Writing about Karel Čapek, as Milan Ćirković did in our last entry, spurs me to note that the BBC has an interesting piece out on Čapek called The 100-year-old fiction that predicted today. It’s a fine essay delivered by Dorian Lynskey on both Čapek and the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose influential novel We shared a birth year of 1921 with Čapek’s R.U.R. If Čapek gave us robots, it could be said that Zamyatin gave us the modern dystopia. “If you have had any experience with science fiction,” writes Lynskey, “you will probably have imbibed some trace elements of RUR and We.”
I will defer on Zamyatin, for I suspect that Dr. Ćirković has thoughts about him that will appear in a future essay here. However, looking toward the origins of ideas has me thinking about another literary figure, the American writer and critic Edgar Allan Poe. Always known for his tales of the macabre, Poe (1809-1848) more or less invented the detective story, but he was also influential in the origins of what would become science fiction. Beyond that, however, his thinking about cosmology was oddly prescient, and offers a 19th Century take on what would come to be called the Big Bang.
Olber’s paradox seems to have been what jogged his thinking on the matter. A German astronomer, Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers (1758-1840) took note of an observation that had long preceded him, that an eternal infinite universe should have a bright night sky. Every line of sight should carry photons from a star if stars were randomly distributed. I learned in my research for this piece that the astronomer Thomas Digges (1546-1595), who believed in an infinite cosmos, was also puzzled by the appearance of a dark night sky, as was Johannes Kepler, who pondered how to resolve the problem in 1610.
Various explanations for the dark sky would emerge, including the idea that light could run out of energy over long enough distances (this was Digges’ thought), or that the supposed ‘ether’ in interstellar space might absorb light, but it was Poe who tackled the question is an utterly novel way in a work called Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848), originally conceived and delivered as a lecture at New York’s Society Library in February of 1848. In this earnest essay he would write that some light in the universe had simply not yet had time to reach us. He acknowledges that this wasn’t a thesis that could be proven with the science of the time, but he finds the case compelling:
Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us an uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy—since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all. That this may be so, who shall venture to deny? I maintain, simply, that we have not even the shadow of a reason for believing that it is so.
A universe infinite in age and space would be one in which light, from no matter what distance, would have had time to reach the Earth, leading to the speculation that the universe was finite in time, an idea not highly regarded in that era. Indeed, we can take the idea of an infinite universe back to the ancient Greeks, and it’s worth remembering, given the veneration in which he was held in Poe’s lifetime, that Isaac Newton supported a universe of infinite space and, in the thinking of many, infinite time, one that Olbers’ paradox seemed to challenge. In this sense, Poe is strikingly modern.
Poe’s is a universe that was not always there, and moreover, one that is growing. For even more modern, given that we are decades before Hubble’s discovery of galactic red shift, Einstein’s flirtation with and final rejection of a ‘cosmological constant,’ and Georges Lemaître’s conception of an expanding universe, is Poe’s notion of what he called a ‘primordial particle.’ It’s a bit reminiscent of Lemaître’s ‘cosmic egg,’ though of course without any data to back it up. Here is another quote from Eureka:
We now proceed to the ultimate purpose for which we are to suppose the Particle created—that is to say, the ultimate purpose so far as our considerations yet enable us to see it—the constitution of the Universe from it, the Particle.
And a bit later:
The assumption of absolute Unity in the primordial Particle includes that of infinite divisibility. Let us conceive the Particle, then, to be only not totally exhausted by diffusion into Space. From the one Particle, as a centre, let us suppose to be irradiated spherically—in all directions—to immeasurable but still to definite distances in the previously vacant space—a certain inexpressibly great yet limited number of unimaginably yet not infinitely minute atoms.
Lemaître referred to his own “hypothesis of the primeval atom,” as does Poe. In the latter, we have origin in a particle that can, by infinite divisibility, diffuse itself into space. Poe, of course, had no notion of ‘spacetime,’ as it would later be known thanks to the work of the mathematician Hermann Minkowski, who united space and time in a four-dimensional space-time in a famous 1908 paper. It was this idea of a spherically growing universe, however, that gave Poe his intuition about Olbers’ paradox.
He takes it a good bit further. Poe’s unitary particle exploded to fill the universe with diffuse matter. Gathering into clouds, this matter condensed to become stars and planets. As Poe saw it, gravity would wrestle with a principle of vitality and thought that, confusingly enough, he called electricity, which created life. But the universe’s end was clear: Gravity would pull it back together into a new primordial particle.
For a good deal more on Poe’s role in 19th Century thinking, John Tresch’s book The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) is of obvious relevance to our theme. Tresch picks up on Poe’s cyclic cosmos, saying of Eureka:
Eureka was one of the most creative, audacious, and idiosyncratic syntheses of science and aesthetics in nineteenth-century America. Its capitalized phrase the “Universe of Stars” may suggest a parallel with the “United States.” The book’s effort to establish a balance between individuality and unity, between equality and difference — its declaration of interdependence — could be read as a restatement of his nation’s enduring tensions. But if this was an allegory of America, the road Poe saw ahead would oscillate between paradise and inferno while somehow keeping both in view — “an idea which the angels, or the devils, may entertain.”
Poe and Science Fiction
I mentioned above that Poe had also played around the edges of what would become science fiction. Indeed, in the first issue of Amazing Stories in 1926, editor Hugo Gernsback would describe the kind of tale to be presented therein as “the Jules Verne, H G Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story.” This was by way of introducing what Gernsback called ‘scientifiction’ to a wide audience after earlier tales in his science and radio-themed magazines, and was taken as a kind of declaration. Gernsback pointed to Amazing Stories as “A New Sort of Magazine.”
There are various ways to date science fiction’s emergence, and I tend to favor Brian Aldiss’ view that it was Mary Shelley who started the ball rolling with her 1818 novel Frankenstein (and we can add her 1826 offering The Last Man as well), though SF origins take us into territory where argument is rife. Some critics cite Poe’s 1835 tale “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” as science fictional. But it was Poe’s “Mellonta Tauta” (1849) that SF writer and scholar James Gunn once declared the first modern science fiction story, though it’s a lightweight piece of work.
The title is Greek for something like “things of the future” and the tale describes the world of 2848 as seen through the eyes of a narrator named Pundita, who travels aboard an exotic airship. The story is chaotic and hops about between what are meant to be diary entries, casting an eye back on the era in which Poe wrote, as well as other episodes in human history. Much 19th Century knowledge has been lost, so that the narrator puzzles over things that are obvious and wields a satirical blade in examining current follies.
Here too we have a bit of astronomy, no particular surprise. In “Hans Pfaall” he had drawn heavily on John Herschel’s 1833 Treatise on Astronomy. As a boy he already had a telescope and is said to have excelled in the subject at Richmond Academy. An entry in the journal that frames “Mellonta Tauta” describes stellar motion:
Last night had a fine view of Alpha Lyræ, whose disk, through our captain’s spy-glass, subtends an angle of half a degree, looking very much as our sun does to the naked eye on a misty day. Alpha Lyræ, although so very much larger than our sun, by the by, resembles him closely as regards its spots, its atmosphere, and in many other particulars. It is only within the last century, Pundit tells me, that the binary relation existing between these two orbs began even to be suspected. The evident motion of our system in the heavens was (strange to say!) referred to an orbit about a prodigious star in the centre of the galaxy. About this star, or at all events about a centre of gravity common to all the globes of the Milky Way and supposed to be near Alcyone in the Pleiades, every one of these globes was declared to be revolving, our own performing the circuit in a period of 117,000,000 of years!
And so on. There is satire within, and perhaps a swipe at the emerging ideas of Marx and Engels, for Pundita describes a society without individualism and laces her tale with skepticism about 19th Century science even as she describes future technologies. Poe’s interest in cosmology is obviously more clearly stated in Eureka, but “Mellonta Tauta” is an interesting curiosity. First published in Godey’s Lady’s Book in February 1849, it rather fascinatingly tells of the discovery of a stone monument to George Wsahington from the 1900s and amusingly interprets it through the eyes of the future in ways science fiction writers have exploited ever since.
Image: A bound volume containing six issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book, including the February 1849 issue that featured the first printing of Poe’s “Mellonta Tauta.” Credit: Worthpoint.
So Poe has to be added into the cabinet of historical curiosities regarding the emergence of both science fiction and modern conceptions of cosmology. There is a wonderful analysis of Poe’s science fictional elements in the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia that examines quite a few Poe stories in this light. In the 101st issue of the Australian science fiction fanzine SF Commentary, edited by Bruce Gillespie, Russell Blackford makes an interesting point about where the story’s true influence may lie in an essay called “Science Fiction as a Lens into the Future”:
The story… sheds doubt on historians’ confident interpretations of the practices of other peoples living in earlier times. It is full of jokes, many of which are puzzling for today’s readers, and even when they’re explained it is often difficult to be sure exactly what ideas Poe is putting forward and which he is satirising. (Other material that Poe wrote about the same time suffers from the same problems of interpretation.) Nonetheless, Poe laid a foundation for the development of satirical science fiction set in future, greatly altered societies.
Blackford’s essay is a gem, as are many things in the long-lived SF Commentary, whose editor is, thankfully, still active and apparently inexhaustible. Issue No. 1, after all, goes back to 1969, and is also available online, along with the complete corpus in between. I wouldn’t miss an issue.