by Manjula Menon
The editors most responsible for shaping what we now call the genre of ‘science-fiction’ were, arguably, Hugo Gernsback, who in 1926 published the first American science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, and John W. Campbell, who took over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1937. In this essay, I’ll look at how these influential editors construed the science in the science-fiction stories they published, stories that for legions of fans served as steppingstones to belief in the truths revealed to them by the magazines’ writer-prophets.
Gernsback’s Amazing Stories was subtitled The Magazine of Scientification, and the magazine’s motto ‘Extravagant Fiction Today — Cold Fact Tomorrow’ was emblazoned prominently as a first-page banner. In his very first editorial for Amazing Stories in April 1926, titled A New Sort of Magazine, Gernsback defined ‘scientification’ as ‘the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story— a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.’[i] Gernsback had coined the neologism ‘scientification’ back in 1916, and was already publishing such stories in the other magazines he edited, like Science and Invention and Radio News. In subsequent editorials, Gernsback often vigorously focused on defending the magazine against ‘certain class of Amazing Stories scientification readers … ready to tear and claw at any author who comes along with a new idea which, for the time being, may be contrary to fact, although it may still lie within the realm of science.’[ii]
One of Gernsback’s aims was to better disseminate the work of non-American writers. The very first story that appeared in Amazing Stories was the Frenchman Jules Verne’s Off on a Comet (“Hector Servadac”), in which Captain Servadac experiences a cataclysmic event that appears to have altered the Algerian coast he’d been stationed at. Servadac sets sail on a yacht owned by the Russian Count Timascheff, to explore his new environs, an adventure that has them sailing through storms and ice; jibs are raised, mainsails adjusted, helms righted, yawls ingeniously refitted to skate over ice. They eventually discover that the Algerian coast they’d been on had been picked up apiece, air and water included, by a comet that had suddenly collided with Earth. This fantastic scenario is obviously far from being scientification; Gernsback himself says in his introduction to Off on a Comet, that it belongs ‘in the realm of fairyland’.[iii]
Off on a Comet is, however, meticulous in showing how characters methodically calculate solutions to ongoing problems. After the cataclysmic event, Servadac observes that it takes longer for water to boil at the same outside temperature and deduces that there is less atmosphere above him. He observes that days are shorter, gravity is weaker, and that it is the star Vega in the constellation Lyra, and not the pole star, that is the fixed point around which constellations revolve. While the stars remain fixed in size and luminosity, he observes that the planet Venus gets larger and brighter, from which he deduces that he was on a collision course with the Cytherean body. When he observes Venus getting smaller and smaller, he deduces that the planes of the two planets’ orbits didn’t meet, and the catastrophic collision had been averted. He deduces from the observation that the magnetic needle of his compass had not deviated in angle from the north pole, that north and south remained the same, but that east and west had apparently changed places given sunrise and sunset position. Smooth and angular land formations jut up from the sea, and when they lower sounding-lines, they discover that the seabed is bereft of any marine life, uniformly deep, and composed of a strange iridescent metallic dust, from which they conclude that a subterranean event has lifted parts of that strange seabed to the surface. Once they understand that they are no longer on Earth but on a celestial body they name Gallia, they deduce that it is in an elliptical orbit, because the planet’s rate of speed diminishes in proportion to the distance receded from the sun. Far away from the sun, the temperature drops, and the Gallian seas begin to freeze. Off on a Comet is not just a thrilling sea adventure, but also a study of how the characters use tools, observations, and calculations to make deductions about the nature of the mystifying world they find themselves in.
In one scene, a solitary point of light observed from the schooner leads the party to a tomb deep within an abandoned mosque. Above the tomb, they discover a large, silver lamp, the source of the light, and on the corner of the tomb, an open French prayer-book. Servadac then has a revelation, that the tomb was that of the Crusader king Louis IX, canonized as Saint Louis; ‘The lamp that had been kindled at the memorial shrine of a saint was now in all probability the only beacon that threw a light across the waters of the Mediterranean, and even this ere long must itself expire.’ After making a ‘reverential obeisance to the venerated monument’,[iv] the party continue their exploration. Later, when the schooner appears certain to smash into those strange, smooth Gallian cliffs, Count Timascheff intones, ‘Let us, then, commend ourselves to the providence of Him to Whom nothing is impossible.’[v]
Verne had been raised Catholic, but other than brief nods to the faith of his youth as in the passage referenced above, he makes almost no reference to Christianity, and is commonly claimed by both deists and atheists as one of their own. Indeed, Saint Louis is brought up later in Off on a Comet, when the party encounter a supercilious English major who refers to the tomb as that of a French monarch, only to be vociferously corrected by Servadac that Louis IX was not merely a monarch, but a saint. Thus, the saint’s role in Off on a Comet appears to be to highlight verbal sparring between agents of rival colonial powers, rather than to make any kind of spiritual point. Indeed, none of the nineteenth-century Europeans who find themselves so mysteriously transplanted onto a comet hurling its way through the solar system consider that the event might have been a miracle, the work of God.
Verne similarly dropped non-Christian religious traditions into his stories. For example, in his adventure novel, Around the World in Eighty Days (“Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours”), the enigmatic, exacting, and iron-willed Englishman, Phileas Fogg, and his excitable, impressionable, and sentimental French valet, Passepartout set out to traverse the world in eighty days on a wager. They soon arrive in India, where in Bombay, Passepartout encounters a Parsi festival where the ‘descendants of the sect of Zoroaster…were celebrating a sort of religious carnival, with processions and shows, in the midst of which Indian dancing-girls, clothed in rose-coloured gauze, looped up with gold and silver, danced airily, but with perfect modesty, to the sound of viols and the clanging of tambourines.’[vi] Later, when their pre-planned train ride comes to an abrupt end, they hire a Parsi as mahout to a partially trained war-elephant they purchase to complete the journey, they soon find themselves in a little-traveled region ‘inhabited by a fanatical population, hardened in the most horrible practices of the Hindu faith’,[vii] where they encounter a procession carrying the corpse of a dead Rajah, accompanied by his beautiful, young Parsi widow, Aouda, who is to be ritually sacrificed in his funeral pyre. This horrific scene serves as impetus to a rescue mission, replete with daring deeds and suspenseful, last-minute turnarounds. Aouda and Phileas Fogg fall in love over the course of the novel, indeed the final scenes concern a marriage proposal. Once again, Verne uses religious traditions not with spirituality in mind but in the service of story, in the case of India, to serve as backdrop for spectacle, romance and adventure. Also like Off on a Comet, Verne is meticulous in Around the World in Eighty Days as to showing how the characters calculate solutions to ongoing problems, famously detailing how local time changes with changes in latitude, at a time before the international date line had been established. Metaphysical questions about the nature of reality or the existence of a higher power does not play any role in Verne’s stories, but religious traditions make occasional appearances, usually in service of other story elements.
The second story Gernsback picked for Amazing Stories was also a republication: The New Accelerator by the Englishman, H.G.Wells. It is perhaps worth noting here that it is these three men, Wells, Verne, and Gernsback, who are now commonly referred to as ‘the fathers of science fiction’. In The New Accelerator, the unnamed narrator agrees to imbibe an experimental drug concocted by Professor Gibberne, his neighbor and friend, who is world-renowned for making drugs that work on the human nervous system. The professor explains that the drug (named The New Accelerator), ‘is a stimulant that stimulates all round, that wakes you up for a time from the crown of your head to the tip of your great toe, and makes you go two — or even three to everybody else’s one.’[viii] Upon drinking the vial of green liquid offered, the narrator discovers to his amazement that he can now move so quickly that ordinary life appears to have come to a standstill. After the novelty of wandering through crowds of motionless people wears off, the narrator finds himself using the drug to achieve somewhat more prosaic aims: ‘I may mention, for example, that this story has been written at one sitting and without interruption, except for the nibbling of some chocolate, by its means. I began at 6:25, and my watch is now very nearly at the minute past the half-hour. The convenience of securing a long, uninterrupted spell of work in the midst of a day full of engagements cannot be exaggerated.’[ix]
In addition to fine-tuning The Accelerator so it can work for the masses, Professor Gibberne is also at work on another potion he calls The Retarder, which ‘should enable the patient to spread a few seconds over many hours of ordinary time, and so to maintain an apathetic inaction, a glacier-like absence of alacrity, amidst the most animated or irritating surroundings.’[x] Details as to the science behind the time-altering drugs are scant to non-existent. Instead, Wells is interested in the idea that our experience of time relates to the speed at which our bodily functions work.
These two stories, written by already very successful writers, typify what Gernsback liked to publish. For Gernsback, scientification, or science, appears to be broadly defined, as can be gathered by the implausibility of the underlying scenarios presented. As to what science was, how it differed from what came before, or how it intermingled with religious traditions that it existed alongside with, even as it ‘enters so intimately into all our lives today’[xi] as he put it, he expended almost no ink. Instead, as evinced by his eighty patents and numerous publications, Gernsback was passionate about technology, from the nitty-gritty mechanics of yet-to-be-invented machines to what grand societal changes were possible because of new technology.
While Gernsback appears to take scientification and science itself as ‘I know it when I see it’, the demarcation problem between science and pseudo-science has continued to vex philosophers for centuries. Although the word ‘science’ hadn’t been formulated yet, Aristotle in the 4th century BC held that a demarcation line existed between propositions that were ‘apodictically’, or necessarily, self-evidently, or demonstrably true, versus propositions arrived through the dialectic or reasoning process. Millenia later, the 1920s saw logical positivists associated with the Vienna Circle like Rudolf Carnap, A.J. Ayer, and Hans Hahn, focus on verifiability as the demarcation line, where the distinction is even more strongly drawn as being between meaningful and meaningless statements. Verificationists hold that a proposition is only meaningful if it can be empirically verified or if it expressed as a tautology that is logically true. However, using verifiability as demarcation leads to universally general statements like ‘all life on Earth is carbon-based’ being rendered meaningless as it cannot be verified, while existential statements like ’ghosts exist’ would be classified as meaningful, as it can be verified. In the 1930s, Karl Popper argued it should be falsifiability that should serve as the demarcation line, where only propositions that can be falsified should be considered scientific. In contrast to verifiability, under falsifiability, the sentence ‘all life on Earth is carbon-based’ would be considered scientific as it can be falsified, while ‘ghosts exist’ would not be considered scientific as it cannot be falsified. The American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn argued against falsifiability by observing that astrologers often provide precise predictions that could be falsified, which according to falsification would then render astrological predictions scientific. Kuhn argues instead that the demarcation line might not be as sharply defined, and that science was to be taken as merely a method of puzzle solving, in which the puzzle-solver works to correlate observation with theory. He pointed to what he called ‘extraordinary’ or ‘revolutionary’ science as the driver of forward scientific progress, rather than ‘ordinary’ science where the extraordinary science solves new problems in addition to the old problems solved by the paradigm it replaced. For Kuhn, these kind of paradigm shifts is what science is really about.
John W. Campbell, who became editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1937, was clearly interested in the question of what science was and how it came to be. For example, in a 1953 editorial for Astounding Science Fiction, titled The Scientist, Campbell observes that scientists believe ‘in the existence of a Supreme Authority in the Universe, an Authority they call “Natural Law.” They hold that that Authority is above and beyond the opinions and beliefs, the will or willfullness, of any human being. That that Authority can, moreover, be directly consulted by any man, at any time—and that every man is, at every time and in every place, directly and specifically obedient to that Authority, to Natural Law, whether he recognizes that fact or not.’[xii] He further posits that the scientist would claim ‘I have proven beyond doubt that there is Universal Law; I am not yet wise enough to know the nature of its source,’[xiii] in contrast to those who claim to know the source of Universal Law.
Later, in the 1954 editorial, Relatively Absolute, Campbell writes that science is ‘that method of learning that involves the equal interaction and cross-checking of philosophical-theoretical thought, and actual physical-reality experiments, done as a conscious process for the consciously stated purpose of increasing knowledge and understanding—that is, increasing data and relationship-of-data.’[xiv] He argues that science was ‘going to be a mighty unpopular philosophy in any culture; it has an absolutism about it that says, it makes no difference who you are, what you are, or what you want. Neither does it matter what your wealth is, or your political power. These are The Laws, obey them or suffer.’[xv] Arguing that religion was ‘by derivation, the study of the “Laws of Things” … or “Cosmology” in modern linguistic terms’[xvi] he concludes that science could therefore only be invented by ‘a culture that had already accepted the idea of an Absolute Power in the Universe’[xvii] and points to their many inventions, including alchemy and algebra, to nominate the Islamic civilization as the sole progenitor of science.
Campbell is, at best, careless with the demarcation line, and whether one agrees with him or not about how and who ‘invented’ science, it seems indisputable that science-fiction, like science, did not wink into existence from out of the void, but rather emerged from a milieu.
For Darwin, it was inevitable that Homo-sapiens evolved to be philosophical. Writing in The Descent of Man Darwin says, ‘As soon as the faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, along with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.’[xviii]
Observations of what cause produced which effect was put to use to increase survival rate, while the human aptitude for symbolic behavior gave rise to language and allowed for the social cohesion necessary to form complex societies. When there were gaps in connecting cause with effect, our ancestors spun narratives that often imbued consciousness and agency to everything from stars to storms. These narratives were then often tied to belief structures, allowing for societal coalescence. Religious and sacred storytelling were, perhaps, inevitable outcroppings of the cognitive capacities of the human mind.
William James in his 1897 essay, ‘The Will to Believe’ says he wrote the essay ‘in justification of faith, a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.’[xix] He argues that a proposed hypothesis will present as either live or dead to the mind: ‘A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature, — it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As a hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Mahdi’s followers), the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker.’[xx] To the hypothesis offered being ‘live’, James adds the perceived prestige of the source of the hypothesis which together make ‘the spark shoot from them and light up our sleeping magazines of faith.’[xxi] Given the right imprimatur then, stories of science-fiction could rise to become part of some future canonical belief: Extravagant Fiction Today —— Cold Fact Tomorrow?
Indeed, Campbell later became a proponent of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, and wrote approvingly about the existence of psi, or extra-sensory powers and perception, in humans, publishing multiple stories in Astounding based on psi. As James said about our quest for scientific truth, ‘Our faith is faith in someone else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other, — what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up?’[xxii]
The editors most influential in shaping science-fiction as we know it today published stories that featured the speculative hypotheses they favored, thereby advancing these hypotheses into James’s ‘live’ category in the minds of their readers. Gernsback and Campbell published stories that not only evoked wonder and awe in their readers, but also provided the imprimatur of science that allowed their readers to shape belief in what might yet be revealed to have been prophetic truth.
[i] Gernsback, H. (1926, April). A New Sort of Magazine. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 3
[ii] Gernsback, H. (1926, May). A New Sort of Magazine. Amazing Stories, 2(9), 825
[iii] Gernsback, H. (1926, April). A New Sort of Magazine. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 1
[iv] Verne, J. (1926, April). Off on a Comet. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 24
[v] Verne, J. (1926, April). Off on a Comet. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 28
[vi] Verne, J. Translated by Towle, G. (1872). Around the World in Eighty Days. Standard Ebooks edition, 49
[vii] Verne, J. Translated by Towle, G. (1872). Around the World in Eighty Days. Standard Ebooks edition, 62
[viii] Wells, H. (1926, April). The New Accelerator. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 58
[ix] Wells, H.G (1926, April). The New Accelerator. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 96
[x] Wells, H.G (1926, April). The New Accelerator. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 97
[xi] Gernsback, H. (1926, April). A New Sort of Magazine. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 20
[xii] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 69
[xiii] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 72,73
[xiv] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 78
[xv] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 79
[xvi] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 78
[xvii] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 79
[xviii] Darwin, C. Descent of Man, Second Edition, 143
[xix] James, W. The Will to Believe, Internet Archive Books, https://archive.org/details/willtobelieve0000jame, 1
[xx] James, W. The Will to Believe, Internet Archive Books, https://archive.org/details/willtobelieve0000jame, 1
[xxi] James, W. The Will to Believe, Internet Archive Books, https://archive.org/details/willtobelieve0000jame, 4
[xxii] James, W. The Will to Believe, Internet Archive Books, https://archive.org/details/willtobelieve0000jame, 4
Manjula Menon once worked as an electrical engineer in Brussels. This is her second essay in Sci Phi Journal after her “homecoming of sorts” in our previous issue. A list of her other publications can be found at www.manjulamenon.com