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

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