Science Fiction and the start of the Great Age

Greg Taylor of the Daily Grail draws upon a book written by Alexei and Cory Panshin about the influence of science-fiction starting in the year 1870.

It has a lot of good points, but I take issue with some of them:

For the first two hundred years of the modern era — from the accession to the leadership of Western society by the philosophy of rational materialism in the late Seventeenth Century to the appearance of techno-warfare in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 — there was no such thing as science fiction literature. The World Beyond the HillThrough all this time, writers had no conscious awareness of working in a connected and cumulative SF tradition. Such a thing as science fiction was unthinkable, unimaginable. It didn’t exist.

How very different the situation is today! In the late Twentieth Century, nobody at all would think to doubt that there is such a thing as science fiction. Paperback racks are filled with books labeled “SF.” There is a great visible science fiction industry: writers, editors, critics, magazines, books, films, fans, clubs, conventions, awards, and much much more.

The difference between the situation prior to 1870, when SF could not be said to exist, and the situation we are heir to today, is the general acceptance by the Western world of the plausibility of scientific mystery. This acceptance, this new faith, began to take hold right around 1870.

As we have suggested, in order for myth to be an effective indicator of yet-unrealized possibility, there must be some basis for a belief in transcendence. We must think that there could be mysterious higher states of being and awareness, and we must be able to believe that we might plausibly attain those higher states.

In ancient myth, spirit provided such a groundwork for belief in plausible mystery. After 1870, science became sufficiently developed as a concept and a practice to serve as a new foundation for belief.

But this was not so prior to 1870, which is why we can say that during the first two hundred years of modern Western society, SF literature did not exist. It is only retrospective wisdom that allows us to peer into the past and single out a literary possibility here, a dynamic metaphor there, a subtle argument or an imaginary exploration, and identify these highly separated moments of special creativity as a connected series of advances necessary for the coming into being of SF literature.

It is our awareness of the nature of later science fiction — and our appreciation of the invisible working of the transcendent spirit of SF — that allows us to perceive what these varying bits and pieces had in common: All were attempts at the presentation of plausible scientific mystery.

But SF literature still did not exist as late as the advent of Verne in the 1860s. He was not working in an active tradition, a contemporary literary form. Rather, he was recognized as a marvel, a writer with his own unique product. It was as though Verne were a last solitary Romantic wizard with a formula all his own — like Captain Nemo, that master of his own special brand of electricity.

After 1870, however, in the very moment of Jules Verne’s imaginative retreat, modern Western civilization entered a new phase, the Age of Technology. And immediately, science fiction was born.

The new era was the result of a change in the attitude of society toward science. The consequence of the change was that after 1870 it was possible to set out consciously to write science fiction. No longer was SF a feat that a rare Romantic wildman, lit by inspiration while in some unique state of acute mental receptivity, might aim at once in a lifetime. Science fiction became a form that almost anyone could write, and after 1870 there would always be a number of writers at work producing SF.

The shift in attitude that made the Age of Technology and SF literature possible might be called the final fruit of the Romantic Period. The change was, in effect, the solution to the major problems that the whole Romantic Period had been attempting to solve.

One of these problems was the lack of plausible mystery in the world. Without transcendence, the Romantics felt like orphan children. They mooned after the old spiritual mystery that the Age of Reason had rejected. And they hunted vainly for new mystery everywhere in the hopes of finding it somewhere — and didn’t necessarily recognize it when they had it.

Another problem was the science and applied science that the Romantic Period had inherited from the Age of Reason. This rational activity was beginning to alter life, and the Romantics didn’t know how they felt about that. The Romantic Period looked upon monster science with the same ambivalence and apprehension that Victor Frankenstein felt for his creature.

It was the change in the practice of science during the Nineteenth Century that we have described that finally made it possible for the Romantics to see that one of their problems was the answer to the other. Through the course of two phases in Western society — the Age of Reason and the Romantic Period — the “practice of science” had meant the careful observation of the material world, the gathering and classification of fact. But in the later years of the Romantic Period, this familiar definition was strained beyond its limits.

First to appear were radical new mathematical systems like non-Euclidean geometry and symbolic logic. These systems were self-consistent but, by ordinary standards, irrational. They seemed to apply to something more or something other than the ordinary earthly realm.

These new forms of systematic thinking were followed in the 1860s by strange new scientific theories, all of which pointed beyond the known into the unknown.

There was Darwin’s theory of evolution. This suggested — from current scientific evidence — that both man and nature had once been something different than they now were. And further, that they might alter again in the future.

I don’t know why the Panshins’ speculate that the concept of “science-fiction” couldn’t have existed before 1870 is plausible at all. Jules Verne and certainly Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley didn’t work in a vacuum. They drew upon the technology of the Enlightenment and most certainly Verne, who’s first hand witnessing of a ‘submarine’ while in college absolutely influenced the creation of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus.

It is said that for better or worse we can trace the roots of our modern world to the American Civil War/War of Secession/Between the States ending in 1865 while  the Franco-Prussian Wars happened in 1871. The number of years may be moot, but the technologies used have direct descendants in our time and most were predicted by Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells.

Other than that, the Panshins have excellent points.

The Birth of Science Fiction

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