These authors are renowned for their more serious works tackling issues of race, religion, environment, politics, sociology and, in the case of two, ‘the not so serious but equally entertaining’ murder mystery genre.
Of course, I say this with a heavy dose of irony — because science fiction authors (at least the good ones) tackle all these issues and more, sometimes within the opening paragraph. From Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s severe criticism of capitalism in The Space Merchants (1952) to William Gibson’s analysis of human interfacing technologies in his works from ‘Burning Chrome’ (1982) onwards, the science fiction genre is perhaps the most political and severe of all. In every nuance and crevice, it critiques, lampoons, distresses, ridicules and even occasionally praises humankind with its characteristically imaginative scenes.
If you don’t believe me, look at some heavy hitters who dabbled in the genre.
Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)
The father of The Jungle Book (1894), The Man Who Would Be King (1888), Kim (1901), and a literary celebrity of his time, Kipling’s name is now better known and revered amongst academic circles. His influence on authors, from Edgar Rice Burroughs (father of Tarzan (1912–1966)) to Michael Moorcock, has been felt throughout, not to mention making a pretty penny for Walt Disney.
Yet, despite the scholarly fascination some have had with the man who dreamed up (and never visited) the wilds of India, Kipling was also an ardent machinist. Within science fiction circles, he’s most well-known for ‘With The Night-Mail’ (1909), a story which failed to predict the rise of planes in 1905 but did predict the heavy aerial traffic and widespread international communication between countries. This was followed by the much more political ‘As easy as A. B. C.’ (1917), in which democracy is held as singularly dangerous to societal health while the elite governs collective gatherings and demonstrations from atop their luxurious balloons.
Kipling also wrote his variation on a time travel story in ‘Wireless’ (1904), on the application of drugs on human behaviour in ‘Unprofessional’ (1932) and on the death of glorious nature in ‘A Matter of Fact’ (1893).
Kipling’s work has been compiled into a collection that reflects his science fiction achievements by none other than John Brunner, author of Stand on Zanzibar (1968) and The Sheep Look Up (1972). You can see Kipling’s collection here; https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/443932.The_Science_Fiction_Stories_of_Rudyard_Kipling.
Jack London (1876–1916)
Curator of the most classic wilderness adventures, including The Sea Wolf (1903), White Fang (1906) and The Call of the Wild (1903), Jack London is still a famous writer among young readers today. Like Kipling, he rose to literary fame early on in his career, particularly as a young, self-taught man of the working class.
However, aside from his breathtaking descriptions of the Klondike gold rush and the savage, bitter winters prospecting in California, Jack London was also an affirmed socialist who condemned man’s greed in works such as Martin Eden (1909). This condemnation also stretched to science fiction, where he portrayed the evils of extreme capitalism in a novel which predated Orwell’s own 1984 (1949), The Iron Heel (1908). The book is written from a future perspective on the rebellion of one socialist heroine and her love interest. Although her rebellion would fail, it would set up later rebellions against the increasing pressure of the upper class, ending in a singularly united world society someday hence. London returns to this topic in ‘Goliah’ (1910), where, through a mysterious invention, an unnamed man takes control of the world and forces it into a period of peace and prosperity.
London also wrote several stories exploring the possible beginnings of humankind’s nature, notably ‘When the World Was Young’ (1910) and reports of scientific curiosity, such as ‘The Shadow and the Flash’ (1903). Of note in the London collection is an end of days story called ‘The Scarlet Plague’ (1912), which explores the reduction of humankind to its primitive nature after a disease wipes out all but 400-odd humans. ‘The Red One’ (1918) is a personal favourite of mine and an early ‘mysterious object’ story — but to explain anything more would ruin its effect.
You can find more on Jack London in his collection of science fiction stories here; https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/443086.The_Science_Fiction_Stories_of_Jack_London.
E. M. Forster (1879–1970)
One of the most respectable novelists of his era, Forster is most notable for his A Passage to India (1924), a story about the Indian independence movement during the 1910s. The novel is selected as one of the 100 greatest English works of the 20th century and is a potent examination of class separation; themes also explored in A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1924).
Surprisingly, this same author also predicted the widespread use of social media and agoraphobia in his 1909 dystopian short story ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909). The novel follows a young man who has come to visit his ‘mother’ in person, an act frowned upon by a society that communicates entirely through machines producing sound and vision. He relates his escape to the surface and the joys he’s seen, much to his mother’s horror. Eventually, the complex machinery that has allowed society to separate itself whilst remaining in constant contact breaks down, causing panic and the (gulp) interaction of many people who have long held no communication with people in the flesh.
It’s a gripping story to read, one I returned to again during the pandemic (thinking perhaps this was the catalyst for Forster’s vision). If you want, please message me for a pdf of the story.
Mark Twain (1835–1910)
The celebrated author of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and the earlier The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Mark Twain’s place in literary history is secured. Huckleberry Finn is continually read to this day, particularly regarding its commentary on racism and slavery, becoming a cornerstone textbook in most American schools and a ‘Great American novel’.
Twain’s most lasting contribution to science fiction has been A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Although the time travel device isn’t incredibly science-fictional (the protagonist happens to find himself in King Arthur’s Britain), he ends up instituting numerous scientific and societal changes brought back from his day. Twain’s novel is, therefore, an early forerunner of a popular science fictional concept — what if one were to wake up in a remote past period with all the knowledge of today? The idea has been tried by science fiction legends ranging from L. Sprague de Camp’s Least Darkness Fall (1941) to Murray Leinster’s ‘Sidewise in Time’ (1934).
Twain’s novel is more of a social critique of modern values, with the protagonist installing modern advertising, Fordism production-line techniques, electricity, and tommy guns. The result, however, is the death of many knights and an uncertain future for the past, with the moral of the story circling the dangers of technology on an unprepared (morally, spiritually and otherwise) society, the critique being as much on us in the present era as those in the early 5th/6th century.
It might be hard to support Jeff Bezos and Amazon right now, but at least this work is free on kindle; https://www.amazon.com/Connecticut-Yankee-King-Arthurs-Court-ebook/dp/B004UJTZ30/ref=sr_1_1?crid=11VPX9S1SXEGJ&keywords=a+connecticut+yankee+in+king+arthur%27s+court&qid=1654920873&sprefix=a+conn%2Caps%2C259&sr=8-1
Edgar Allen Poe (1809–1849)
Author of the most widely quoted gothic tale of all time, Poe has penned such shrieking horrors as ‘The Raven’ (1845), ‘The Masque of the Red Death (1842)’ and ‘The Tell-tale Heart’ (1843), not to mention introducing the very model for Sherlock Holmes in C. Auguste Dupin, who appeared in three separate short stories. Poe has long been a gothic and crime favourite and has been scrutinised by many academic studies.
Surprising to some is the fact that Poe, in his gothic madness, should be considered an early pioneer of science fiction. But, for those familiar with the beginnings of science fiction in Amazing Stories, Poe’s entry should be expected. Alongside H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, two of the most celebrated science fiction authors of all time, Poe was published in the very first editions. The reason for this is that Hugo Gernsback, editor of the magazine, was hoping to attract writers to pen a new type of literary fiction and so drew from some recognisable celebrities who had previously written adventure tales with a science fiction ‘twist’.
Included in the first April 1926 issue of Amazing Stories, the tale Gernsback chose of Poe’s was ‘The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar’ (1845), in which a man is placed into a trance by his physician to cure an illness, after that he comes into contact with a mysterious and dark second nature. The story, as with ‘The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfall’ (1835) and ‘Balloon Hoax,’ (1844), was written as a hoax (funnily enough, given the latter’s title). ‘Hans Pfall’ tells the story of a man who visited the moon using a balloon, while the ‘Balloon Hoax’ tells of the Atlantic Ocean crossing in a record 75 hours. A follow-up to ‘Hans Pfall’ was planned but abandoned after Richard Locke’s Great Moon Hoax of 1835 stole the spotlight by finishing a character’s adventures on the moon — we only ever hear of Hans’ travels upwards.
Another story, ‘Mellonta Tauta’ (1849), tells of an incredibly advanced balloonist society in 2848, where crossing the ocean by air was no big problem.
Poe’s hoaxes and forays into science aren’t of much consideration themselves, being meant to shock more than anything, although they do give us a glimpse of Poe’s rather doubtful views on humanity’s progress, which culminated in the science poem ‘Eureka: A Prose Poem’ (1848). He’s also one of the earliest authors to use a scientific device to explore space and travel through time, significantly impacting later authors who turned to the machine over magic to propel their protagonists through time.
You can read more of Poe’s science fiction stories here; https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12908934-the-science-fiction-of-edgar-allen-poe.
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930)
Most famous for his fifty-eight short stories and four novels on the celebrated detective, Arthur Conan Doyle is today remembered for one of two things. The first is Sherlock Holmes, and the second is his exploration of the otherworldly later in life, consulting mystics to speak to his dead son and defending the images of the Cottingley Fairies. He wrote several books and articles on the subject, defending the Cottingley case even after it had been proved the photos were faked.
However, like many of his contemporaries, Doyle also dabbled in the lost world adventure genre, writing in 1925 in The Lost World. The story follows a band of explorers discovering a plateau in the Amazon basin where many primitive reversions and extinct dinosaurs are alive and thriving. The story follows the colonial desire to conquer and exhibit the creatures. Still, it ends in a rare display of discretion as all party members realise the danger of letting The Lost World become colonised.
But that’s far from his complete repertoire in the genre. Doyle completed another two novels and two short stories featuring the burly scientist Challenger, one in 1913 called The Poison Belt, in which Earth passes through a poisonous cloud. The two short stories include ‘When the World Screamed’ (1928) and ‘The Disintegration Machine’ (1929), the former of which explores a machine capable of disintegrating objects, while the latter explores a sentient being in the Earth’s core. The stories generally followed a form of scientific curiosity, as did many of Doyle’s other works, including ‘The Great Keinplatz Experiment’ (1885), in which a student and professor swap bodies and ‘The Los Amigos Fiasco’ (1892) in which a prisoner is over-electrocuted until he experiences a terrific bout of health. Science fictional curiosities were even employed in Conan’s famous Sherlock Holmes series, with the likes of ‘The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot (1910) involving science-fictional chemistry to provoke nightmarish imagery.
Other tales of note might include ‘The Terror of Blue John Gap’ (1910), which is a mysterious hunt for a terrible creature the world can’t see, or ‘The Great Brown-Pericord Motor’ (1891), which contains an early account of a drone, linked with a regretful murder.
Conan’s contribution to the genre generally involved stories of unearthed scientific curiosities or monstrosities. He was particularly fascinated, as was London, by our passage out of the primordial past. He often placed his stories between the fear of this unknown animal heritage and the unknowable future. Hence his stories are often explorations into the terrible ‘other’, which categorises a lot of science fiction. However, Doyle’s heroic portrayal of scientists demonstrates a more complex relationship between science and the unknown than dismissing the field as ‘something we aren’t meant to know’. The other has its allure, although we may endanger it as much as it threatens us.
Conan became increasingly more interested in spiritualism as he grew older, particularly following the death of his son in World War One. The last Challenger novel, The Land of Mist (1926), is rather heavy, suggesting that the end of ten million young men was a punishment visited on Earth by a central intelligence. Hence we increasingly get the mystic Conan Doyle, who became a prominent figure in promoting the work of mediums and the otherworldly.
You can read more of Poe’s science fiction stories here; https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/121617.The_Best_Science_Fiction_of_Arthur_Conan_Doyle.