If you’ll check Project Gutenberg, you’ll find Bernhard Kellermann’s novel The Tunnel. Published in 1913 by the German house S. Fischer Verlag and available on Gutenberg only in its native tongue (finding it in English is a bit more problematic, although I’ve seen it on offer from online booksellers occasionally), the novel comes from an era when the ‘scientific romance’ was yielding to an engineering-fueled uneasiness with what technology was doing to social norms.

Kellermann was a poet and novelist whose improbable literary hit in 1913, one of several in his career, was a science fiction tale about a tunnel so long and deep that it linked the United States with Europe. It was written at a time when his name was well established among readers throughout central Europe. His 1908 novel Ingeborg saw 131 printings in its first thirty years, so this was a man often discussed in the coffee houses of Berlin and Vienna.

Image: Author Bernhard Kellermann, author of The Tunnel and other popular novels as well as poetry and journalistic essays. Credit: Deutsche Fotothek of the Saxon State Library / State and University Library Dresden (SLUB).

The Tunnel sold 10,000 copies in its first four weeks, and by six months later had hit 100,000, becoming the biggest bestseller in Germany in 1913. It would eventually appear in 25 languages and sell over a million copies. By way of comparison – and a note about the vagaries of fame and fortune – Thoman Mann’s Death in Venice, also published that year, sold 18,000 copies for the whole year, and needed until the 1930s to reach the 100,000 mark. Short-term advantage: Kellermann.

I mention this now obscure novel for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s science fiction in an era before popular magazines filled with the stuff had begun to emerge to fuel the public imagination. This is the so-called ‘radium age,’ recently designated as such by Joshua Glenn, whose series for MIT press reprints works from the period.

We might define an earlier era of science fiction, one beginning with the work of, say, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and on through H. G. Wells, and a later one maybe dating from Hugo Gernsback’s creation of Amazing Stories in 1926 (Glenn prefers to start the later period at 1934, which is a few years before the beginning of the Campbell era at Astounding, where Heinlein, Asimov and others would find a home), but in between is the radium age. Here’s Glenn, from a 2012 article in Nature:

[Radium age novels] depict a human condition subverted or perverted by science and technology, not improved or redeemed. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World, with its devastating satire on corporate tyranny, behavioral conditioning and the advancement of biotechnology, is far from unique. Radium-age sci-fi tends towards the prophetic and uncanny, reflecting an era that saw the rise of nuclear physics and the revelation that the familiar — matter itself — is strange, even alien. The 1896 discovery of radioactivity, which led to the early twentieth-century insight that the atom is, at least in part, a state of energy, constantly in movement, is the perfect metaphor for an era in which life itself seemed out of control.

All of which is interesting to those of us of a historical bent, but The Tunnel struck me forcibly because of the year in which it was published. Radiotelegraphy, as it was then called, had just been deployed across the Atlantic on the run from New York to Germany, a distance (reported in Telefunken Zeitschrift in April of that year) of about 6,500 kilometers. Communicating across oceans was beginning to happen, and it is in this milieu that The Tunnel emerged to give us a century-old take on what we in the interstellar flight field often call the ‘wait equation.’

How long do we wait to launch a mission given that new technology may become available in the future? Kellermann’s plot involved the construction of the tunnel, a tale peppered with social criticism and what German author Florian Illies calls ‘wearily apocalyptic fantasy.’ Illies is, in fact, where I encountered Kellermann, for his 2013 title 1913: The Year Before the Storm, now available in a deft new translation, delves among many other things into the literary and artistic scene of that fraught year before the guns of August. This is a time of Marcel Duchamp, of Picasso, of Robert Musil. The Illies book is a spritely read that I can’t recommend too highly if you like this sort of thing (I do).

In The Tunnel, it takes Kellermann’s crews 24 years of agonizing labor, but eventually the twin teams boring through the seafloor manage to link up under the Atlantic, and two years later the first train makes the journey. It’s a 24 hour trip instead of the week-long crossing of the average ocean liner, a miracle of technology. But it soon becomes apparent that nobody wants to take it. For even as work on the tunnel has proceeded, aircraft have accelerated their development and people now fly between New York and Berlin in less than a day.

The ‘wait equation’ is hardly new, and Kellermann uses it to bring all his skepticism about technological change to the fore. Here’s how Florian Illies describes the novel:

…Kellermann succeeds in creating a great novel – he understands the passion for progress that characterizes the era he lives in, the faith in the technically feasible, and at the same time, with delicate irony and a sense for what is really possible, he has it all come to nothing. An immense utopian project that is actually realized – but then becomes nothing but a source of ridicule for the public, who end up ordering their tomato juice from the stewardess many thousand meters not under but over the Atlantic. According to Kellermann’s wise message, we would be wise not to put our utopian dreams to the test.

Here I’ll take issue with Illies, and I suppose Kellermann himself. Is the real message that utopian dreams come to nothing? If so, then a great many worthwhile projects from our past and our future are abandoned in service of a judgment call based on human attitudes toward time and generational change. I wonder how we go about making that ‘wait equation’ decision. Not long ago, Jeff Greason told Bruce Dorminey that it would be easier to produce a mission to the nearest star that took 20 years than to figure out how to fund, much less to build, a mission that would take 200 years.

He’s got a point. Those of us who advocate long-term approaches to deep space also have an obligation to reckon with the hard practicalities of mission support over time, which is not only a technical but a sociological issue that makes us ask who will see the mission home. But I think we can also see philosophical purpose in a different class of missions that our species may one day choose to deploy. Missions like these:

1) Advanced AI will at some point negate the question of how long to wait if we assume spacecraft that can seamlessly acquire knowledge and return it to a network of growing information, a nascent Encyclopedia Galactica of our own devising that is not reliant on Earth. Ever moving outward, it would produce a wavefront of knowledge that theoretically would be useful not just to ourselves but whatever species come after us.

2) Human missions intended as generational, with no prospect of return to the home world, also operate without lingering connections to controllers left behind. Their purpose may be colonization of exoplanets, or perhaps simple exploration, with no intention of returning to planetary surfaces at all. Indeed, some may choose to exploit resources, as in the Oort Cloud, far from inner systems, separating from Earth in the service of particular research themes or ideologies.

3) Missions designed to spread life have no necessary connection with Earth once launched. If life is rare in the galaxy, it may be within our power to spread simple organisms or even revive/assemble complex beings, a melding of human and robotics. An AI crewed ship that raises human embryos on a distant world would be an example, or a far simpler fleet of craft carrying a cargo of microorganisms. Such journeys might take millennia to reach their varied targets and still achieve their purpose. I make no statement here about the wisdom of doing this, only noting it as a possibility.

In such cases, creating a ‘wait equation’ to figure out when to launch loses force, for the times involved do not matter. We are not waiting for data in our lifetimes but are acting through an imperative that operates on geological timeframes. That is to say, we are creating conditions that will outlast us and perhaps our civilizations, that will operate over stellar eras to realize an ambition that transcends humankind. I’m just brainstorming here, and readers may want to wrangle over other mission types that fit this description.

But we can’t yet launch missions like these, and until we can, I would want any mission to have the strongest possible support, financial and political, here on the home world if we are talking about many decades for data return. It’s hard to forget the scene in Robert Forward’s Rocheworld where at least one political faction actively debates turning off the laser array that the crew of a starship approaching Barnard’s Star will use to brake into the planetary system there. Political or social change on the home world has to be reckoned into the equation when we are discussing projects that demand human participation from future generations.

These things can’t be guaranteed, but they can be projected to the best of our ability, and concepts chosen that will maintain scientific and public interest for the duration needed. You can see why mission design is also partly a selling job to the relevant entities as well as to the public, something the team working on a probe beyond the heliopause at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab knows all too well.

Back to Bernhard Kellermann, who would soon begin to run afoul of the Nazis (his novel The Ninth November was publicly burned in Germany). He would later be locked out of the West German book trade because of his close ties with the East German government and his pro-Soviet views. He died in Potsdam in 1951.

Image: A movie poster showing Richard Dix and C. Aubrey Smith discussing plans for the gigantic project in Transatlantic Tunnel (1935). Credit: IMDB.

The Tunnel became a curiosity, and spawned an even more curious British movie by the same name (although sometimes found with the title Transatlantic Tunnel) starring Richard Dix and Leslie Banks. In the 1935 film, which is readily available on YouTube or various streaming platforms, the emphasis is on a turgid romance, pulp-style dangers overcome and international cooperation, with little reflection, if any, on the value of technology and how it can be superseded.

The interstellar ‘wait equation’ could use a movie of its own. I for one would like to see a director do something with van Vogt’s “Far Centaurus,” the epitome of the idea.

The Glenn paper is “Science Fiction: The Radium Age,” Nature 489 (2012), 204-205 (full text).