Monday, August 13, 2012

Robots Tame the Frontier, Edison Invades Mars - Sci Fi of the 19th Century


Fans of science fiction recognize that many futuristic stories say far more about our current aspirations, limits and phobias than they do about the future.

Two of the biggest movies of 1998, Armageddon and Deep Impact (which together grossed almost a billion dollars worldwide), had Bruce Willis and Robert Duvall facing-off against giant asteroids headed directly for earth.  These movies about “extinction level events” sent people running for NASA, which was bombarded with panicked questions.  


Indeed, you might remember viewing the giant Hale-Bopp comet in early 1997, “discovered” almost by accident just 18 months before in the summer of 1995.

Michael Crichton may be the master at playing on our current fears by turning an emerging technology into a futuristic disaster book and movie.  In 1969, The Andromeda Strain told the story of a deadly extraterrestrial organism that visits earth, just as U.S. astronauts were bringing moon rocks back home.  In 1982 The Terminal Man saw electrodes planted in the brain of an epileptic, an early nod to human-machine convergence.  In 1987, Sphere had a group of scientists investigating an enormous UFO found on the floor of the Pacific, sign of an earlier visit to Earth by extraterrestrials.  In 1990 Crichton used the emerging science of DNA to create the now famous story of Jurassic Park, and in 2002 he published Prey, a tale of terror about predatory nanobots.

Sci Fi in the 19th Century

If we were worried about the abuse of DNA, extraterrestrials and nanotechnology at the turn of the 20th century, what were we worried about in the 19th century?

One of the earliest dime novel sci fis, written by Edward Ellis in 1868, placed a 10-foot steam robot on the frontier to help battle bear, buffalo and Native Americans--a fantastic mix of technology and frontier phobias that gripped the nation after the Civil War. The Huge Hunter or The Steam Man of the Prairies can be downloaded for free, thanks to google books and the Gutenberg Project, and was popular enough to be reprinted six times between 1868 and 1904.

In Steam Man of the Prairies, our young hero, Johnny Brainerd, is one of  America’s mechanic geniuses, inventing a 10-foot metal robot with a steam boiler in his chest able to travel “at railroad speed” (an astounding 60-miles-per-hour).  Johnny’s father had been killed in a steam boiler explosion, all too common in 19th-century America, but left his son with the technological skills his countryman most admired.  “There seemed no limit to his inventive powers.  He made a locomotive and then a steamboat, perfect in every part, even to the minutest, using nothing but his knife, hammer and a small chisel.  He constructed a clock with his jack-knife, which kept perfect time, and the articles which he made were wonderfully stared at affairs. . .He became a master of the art of telegraphy without assistance from anyone using merely a common school philosophy with which to acquire the alphabet.”  In other words, before 20 years old, Johnny had mastered the great American industries.  (Were he cast in 1980, he would have built a computer and invented a programming language.)

While out perfecting his skills at driving the robot, Brainerd bumps into another national stereotype, Mickey McSquizzle, a brawling Irishman--homage to the rush of immigration that erupted during the Irish Potato famine in 1845.  (Five Points in Manhattan, where the Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys did battle, was already a national disgrace by the 1850s.)  Returning from California and ten years spent hunting vainly for gold (another malady of the age which stole years and bankrupted many a man), McSquizzle was planning to “go back to work on the Erie railroad, at thirty-seven cents a day and board myself.”  (The railroad would be the great American employer for another three decades.)

The author also delivers us a stereotypical frontiersman, Baldy Bicknell, “a brave, skillful hunter, who had been engaged in many desperate affrays with the red-skins. . .like most of his class, he was a restless being, constantly flitting back and forth between the frontier towns and the western wilds.”  He never went further east than St. Louis, though, where Johnny and his mother make their home.  The reader will also be happy to know that Baldy was not a drinker, another of the great scourges of the time.


Johnny’s giant robot evokes as much excitement and terror as Robert Fulton’s first steamboat had--”the sight of a creature speeding over the country, impelled by steam, and bearing such a grotesque resemblance to a gigantic man, could not but startle all who should see it for the first time.”  In the end, however, steam conquers all (just as it would in the 19th-century), exploding at an opportune time to save the day.

Johnny decides to educate himself “at one of the best schools in the country.  When he shall have completed the course, it is his intention to construct another steam man, capable of more wonderful performances than the first.  So let our readers and the public generally be on the lookout.”

The age of steam, for all of its wonder, was sandwiched for only about a century between millenniums of human and animal power, and the electrical grid.  The frontier was “closed” by 1890.  So, it will come as no surprise that just thirty years later, the science fiction (and phobias) of Americans had changed dramatically.

In 1898, Garrett Putnam Serviss serialized a science fiction novel, Edison’s Conquest of Mars, which begins where his first novel (and thinly-veiled rip-off of H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds) left off--New York destroyed and the Earth in shambles, the result of an invasion by a superior Martian force.

Humanity is demoralized until our hero, Thomas Edison (who endorsed the book), brings the magic of electricity (as Johnny brought steam) to the rescue.  Edison’s most ingenious invention is a “model electrical balloon” or anti-gravity battleship which he test drives to the moon by pitting electricity against gravitation.   In addition, Edison invents a disintegrator based on the law of harmonic vibrations, testing it upon a crow whose feathers were known to vibrate at three hundred and eighty-six million periods per second.  

First he blasted the feathers and then, with a minor adjustment, the crow.  As Edison noted, “That looks bad for the Martians, doesn’t it?"

The “Yankees” then lead the creation of a global war fund, joined by Queen Victoria, Czar Nicholas, Mitsuhito, the Japanese Mikado and other world dignitaries, with only Kaiser Wilhelm being forced in after experiencing a fit of jealousy over the American leadership--another emerging trend of the times.  (See my earlier post, America Invades the World--1900 Style.)

Five million people meet in Washington, D.C., with wires “run all over the city, and hundreds of improved telephonic receivers provided, so everyone could hear” President McKinley offer $2B to launch the fund.  Interestingly, of all the wonders presented in the story, the idea of wireless communications was beyond Serviss’s and Edison’s grasp (though not beyond Marconi’s, already hard at work in 1898).  When two of Edison’s spaceships wish to communicate, they string a wire between them; when astronauts with telephones in their helmets wish to speak with one another, they do the same.

The Prince of Wale’s toast to Edison also struck another set of antiquated, racist twentieth century themes (and paranoias), saying “It gives me great pleasure to offer, in the name of the nations of the Old World, this tribute of our admiration for, and our confidence in, the genius of the New World, “secure “in knowing that the champion who is to achieve the salvation of the earth has come forth from the bosom of the Anglo-Saxon race.”

So, 100 ships, 20 men each, set off to conquer Mars.  On a layover on the moon the men discover a giant, 5-foot footprint and part of a giant skull, a theme perhaps intended for a sequel.  Interestingly, too, the Martians turn out to be much smarter than Earthlings; only Edison’s genius leveled the playing field.
In a direct connection between Johnny Brainerd’s mechanical genius and Edison, the inventor finds himself in an immense room that apparently operates the gates of the Martians’ dams.  Edison “ran his eye quickly over the whole immense mass of wheels, handles, bolts, bars and levers, paused for an instant, as if making up his mind, then said decidedly,  ‘That it is,’ and, stepping quickly forward, selected a small wheel amid a dozen others,” turned it, flooding the Grand Canal.

That was not good for the Martians, either.

Before the final victory, however, Serviss tells us that the Martians have been successfully practicing what was to become one of the most controversial theories of the early 20th century, eugenics (or improving the population by use of genetics--think Hitler’s Master Race).

The Martians had learned, the author tells us, methods by which the brain could be manipulated to create a soldier, a scientist or a poet.  And so, it was explained, “the Martian boys do not study a subject; they do not have to learn it, but, when their brains have been sufficiently developed in the proper direction, they comprehend it instantly, by a kind of divine instinct.”

In the world of 19th-century sci fi, steam tames Indians, electricity Martians.

Perhaps the one 19th-century sci fi story that really did predict the future more than any other was Mark Twain’s 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  It is one of the earliest time-travel books, the story of another Yankee mechanic from Connecticut, Hank Morgan, who modernizes the Dark Ages and battles Merlin with gunpowder and lightning rods.  “The first thing you want in a new country, “ Hank says, “is a patent office; then work up your school system; and after that, out with your paper.”

He also starts up iron and steel factories, reminding the reader, “I am a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry, in other words. “  With that, he also introduced the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, typewriter, sewing-machine, and even put a steamboat or two on the Thames.  By the book’s end he is organizing an expedition to discover America.  Even his new baby is named “Hello-Central” overheard by his wife as Hank dreamed about making a phone call.

Often seen as a children’s book, the reader might recall that in the final chapters Hank dispassionately slaughters 30,000 knights using a minefield, electricity, flood and Gatling guns.  World War I, the War to End All Wars, would be declared just a generation later.   Twain was only missing a tank and a couple of Sopwith Camels.

Today’s Phobias

Is there a definitive sci fi of our times?  Certainly, Crichton hit on some of the themes.  As for extinction-level asteroids (and movies), I still look up now and then.  There have been several novels in the last few years which speak to the issue of global warming.  


And who isn’t still in love with Neuromancer?

However, my vote for definitive sci fi would be 1999’s The Matrix.  It suggests we don’t know what reality is anymore, or that it’s not what we think it is, or that it might exist on several different levels, not all within our control.  It’s not the frontier, or immigration, or DNA or nanobots.  But, as I write on my blog, check google+, Facebook and Twitter, and realize that there are all these bustling “worlds” to investigate with just a click of a mouse, it certainly makes me wonder.