Monday, 3 June 2013

Some notes on early speculative fiction

This thread of thought started with something I saw on Google+ about Discordianism, a 20th century religion known for celebrating the Greek goddess Eris. That sparked a blogpost here where I ended up talking about the Humanist project, which got me to pull down from the bookshelf a volume I'd bought a while ago, Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, in which he looks at the rediscovery in the 15th century, at the start of the Renaissance, of a long poem by 1st-century-BC author Lucretius titled On the Nature of Things.

Greenblatt's book is subtitled 'How the Renaissance Began', which seems to me to be a pretty large claim for a single classical text, though I've just started the book so we'll see. But there's something a bit unaware about Greenblatt's angle - the same sort of exceptionalism I've found, for example, in the work of historian Peter Ackroyd - where he raises the pitch so high that the base-notes that can tie his narrative to a broader discussion, other books in other words, disappear. The effect is unpleasant because you feel as though he's trying too hard to sell you something that might be wrong. Or, if not wrong, just overblown by enthusiasm, by a personal bias that enters the discussion due to long proximity and also due to a deep personal attachment to the text in question. But then again, Lucretius' poem's title shows that the work was pretty ambitious to start with.

I don't know if Lucretius' poem should be titled "speculative" even though as Greenblatt notes early in his book some of its ideas are distinctly modern, meaning they closely resemble realities that have been uncovered by science in the centuries since the work was rediscovered by the book hunter Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. It's probably rather better labelled "philosophical". Regardless, the Greenblatt book brought my mind back to a story I wrote in 2009, and which appeared on the website of Australian Anthill, on early speculative fiction or, rather, speculative elements that appeared in English literary works prior to the rapid run of truly speculative novels that were published starting in the Victorian age. So Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth was published in 1864 and his From the Earth to the Moon came out the following year. My discoveries predate these works.

This is how my Anthill story began:
In 1667, when John Dryden published Annus Mirabilis, London’s historical sense was heightened by tragedy. A fire had gutted the city, which was being rebuilt as people came to terms with bereavement and loss. 
It was also a time of discovery beyond the dreams of the generations that had bound the world together in a web of trade. Despite on-off war between Holland and England, scientists like Dutchman Alexandre Huygens, who discovered Saturn’s rings, were frequent visitors. 
At the Royal Society he [probably] would have met Dryden, who was also a member. Meetings such as this are behind his stanzas.
And the stanzas in question? Here they are:
Instructed ships will sail to quick commerce,
By which remotest regions are allied;
Which makes one city of the universe,
Where some may gain and all may be supplied. 
Then we upon our globe’s last voyage go
And view the ocean leaning on the sky:
From thence our reeling neighbours we shall know
And on the lunar world securely pry.
I've highlighted the relevant line. For us living in the age of space travel the line makes sense because we've all seen photos like the one that accompanies this blogpost, but for early commentators it made no sense at all. Samuel Johnson, for example, writing a gloss for Dryden's poem 100 years after it was first published, said the stanzas had “no meaning”. A nineteenth century commentator, writing 100 years after Johnson, said “it is difficult to perceive the resemblance to sense in this stanza.” My story continued:
It’s unlikely that Dryden’s work would provoke comment in the pages of our Saturday papers but we avidly consume cultural products that look to the future. 
Readers might recall the menacing sight of the Nostromo in the opening sequences of the 1979 Ridley Scott film, Alien; the intergalactic tug-towing ore transports are controlled from corporate headquarters on earth. 
So the film embellishes on Dryden’s blueprint for interplanetary commerce.
From 1667 to 1979 is a period of 312 years. Dryden's exposure to the brightest scientific minds of his generation was obviously the reason he was able to see so far into the future, but the nexus between science and literature was often close in those eras before Verne wrote his books in the industrial age of steam trains, balloon flight and fast intercontinental travel. Take another case I pointed to in my Anthill story, that of George Crabbe, the parson-poet and a favourite of Jane Austen. My story goes on:
Tales of the Hall, a book of stories in iambic pentameters by George Crabbe, was published in 1819, 40 years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species appeared. Yet it contains a germ of the idea that man evolved from another species.
Those stanzas go like this:
It is a lovely place, and at the side
Rises a mountain-rock in rugged pride;
And in that rock are shapes of shells, and forms
Of creatures in old worlds, of nameless worms,
Whose generations lived and died ere man,
A worm of other class, to crawl began.
Crabbe was an enthusiastic naturalist who would spend hours scouring the countryside looking for new plant species, which he would take back home, catalogue, describe, and write about to other naturalists of the time.
Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, also had some odd ideas, and expressed them in an original way. His coat of arms had three scallop shells on it and he had painted ‘E concis omnia’ — ‘Everything comes from shells’ — on his carriage. 
Erasmus Darwin was not taken seriously by the intelligentsia. In addition to being a Dissenter, he was thought to follow Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a dangerous association to have in a time of war.
So it's not entirely surprising that Crabbe would write the lines he did; ideas that Charles Darwin described with proof in his seminal 1859 work were being talked about by some people in England generations before the young man embarked on his trip on the Beagle in 1831. What is surprising is the fact that Crabbe's admitted adherence to the doctrines of the Church of England would have meant that he had two conflicting sets of ideas to rationalise within his mind. In public as a parson he might have told one story, but in public as a poet he told another story entirely. Can Crabbe's verse be merely described as "outre"? Or was it just a stab at public opinion, something that he probably thought would be overlooked - just as Dryden's speculative verses were overlooked for hundreds of years? Personally, I think that Jane Austen would have simply passed over the lines in question. She was always more interested in the politics of personal relationships.

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