These early stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction represent fiction on the road to science fiction. I already know where we’re heading because I’m well versed in 1930s and 1940s science fiction. What I classify as science fiction is down the road a piece further, into the 1950s and 1960s. Science fiction evolved and mutated in every decade of the 20th century. 21st century science fiction is already rejecting this past, those stories and authors I love. The ones I use to define my sense of the genre. It’s becoming something else again. But the road goes on, and I don’t.
I believe as we read the stories in the VanderMeers’ anthology, we’ll learn to sense the essence of science fiction, which is to use certain techniques of storytelling to speculate about the edges of science. In “The New Overworld” Paul Scheerbart creates a fairytale about two lifeforms on Venus that I mentally pictured as illustrations from Dr. Seuss books. We can call this story science fiction because its set on Venus and it speculates about alien lifeforms, but it’s closer in tone to a children’s picture book. It’s all too obvious that the story is about solving social problems with cooperation and technology. But we never believe Scheerbart believes he is speculating about Venus or alien lifeforms. It’s all allegorical in intent. The story obviously has a philosophical lesson.
On the road to science fiction, our destination is fiction that convinces us we are there, in the future, out in space, on other planets. Wells was there in “The Star” because we could picture the worldwide catastrophes. In “Sultana’s Dream” we were almost there but then had it snatched away from us when we learned it was all a dream. In “The Triumph of Mechanics” we got there again because we were meant to believe mechanical rabbits were possible. However, the story was a tall tale and we knew Strobl didn’t mean it.
Science fiction writers know they can’t predict the future, but real science fiction feels like they have. It has to be convincing. It doesn’t matter if their future can’t possibly become real, it’s got to feel real when we read it. We’ve got to believe while we read. It has to be a fully realized fictional reality.
Back in 1911 when “The New Overworld” came out, what we think of as science fiction was an oddity. The following year, in 1912, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs will be serialized in All-Story Magazine as “Under the Moons of Mars” by Norman Bean. Probably most readers wouldn’t buy astral projection, but they wanted to believe in Barsoom. Burroughs triggers a certain kind of desire in readers, and that’s the heart of science fiction. Readers still want to believe in Barsoom, long after NASA put a stake in that dream.
I have not read Paul Scheerbart’s other works, or novels, which this article in Science Fiction Studies describe. The VanderMeers regrets Scheerbart isn’t remembered, but from the description of his stories I can see why he is. But Erik Morse in The Paris Review has read some of the recent English translations of Scheerbart and he found them interesting, even captivating, but strange.
Authors and their books are forgotten over time for many reasons. Usually, it’s because the work just doesn’t hold up. Sure, academic publishers will come out with expensive editions that are historical curiosities, but they just aren’t readable by the public at large. Wells was not forgotten because his SF novels are still page-turners.
I will give one other reason why Paul Scheerbart is forgotten, he was German. I wouldn’t have considered this reason until I read The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Alexander von Humboldt was probably one of the most amazing men to ever live. In the 19th century, he was probably the most famous of the century, maybe even more famous than Napoleon or Lincoln in their times. I had no idea who he was before I read the book, and neither do most English speaking people, even though in the 1800s most Americans loved him very much.
At the end of the biography, Wulf gives an interesting reason why von Humboldt was forgotten in America and Great Britain. During WWI Americans actually burned German books, and anti-German sentiment became ever greater during WWII. So if we can collective erase Alexander von Humboldt who inspired Thomas Jefferson, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and many other influential Americans, then it’s easy to imagine not remembering Paul Scheerbart.
The 19th century was full of brilliant eccentric writers who wrote far out books with wild ideas, many of which could be considered science fiction. And we’ve forgotten most of them. Actually, we’ve forgotten probably 99.99% of them. If we don’t remember Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky for his great science fictional predictions, why should we remember Paul Scheerbart?
It’s a shame that pop culture has such a short attention span. Books like The Big Book of Science Fiction try to correct that. Sure, our group argues over what the VanderMeers collect for us to read, but shouldn’t we judge them not by whether or not we enjoy the stories, but by what they are helping us to recall from a pop culture ancestry? There was a great deal of proto-SF published before Amazing Stories came out in 1926, but we remember damn little of it today. What I want to remember is what popular literature was like from 1900-1925, in all its forms. Their anthology helps. The VanderMeers’ introductions hint at so much more I want to know.
I do have one quibble. Why did they leave out “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster? Was it already too famous? Or too long? That 1909 story was the best single science fiction story from 1900-1925.
James Wallace Harris, 8/26/21
3 thoughts on ““The New Overworld” by Paul Scheerbart”
A really thoughtful post. As someone who reads extensively on Darwin and his circle I have been meaning to tackle von Humboldt and so I will. As you say a lot is lost along the way. An earlier post of yours made me wonder whether anyone will remember naturalist like Edwin Way Teale or J. Henri Fabre in a few years both published extensively and were widely read in their day. Is that a kid on my lawn!!
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I didn’t know that Darwin took Humboldt’s book with him on the Beagle. The Invention of Nature is really a fabulous book for many reasons.
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