Sunday, December 25, 2011

An Expected and Unexpected Gift

This being Christmas, I wanted to put up something related to the holiday, even though I’m not in the least religious. Christmas has become a secular holiday in any case, more about promoting shopping than about the birth of Jesus Christ. For that matter, it was a secular holiday, the Winter Solstice, before the early Christians latched onto it. By coincidence, the Jewish celebration of Channukah falls about the same time, and Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga in 1966 as a black alternative seasonal holiday. There’s even Festivus, a spoof of Christmas, from a 1997 episode of Seinfeld.
None of which has to anything to do with what I’m uploading today. What does is Sentinels, a memorial anthology in honor of the late Arthur C. Clarke, which came out in 2010. I hadn’t been aware of it at the time, but Marcia got me a copy for Christmas. I knew about that in advance; no surprise when I unwrapped it. But there was a surprise when I began reading it, because the first item in it isn’t a story but an essay by Damien Broderick, an sf writer and critic of some note. And what he was writing about was one of the formative experiences of his life: reading Clarke’s The City and the Stars.
“Clarke’s book was quite simply the most important novel I have ever read, will ever read,” Broderick writes, and after quoting some of his favorite passages, and goes on to tell how it shaped his own life, inspiring him to become an sf writer himself – he even got Clarke’s permission to write a sequel to City, but Gregory Benford beat him to it (well, actually to a sequel of an earlier version of the novel, Against the Fall of Night) – and to try to come to grips with why the novel is so fascinating and so meaningful.
Broderick hails from Australia, although he now lives in San Antonio. I’ve never met him; maybe I never will. But I felt a thrill of recognition, and even kinship, for The City and the Stars was a formative experience in my own life. His favorite passages are my own favorite passages. I can still remember reading the novel for the first time the year it came out, in 1956, and being carried away by its epic sweep and imagination. At one point while I was engrossed in the quest of Alvin to discover the secret of the lost galactic Empire, I was listening to Stravinsky’s The Firebird on the phonograph, and ever since I have associated that music the novel. Only Clarke himself, I learn from Broderick, had Debussy in mind when he was writing it. Oh well…
Several years ago, when I joined the Science Fiction Research Association, I took a test of theirs called “Which science fiction writer are you?” It comprised a series of multiple choice questions on fundamental beliefs and values. I came out as Arthur C. Clarke. I can’t say that I was surprised. Without knowing it, he had as much to do as anyone with my becoming a lifelong sf fan, and a historian of the genre. And in When World Views Collide (1989), one of the volumes of Imagination and Evolution, I had already paid homage to Clarke and, in particular, The City and the Stars. There’s little, if anything, I would alter for the new version of my sf history in progress. Here’s what I wrote then, with the only change being adding Clarke’s year of death.

Man was about to leave his Universe, as long ago he had left his world. And not only Man, but the thousands of other races that had worked with him to make the Empire. They were gathered together, here at the edge of the Galaxy, with its whole thickness between them and the goal they would not reach for ages.
What inspired the Empire to undertake this millennial journey, none of those left on earth a billion years later can guess, but it must have been “very strange and very great,” something of “immense urgency, and immense promise.” Immensity is the keynote of Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956), which draws its basic theme and basic imagery from the work of Clarke’s two great mentors: H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon.
Clarke (1917-2008) never concealed his admiration for Wells and Stapledon; his admiration is more than literary: he admires the evolutionary vision of Wells’ film Things to Come (1936) and the cosmic mythologies of Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1931) and Star Maker (1937). Such eschatological science fiction shaped Clarke’s interpretation of the nature and purpose of human existence as fundamentally as the Creation and the Incarnation shape a Christian’s. Nonetheless, interpret his mentors’ works he does. Clarke can be characterized as a spiritual Wellsian, inasmuch as he takes little notice of Wells’ utopian socialist ideology. Nor does he seem troubled by Stapledon’s spiritual angst; what he takes from Stapledon is what Wells himself might have taken: a cosmic vision of human destiny.
Childhood’s End (1953), still Clarke’s most celebrated novel, is, ironically, his least characteristic. He admitted as much in a warning note to readers: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” Clarke never believed in the Overmind as an instrument of salvation for mankind, any more than he believed in the Galactic Overlords who act on the Overmind’s behalf. But he did show his intimate familiarity with Star Maker, for the Overmind, like Stapledon’s Cosmical Mind, is the final goal of evolution, beyond the organic or the material or the individual. Stapledon always sought to reconcile conflicting ideals of survival and progress, and submission to cosmic fate; of the spiritual integrity of the individual, and duty toward the collective and the transcendental. But Clarke sees no such reconciliation in Childhood’s End,  rather, stark alternatives:
At the end of one path were the Overlords. They had preserved their individuality, their independent egos; they possessed self-awareness and the pronoun “I” had a meaning in their language. They had emotions, some at least of which were shared by humanity. But they were trapped, Jan realized now, in a cul-de-sac from which they could never escape ...
And at the end of the other path? There lay the Overmind, whatever if might be, bearing the same relation to man as man bore to amoeba. Potentially infinite, beyond mortality, how long had it been absorbing race after race as it spread across the stars? Did it too have desires, did it have goals it sensed dimly yet might never attain? Now it had drawn into its being all that the human race had ever achieved. This was not tragedy, but fulfillment.
Only, not for Clarke himself. He clearly preferred, like Wells before him, that mankind conquer “all the deeps of space, and all the mysteries of time,” yet still remain – somehow – human. Thus, in The Songs of Distant Earth (1986), the Wellsian dream has come to pass, despite the destruction of earth by a nova, through the seeding of colonies on distant worlds by automated ships. Now the last survivors of earth have fled the holocaust in a quantum-electric starship that will bear them to a virgin planet they can make their own. Moses Kaldor, one of the few to be awakened from hibernation during a stopover at the previously seeded Thalassa, shares the Magellan’s sense of mission. Yet he is still moved by the ordinary human things, like grief for his beloved wife, long dead in the holocaust. Rationalizations hardly matter:
Could grief be an accidental—even a pathological—by-product of love, which of course does have an essential biological function? It’s a strange and disturbing thought. Yet if it’s our emotions that make us human, who would abandon them, even knowing that each new love is yet another hostage to those twin terrorists, time and fate?
For Clarke, then, the essential task of sf was to reconcile the Wellsian vision of science fiction with the ordinary human things. Yet for him, the Wellsian vision itself is humanistic, expressing deeply human needs, as he argued in Profiles of the Future (1962):
Civilization cannot exist without new frontiers; it needs them both physically and spiritually. The physical need is obvious—new lands, new resources, new materials. The spiritual need is less apparent, but in the long run it is more important. We do not live by bread alone; we need adventure, variety, novelty, romance. . . . What is true of individuals is also true of societies; they too can become insane without sufficient stimulus.
Clarke’s earliest sf reflects the heady optimism and unbounded faith in mankind that was typical of pulp science fiction in its time of innocence. In “Rescue Party” (1946), for example, our sun is about to become a nova, and a Galactic Federation sends a belated mission to try to save a few of the people who have unaccountably given rise to a technological civilization in only 400,000 years. At the risk of their own safety, the aliens search Earth for signs of life, even though the very oceans are already boiling. They find the artifacts of a wondrous culture but no trace of its creators, until after they are forced to flee the stellar explosion and make what Rugon, their deputy commander, considers a totally awesome discovery in deep space:
“This is the race,” he said softly, “that has known radio for only two centuries—the race we believed had crept to die in the heart of its planet...”
“That is the greatest fleet of which there has ever been a record. Each of those points of light represents a ship larger than our own. Of course, they are very primitive—what you see on the screen are the jets of their rockets. Yes, they dared to use rockets to bridge interstellar space!”
Human chauvinism, one might call it. Clarke treats it poetically in “Transience” (1949), a series of vignettes about man and the sea – the sea as seen successively by savage, contemporary and far-future man. The savage is the first to sense “something of the wonder of the sea.” A child of the near future watches the last steamship in a world grown used to air transport, but soon he returns to building sand castles. In the far future, another child, called away from similar pursuits, can hardly comprehend that he and his family are leaving the sea behind forever because the solar system is threatened by a Dark Nebula, and the human race must find refuge on distant worlds:
Under the level light of the sagging moon, beneath the myriad stars, the beach lay waiting for the end. It was alone now, as it had been at the beginning. Only the waves would move, and but for a little while, upon its golden sands.
For man had come and gone.
But if Clarke was an optimist, he was never a totally naive optimist. He too knew of mankind’s destructive side. In “If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth...” (1951), a child raised on the far side of the moon, knowing what stars are but unable to imagine why they should twinkle, is taken by his father to nearside to see Earth for the first time. Enchanted by its beauty, he wonders why his people can never return there.
Then Marvin, his eyes no longer blinded by the glare, saw that the portion of the disk that should have been in darkness was gleaming faintly with an evil phosphorescence: and he remembered. He was looking upon the funeral pyre of a world—upon the radioactive aftermath of Armageddon. Across a quarter of a million miles of space, the glow of dying atoms was still visible, a perennial reminder of the ruinous past. It would be centuries yet before that deadly glow died from the rocks and life could return again to fill that silent, empty world.
In much of his best work, Clarke tempers the Wellsian evolutionary dream with common humanity and cautionary revisionism. In The Deep Range (1957), for example, the protagonist is Walter Franklin, formerly chief engineer of an interplanetary liner, who must make a new life on Earth after an accident in space so traumatizes him that he can never endure free fall again. He is utterly cut off from his wife and children, who are adapted to the lesser gravity of Mars and cannot visit him any more than he can visit them. Progress cannot banish all pain or suffering:
Even in the most perfect of social systems, the most peaceful and contented of worlds, there would still be heartbreak and tragedy. And as man extended his powers over the universe, he would inevitably create new evils and new problems to plague him.
Franklin finds a new career with the Bureau of Whales, where he helps to manage one of Earth’s most vital food resources. Eventually, he finds a new woman to love; once again, he knows the joys of fatherhood. As his career advances, he can even forget the past—almost—and enjoy a contentment he has never known before. Then comes a challenge to his second career and his second life: an ethical challenge. In a secularized world, where other faiths have been discredited. Buddhism has filled a spiritual vacuum, “being a philosophy and not a religion, and relying on no revelations vulnerable to the archaeologist’s hammer.”
Because reverence for life is fundamental to Buddhist thought, the exploitation of whales cannot be condoned. “We believe that all creatures have a right to life,” the Mahanayake Thero tells Franklin, “and it therefore follows that what you are doing is wrong. Accordingly, we would like to see it stopped.” A transplanted Westerner himself, the Thero knows how best to appeal to Franklin—not by merely reminding him of mankind’s long and sorry record of cruelty to animals, but by bringing up an argument that must give even a human chauvinist pause to consider:
Sooner or later we will meet types of intelligent life much higher than our own, yet in forms completely alien. And when that time comes, the treatment man receives from his superiors may well depend on the way he has behaved toward the other creatures of his own world.
In a crisis of conscience. Franklin faces political ruin should he challenge the bureau. An unforeseen role as the hero of an undersea rescue operation restores his moral courage and gives him the chance to speak out freely. At last he can feel whole as he faces the future and its challenge: “Give us another hundred years, and we’ll face you with clean hands and hearts—whatever shape you be.”
In The Songs of Distant Earth, the exiles of the Magellan have bound themselves by the strict ethic of Metalaw that respects the rights of, not only all other intelligent life, but all other potential intelligent life. “The presence of more than a few percent oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere is definite proof that life exists there,” and thus is enough to preclude colonization by mankind. In Rendezvous with Rama (1973), the passage of a huge alien spacecraft through the solar system offers a chance to study the workings of a nonhuman technology, although the starship’s creators remain elusive. But Clarke’s heroes disable a missile fired at the alien ship by the xenophobic colonials of Mercury, refusing to credit their fears that the intruder is a threat to mankind.
World government is usually a given in Clarke’s near-future works, but he is neither blindly worshipful of the modern state nor insensitive to its dangers. World peace and unity may indeed be noble causes, but not at the price of hypocrisy. Although his sf was popular in the Soviet Union and he counted cosmonaut Alexei Leonov as a friend, Clarke made a point of dedicating 2010: Odyssey Two (1982) to the then exiled Andrei Sakharov and also of naming a space drive in the novel after him. Seemingly apolitical in most of his sf, Clarke edged toward a more conscious classical liberalism in his recent works.
In The Songs of Distant Earth, after millennia of “trial and often hideous error,”18 a true democracy based on computer nets and universal education has been achieved at last, but the heads of government are chosen at random, with the safeguard “that anyone who deliberately aimed at the job should automatically be disqualified.”19 It is this system, more or less, that has been bequeathed to the idyllic colony of Thalassa in the form of “a Jefferson Mark Three Constitution—someone once called it utopia in two megabytes” 
We encounter Clarke’s ideal of a statesman in The Fountains of Paradise (1979): Johan Oliver de Alwis Sri Rajasinghe, an ambassador-at-large who once “moved from one trouble spot to another, massaging egos here, defusing crises there, and manipulating the truth with consummate skill... in order that mankind might live in peace- When he had begun to enjoy the game for its own sake, he knew it was time to quit.”
Yet Clarke remained a thoroughgoing secular humanist, who could never accept revealed religion as the foundation of morality. Indeed it may be just the opposite: more evil has been visited on mankind, he argued, by religious fanaticism than by any other force in history. Those who plan the seeded colonies in The Songs of Distant Earth decide to spare them our religious heritage, even at the cost of cultural impoverishment:
With tears in their eyes, the selection panels had thrown away the Veda, the Bible, the Tripitika, the Qur’an, and all the immense body of literature—fiction and nonfiction—that was based upon them. Despite all the wealth of beauty and wisdom these works contained, they could not be allowed to reinfect virgin planets with the ancient poisons of religious hatred, belief in the supernatural, and the pious gibberish with which countless billions of men and women had once comforted themselves at the cost of addling their minds.
Statistical theology discredits faith in the same novel: “Bad things happened just as often as good. ... Certainly there was no sign of supernatural intervention, either for good or for ill.” In what may be Clarke’s most controversial story. “The Star” (1955), proof of divine intervention is proof of an evil god. A priest’s faith is shattered when he realizes why an alien civilization of warmth and beauty was cruelly cut short in its prime by a supernova:
There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?
Nor does Clarke have a faith in the essential goodness of nature, common among literary intellectuals. In Imperial Earth (1976), Duncan Makenzie has come to the mother planet from Titan to have his own heir cloned. As in in vitro fertilization today, several embryos are to be created, only one of which will be brought to term. Makenzie has no sympathy for the traditional moral objection that the procedure is unnatural and murderous:
Old Mother Nature had not the slightest regard for human ethics or feelings. In the course of a lifetime, every man generated enough spermatozoa to populate the entire Solar System, many times over—and all but two or three of that potential multitude were doomed. Had anyone ever gone mad by visualizing each ejaculation as a hundred million murders?
Yet, considering the fact that his estranged friend Helmer, whose clone (unlike Makenzie’s, with its damaged genes) could father children, thus bringing genetic diversity into the family, may have more to offer his world than a replicate of himself, Makenzie may well have been moved by the argument of a doctor who has gone out of the cloning business, even if the doctor’s actual motives are suspect:
If the Pharoahs had been able to clone themselves, they would certainly have done so. It would have been the perfect answer, avoiding the problem of in-breeding. But it introduces other problems. Because genes are no longer shuffled, it stops the biological clock. It means the end of biological progress.
Makenzie does choose to clone Helmer, motivated by an essentially Wellsian evolutionary ethic. It is the same ethic that motivates the seemingly cynical treason of Robert Molton in Earthlight (1955), who uses a lunar observatory to transmit military secrets to the fleet of the Outer Planets Federation that is assailing Earth’s lunar fortress. Years later, having assured a stalemate in the war and a united humanity, he watches children frolicking at a lunar playground:
Professor Molton smiled as he watched them racing toward their bright, untroubled future—the future he had helped to make. He had many compensations, and that was the greatest of them. Never again, as far ahead as imagination could roam, would the human race be divided against itself. Far above him beyond the roof of Central City, the inexhaustible wealth of the Moon was flowing outward across space, to all the planets Man now called his own.
Clarke’s Wellsian confidence in the value of progress stands in stark contrast to the gothic sense of dread that has come to permeate much of our culture in face of threatened nuclear annihilation and environmental disaster. Only in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with the madness of HAL, does he seem to acknowledge the gothic tradition in sf at all, and that could be explained by the influence of Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay and the novel (HAL’S madness is explained away, a bit too tidily, by Clarke in 2010).
The City and the Stars, which Clarke himself called, “For many years, and for many reasons . .. my best-loved book,” still remains the most vivid expression of his Wellsian philosophy and world view. It is a variation on all the tales of the distant future that began with Wells’ own The Time Machine (1895). But in seeming contrast to the gloomy panoramas of decadence and devolution that are common in such tales, the “glowing jewel” of Diaspar seems a beacon of hope. Earth’s last great city, it has endured for a billion years, long after the oceans have passed away and the last mountains have been ground to dust. It seems a triumph of mankind over entropy—and yet it is actually a surrender to entropy.
Mankind is not sufficient unto itself. Although the builders of Diaspar designed into it all manner of artificial novelty and variety, assuring its seeming vitality down through all the eons, none of their devices can compensate in the long run for the lack of frontiers – the lack of any outside challenge or stimulus. Diaspar has turned its back on space and time; even its inhabitants are endless reincarnations, who pursue the same endless round of arts and amusements, never knowing childhood, age or death.
In the story of Alvin, Clarke combines science fiction on a cosmic scale with the romantic quest. For reasons he himself cannot understand at first, Alvin is a misfit in Diaspar. He spoils the fun in interactive adventure games like The Cave of the White Worms by trying to shift the action outside the Crystal Mountain. In a world of utter sexual freedom, without any complications (people are “born” almost fully grown from the city’s memory banks), he can find no really intimate companionship. When his tutor Jeserac reveals that Alvin is “the first child to be born on Earth for at least ten million years,” he finds a sense of mission: “Diaspar might be sufficient for the rest of humanity, but it was not enough for him.”
Alvin must find a way out, even though none is shown in the memory banks; he must find the truth behind the ancient legends of the Galactic Empire, said to have been destroyed by the Invaders from somewhere beyond, who drove mankind back to its home planet and forbade it ever to leave again. Thus begins the search that leads Alvin to the Tomb of Yarlan Zey, founder of the city, where a directed thought grants him entrance to a long-forgotten transport system and passage to – Lys.
Lys: the antithesis of Diaspar, pastoral rather than urban. It must be heir to a technology as powerful as that of Diaspar, having preserved a portion of Earth’s natural splendors – mountains, wildlife, lakes, and rivers – against the encroachment of the global desert. Its inhabitants have maintained a simple, seemingly idyllic life. They live in small villages, and they actually walk from one place to another, instead of being carried on “streets” that flow like water at varying speeds, yet are otherwise solid. They value the powers of mind, rather than machine. Most astounding to Alvin, however, are the children. He finds them a source of amazement and delight and of tender emotions, long forgotten in Diaspar: when they have occasion to cry, over frustrations that are objectively trivial, “their tiny disappointments seemed to him more tragic than Man’s long retreat after the loss of his Galactic Empire.” Alvin realizes already in his heart what Seranis, one of the elders of Lys, later puts into words:
Long ago, Alvin, men sought immortality and at last achieved it. They forgot that a world which had banished death must also banish life. The power to extend his life indefinitely might bring contentment to the individual, but brought stagnation to the race. Ages ago we sacrificed our immortality, but Diaspar still follows the false dream.
And yet the dream of Lys is as false as that of Diaspar; Lys, too, is afraid of outside challenge or stimulus. Once again, Alvin must escape; an ancient robot, once owned by the Galaxy’s last religious zealot, offers a new path for his quest. Raising the Master’s starship from the desert, Alvin and Hilvar of Lys set forth for the Seven Suns, once the hub of the Empire, where the Master had found it “lovely to watch the colored shadows on the planets of eternal light.” Now the planets themselves are dead or else are devolved to primitive life waging anew the grim Darwinian struggle for existence. Of the fabulous Empire of legend, there remain only enigmatic ruins… and Vanamonde. A pure mentality, he is the crowning achievement of that Empire, before it forsook the Galaxy for an even greater challenge beyond.
It is through Vanamonde that Alvin and Hilvar and a reluctant Earth learn the truth behind the old legends: how the stars reached mankind before mankind reached the stars; how that challenge to human vanity led mankind to remake itself on a Stapledonian scale, becoming at last worthy to share in a galactic civilization, in a “sweep of great races moving together toward maturity;” how the Empire made its goal the creation of a mind without physical limitations, able to reveal for the first time a “true picture of the Universe;” how the destruction wreaked by the Mad Mind, disastrous first fruit of that quest, led to the legend of the Invaders. Even in the face of such a setback, the Empire persevered and, eventually, triumphed. Earth, which had shunned the Empire and turned inward, from the sickness of fear and exhaustion, now faces again the challenge of the cosmos, and of evolution:
In this universe, the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening toward an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he had once followed, Man would one day go again.

Monday, December 12, 2011

It Can't Happen Here?

Maybe it’s already happening.

There was a Senate vote last Thursday on the National Defense Authorization Act, which is supposed to be just an appropriation bill to fund the military. But it also contains two controversial provisions: one authorizing the president to detain any American citizen he considers a terrorist indefinitely without evidence and without trial; the other transferring jurisdiction over any and all terrorism cases from civilian to military authorities.

The vote was 97-3, with the only opposition coming from three Democrats: Mark Udall and Diane Feinstein, both of whom tried vainly to have the bill amended to eliminate the two toxic provisions, and Bob Menendez. The bill was co-sponsored by a Democrat, Carl Levin, and John McCain. Levin and all the other Democrats and every Republican voted for it. Supposedly the administration opposes the measure, and President Obama is said to be ready to veto it. But now a video has surfaced online, in which Senator Levin himself claims that the administration actually requested the provisions he and McCain put in the bill:

Now if this were just somebody like Glenn Beck or Ariana Huffington sounding off, we could dismiss the story as a paranoid fantasy. But this is apparently coming from Levin himself, and there isn’t any sign that the video has been doctored to make him appear to be saying something he isn’t. That’s scary.

What’s also scary is that so-called “progressives” as well as conservatives seem to be lining up in favor of what amounts to potential imposition of a police state and martial law – this only a few years after Democrats denounced George Bush and Dick Cheney for abuses like the legalization of torture for alleged terrorists detained at Guantanamo. It didn’t take long for Obama to reverse course on keeping Guantanamo open and leaving prosecution of foreign terrorists to military tribunals instead of civilian courts. But the NDAA would explicitly extend the same system to U.S. citizens.

Are the Democrats so afraid of being labeled wusses by the Republicans that they have caved in on so fundamental a violation of constitutional rights? And why is it that both parties are so hot for this right now, as if they thought the outcome of 2012 election were a foregone conclusion and that it will thus surely be their man in the White House who’ll get to decide who’s a “terrorist?” One can imagine the Republicans fantasizing about rounding up the Occupy Wall Street people, and Democrats fantasizing about rounding up the Tea Party crowd. But how can they possibly fantasize today about which oxen will be gored and who will get to do the goring?

Even if their motives aren’t so vile, even if they really believe they are only doing what is necessary to win the war on terror, it will be a sad day for America if this atrocious act becomes law,

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Identity Culture?

 I’ve been a fan of French composer Francis Poulenc for decades. It was only a year or so ago that I learned he had been gay. I can’t say that makes the slightest difference in how I feel about his music. But it does make me think that there has been a lot of B.S. about “gay” culture.

Let me be up front about this. I'm in favor of gay marriage, and think it's disgusting that the religious right is trying to bring back the bad old days, not only by banning gay marriage but by reviving the ban on gays in the military  -- some fundamentalists here are even promoting capital punishment for gays in Uganda. I don't know that many gays, but none of them resemble the old stereotypes in the slightest. They're just ordinary people who happen to have a different sexual preference. But gay identity politics, like all identity politics, can get silly, and identity cultural politics even sillier.

I remember that the music section of Borders Books in Wayne, NJ, which closed several years before the rest of the chain went bust, had a section devoted to “gay” music. I can’t even remember who the composers were, but I rather doubt they had any more in common than those I already knew about or know about now. Bur rather than argue theory, I’ll just give examples.

Here’s a historic performance from 1962, just the year before he died, of Poulenc himself performing his Concerto for Two Pianos and Ochestra with Jacques Fevrier, conducted by Georges Pretre:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a closet gay (Like, what other kind was there in his day?), and there have been accounts that he lived in constant fear of exposure. This YouTube video of his “Waltz of the Flowers” includes images of fairies, which might draw sniggers from people who remember how that word was used before gay liberation, but that’s irrelevant to their use here:

And here’s a signature piece by Aaron Copland, “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which he incorporated into a symphony and which, I seem to recall, was used as the theme for CBS Reports back in the 1960’s. In the spirit of FDR and the New Deal, I suppose, but hardly a gay anthem:

Leonard Bernstein was a switch hitter when it came to sex, but he played it “straight” (Yes, I can hear you going "Argghh!") in “Tonight,” one of his classic songs from West Side Story, for which he rehearses cast members here for a stage production:

I defy you to find anything these pieces have in common besides being great music. I don’t have any idea what “gay” music would be, except by association. I know there’s an opera based on the life of Harvey Milk; I’m not familiar with it, and there don’t seem to be any clips from it on YouTube. But a video clip of the memorial service for him and Mayor George Moscone opens with music from Beethoven’s Seventh:

You can’t get more universal than that.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Seeing Through Science Fiction Eyes

Chances are most of you have seen Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), the biopic in which Sissy Spacek played country music legend Loretta Lynn. Country music is an enduring part of American culture, and yet both the music and the movie would seem to have as little to do with my favorite reading, science fiction, as anything possibly could. And yet there is a peculiar resonance for me in an early scene from the movie, because I see it through science fiction eyes.

It’s 1947, when Loretta is only 13 years old; she will soon marry “Mooney” Lynn. But here she is at home with her family, and as they listen to Grand Ol’ Opry on the radio, her mother does a clog dance:

Here’s the thing. We go into the movie knowing the future of that 13-year old girl. In those days, country music was much more a regional thing than it would later become. Chances are that most people outside the South hadn’t even heard of Grand Ol’ Opry, although they might be familiar with singing “cowboys” like Gene Autry. Yet country music was nothing new; it had evolved for more than two centuries, and the clog dance – which originated in England and Wales and is said by Wikipedia to have assimilated elements of African and Cherokee dance, was the social dance of Appalachia as early as the 18th Century.

Science fiction deals with, among other things, cultural evolution. And in that one scene from Coal Miner’s Daughter, from the perspective of 1947, and through the eyes of science fiction, I feel a simultaneous consciousness of the past, present and future of the country music culture.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Power of Myth

Is classical mythology still taught in school? Mythology, especially Greek and Norse, was once regarded as part of the essential education of Western culture. Educated people were as familiar with the doings of the Greek and Norse gods as people are today with those of the Kardashians. Classical mythology was an essential element in literature -- epic fantasy novels like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings are fairly steeped in the archetypes of the old mythologies.

I was exposed to Greek and Norse mythology as a child, and still retain some knowledge of Olympus and Asgard, of Zeus and Odin. But neither ever really touched me deeply. Some of the myths, such as Prometheus bestowing the gift of fire to mankind and being cruelly punished by the other gods for it, still resonate. But others, like Cronus swallowing Rhea's children and then vomiting them back up after being drugged by Zeus, seem only silly.

At about the same time I was exposed to classical mythology, I was also being exposed to science fictional mythology. I was reading novels like Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and The City and the Stars. I didn't know it at that time, but this mythology had its own ur-texts in the works of Olaf Stapledon, particularly Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937), imaginary histories of the future of humanity and the the entire universe (!), respectively. Stapledon has had a profound impact on the genre, although he was never a genre writer like those whose works appeared in pulp magazines in the 1930s and 40s and beyond. One can find variations of his themes in works as diverse as Clifford D. Simak's Way Station (1963), Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer (1964), Gregory Benford's Galactic Center cycle (1972-95), Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series (2000-) and Robert Charles Wilson's Spin cycle (2005-11). What they have in common is that they combine the cosmic vision of Stapledon with the appeal of classic storytelling, involving people (some larger than life, like the heroes of Greek and Norse epics, but not always human) that we can care about. In an interview with Wilson two years ago, Locus magazine called this approach "The Cosmic and the Intimate."

But it all began with Stapledon, who didn't tell stories in the usual sense, but created a mythology that could inspire such stories. And as impersonal as it may seem, it has had as deep an emotional impact on myself and others as those Greek and Norse mythologies once had. But, as I said, Stapledon's text is an ur-text – and it is a seemingly inexhaustible resource. Try to imagine how many stories could be set against the background of this brief (less than 3,000 words) excerpt from his cosmic history:

An Early Vision of Interstellar Madness and War

From Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker

Interstellar, as opposed to interplanetary, travel was quite impossible until the advent of sub-atomic power. Fortunately this source of power was seldom gained until late in a world's development, when mentality was mature enough to wield this most dangerous of all physical instruments without inevitable disaster. Disasters, however, did occur. Several worlds were accidentally blown to pieces. In others civilization was temporarily destroyed. Sooner or later, however, most of the minded worlds tamed this formidable djin, and set it to work upon a titanic scale, not only in industry, but in such great enterprises as the alteration of planetary orbits for the improvement of climate. This dangerous and delicate process was effected by firing a gigantic sub-atomic rocket-apparatus at such times and places that the recoil would gradually accumulate to divert the planet's course in the desired direction.
Actual interstellar voyaging was first effected by detaching a planet from its natural orbit by a series of well-timed and well-placed rocket impulsions, and thus projecting it into outer space at a speed far greater than the normal planetary and stellar speeds. Something more than this was necessary, since life on a sunless planet would have been impossible. For short interstellar voyages the difficulty was sometimes overcome by the generation of sub-atomic energy from the planet's own substance; but for longer voyages, lasting for many thousands of years, the only method was to form a small artificial sun, and project it into space as a blazing satellite of the living world. For this purpose an uninhabited planet would be brought into proximity with the home planet to form a binary system. A mechanism would then be contrived for the controlled disintegration of the atoms of the lifeless planet, to provide a constant source of light and heat. The two bodies, revolving round one another, would be launched among the stars.
This delicate operation may well seem impossible. Had I space to describe the age-long experiments and world-wrecking accidents which preceded its achievement, perhaps the reader's incredulity would vanish. But I must dismiss in a few sentences whole protracted epics of scientific adventure and personal courage. Suffice it that, before the process was perfected, many a populous world was either cast adrift to freeze in space, or was roasted by its own artificial sun.
The stars are so remote from one another that we measure their distances in light years. Had the voyaging worlds travelled only at speeds comparable with those of the stars themselves, even the shortest of interstellar voyages would have lasted for many millions of years. But since interstellar space offers almost no resistance to a travelling body, and therefore momentum is not lost, it was possible for the voyaging world, by prolonging the original rocket-impulsion for many years, to increase its speed far beyond that of the fastest star. Indeed, though even the early voyages by heavy natural planets were by our standards spectacular. I shall have to tell at a later stage of voyages by small artificial planets travelling at almost half the speed of light. Owing to certain 'relativity effects' it was impossible to accelerate beyond this point. But even such a rate of travel made voyages" to the nearer stars well worth undertaking if any other planetary system happened to lie within this range. It must be remembered that a fully awakened world had no need to think in terms of such short periods as a human lifetime. Though its individuals might die, the minded world was in a very important sense immortal. It was accustomed to lay its plans to cover periods of many million years.
In early epochs of the galaxy, expeditions from star to star were difficult, and rarely successful. But at a later stage, when there were already many thousands of worlds inhabited by intelligent races, and hundreds that had passed the utopian stage, a very serious situation arose. Interstellar travel was by now extremely efficient. Immense exploration vessels, many miles in diameter, were constructed out in space from artificial materials of extreme rigidity and lightness. These could be projected by rocket action and with cumulative acceleration till their speed was almost half the speed of light. Even so, the journey from end to end of the galaxy could not be completed under two hundred thousand years. However, there was no reason to undertake so long a voyage. Few voyages in search of suitable systems lasted for more than a tenth of that time.  Many were much shorter. Races that had attained and secured a communal consciousness would not hesitate to send out a number of such expeditions. Ultimately they might project their planet itself across the ocean of space to settle in some remote system recommended by the pioneers.
The problem of interstellar travel was so enthralling that it sometimes became an obsession even to a fairly well-developed utopian world. This could only occur if in the constitution of that world there was something unwholesome, some secret and unfulfilled hunger impelling the beings. The race might then become travel-mad.
Its social organization would be refashioned and directed with Spartan strictness to the new communal undertaking. All its members, hypnotized by the common obsession, would gradually forget the life of intense personal intercourse and of creative mental activity which had hitherto been their chief concern. The whole venture of the spirit, exploring the universe and its own nature with critical intelligence and delicate sensibility, would gradually come to a standstill. The deepest roots of emotion and will, which in the fully sane awakened world were securely within the range of introspection, would become increasingly obscured. Less and less, in such a world, could the unhappy communal mind understand itself. More and more it pursued its phantom goal. Any attempt to explore the galaxy telepathically was now abandoned. The passion of physical exploration assumed the guise of a religion. The communal mind persuaded itself that it must at all costs spread the gospel of its own culture throughout the galaxy. Though culture itself was vanishing, the vague idea of culture was cherished as a justification of world-policy.
Here I must check myself, lest I gave a false impression. It is necessary to distinguish sharply between the mad worlds of comparatively low mental development and those of almost the highest order. The humbler kinds might become crudely obsessed by sheer mastery or sheer travel, with its scope for courage and discipline. More tragic was the case of those few very much more awakened worlds whose obsession was seemingly for community itself and mental lucidity itself, and the propagation of the kind of community and the special mode of lucidity most admired by themselves. For them travel was but the means to cultural and religious empire.
I have spoken as though I were confident that these formidable worlds were indeed mad, aberrant from the line of mental and spiritual growth. But their tragedy lay in the fact that, though to their opponents they seemed to be either mad or at heart wicked, to themselves they appeared superbly sane, practical, and virtuous. There were times when we ourselves, the bewildered explorers, were almost persuaded that this was the truth. Our intimate contact with them was such as to give us insight, so to speak, into the inner sanity of their insanity, or the core of rightness in their wickedness. This insanity or wickedness I have to describe in terms of simple human craziness and vice; but in truth it was in a sense superhuman, for it included the perversion of faculties above the range of human sanity and virtue.
When one of these 'mad' worlds encountered a sane world, it would sincerely express the most reasonable and kindly intentions. It desired only cultural intercourse, and perhaps economic co-operation. Little by little it would earn the respect of the other for its sympathy, its splendid social order, and its dynamic purpose. Each world, would regard the other as a noble, though perhaps an alien and partly incomprehensible, instrument of the spirit. But little by little the normal world would begin to realize that in the culture of the 'mad' world there were certain subtle and far-reaching intuitions that appeared utterly false, ruthless, aggressive, and hostile to the spirit, and were the dominant motives of its foreign relations.  The 'mad' world, meanwhile, would regretfully come to the conclusion that the other was after all gravely lacking in sensibility, that it was obtuse to the very highest values and most heroic virtues, in fact that its whole life was subtly corrupt, and must, for its own sake, be changed, or else destroyed. Thus each world, though with lingering respect and affection, would sadly condemn the other. But the mad world would not be content to leave matters thus. It would at length with holy fervour attack, striving to destroy the other's pernicious culture, and even exterminate its population.
It is easy for me now, after the event, after the final spiritual downfall of these mad worlds, to condemn them as perverts, but in the early stages of their drama we were often desperately at a loss to decide on which side sanity lay.
Several of the mad worlds succumbed to their own foolhardiness in navigation. Others, under the strain of age-long research, fell into social neurosis and civil strife. A few, however, succeeded in attaining their end, and after voyages lasting for thousands of years were able to reach some neighbouring planetary system. The invaders were often in a desperate plight. Generally they had used up most of the material of their little artificial sun. Economy had forced them to reduce their ration of heat and light so far that when at last they discovered a suitable planetary system their native world was almost wholly arctic. On arrival, they would first take up their position, in a suitable orbit, and perhaps spend some centuries , in recuperating. Then they would explore the neighbouring worlds, seek out the most hospitable, and begin to adapt themselves or their descendants to life upon it. If, as was often the case, any of the planets was already inhabited by intelligent beings, the invaders would inevitably come sooner or later into conflict with them, either in a crude manner over the right to exploit a planet's resources, or more probably over the invaders' obsession for propagating their own culture. For by now the civilizing mission, which was the ostensible motive of all their heroic adventures, would have become a rigid obsession. They would be quite incapable of conceiving that the native civilization, though less developed than their own, might be more suited to the natives. Nor could they realize that their own culture, formerly the expression of a gloriously awakened world, might have sunk, in spite of their mechanical powers and crazy religious fervour, below the simpler culture of the natives in all the essentials of mental life.
Many a desperate defence did we see, carried out by some world of the low rank of Homo Sapiens against a race of mad supermen, armed not only with the invincible power of sub-atomic energy but with overwhelmingly superior intelligence, knowledge, and devotion, and moreover with the immense advantage that all its individuals participated in the unified mind of the race. Though we had come to cherish above all things the advancement of mentality, and were therefore prejudiced in favour of the awakened though perverted invaders, our sympathies soon became divided, and then passed almost wholly to the natives, however barbaric their culture. For in spite of their stupidity, their ignorance, and superstition, their endless internecine conflicts, their spiritual obtuseness and grossness, we recognized in them a power which the others had forfeited, a naive but balanced wisdom, an animal shrewd-ness, a spiritual promise. The invaders, on the other hand, however brilliant, were indeed perverts. Little by little we came to regard the conflict as one in which an untamed but promising urchin had been set upon by an armed religious maniac.
When the invaders had exploited every world in the new-found planetary system, they would again feel the lust of proselytization. Persuading themselves that it was their duty to advance their religious empire throughout the galaxy, they would detach a couple of planets and dispatch them into space with a crew of pioneers. Or they would break up the whole planetary system, and scatter it abroad with missionary zeal.  Occasionally their travel brought them into contact with another race of mad superiors. Then would follow a war in which one side or the other, or possibly both, would be exterminated.
Sometimes the adventurers came upon worlds of their own rank which had not succumbed to the mania of religious empire. Then the natives, though they would at first meet the invaders with courtesy and reason, would gradually realize that they were confronted with lunatics. They themselves would hastily convert their civilization for warfare. The issue would depend on superiority of weapons and military cunning; but if the contest was long and grim, the natives, even if victorious, might be so damaged mentally by an age of warfare that they would never recover their sanity.
Worlds that suffered from the mania of religious imperialism would seek interstellar travel long before economic necessity forced it upon them. The saner world-spirits, on the other hand, often discovered sooner or later a point beyond which increased material development and increased population were unnecessary for the exercise of their finer capacities. These were content to remain within their native planetary systems in a state of economic and social stability. They were thus able to give most of their practical intelligence to telepathic exploration of the universe. Telepathic intercourse between worlds was now becoming much more precise and reliable. The galaxy had emerged from the primitive stage when any world could remain solitary, and live out its career in splendid isolation. In fact, just as, in the experience of Homo Sapiens, the Earth is now 'shrinking' to the dimensions of a country so in this critical period of the life of our galaxy, the whole galaxy was 'shrinking' to the dimensions of a world. Those world spirits that had been most successful in telepathic exploration had by now constructed a fairly-accurate 'mental map' of the whole galaxy, though there still remained a number of eccentric worlds with which no lasting contact could yet be made.  There was also one very advanced system of worlds, which had mysteriously 'faded out' of telepathic intercourse altogether. Of this I shall tell more in the sequel.
The telepathic ability of the mad worlds and systems was by now greatly reduced. Though they were often under telepathic observation by the more mature world spirits, and were even influenced to some extent, they themselves were so self-complacent that they cared not to explore the mental life of the galaxy. Physical travel and sacred imperial power were for them good enough means of intercourse with the surrounding universe.
In time there grew up several great rival empires of the mad worlds, each claiming to be charged with some sort of divine mission for the unifying and awakening of the whole galaxy. Between the ideologies of these empires there was little to choose, yet each was opposed to the others with religious fervour. Germinating in regions far apart, these empires easily mastered any sub-utopian worlds that lay within reach. Thus they spread from one planetary system to another, till at last empire made contact with empire.
Then followed wars such as had never before occurred in our galaxy. Fleets of worlds, natural and artificial, manoeuvred among the stars to outwit one another, and destroyed one another with long-range jets of sub-atomic energy. As the tides of battle swept hither and thither through space, whole planetary systems were annihilated. Many a world-spirit found a sudden end. Many a lowly race that had no part in the strife was slaughtered in the celestial warfare that raged around it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Scholarly Rewards of Voluntary Surfitude

Note: This is a slightly revised version of a piece that appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction. It's about how the Internet has revolutionized the kind of research I do on science fiction. But the Internet has revolutionized all kinds of research – scholarly, business and any other kind you can imagine. 

“The whole human memory… accessible to every individual.”
-- H.G. Wells, “World Brain,” 1937)

Once upon a time there was a German science fiction writer named Karl Augustus Laffert. He wasn’t anywhere near as well known as Wells, but it struck me that he might have been a Wellsian of sorts. I first came across references to his sf in N.A. Rynin’s Interplanetary Flight and Communication, a Russian encyclopedia of astronautics published in nine volumes in the 1920s that cited a number of science fiction works related to space flight.
Laffert’s novels included Fanale am Himmel (Beacon in the Sky, 1925) and Flammen aus den Weltenraum (Flames from Outer Space, 1927), which centered on the efforts of a World Peace League that sought to stamp out war by attacking aggressors with everything from germ warfare (tailored for cattle in the case of a Balkan conflict, because the primitive military forces there still relied on oxen for logistics) to solar beams from a space station. That satellite is also turned to peaceful ends like weather control. After defeating a Soviet attempt to take over the station in the second novel, the League uses it to save Europe from a solar flare by creating a cloud cover over the continent.
I’d mentioned Laffert’s second novel as World Fire (Weltenbrand, 1926; it turns out that title was used only for serialization and was changed for the book edition a year later) in a section on apocalyptic sf in Foundations of Science Fiction (1987), first volume of Imagination and Evolution. I’ve been working on an update of I&E since getting the rights back from Greenwood Press, and naturally I want to be as accurate as I can. I knew hardly anything about Laffert but what I’d read up in Rynin for the original version, but from bibliographies I knew he hadn’t had any fiction published after 1929. That and the business of the World Peace League suggested that he might have been a radical support-peace-or-I’ll-kill-you type who had to lie low after Hitler came to power. Since then, I’ve had Dwight Decker read Beacon in the Sky for me, and his account gives the same impression: the League is a private organization, its membership drawn from a number of countries – and its members must forswear any national allegiances.
By the time I had copies of both novels (thanks to ABE Books) to send to Dwight (who is still working on Flames from Outer Space), however, I knew that impression was false – utterly false. And the reason I knew it was that I had done a Google book search for Laffert’s name, and one of the hits I came up with was from a book called Blood and Banquets: a Berlin Social Diary (1942), by Bella Fromm. Fromm was a society news columnist whose beat included Nazi social gatherings; she recorded her impressions in a diary that she had published in the United States after fleeing Germany in 1938. And it was here that I found out the truth about Karl Laffert, in an entry about a Nazi den mother named Viktoria von Dirksen:
Frau von Dirksen, relict of the Geheimrat Willibald von Dirksen, always a monarchist, has for many years been an eager hostess of the National Socialists in her magnificent palace. Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Helldorff, and the other accomplices have their weekly meetings at her home. When the Storm Troop organization was banned by Hindenburg, they used to arrive there in full uniform concealed under long capes. She has acted as a mediator between the National Socialists and the old courtiers. Her brother, Karl August von Laffert, the “German Jules Verne,” attends his sister’s receptions in the full splendor of his S.S. uniform.[1]
Without the Internet, I would surely never have found that reference. I doubt that anyone else would have. Certainly German Marxist critic Manfred Nagl, who must have aimed at leaving no stone unturned to seek out examples of Nazi sf in his Science Fiction in Deutschland (1972), would have loved to have this additional fodder. Could he too have been misled by the seeming radical antiwar tenor of Laffert’s sf?
But I digress. The important thing here is how profoundly the Internet has impacted literary research. When H.G. Wells conceived the idea of a universal encyclopedia (the “World Brain”) in 1937, the most advanced technology he knew of was microfilm. But microfilm is no easier to index, catalog and cross-reference than printed material. Indeed, it is catalogued just like printed material at libraries. If there were a world encyclopedia on microfilm, it would have the same limitations as print encyclopedias: it could be searched only by entry topic. What Google and other search engines have brought us is key word and key phrase searches. This goes beyond Wikipedia, for it makes the entire World Wide Web an encyclopedia.
Most of us are used to the everyday functions of the Internet. We do our banking there, we pay our bills and maybe even our taxes there. We order books and music (so much of the latter that music stores have gone out of business) there, exchange family photos, send birthday and Christmas gifts. We keep up with friends and associates by e-mail, do social networking, seek mates at dating sites. Maybe we blog. For white collar workers like me – I work for a trade magazine publisher – the Internet has become so essential for business-related research that it’s hard to imagine how we ever got along without it. As an sf scholar-historian, it’s hard for me to imagine how I ever got anything finished in the dark age of typewriters when I couldn’t write or edit in Word but had to retype entire pages or chapters to make revisions. Now I even have a flatbed scanner to copy pages from the original I&E and create new Word files for each chapter to update and revise and polish on my laptop. My research files for I&E include downloaded e-books from Gutenberg, speeches by and interviews with sf writers, and much else.
But all this is just scratching the surface. The Laffert affair taught me that; if I were younger, I’d have probably known it already. In any case, Laffert is hardly a major figure in German science fiction compared to Julius von Voss (see Dwight Decker’s “Proto-SF Before Frankenstein” in NYRSF 253), Kurd Lasswitz or even Hans Dominik. What’s important about the case is that it led me to use the same research tool to pursue matters of more general interest, such as the origin of science fiction as a recognized genre.
Nearly all of us were taught when we were young that Jules Verne was the father of science fiction. But that view has been challenged in recent years by scholars like Arthur B. Evans and William Butcher. Evans argued in Science Fiction Studies (March 1988) that Verne indeed wrote “scientific fiction,” but that this wasn’t the same as science fiction, mainly because it was a pedagogical rather than a literary exercise. Butcher goes further, declaring that Verne never wrote anything remotely resembling what we consider sf, and had to be “thrust, screaming and kicking, into a genre invented after his death.”[2]
Verne himself is quoted by Butcher as making his case: “I wrote ‘Five Weeks in a Balloon,’ not as a story about ballooning, but as a story about Africa,” he explained in an 1894 interview with R.H. Sherard for McClure’s magazine. “I always was greatly interested in geography and travel, and I wanted to give a romantic description of Africa. Now, there was no means of taking my travellers through Africa otherwise than in a balloon, and that is why a balloon is introduced.”[3] True, Verne refers to Five Weeks in a Balloon as his “first scientific novel”[4] in the same interview, but it could be argued that he was simply acquiescing in a coinage not his own.
There are other obvious arguments in support of Butcher’s position. A much-cited statement of Verne’s intentions regarding the same novel to fellow members of the Paris Stock Exchange (“I have just written a novel in a new form, one that is entirely my own. If it succeeds, I will have stumbled upon a gold mine. In that case, I shall go on writing and writing without pause.”[5]) has turned out to be spurious. While Verne is remembered today mostly for works regarded as sf, moreover, these account for only a fraction of his voyages extraordinaires – the rest are straight adventure and exploration novels or even historical romances. With 20/20 hindsight, Butcher and others consider the case closed. But it occurred to me to ask: what did Verne’s contemporaries think about him? How did they characterize his works? Did they show any consciousness of a new genre in the making?
When I wrote the original version of Foundations of Science Fiction, I was already aware of some contemporary references to the scientific fiction/novel genre from print sources. William H.L. Barnes, in an introduction to Caxton’s Book (1876, a collection of scientific hoaxes by William Henry Rhodes), had called Verne “the master of scientific fiction.” George Gary Eggleston, in a review of Mysterious Island, rhapsodized that Verne had created the “modern wonder story” through a “congenial marriage of science and fancy.”[6] In his introduction to Journey to Mars (1894), Gustavus W. Pope referenced the “scientific novel”[7] as if he expected his readers to be familiar with what he meant by it.
It’s more than a matter of coining terminology, of course. There was a stir some years back in sf circles over the discovery that the first use of “science fiction” dates back to 1851, in William Wilson’s A Little Earnest Book Upon A Great Old Subject"Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true." What Wilson had in mind was akin to George Gamow’s Mr. Tompkins series nearly a hundred years later, but neither Wilson’s idea nor his name for it caught on at the time. Closer to the point, James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald credited Richard Locke, author of The Moon Hoax (1835), which had appeared in the New York Sun, as “inventor of an entire new species of literature which we may call the ‘scientific novel.'"[8] That strikes me as a misnomer on two counts: The Moon Hoax was neither truly scientific nor truly a novel; in any case, as far as I have been able to discover, nobody else embraced Bennett’s term at that time. In the first edition of Foundations of Science Fiction, before I noticed the Bennett reference, I had observed:
Until Verne’s works began to appear, neither critics nor readers seem to have had any consciousness of what we now call science fiction. In an “advertisement” (actually a preface) to the 1859 William Gowans edition of The Moon Hoax, the “publisher” compares Locke’s work to the Arabian Nights, Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels, and even Robinson Crusoe and Pilgrim’s Progress. It is basically the same rationale for the travel tale as that in Charles Garmier’s Voyages Imaginaires (1787-89); nothing really new is seen in The Moon Hoax.[9]
I was already reasonably certain that Verne changed the consciousness of readers and critics, and I think that I have figured out since then why he was what I now call “le pere de science fiction malgré lui.” Whether he wanted to create a new genre or not – and I think Butcher’s case can hardly hold up given the rediscovery and publication of Paris in the Twentieth Century (1996) – he was widely perceived as having done so, because the voyages extraordinaires that made the greatest impact were those like Five Weeks in a Balloon, Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and especially Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.
Others had written straight adventure stories and historical romances, and Verne’s exercises in those genres simply didn’t have the same impact; they didn’t jump out at readers the way his “scientific novels” did. Yet another clue as to how Verne was regarded in his own time is that the next generation of writers we now call Vernean, such as Paul D’Ivoi, devoted their efforts primarily or entirely to sf as opposed to straight adventure or historical romance. George LeFaure even called his series “voyages scientifiques extraordinaires.”[10]
Be that as it may, there were references to Verne as a genre writer early on, some of them critical. An 1873 review of Journey to the Center of the Earth in The Galaxy called it “the poorest of M. Verne’s attempts at scientific romance that we have seen.”[11] An item headed “Scientific Fiction,” under the byline Belgravia, appeared in New Zealand in 1872 and took Verne to task for the scientific absurdities in “Voyage to the Moon” [sic]. The author claimed to have written a better scientific fiction piece himself, “Journey to the Sun.”[12] In France itself, Pierre Douhaire characterized Verne’s works “contes scientifiques” in a negative review for Le Correspondant in 1874.[13]
But Lucien Dubois soon contributed an admiring essay, “Le Roman Scientifique: Jules Verne et Ses Oeuvres” to Revue de Bretagne et de Vendée, which was published in Nantes, Verne’s birthplace. It was here that Dubois called Verne “le Walter Scott de la science.”[14] Gabriel Monod, a French historian, wrote an overview of French culture, “Contemporary Life and Thought in France,” which appeared in The Contemporary Review, a British journal, in 1879. There he referred briefly to “M. Jules Verne, who invented the scientific novel, and without being a great writer, has earned European renown, thanks to an imagination less poetical and less striking, but as rich as Edgar Poe’s and more precise.”[15] Jules Claretie’s Jules Verne (1883), one of a series of pamphlets about “célebrités contemporaines,” used the term “roman scientifique” to describe his works.[16]
“Scientific fiction,” “scientific romance” and “scientific novel” had occasionally been used before in other contexts, including the disparagement of allegedly dubious science. In “Vestiges of Creation,” an 1846 editorial in the New Englander and Yale Review, the then-anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation[17] was characterized as “scientific romance.”[18] An 1852 essay by Professor R. Hunt, “The Plant and the Animal,” similarly dismissed a theory Hunt didn’t approve of as “a bit of scientific fiction.”[19] In an entirely different vein, a reviewer for the New Jersey Medical Reporter was so enthused about book on women’s diseases that he remarked: “Perhaps we may call it a scientific novel, ‘founded on fact.’”[20] 
It was only with the advent of Verne that the same terms were widely applied to fiction, and at first only or primarily in relation to his own works. On July 29, 1884, for example, the Brisbane Courier of Australia reprinted a piece from the London Evening Standard, “The Scientific Imagination,” that referred to Verne’s “scientific fiction.” Yet in time the new terms were applied to other kinds of what we now call sf. In “The Labour Question” (1892), which appeared in a journal called The Nineteenth Century, British Liberal statesman Joseph Chamberlain referenced Bellamy’s Looking Backward as “a work of scientific fiction.”[21] In 1894, the Atlantic Monthly quoted from the Mail and Express, which had called John Jacob Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds a “scientific romance.”[22] And the 1898 edition of Appleton’s Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events described Stanley Waterloo’s prehistoric tale The Story of Ab (1897) as “a scientific novel of the time of the cave men.”
By the early 20th Century, “scientific fiction,” “scientific novel” and “scientific romance” were in routine use, and with the same meaning as “science fiction” today. Moreover, some critics began applying the new terms retroactively to what we now call proto-sf works. William Joseph Long, in English Literature (1909), called Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) “a kind of scientific novel.”[23]
Then as now there were those who took it all too far: in the July 1895 issue of The Metaphysical Magazine, J. Elizabeth Hotchkiss argued for the inclusion of not only Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886) but also George Du Maurier’s Peter Ibbetson (1891) and Trilby (1894).[24] No doubt DuMaurier and Verne alike would have been baffled at Trilby being called a “scientific novel” in a journal devoted to mysticism like today’s New Age movement.
In France, popular understanding of “roman scientifique” may have been just as confused, as that term was also applied by Emile Zola and his followers to naturalistic mainstream novels. Perhaps this had something to do with the casting about for other names for the genre, as chronicled by Brian Stableford in “In Search of a New Genre” for NYRSF 253. From available Google book and news searches, however, there can be no serious doubt that Verne was considered the creator of a new genre in his own time, and that the perceived scope of that genre was being broadened in reviews and criticism embrace other forms of what we now count as sf, such as the futuristic utopia, the interplanetary romance and gothic sf. There wasn’t even that sharp a break between Verne and H.G. Wells, whose early works, after all, include “The Argonauts of the Air” (1895) and “The Land Ironclads” (1903). What Wells accomplished was to assimilate earlier strains of sf, including the Vernean and the gothic (The Invisible Man), while inventing new strains like the tale of the far future (The Time Machine) – and, of course, raising the literary standard as well as the scope of the genre.
By about 1900, however, Verne had become something of an embarrassment to a new generation of French writers with higher literary aspirations, who took their inspiration from Wells and the Symbolist movement, and thus sought a new name and a new sense of identity for the genre, as Stableford relates in his essay Anent that: between Alfred Jarry (1902) and Maurice Renard (1909), whose prominent roles are recounted by Stableford, came Gustave Kahn – who in 1904 proposed “roman chimérique” for the genre of Wells.[25] That too comes from a Google book search. Kahn is identified by Wikipedia as a Symbolist poet, novelist and critic. No doubt Stableford could find out a good deal more about him at the London Library. But the thing about Google is that it can point sf critics and historians to primary sources they might otherwise never find.

[1] Fromm, Bella, Blood and Banquets, a Berlin Social Diary, Harper Brothers, 1942, pp.59-60.
[2] Butcher, William, Jules Verne, The Definitive Biography, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006, p. 149
[3] McClure’s magazine, January 1894, p. 120
[4] Ibid.
[5] quoted in Moskowitz, Sam, Explorers of the Infinite, World Publishing Co., 1963, p. 74
[6] American Homes, Dec. 1874, p.117
[7] Pope, Gustavus W., Journey to Mars, Hyperion Press, 1974, p. vi
[8] quoted in Ormond Seavey’s introduction to The Moon Hoax, Gregg Press, 1975, p. xx
[9] Pierce, John  J., Foundations of Science Fiction, Greenwood Press, 1987, citing The Moon Hoax, p. vi.
[10] Stableford, Brian, introduction to his translation of George Le Faure and Henri de Graffigny’s The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist Across the Solar System, Black Coat Press, 2009, p. 6
[11] The Galaxy, Dec. 1873, p. 860
[12] Bruce Herald, New Zealand, Dec. 29, 1876, p. 7
[13] Le Correspondant, 1874, p. 1386
[14] Revue de Bretagne et de la Vendee, Vol. I, 1875, p. 20
[15] Contemporary Review, 1879, p. 594
[16] Claretie, Jules, Jules Verne, Paris, A. Quantin, 1883, p. 11ff
[17] The author was actually Robert Chambers, an early exponent of evolution. See Wikipedia
[18] New Englander and Yale Review, Jan. 1846, p. 114
[19] The Living Age, Nov. 20, 1852, p. 349 (“From Sharpe’s Magazine”)
[20] New Jersey Medical Reporter, July 1854, p. 325
[21] The Nineteenth Century, Vol, 32, p. 684
[22] Atlantic Monthly, 1894, p. 863
[23] Long, William J., English Literature, its history and its significance for the life of the English-speaking world: a text-book for schools, Ginn and Company, 1909, p. 192 (Text found at Google not a digitized scan, but print edition found at New York Public Library for page citation.)
[24] Metaphysical Magazine, July 1895, pp. 381-82
[25] Nouvelle Revue, Volume 28, p. 368