The short story of science fiction

9 Dec

In the past couple weeks, I have been reading science fiction short stories. In typical fashion, I have this need to be systematic and thorough, so I am choosing my stories in a chronological fashion. Obviously, I am not reading all of them, just a smattering, but here is the reading list so far:

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”, 1835
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, 1844
Wells, H.G. “The Star”, 1897
Hamilton, Edmond. “The Man Who Evolved”, 1931
Robert Heinlein. “–All You Zombies–” 1959

My descriptions/reviews below are somewhat spoilery in terms of premise and tone, although I don’t out and out describe how the stories end.

The first two stories have been dubbed ‘proto science fiction’ in that they were written well before there was any such genre as science fiction, and were labeled in hindsight as “science fiction-like.” H. G. Wells is the first of this batch to be truly a “science fiction” writer, although he would not have used that term, since it was not invented until the mid-twentieth century.

I associate Poe intimately with proto-horror, so reading a story which is part Jules Vernian adventure and part acerbic satire was an interesting change of pace. “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” (1835) is a story about a ne’er-do-well fellow who decides to escape his troubles by constructing a balloon and flying to the moon. I don’t associate Poe with science at all, so from the point of view of the scientific knowledge and engineering of his day, this was actually well-researched and thought out by Poe. Of course, from the POV of the twenty-first century, it’s completely absurd, but in 1835, it would have had a certain amount of plausibility.

In Poe fashion, the actual adventure is framed inside another story (which is framed inside another story), which serves to set up Mr. Pfaall’s ‘adventure’ as a hoax, and therefore firmly places this story in the genre of satire. So we must wait for the likes of Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs to strip off the mocking framework and just give us an adventure.

Hawthorne is one of those writers I associate with deadly dull American literature classes in high school. Certainly not, as is also the case with Poe above, with science. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844) was labeled as “proto science fiction” because not only is the character of Rappaccini (and his daughter as well) presented as a geneticist of the Gregor Mendel variety, his experiments lead to the development of engineered plant species.

Rappaccini is also a prototypical “mad scientist” (not the first in the genre of proto sci-fi, that would be Frankenstein), developing these plants to be biological weapons. He involves his daughter not only as an assistant, but deliberately raises her in an appalling fashion that ensures she is immune to the poison.

The story is told from the point of view of Rappaccini’s tenant, a young man who falls in love with the daughter. The rest unfolds in cautionary tale fashion. I’ll skip the spoilery details of that.

“The Star” (1897) is a doomsday story. It was written at a time when Western civilization was finally firmly convinced the future might well be different from the past, in the midst of the whole upheaval of revolutionary change in religion, politics, and technology. Science fiction would become an integral part of that awareness, making predictions about what this future might look like and taking on a social role of demonstrating the consequences of technological and scientific choices.

This particular story is not any kind of social warning, though. It’s pretty much a “we’re doomed by forces beyond our control.” But even that is taking a stand on what’s possible, when doomsday is not the result of human sin and God’s wrath, but just a cold, indifferent universe. The basic premise is that a comet has struck the planet Neptune, knocking that world out of its orbit and sending both bodies hurtling in the general direction of the Earth.

The rest I’ll skip describing, as this is a well-written story that bears reading. Wells is one of the well-deserved fathers of science fiction, both for writing speculative stories using science, and for the sheer ability to rub two words together.

“The Man Who Evolved” (1931) is the first pulp magazine science fiction story I have read in my chronological trek. This particular story shows itself to be very much a prototype of a thousand sci-fi plots to come, for example, The Fly: the geneticist or biologist who experiments on himself with grisly results.

I’m told the pulp magazine editors of the 30’s wanted to “entertain AND educate” through the stories they commissioned, but if that was the aim of this story, OMG, then I have to say the science is just bad. The premise is an evolutionary biologist who uses cosmic rays to induce evolutionary mutations, with himself as the guinea pig. His aim? To see the future evolution of humankind.

The main problem is evolution most likely doesn’t work that way, at least not according to Darwinian theory. It works by random mutation, not determinate mutation. What evolves, or doesn’t, is a matter of a particular mutation’s suitability for enhancing survival in a particular environment, and environments arise just as unpredictably as mutations.

Even if Natural Selection isn’t the primary mover of evolution, the idea that evolution will proceed in some pre-determined series of mutations over millions of years is a practical absurdity you see quite a bit in science fiction (a more recent, and less forgivable, example of this was the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Threshold”).

But this story is fun for the sheer Earnest Melodrama style in which it was written. That is typical of the era, both in film and books.

Robert Heinlein may be one of the premier science fiction writers of the 20th century, but I can’t imagine him writing “–All You Zombies–” (1959) with anything other than his tongue held firmly in his cheek. Besides a time-hopping temporal agent on a mission, you have gender-crossing self-impregnation, and other twists that seem written more for shock value than gee-whiz story-telling. But he originally wrote this story hoping to publish it with Playboy, so that should tell you something right there. (BTW, they opted not to publish it).

I read this story first, which is why its publication date is so much later than the others in this batch. I don’t plan to get back to the 50’s and 60’s for another few weeks. I hope stories like this work better in their chronological context than they do just read cold. I didn’t read a lot of sci-fi as a kid even though I ate stuff like Star Trek and Star Wars up with a spoon, because so much of what existed at the time had an off-putting masculine sensibility. But we’ll see. And of course, 70’s feminist sci-fi is also on the agenda. Haven’t read much of that, either.

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