which like most of Verne’s novels, were first published in parts in a magazine, and later as a full novel. This also gives his books their periodical nature, common among many of the writers of ”light fiction” in the 19th century, since many of them were employed as magazine writers rather than as authors of novels.

Verne’s third novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth was published in 1864 and can be viewed as his first all-out science fiction novel. It describes the voyage to the hollow center of the Earth, where the protagonists find, among other things, a vast ocean, prehistoric sea monsters and a giant.

In his numerous novels he would later anticipate the moon rocket (From the Earth to the Moon and Around It), the helicopter (Robur the Conqueror and Master of the World), the submarine (20 000 Leagues Beneath the Sea and The Mysterious Island), among other things. He also depicts travels to hitherto unknown parts of the world, such as the jungles of Africa and the North and South Poles, as well as a comet, where our protagonists tend to find quite extraordinary creatures and circumstances. What makes his ”Extraordinary Voyages” so enticing is that, although much of it is grandly exaggerated and outright impossible from a scientific standpoint, there is always an element of believability to the science of it.

Jules Verne opened the door for a myriad of science fiction writers and even if he himself would not have described himself as one, he was at least a forerunner of the authors of so called ”hard science fiction”. But he was, of course, also a product of his age – the age of industrialisation and mechanics, and of a great scientific optimism. The popular fictional series in the magazines were also precursors of the later pulp magazines – filled with amazing stories of romance, travel and adventure. Great upheavals in the world spurred interest in foreign countries and societal change. Verne arrived in Paris shortly after the French Revolution, with its ideals of equality, brotherhood and progress, and soon the American Civil War brought forth the ending of slave trade and the notion of large unions of states, India and vast parts of Asia was colonized by the Britons, the French and the Dutch, and Africa was a vast, dark and awe-inspiring continent, still largely unexplored by Westerners.

The idea of man conquering the Earth, the sky and the universe through means of technology was now within the scientific grasp of humanity, as well as the hopes and horrors of ever more advanced machines that were replacing human labour.

Jules Verne's stories have lost none of their potency, as the 2008 film adaptation of his Journey to the Centre of the Earth proves.

Jules Verne’s stories have lost none of their potency, as the 2008 film adaptation of his Journey to the Centre of the Earth proves.

All of this was wonderful fodder for imaginative writers, and both in Europe and America many writers of the late 19th century dabbled in science fiction. Especially American writers were pioneering many ideas. One who was not very well known at the time, but has later been rediscovered was newspaper man Edward Page Russell, who started publishing sci-fi short stories in Scriber’s Monthly in 1874, and later The Sun, and whose themes included invisibility, faster than light travels, teleportation, time travel, cryogenics, mind transfer, mutants, cyborgs and mechanical brains – one should point out – before H.G. Wells popularized them. William Henry Rhodes wrote about a weapon of mass destruction in The Case of Summerfield in 1871, Edward Bellamy became famous for his novel Looking Backward, where he tried to predict the future from looking at history in 1888 and Mark Twain touched upon futuristic scientific ideas in his 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. One interesting book worthy of mention is Edward Everett Hale’s Brick Moon from as far back as 1869. Published just five years after Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, it depicts the building and launching of a man made satellite. It is intended as a navigational aid orbiting the Earth, but it is unintentionally launched with people on it. These people survive and make themselves at home on the brick moon, making the book the first known depiction of a space station.

Little Green Men

A man who is often clumped together with Jules Verne is H.G. Wells, by many held as the most influential science fiction writer to date. This pairing, though, isn’t really correct either from a chronological nor thematic standpoint. Verne started publishing novels a whole 30 years before Wells, his point of reference was still the France of before the revolution, whereas Wells was clearly a man of the ”modern world”. Both based their writings on hard scientific fact, but contrary to Verne, Wells was actually a scientific researcher, lecturer and had studied physics, chemistry, geology, history, zoolology and biology, whereas Verne was more of a happy amateur who researched his subjects in the course of writing his books. Wells published as many, if not more, non-fictional than fictional books during the course of his life, was a very distinguished academic and a prolific social and political debater. Although Verne’s anti-war sentiments were central to some of his books, best remembered in the form of Captain Nemo, his stories were first and foremost adventure stories. Wells, on the other hand, clearly expressed his views on society, politics, and humanity in his stories, promoting his non-marxist socialism, egalitarian principles, human rights, multiculturalism and even feminism. When Verne included sci-fi elements in his books, they mostly had at least some footing in the notion that they would be possible to achieve within the coming century, such as the submarine, the moon rocket and the helicopter, whereas Wells often stepped into the bounds of scientific fantasy with his stories about flying machines from Mars, disintegration rays, invisibility, time travel and so forth. Wells also had a completely different set of references. By 1894, when he wrote his first novel, The Time Machine, electricity was already commonplace. Just two years later the first automobile was produced, and less than 10 years after that, the Wright Brothers took to the skies. Wells also lived to see the two World Wars (he died in 1946) and the rise of both stalinism and the nazis, and especially the latter had a profound impact on his writings, leading him to publish a great number of books anticipating a threat of the end of the world.

Even the most hardline sci-fi fan will regard Wells as an author of pure science fiction. His explanation of the physics behind time machines, invisibility and space ships may be utterly fantastic, but he nevertheless provides a ”scientific explanation” for the fantasy. Born to a working class family, he found a love for philosophy and literature at a very early age, but in his later college and university studies he concentrated on hard science, and worked for many years as a teacher. In college he also became politically active, and held a strong socialist stance, which can be clearly seen in most of his books – unfortunately this aspect is vacant in most of the cinematic adaptations of his works. He described himself as a sceptic when it came to religion. He did not think much of the bible, and even less of organized churches, though he was open to the idea of a higher conscience of some sort. Many of his fans have criticized the religious overtones of the 1953 film adoption of the War of the Worlds, and the fact that the film makers had turned his cowardly and cynical vicar into a heroic character.

Almost all of the classic sci-fi literature he is today most remembered for was written during the first seven years of his literary career, some of them when he was still studying. The books he wrote between 1894 and 1901 include The Time Machine (1894), The Island of Dr Moreau, (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899 [rewritten in 1910 as The Sleeper Awakes]) and The First Men in the Moon (1901).

How the Morlocks of Wells' The Time Machine were imagined in Geroge Pal's influential 1961 film.

How the Morlocks of Wells’ The Time Machine were imagined in Geroge Pal’s influential 1961 film.

For Wells, as like for Verne, the fantastical element was not the first and foremost point of the books. The young and radical Wells wanted to discuss politics, society and ethics in an entertaining fashion. The Time Machine was invented to propel the protagonist into the future, where the upper class, the Eloi, have been turned into a beautiful but meek and helpless race devoid of learning or craft, childlike beings living in eternal sunshine, play and plenty. This plenty is provided by the Morlocks, ugly, ape-like brutes living in eternal darkness underground, where they manufacture and grow the food and necessities of the ones living above – but ultimately using the Eloi as food stock, cattle. This was Wells’ vision of a future he saw at a time when social and economic gaps where increasing, and the world of the factory worker and the social elite were becoming increasingly separated.

The Island of Dr Moreau not only discussed what Wells saw as the cruelty of vivisection, but the book was also a a cautionary tale of modern science where ethics is disregarded – the notion of ”if it can be done, it should be done”. Evident here are also a discussion of class (the tyrant Moreau and the deformed manimals) and racism.

The Invisible Man dealt with the idea that power corrupts, and with notions of morality. The War of the Worlds is a cornucopia of interpretation, and deals with, among other things, colonialism, Victorian superstitions, social darwinism, religion and the 19th century romanticism of war. When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) is a dreary look on the future, where a working class hero overthrows an authoritarian plutocracy only to invent himself as a new tyrant. The First Men in the Moon (1901) can be seen as a parable of colonialism and the western notion of white supremacy, as well as a discussion on greed.

Wells continued to elaborate on these subjects throughout his long and extremely productive career, but gradually veered away from science fiction and fiction altogether – although there are sci-fi books scattered here and there all the way up until his death. What we see in his early work is the genius of a master storyteller with a vivid imagination, aiming not only to discuss societal issues, but to entertain and amaze. Due to the rapid pace of production, some of the books seem a bit cobbled together, and one might argue that their literary qualities might have been improved upon, had he taken some more time to write them – but the neckbreak pace at which many of them move, and the sheer joy of storytelling outweigh the occasional clunkiness of the writing. And what have made them so induring is that at heart they all deal with human stories. In almost all of the books, how ever fantastical they are, the protagonists set out on deeply personal journies, and the hero we meet in the beginning of the book is never the same person in the end. This, if nothing else, sets Wells well apart from the host of pulp-writing copycats in the following years.

H.G. Wells was the first to bring the aliens to Earth. Here are the original magazine drawings for The War of the Worlds by Warwick Goble.

H.G. Wells was the first to bring the aliens to Earth. Here are the original magazine drawings for The War of the Worlds by Warwick Goble.

Although many of Wells’ central themes were lost in the film adaptations in the early years of sci-fi, they again started to appear in the wake of Stanley Kubrick’s monumental philosophical epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Throughout his career Wells held sci-fi films in very low regard and one can only lament that he did not live long enough to see the masterpieces of directors like Kubrick, George Lucas, Andrei Tarkovskij, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam or James Cameron – directors that have carried on the legacy of Wells, combining thoughtful discussion and fantastic inventiveness.

And the legacy of Wells is too big to measure. In many ways his writing was the pinnacle of all that had come before. It combined the great philosophical discussions of Lucien’s True History, Moliere’s Micromégas and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the speculative ponderings about space from Kepler’s Somnium, C.I. Defontenay’s Star ou Psi de Cassiopée and Camille Flammarion’s La Pluralité des Mondes Habités. He continued the line of imagining both the Utopias of Thomas More and the Dystopias of Hugo and Shelley, as well as the technological ponderings of Verne’s rockets ships and flying machines, and Shelley’s Frankenstein and reanimated Englishmen.

Wells popularised many of the tropes of modern science fiction. Although very few of them were entirely of his own making, he visualised, explained and described them in a way no-one, save perhaps Jules Verne, had before. His time machine is an iconic invention, as well as the figure of the invisible man. These concepts have since been re-imagined and elaborated on ad infinitum, but still always seem to hark back to the originals.

But what may be Well’s greatest contribution to science fiction is the notion of the alien. Although he was not the first to speculate on alien life forms, he was the first to take them out of the hypothetical philosophy discussions and plant them firmly in reality. He was also the very first to actually bring them to Earth, thus singlehandedly creating the alien invasion genre.

This he first did with a big splash in The War of the Worlds, where conical alien ships come crashing down in rural England and start blasting people with disintegration rays. The ”little green men” are actually described as tentacled brownish blobs the size of bears, that build gigantic tripods that they use to go rampaging through the world with. These tripods are of course also iconic images in sci-fi – just compare them to the hilariously impractical walking tanks of The Empire Strikes Back. In his humorous book The First Men in the Moon he describes a lunar race made up of insectal bipeds herding gigantic larvae-like ”mooncalfs”, and outlines a pacifist and highly evolved society. This book also introduces ”cavorite”, an invented metal alloy that defies gravity, thus making space travel possible. Finally it involves the notion of a human being stranded on an alien planet (or moon), sending messages back to Earth. In many ways Wells is the creator of the alien of popular culture.

The Disciples

H.G. Wells’ work was the dynamite that finally blew open the flood gates of science fiction, and made it a popular genre in both literature and the young medium of film, although it took a few decades for the movies to catch up. This is also where the history of sci-fi films and books start to get entangled. The sheer multitude of influential writers that followed in Wells’ footsteps makes it nearly impossible to give any comprehensive account of them, and – alas – I am no literary expert, simply an interested amateur. But in a nutshell – the rise of the pulp magazines in the 1920’s popularized science fiction and other weird tales. Through them rose a generation of writers clumped together as ”The Futurians”, many of which would later go on to influence science fiction just as much as Shelley, Verne and Wells did. The twenties and thirties saw the rise of authors like Karel Capcek, Isaac Asimov, Aldous Huxley, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, J.-H. Rosny aîné and A. E. van Vogt. Later generations would give us the likes of Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, William Gibson, etc, etc.

But there are still two writers of early science fiction that deserve mention – two writers that are situated on different literary galaxies altogether: Edgar Rice Burroughs and Olaf Stapledon.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was the original sfi-fi pulp writer. This cover for A Princess of Mars was done in 1979 by Michael Whelan.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was the original sfi-fi pulp writer. This cover painting for A Princess of Mars was done in 1979 by Michael Whelan.

Like Wells, Burroughs was an immensely productive writer, but unlike Wells there are few who would list him among the intellectual giants of the 20th century. Often regarded as a writer of pure pulp, juvenile boys’ stories, he nonetheless has had a huge impact on popular culture. And that is even if we completely disregard the fact that he created Tarzan. Released in the same year as Tarzan of the Apes, the novel A Princess of Mars was the starting point for the highly successful Barsoom series, also known as the Martian Chronicles. A Princess of Mars was basically Tarzan in space, but with the notion of Jules Verne’s stories of exotic civilisations and the aliens of Wells. But Burroughs brought a whole new sense of adventure, action, sex and violence into the mix, and created a vast Martian civilization, whereas Wells had pretty much confined his lunar world to a single underground city. Burroughs was the first author to bring space battles with flying ships, and huge, green, slimy space monsters into focus. He also featured interplanetary love between the white terrestrial protagonist John Carter and the beautiful, green Princess of Mars. Two years later, in 1914 he started his third highly successful series, the Pellucidar series, basically John Carter/Tarzan at the centre of the Earth, borrowing heavily from Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth and again from Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, especially a bit with a scientist left behind at the Earth’s core, sending radio messages to the surface. Wells had his scientist stranded on the moon, radioing to Earth. Again Pellucidar turns out to be a gigantic and imaginatively rendered world with a multitude of civilizations, topographies, biologies, cultures, creatures and monsters, all out to get our protagonists and their beautiful love interests (most of whom are of course princesses of a sort or the other, often described as ferocious warriors, but strangely enough seem to excel at very little else than getting kidnapped by baddies and sulk). One might claim that Burroughs stole many central elements from other writers, but his vivid imagination in building on those ideas have since inspired generations of science fiction writers, filmmakers and artists.

Olaf Stapledon is a different animal altogether. If Burroughs drew from Wells‘ aliens, Stapledon’s writings are closer to the darker tales of The Invisible Man, When the Sleeper Wakes and the Island of Dr Moreau. Although some of his works are set in space, it was not the outer but the inner space that mainly interested Stapledon. Writing his best known works between 1930 and 1944 he was also of a later vintage, when the first craze of interplanetary travel had receded, and brought a new intellectual and political edge to science fiction alongside Wells.

He often dealt with protagonists who were outsiders and possessed unnaturally large intelligence, best portrayed perhaps in Odd John (1930) and Sirius (1944). In both cases he dealt with protagonists who possessed extraordinary physical treats (slow vs fast aging, unnatural size etc) and who were vastly more intelligent that their peers. In the first case he dealt with John, a strange boy who matured slowly physically, but read philosophy and science at the age of a toddler, and who developed extrasensory perception and mind reading. John invents a host of technical gadgets that make him rich enough to build a special high-tech ship with which he sets out to seek other “special people” to create a secluded society on a desert island. The latter book concerns a scientist who creates a super dog that learns to speak, read and engage in philosophy and religion, and sets out to understand the world of men, and his own animal psychology. These, and other books deal with sexual notions that were highly controversial at the time, and remain so even today, such as homosexuality, incest, pedophilia, polygamy and sexual desire between humans and animals. Many of his books’ characters struggle – without fully understanding – their own superior nature, and their place and function in the Universe, and sometimes fail to balance their sophistication with their more primal, often dark and malevolent natural urges. He also explored the notion of hive minds, genetic engineering, terraforming, the future and the history of the Universe. Perhaps due to their complexity none of his books have been turned into films, but his ideas have influenced a broad range of writers and filmmakers – only in the last year we have seen two films concerning super intelligent beings struggling with their morals and purposes (both with Morgan Freeman as supporting actor, strangely enough).

Janne Wass

2 thoughts on “Before the movies

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