Who Were Jules Verne’s Favorite Science Fiction Writers?

I began my lifelong love of science fiction in 1963, when I discovered books by Madeleine L’Engle, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. I was twelve. The genre probably imprinted on me because of movies and television I had seen as a child during the 1950s. I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Twilight Zone before I understood the concept of science fiction. If you read interviews, memoirs and biographies of science fiction writers, they often relate their wonder at discovering science fiction in their formative years. It seems there is a legacy to science fiction – we have to inherit it.

For example, Robert Heinlein often wrote about his early love of H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, David Lindsay, and Olaf Stapledon. Those writers lived during my parents and grandparents lifetimes. What if we go further back?

jules_verne_1892_colored_portraitWere there science fiction writers that inspired Jules Verne as a child? Verne was born in 1828, a time we assume produced little science fiction. Verne is often called the Father of Science Fiction, which suggests he got the genre rolling. Did he? Many scholars who write about the history of science fiction like to think the genre began in 1818, with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Could Verne have read it?

What frustrates my efforts to understand the history of science fiction is society forgets popular culture quickly, and history seldom focuses on such small events. We do know that Verne was sent off to boarding school where his teacher believed her long missing husband was stranded on an island like Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe, the 1719 novel inspired a whole sub-genre called Robinsonades. Verne wrote three of those, the most famous of which was The Mysterious Island. I read it in 1964, and ever since had a passion for stories about people stranded on islands or distant planets. Science fiction has embraced the Robinsonade whole wholeheartedly. The immensely popular book and film, The Martian by Andy Weir, is a Robinsonade. For a history of the literary impact of Daniel Defoe’s classic tale, read In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin.

Trying to discover which popular books and magazines Jules Verne might have read in France during the 1840s is difficult. Besides the distance of time, I’m blocked by the language barrier. What did young Verne read in his early teens that led him to write his Voyages extraordinaires? Did he read Le Dernier Homme by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville, published in 1805? It’s a poem about the last man and a dying Earth. It probably inspired Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, who also wrote about the theme. Then what books inspired de Grainville?

The more we read of the History of Science Fiction, the more we discover the stories we call science fiction today have been told for centuries, long before the label was established. Creating the Classics of Science Fiction list shows our cultural memory is a bubble in a sea of forgotten knowledge. As we move forward through time, we forget what previously inspired us, so it feels like we’re constantly discovering new ideas. That’s an illusion. So many far-out ideas we think of as original to 20th century science fiction were pondered centuries ago. The deeper I look, the more I realize humans haven’t changed all that much. Our technology changes, but do we?

In earlier versions of the Classics of Science Fiction lists, there were many more novels that were published from 1850-1950 that have dropped off the latest version of the list. We are forgetting the books that inspired the writers who wrote the 1950s science fiction novels we now think of as the classics of our genre. Just study the table Versions 1-4 and look for the titles in red.

Framework for Science Fiction Criticism

Most reviewers work to identify books worthy of becoming bestsellers. Here at Classics of Science Fiction we work to identify the science fiction books worthy of calling classics. Bestsellers are new books everyone wants to read. Classics are old books readers don’t want to forget. Are the qualities that make a bestseller succeed when new the same as those that make a classic unforgettable when old?

frpaul_01_amazquar_1929win_ralph124cMike and I have been reading and rereading many of the books on the Classics of Science Fiction by Rank and to be honest, we don’t think some of them are very good. We wonder if books that excited readers fifty years ago will still excite new readers today? 94 of the 193 books on version 3 of the Classics of Science Fiction fell off the list when creating version 4. As I point out in my essay “Can Science Fiction Books Become Classics” for 19th-century literary classics, barely one book a year is popularly remembered. It’s doubtful that science fiction titles will even come close to that average. About one tenth of those 19th-century books could be called science fiction.

If you look at the Classics of Science Fiction by Year list, it’s pretty obvious that remembered books thin out over time. For example, only five science fiction books are remembered for the 1930s and only one (Brave New World) by the public at large. There are seven for the 1940s, with again, only one (Nineteen Eighty-Four) remembered widely outside of science fiction. There are 23 titles for the 1950s. None are famous in the mainstream, although six have been made into movies, and three of them (The Day of the Triffids, I Am Legend, Starship Troopers) have been filmed more than once. There are 28 titles for the 1960s, with eight made into films. The most famous are A Wrinkle in Time, The Man in the High Castle, Dune, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as Blade Runner, and Slaughterhouse-Five. Are there aspects shared by these eleven titles from 1930-1969 that could consistently identify a classic book?

I’d bet in a hundred years only three will be widely remembered: Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Slaughterhouse-Five. Interestingly, none deal with space travel. So, my guess is what makes a bestseller is not what makes a classic. And if Mike and I develop a framework of criticism for identifying classic science fiction, it will be different than one for reviewing new books.

Because science fiction can be so many things to so many people it’s difficult to judge books in a way that people will agree. For some readers, science fiction is thrilling adventure fiction that might have little or no scientific speculation. Are such stories poor science fiction because they lack science? For most readers, a book like The Martian by Andy Weir earns both an A+ for storytelling and A+ for science. If we compared it to a book like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which I would give an A+ for storytelling and an A+ for 1980s nostalgia, but an N/A for science speculation. Is it science fiction? And how should I review an old novel from the 1970s, where the storytelling is average for back then, but would be considered inadequate by modern standards?

voyage-dans-la-luneShould we even review bad books? Maybe that should be rephrased to: Should we review books we don’t like? This site is about identifying the books that are remembered, but consequently, it also spots those being forgotten. If we identify the qualities that make a book lasting, shouldn’t we also identify the qualities that make it forgettable?

Neither one of us wants to bad-mouth books, especially if the author is still alive. We could just write about books we admire, but does that give the whole picture? I am currently reading Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) by Clifford D. Simak. It’s not one of his best. The story is about a future where humans learn that it’s too dangerous for our bodies to space travel, so we explore the galaxy with soul projection, telepathy, and teleportation. The storytelling was adequate for when it was written, but probably creaky to young readers of today.

However, for readers with great nostalgia for 1950s science fiction, Time is the Simplest Thing might be big fun. I doubt today’s young readers will enjoy this book, and it won’t be remembered in the next century as a classic. But is it worth writing about and analyzing? Science fiction feels like it’s about the future, but every story is really about the author, and when he wrote it. And that’s the key for identifying books that have the potential to be future classics. The qualities I love in books by Jane Austen or Mary Shelley are ones that are meaningful to me two hundred years down the timestream.

Bestsellers tell us about our times. Classics tell us about their times and our times. Which might explain why books fall off the list. Quite often fifty-year-old books make us wince. Reading books that old can show us how politically incorrect we’ve become in a half-century. Reading even older books, such as E. E. Smith space opera, can make us laugh at how silly we thought about space travel in the 1920s and 1930s. Book reviews back then didn’t know their science was naive, but we do now.

There are aspects of fiction that should be considered for both bestsellers, potential classics, and actual classics. Storytelling, characterization, plotting and writing are essential. For science fiction, we need to add extrapolation, speculation, science, and world-building. For example, in this regard, speculation about psychic abilities is what condemns Time is the Simplest Thing to the dustheap. Simak created a modest speculative idea with minor characterization, little details of setting, so-so plot, and only barely adequate storytelling skills for 1961 paperback writing. His theme of prejudice is strong, but its vehicle is weak.

I also recently read The Stars Are Ours! (1954) and Star Born (1957) by Andre Norton. The first book is about a future America oppressed by a religious government that hunts down scientists and suppresses science and technology. Scientists flee to the stars. The second book takes place generations later, where a spaceship from a more enlightened America finds the colonists of the first mission. The two stories were fun for me, but then I like old science fiction. If I was honest, I don’t think they hold up. They are barely remembered today, so it’s doubtful they will become classics in the future. Is there any point in writing about them? If our critical framework included the history of science fiction and its ideas, it might.

However, if our goal is to find and understand why books are remembered over time, there’s little value in studying books that don’t work. Just because I have an affection for these orphans, and feel pained because they are dying, doesn’t mean they deserve a lot of our time.

Which bring me back to writing about the best books and developing criteria for spotting why they might last. I haven’t discovered those criteria yet. I don’t know why books last. We’ve developed a statistical method for tracking the books that are hanging in there, but we have no explanations as to why they are lasting.

 

 

Why Did Arthur C. Clarke Write 2001: A Space Odyssey?

When we read 19th century science fiction novels, like Frankenstein, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or The Time Machine, we don’t think those books accurately describe the past. We read them as timeless stories and disregard when they were written. Most readers consider them standalone works of art. However, readers with inclinations to literary sleuthing will study why Mary Shelley, Jules Verne or H. G. Wells wrote their stories. Even though those tales weren’t about actual events in the 1800s, those stories tell us a great deal about when they were written. Writers react to their local space and time, revealing their own psychological history, even when they are imagining life in the future.

arthur-c-clarke

When recently rereading 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, I tried to imagine how people in 2116 would remember Clarke, and the year 1968. I assumed future readers will look back on the 1960s in the same way I wonder about the 1860s while reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I first read 2001: A Space Odyssey months after I saw Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Back then, I saw it as a story about the future. Looking back from 2016, I realize it’s a story about the 1960s, and Arthur C. Clarke.

2001: A Space Odyssey works a number of science fictional themes common for its time:

  • Ancient aliens nudged the cognitive evolution of early humans
  • Humans travel to the Moon and planets in the near future
  • Ancient aliens put device on the Moon to let them know when we leave Earth
  • Humans will invent artificial intelligence that surpasses our own
  • AI can be a threat and our successors
  • Earth will be horribly overpopulated by the 21st century
  • Ancient aliens left an interstellar subway for humans to use
  • The goal of evolution is pure disembodied intelligence
  • The Omega point of evolution is indistinguishable from God

When 2001: A Space Odyssey first premiered in theaters, film goers and critics were blown away. Many, if not most, were baffled by the ending. I’m not sure younger generations realize what an event 2001: A Space Odyssey was when it first came out. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on Miami Beach, when it opened as a “road show” – we had to buy advanced tickets for reserved seats. Science fiction up till then had been books and magazines that geeky introverts read, and science fiction films and television shows were aimed at adolescents (although many adults watched them). Science fiction fandom was a tiny subculture. 2001: A Space Odyssey gave science fiction recognition and class. Unfortunately, much of it’s audience left the show baffled, babbling about the trippy light-show, and the weird ending.

The novel 2001: A Space Odyssey was written concurrent with the film, and is not a novelization of the movie. 2001: A Space Odyssey did not appear on versions 1-3 of the Classics of Science Fiction, but recently popped up on version 4, with 17 citation lists. It was on 46% of the lists it could have been on. If you look at those lists you’ll see the story is gaining in popularity. Why? I have to assume that’s partly due to the lasting impact of the Stanley Kubrick film, but since I just reread the novel, I think it might be because of the novel itself. It does hold up. And it does explain the mysteries in the movie.

However, I’m wondering why Arthur C. Clarke wrote this story, and why it appeals to so many more people today. Would you want to be Dr. David Bowman? Did Clarke? This is his second novel where humans transcend their bodily form. I’ve always thought of Clarke as an engineer, but in Childhood’s End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), he’s a mystic. Of course, Clarke’s first novel, Against the Fall of Night, is about humanity ten billion years in the future. It makes me wonder if Clarke was discontent with his era, and his puny physical form. Did Clarke secretly want god-like powers? Don’t all kids who read superhero comics?

We think science fiction is about the future, but that’s not really true. Science fiction is always about the present. In 1953, when Childhood’s End was first published, the Doomsday Clock was at just 2 minutes to midnight. Is it any wonder that Clarke believed we needed to throw everything away on planet Earth and start over? In the 1950s, even the most hard-science SF magazine, Astounding Stories, had embraced ESP and psychic research. By the time 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, we were living in the Age of Aquarius, and the pop culture had become psychedelic. The Doomsday Clock had moved back to 7 minutes to midnight. Did space travel and New Age philosophies give us hope?

By 1991 the Doomsday Clock had eased back to 17 minutes to midnight. I think during all those years 2001: A Space Odyssey had lesser appeal. In 2015, the clock was moved up to 3 minutes till midnight. I expect it will go to 2 minutes soon. I’m wondering if renewed interest in this novel is due to dire times? Certainly the 2016 election makes everyone feel humanity is too stupid to survive without help from higher powers. But how many people would really want ancient aliens to provide our salvation? Personally, I find the idea insulting, and wondered why Clarke embraced such notions. Then again, I recently wrote “Rejecting Some Science Fictional Ideas” suggesting that Clarke’s novel parallels our desire for religion.

Although it’s not perfectly clear in the movie, the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, explains how an ancient alien intelligence interferes with the evolutionary development of prehuman hominids. Isn’t the opening of the film and novel really another version of the Garden of Eden myth? Instead of a Sky God creating Adam and Eve, a Sky God implants knowledge into the minds of our distant ancestors who live among the animals. It causes them to leave Eden. And if you think about, aren’t the endings of both stories the same – humans are transformed into spiritual beings, leaving Earth to dwell in the heavens with the Sky God?

Now, did Arthur C. Clarke believe this himself, or did he feel as a writer that if he tapped into an archetypal theme it would sell more books? Isn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey a perfect story for apocalyptic times? Does this not explain why Childhood’s End was recently made into a television mini-series? When I was growing up everyone felt WWIII was imminent, believing we’d all be blown to smithereens, with civilization devolving into The Flintstones. We’re now living with the threat of the collapse of civilization again, and AR-15s are selling like comic books. On the intellectual stock market, religion is up, rational thinking is down.

Would 2001: A Space Odyssey or Childhood’s End be appealing stories if times were good? Both tales abandoned Earth. Maybe they appeal to us now because we think Earth is quickly becoming used up, and we need some place to go. It might also explain the rising appeal of dystopian novels.

How else does 2001: A Space Odyssey recall the 1960s? Aren’t the themes I listed above common in many 1960s science fiction novels? Didn’t Heinlein’s 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, set the stage for 1960s and science fiction? It was also about superior aliens uplifting humans and transcending the body. It introduced a space-age religion. Doesn’t Way Station by Clifford Simak from 1963 hint at the interstellar highway system Dave Bowman travels? Are the computers in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Colossus: The Forbin Project, The God Machine, and They’d Rather Be Right brothers and sisters to HAL 9000?

Doesn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey seem to crib themes from The Phenomenon of Man, the 1959 philosophical work by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, about his theory of human evolution and the Omega Point?

But will many modern readers even know about those influences? If the only book from 1968 to be remembered in 2116 is 2001: A Space Odyssey, how could they? I doubt it will be – but isn’t that how we remember the past? What other books do we remember from 1818 but Frankenstein? Aren’t most folks mental models of history from surviving novels, without any other existing historical context? If you look at other 1968 novels, do any of them portray an accurate portrait of that year? Airport by Arthur Hailey, Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer, and Couples by John Updike might be more realistic paintings of mundane existence. I remember 1968, and on the surface, they are close. But novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Stand on Zanzibar and 2001: A Space Odyssey remind me of a psychological view of 1968. They were the most popular novels from that year that ended up on the Classics of Science Fiction list. Do I remember 1968 that way because I read those novels back then, or because that’s also how I felt in 1968?

I doubt Arthur C. Clarke believed ancient aliens monkeyed with our ancestors, or wait for us up in the sky. Maybe he thought they were fun ideas, or even hoped such things were true on his bad days. Most of Clarke’s stories are about about humans engineering their own future.

That’s the science fictional past I remember. As I reread the other Classics of Science Fiction novels in my social security years, I no longer dream of the future, but struggle to remember my science fictional past.

James Wallace Harris
Auxiliary Memory