Lesson 2: Toward Verne: 1800-1885

Lesson 2: Toward Verne: 1800-1885

Created by James Gunn and Thomas Seay

This course is available for online enrollment as ENGL 506 through the Continuing Education department of the University of Kansas. To take this course for academic credit, click here.

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Discuss early authors of science fiction and their influence on the emerging genre; and
  • Describe how early science fiction differentiated itself from prior forms of speculative literature.

\"Rappaccini\'s Daughter,\" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Road to Science Fiction #1, pp. 159-85

\"Mellonta Tauta,\" by Edgar Allan Poe
The Road to Science Fiction #1, pp. 186-200

\"The Diamond Lens,\" by Fitz-James O\'Brien
The Road to Science Fiction #1, pp. 201-23

From Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, by Jules Verne
The Road to Science Fiction #1, pp. 224-44


Throughout most of humankind?s history, people have looked back toward a happier time, toward Paradise, toward a \"golden age.\" Ahead lay only a hope of laying aside sufficient food to provide for a family until the next crop matured. The major changes in life were personal and natural: birth, marriage, death. From outside came war, disease, drought, flood, violence, theft, murder, execution. Almost no one could read; books, for most of this history, have been non-existent; science was a mental exercise; and technology was a toy.

In times like these, only visionaries dream of a better way; they wrote the utopias. Then, slowly, the Industrial Revolution brought change; the great wheel of invention began to accelerate. Technology shortened the distances between places; steam made people independent of wind and animal; weapons changed warfare from a costly sport to a grim business for citizens; books, periodicals, and literacy spread rapidly.

The world was ready for science fiction, and when the world is ready someone always steps forward to provide or invent whatever the times require. A later prophet, whose work was closely related to science fiction and whose ideas suggested a significant number of stories, put the concept of ripeness into more memorable words. Charles Fort said,

\"If human thought is a growth, like all other growths, its logic is without foundation of its own, and is only the adjusting constructiveness of all other growing things. A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine time.\" Locus Online


This lesson on the evolving history of science fiction is devoted to the authors who worked in the mid-nineteenth century and who helped shape protoplasmic science fiction into the almost-human creation it would later become. These authors who prepared the way for Jules Verne and H.G. Wells include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and others.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), the gloomy, brooding recorder of Puritan guilt in such novels as The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), wrote science fiction and fantasy as well; in fact, even his attempts at realism may have been thwarted by his inability to suppress the dark symbols that snake their way up from his narratives. Even at his most fantastic, however, Hawthorne kept to the spirit of the new science (and of nascent science fiction) by providing natural explanations for what happened in his stories.

Hawthorne\'s \"Young Goodman Brown\" might be called science fiction; one possible explanation of the witch\'s Sabbath and other supernatural events, Bruce Franklin has suggested, is that psychological processes have actually given different shape to external reality. More typical, and more typical of science fiction, are \"The Artist of the Beautiful,\" \"The Birthmark,\" \"Rappacini\'s Daughter,\" \"Dr. Heidegger\'s Experiment,\" and The Blithesdale Romance (1852), Hawthorne\'s novel about hypnotism that was considered at least a potential science at the time.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), a major figure in poetry, the short story, and literary criticism, helped shape detective fiction and science fiction in the first half of the nineteenth century. The extent of Poe\'s influence on science fiction is difficult to overestimate: one line of development leads through his carefully wrought mood stories of horror and terror, \"The Fall of the House of Usher,\" \"The Tell-Tale Heart,\" and \"The Pit and the Pendulum,\" up to the factual and science fictional stories, \"Ms. Found in a Bottle,\" \"A Descent into the Maelstrom,\" \"Hans Pfaall,\" and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, to Jules Verne and more scientifically oriented science fiction.

Poe\'s first published science-fiction story, \"Ms. Found in a Bottle,\" won first prize of one hundred dollars offered in 1833 by the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. It is related by a jaded traveler whose sailing ship is dismasted by an incredible hurricane; he is thrown aboard a mysterious ancient ship whose aged crew go about their engineering tasks without noticing him until the ship at last sinks in a giant whirlpool surrounded by Antarctic ice.

A factual story about a trip to the moon, \"Hans Pfaall,\" appeared in 1835 in The Southern Literary Messenger, a magazine for which he was then a correspondent and a few months later, editor. Pfaall gets to the moon by means of a balloon aided in its first ascent by a large explosion and solves the problem of the increasing rarefaction of the air through a compressor (which Poe calls a condenser). Possibly to protect himself against ridicule, Poe surrounded the story of the trip with a facetious framework in which Pfaall is a Dutch bankrupt bedeviled by creditors, and the conclusion casts doubt on whether the trip was actually made.

Poe\'s fascination with science and the potential of technology is displayed in \"The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,\" published in Godey\'s Lady\'s Book in 1845. Scheherazade, still attempting to save herself from imminent execution, tells the king about Sinbad\'s visit to the future in which he encounters all the wonders of Poe\'s times, described as fabulous or magical by Sinbad but explained as realities in voluminous footnotes; the king, who has accepted the previous fantastic adventures of Sinbad, thinks Scheherazade\'s last story ridiculously impossible, and has her strangled.

One of Poe\'s most significant successors was a young Irish magazine writer with the romantic name of Fitz-James O\'Brien. Born in Ireland in 1828, the son of a well-to-do lawyer, O\'Brien pursued two careers?one as a writer, the other as a Bohemian?in which he achieved outstanding success. He began both early in life. He had youthful stories and poems published in Irish, Scottish, and British magazines; and he squandered an inheritance of ?8,000 in less than three years, tried to elope with the wife of an English officer, and fled to the United States in 1852, three years after the death of Poe.

His best-known story, a classic which pioneered the theme of the world in microcosm, was \"The Diamond Lens\" (Atlantic Monthly, 1858). This theme was later expanded on by many other writers, including Ray Cummings, who wrote several novels on the subject, beginning with The Girl in the Golden Atom (1919).

Herman Melville (1819-91), the famous American author of Moby Dick and other novels, mostly related to the sea, was something of a naturalist, inspired by his early sea voyages and experiences in the islands of the South Pacific. He was skeptical of the significance of science; even though some of his novels could be classifies as utopias or anti-utopias, they did not include scientific marvels. But Bruce Franklin located one story Franklin considered science fiction among Melville\'s nineteen shorter words?\"The Bell-Tower\" (1855); it involves a man-like automaton, which may be the first fully developed story in English about a robot, and \"includes all the elements which were soon to become conventional?the automaton as destroyer; the creator as being cut off from normal organic creation; society as a possible beneficiary, possible victim of the automaton.\" (H. Bruce Franklin. \"Herman Melville and Science Fiction, \" Future Perfect. New York: Oxford University Press. 1966.)

Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-73), English novelist and playwright who in 1842 wrote Zanoni, an allegory attacking the mechanistic interpretation of life, nearly thirty years later was inspired by the theory of evolution to write a utopian novel called The Coming Race (1871). His utopia was underground, where a race (called the Vril-ya, through their mastery of an all-penetrating electricity called Vril), had evolved from men into an intellectual, self-controlled, superior race.

In 1871, Blackwood\'s Magazine published?first anonymously, then in monograph form over the name of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George Tomkyns Chesney?\"The Battle of Dorking,\" which launched a genre distinct from but related to science fiction. It sowed the seeds for a host of martial imitators, some of which, such as The War of the Worlds and The War in the Air, fell within the mainstream of science fiction. The genre might be called the prophetic (or cautionary) novel of future war. Its distinguishing characteristic is a richly detailed description of an imminent war, often fought with future weapons of tactics, which goes badly for the nation attacked.

\"The Battle of Dorking\" tells how German infantry invade England and defeat a poorly prepared English army. Its purpose was to make dramatically clear the need for a complete reorganization of the British military system.

None of these words, neither the utopias nor the visions of wars to come, belong to the mainstream of science fiction. The utopias were concerned with making a point external to the dramatic problem of the book; the battle stories usually appealed to nationalistic fears or fervors outside the ambit of the work. In contemporary science fiction the demands of the story predominate.

But all of these, and other factors as well, had prepared the world for the first writer who would make science fiction his way of life?and in the process shape it, solidify a genre, and make a fortune. That man was Jules Verne.

Verne was born on February 8, 1828, in Nantes, Frances. He was the son of a distinguished lawyer and was educated for the law, but he longed to be a writer and his father provided an allowance for a fling at the literary life in Paris. At first the stage attracted him; he wrote plays and librettos for opera, some of which were produced but none of which brought him great recognition or income. He also wrote half a dozen short stories; one of them, \"Master Zacharius,\" a parable about a demon who appears in the form of a human clock to tempt the proud Swiss inventor of the clockwork escapement, convinced Pierre Verne not only of his son\'s genius but his piety. Pope Leo XIII later confirmed this opinion by commending the younger Verne for the purity of his writing.

The father was disappointed, then, when in 1857 his son decided to marry a young widow with two daughters and asked his father to buy him a share in a Paris stockbroker\'s business. Jules assured his father that he would continue to write, and he did, usually rising at five and writing until he went to the Exchange at ten. The theater was still his goal, however, and he produced an operetta, a musical comedy, and a comedy in 1859, 1860, and 1861.

Though Verne considered himself a failure as a writer, the major influences of his life were beginning to come together to create what would later be called science fiction. His early literary influences included James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott, and \\ \"the two Robinsons\" -- Defoe\'s Robinson Crusoe and Wyss\'s Swiss Family Robinson (he preferred the latter). Then he discovered Edgar Allan Poe, who was to become his literary master; in 1864 he wrote a critical article about Poe\'s works in which he expressed both his fascination with Poe\'s subjects and methods and his distaste for Poe\'s materialism, lack of faith, and dissipation.

Verne\'s first venture into a new kind of writing began, perhaps under the influence of Poe\'s \"Balloon Hoax\" and through his acquaintance with a daring aeronautical enthusiast, a professional photographer who worked under the pseudonym of Nadar (and whom Verne used as a basis for his characterization of Ardan in From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon). Nadar planned a series of balloon ascensions to raise money for the construction of a heavier-than-air flying machine, and Verne\'s interest in the project led him to write a nonfictional or semifictional book about the possible uses of balloons in exploration. The manuscript met with repeated rejections until finally it landed in the hands of Jules Hetzel, who would be Verne\'s publisher until Hetzel\'s death.

It was not the original manuscript that Hetzel published, however, but a book that Hetzel persuaded Verne was buried in that manuscript: a fictional account of the exploration of unknown Africa by a balloon. Hetzel liked the new book so much that he asked Verne to write two books a year for publication in a new magazine he was launching and then as books, and Verne signed a lifetime contract that provided what was then the comfortable payment of 20,000 francs a year (later adjusted upward as Hetzel prospered).

The book that started it all was Five Weeks in a Balloon, published in 1863. Verne imagined a balloon a bit better than the ordinary balloon: it included a furnace that heated the hydrogen in the hermetically sealed balloon when the passengers wanted to rise and let it cool when they wished to descend so that they could take advantage of favorable winds. An English explorer, his manservant, and a Scottish hunter ascended from Zanzibar and soared across Africa.

Five Weeks in a Balloon established a pattern for Verne\'s future novels: he would take something reasonably possible, often an idea pioneered by others, and through his power of research and invention, through his use of scientific explanation, and through his primary emphasis (unlike most of his utopian colleagues) on the entertainment value of the story itself, he would make his readers believe that indeed it could be happening or was about to happen.

Two books a year, year after year, was a staggering program even for a disciplined writer with Verne\'s enthusiasm. But Verne would not fall far short: he started writing novels relatively late?he was 35?but he would continue for forty-two years and would write nearly eighty books.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth was published in 1864. The concept was derivative. Symmes already had popularized the concept of a hollow earth; Poe had suggested that he was going to write about it in \"Ms. Found in a Bottle\" and Arthur Gordon Pym; and Baron Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) already had written about A Journey to the World Under-Ground (1741). Typically, however, the detail with which Verne described the adventurous trip, in which a German professor, his nephew, and a guide travel through cavern after cavern ever deeper into the earth, and the storyteller\'s suspense with which Verne imbues it, made the story popular worldwide.

Verne\'s next conquest was space. In 1865, probably inspired by Poe\'s \"Hans Pfaall,\" Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon, a story in which three men are shot in a projectile toward the moon from a cannon built on the coast of Florida. Verne describes with documentary realism how the plans for the gigantic cannon are drawn up and the cannon constructed, though with some lack of precision about the weight of the projectile and the amount of propellant. Eventually, the cannon is fired, but the projectile within is thrown off course by a near-miss with an earth-circling meteor and does not reach the moon but is left circling in an orbit around it, apparently forever.

The favorite of many critics as well as readers, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870) contained some of Verne\'s best ideas and characterization. Written shortly after Verne acquired an eight-ton shrimp boat and adapted it for pleasure cruising, Twenty Thousand Leagues is a Verne novel in which the characters are not completely subordinated to the apparatus; marvelous as is the submarine Nautilus, it is overshadowed by the brooding presence of Captain Nemo, its builder and commander: he is a complex individual aware of the potentialities of his discoveries, conscious of the power he holds, and filled with dark moods created in part by the mysterious tragedy of his past and in part by a consciousness of his own doom. Although much of the story is a tour of marvels such as the magnificently baroque Nautilus itself, or the natural world beneath the sea, or an explanation of how the scientific marvels work, it is sustained by the riddle of Captain Nemo and what he will do with his unique powers.

Verne was not a great inventor of science fiction ideas nor of plots, but he may have influenced more men toward science and discovery than anyone in his generation. Poe was a literary influence, but Verne was a social influence; and with Verne, not Poe, begins the impact of science fiction on society. Igor Sikorsky, the developer of the first practical helicopter, became interested in the concept of an aircraft that could rise vertically when, as a boy in Russia, he had read Robur the Conqueror in translation; and speleologist Norman Casteret said that Journey to the Center of the Earth first put into his head the idea of cave exploration. Byrd, Beebe, Yuri Gagarin, Marconi, Santos Dumont, and many others have admitted to being inspired by Verne\'s novels. After a flight to the South Pole, Admiral Byrd said, \"It was Jules Verne who launched me on this trip,\" and submarine developer Simon Lake began his autobiography with the words, \"Jules Verne was in a sense the director-general of my life.\"

Verne pioneered a genre: he defined science fiction, he made it exciting, he made it popular, he made it profitable, he made it respectable, he gave it identity. He did it by being a storyteller?but a storyteller in a new vein, in a new era; a storyteller of the future and the wonders that would be. His direct influence on future writers and their work would not be great; but because of him there was an audience for what they wrote?and a market.

Writing Assignment 2

In early science fiction, oftentimes character development is secondary to the development of a world or a speculation. Referring to at least two of the stories you read for this lesson, examine to what extent characters are individuals and to what extent they serve as representations of ideas or of the human species as a whole.