“The Comet” by W. E. B. Du Bois is the first story we’ve read in The Big Book of Science Fiction that reads like a modern short story, and feels like modern science fiction. Is there a name for the form of fiction we now consider the standard model? All the stories we’ve read so far felt quaint, experimental, philosophical, pretentious, or unnatural. “The Star” by H. G. Wells was the closest to normal, but it did feel old fashioned, like other stories from the 19th century. Du Bois story is from 1920, yet felt more polished and modern than most science fiction from the 1920s, 1930s, and into the 1940s.
I know I’m not being very precise here when trying to talk about writing styles or forms. I just don’t have the terminology. I’m trying to describe something I’ve observed from personal experience that might have precise labels among academics. The prose of Charles Dickens, Henry James, or Edith Wharton has a quality that makes them feel old to me, but they are still very readable. Then in the 1920s, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and other writers made their prose more streamlined, and thus created what I think of as the modern form of fiction. Modern fiction has a greater percentage of dialog, and that dialog rings more natural. In the 19th century, the narrative part of fiction was quite wordy, especially with writers like Henry James. H. G. Wells was long on narrative and short on dialog, and his characters sounded Victorian.
The prose in 1920s Amazing Stories and early 1930s Astounding feels oldy too, and has a clunky quality of bad writing. Science fiction has always had the extra burden of explaining the science fictional aspects. This is called info-dumping, and is comparable to 19th descriptive narration that would spend paragraphs describing a mantelpiece.
“The Comet” feels more like Fitzgerald in its storytelling techniques, which are more advanced than the first decades of science fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. A large part of Heinlein’s success when he made a splash in the early 1940s was his use of modern streamline writing. The focus was on dramatic dialog, while minimizing the infodumping and narrative descriptions. Heinlein’s prose sounds snappy, even breezy compared to his predecessors. Heinlein’s style immerses the reader into the fantastic with the minimum of fuss and notice.
In other words, I’m quite impressed with W. E. B. Du Bois writing in “The Comet.” It’s a shame he didn’t become a genre writer during the pulp era. “The Comet” is pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic, as was “The Star” by Wells. The difference was Wells was narrating a ponderous worldwide overview, while Du Bois used the POV of one person.
Both are good stories, but “The Comet” points the way to the future. As we progress through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we’re seeing both science fiction themes evolve, as well as the techniques of fiction writing.
I would love if I could quantify these two progressions. I have no idea how to track changes in fiction writing. For science fiction themes I picture myself building a database of theme examples. Designing the structure of such a database will take considerable thought. Most science fiction stories have multiple themes. For example:
Notice that Earth Abides and The World, The Flesh, and The Devil do away with Pre-Apocalyptic and Apocalyptic phases of the story, jumping immediately into the Post-Apocalyptic phase. The direction of storytelling is towards getting into a tale quicker, and when there, conveying the action in prose that is speedier to read. Modern bestsellers are very easy to read, dominated by near realistic dialog. Older fiction have archaic dialog, sometimes sounding like lectures, that slow the story.
Written fiction, novels and short stories, can convey the inner world of thoughts and opinions, that media fiction, movies and television shows, seldom attempt to express. But written fiction seems to be moving away from this unique attribute in favor of speed. But it would be a shame to abandon it entirely. (As an aside, some modern written fiction comes across like the young writers were inspired by movies rather than books.)
All stories have a setup and something to say. In “The Comet” Du Bois wants to say things about race, using the setup of a science fiction theme to express himself. The collapse of civilization allows Jim Davis, a black man from 1910s New York City to connect with Julia, a white woman. This connection was impossible before the apocalypse. Like Rod Sterling talking about a character entering the twilight zone, science fiction allowed Du Bois to put Jim Davis in a setting to show how race is an artificial construct of society.
Because Du Bois’ goal was to change readers’ minds about race, can “The Comet” still be science fiction? In an earlier essay, I said science fiction are those stories set within specific themes, like the future, traveling in space, or after the collapse of civilization. Racism is a universal theme that SF can’t claim. Science fiction is the setup of “The Comet,” but the story was written to say things about racism.
This brings us to an interesting question: Do both the setup and the intent of the story have to be science fictional to make the story science fiction? Eventually, in The Big Book of Science Fiction, we’ll reach such stories. I expect that will be soon, maybe with “The Star Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton. Both Earth Abides by George R. Stewart and The World, the Flesh, and The Devil use both science fiction as a setup, and to say things about living in a post-apocalyptic world. Sure, they also say things about us and our society, but the purpose of these stories is to speculate about life after the apocalypse, in that territory of the future belonging to science fiction.
Because W. E. B. Du Bois brings back civilization at the end of “The Comet,” we’re not really in the future. “The Comet” feels like science fiction, even great science fiction, until the end, that is. We’re jerked back to the present like in the earlier story “Sultana’s Dream.” Du Bois ventured into the shadows of the twilight zone, but didn’t stay.
On one hand, does the label science fiction really matter? “The Comet” is an excellent short story. The literary world has had several major writers rejecting the science fiction label on their work. They have good reason to reject the label. On the other hand, if a literary writer strays into science fiction’s territory, using science fictional techniques for their story’s setup, and especially when what they have to say is science fictional, shouldn’t the work be called science fiction? On our third hand, if the term science fiction isn’t precise, isn’t it unfair to use the label on those who don’t want it? And if science fiction is just a marketing term, shouldn’t it be restricted to genre fiction? “The Comet” is literary fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four are literary fiction and science fiction by my definition. But I can understand why literary writers wouldn’t want the science fiction label if its also equated with genre writing.
I believe we’re still on the road to science fiction, but we haven’t gotten there yet. But I’m starting to wonder whether or not I’m painting myself into a corner. I do not know our ultimate destination, but my intuition tells me I’m going to define science fiction in way that only I use. Most people will gladly accept “The Comet” as a perfectly good example of science fiction. I’m sure old Hugo Gernsback would have reprinted this story in Amazing Stories if he had known about it.
What would W. E. B. Du Bois think? 1920 was well before the term science fiction existed, but Du Bois lived until 1963. Did anyone ever ask him, “Were you writing science fiction when you wrote ‘The Comet?'” I believe he had a very clever idea for a story setup to express significant insights about racism. I’m not familiar with his work, but did he ever write a story about the future where racism didn’t exist? “The Comet” almost goes there. Such a story would be fully within my definition of science fiction.
Didn’t Du Bois pull back at the last moment because he knew most of his readers couldn’t go all the way? My point is science fiction is about going places we haven’t thought about going before. Du Bois got so very close. I’d like to even imagine he wanted to write that story.
James Wallace Harris, 9/3/21