From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

What I Here Propound Is True: How Science Fiction was POEned

When There Were No Scientists

When Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809, science writing was either non-fiction or reserved for natural philosophical reverie. Interests in science and mathematics were still knotted with philosophy, allowing literature to attempt answering vital questions such as: Is man playing god? Does science negate the need for God? What is man’s relationship with nature?

The eighteenth century saw the publication of Gulliver’s Travels and Baron Munchausen’s tall tales, but the above questions began to be answered in the nineteenth century with works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published when Poe was five-years old. Poe came of age in a time when man’s “progress” was touted and the industrial revolution triumphed. As a result, Romanticism was at its height. The romantics were enamored of science, but distrusted man’s discipline to use science for good, as evidenced Percy Byshee Shelley’s apocalyptic poems and Mary Shelley’s novels.

Poe shared the same doubt, best expressed in an early poem “Sonnet: To Science” which argues that industrial progress zapped the romance out of everyday life, thus destroying the mysteries of nature. Even so, Poe avidly studied science, and could not deny that it could carry the individual into unknown terrain; be it Hades or the moon.

This sentiment was not Poe’s alone. In fact, the discoveries of steam engines, electricity, the railway, and Herschel’s telescope created a zeitgeist within nineteenth century American society. Anything was possible–so the nation’s periodicals well knew–leaving the reading public vulnerable to hoaxers, like Poe, who set out to depict what man was capable of by writing stories riddled in scientific expostulations, riffing on journalistic techniques and formats, and most of all manipulating readers’ hopes and fears.

Editor of some of the day’s premier magazines, Poe knew that periodicals published technical scientific articles side-by-side with fiction and poetry. Also at that time, technical scientific writing was written in fictionalized manners, using metaphor and allegory to better illustrate abstract ideas. To appeal to the general audience, many scientists resorted to using the short story form: “The neurologist Mitchell published textbooks about his patients’ phantom limb pains, but when trying to develop his theory that people’s bodies shaped their notions of identity, he turned to the short story form. Ironically, readers found Mitchell’s story so realistic that they mistook it for an actual case,” writes Laura Otis in her anthology Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century.

This mode of fictional science writing inspired Poe to test his own theory: that the reaction of art combined with factual details could yield new realities. The more absurd a story was, the more Poe strove to make it authentic, by writing the stories in what he called the “plausible, or verisimilitude style.” For Poe, a story’s success was based on whether its details were authentic enough to read as truth. This emphasis, executed in punctilious detail, set the bar for modern science fiction.

Given that it is based mostly on speculation, successful science fiction need not be true, but should be plausible. It operates upon a basis of truth, a lineage of facts (or at least of validated theories). Unlike horror or fantasy, in which the unexpected happens, events in science fiction happen as a result of logical cause and effect. Logic was Poe’s modus operandi. He insisted that every story and poem be methodically constructed toward an “ultimate effect.” Best illustrated in his ratiocination tales, the “effect” is the plausible style’s backbone. Together, the two techniques crafted Poe’s scientific pieces into paradigms for later writers like H.G. Wells, who recommended that “…the fundamental principles of construction that underlie such stories as Poe’s . . . are precisely those that should guide a scientific writer.”

A Nature Surpassing Belief

Poe’s dabbling in hoaxdom began in 1835 with “The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall.” The young Poe adored astronomy, having spent a privileged youth gazing through a Herschel telescope, imagining dramas among constellations. He also read George Tucker’s Voyages to the Moon (1827), a satire of a lunar ascent in a “copper machine” to observe the Lunarians, a ridiculous and simple society that paralleled 1820s America.

The nineteenth century brought a rising public interest in ballooning, and pilots had ambitions of transatlantic flights. With all of these elements combined, Poe imagined his own lunar journey, depicting “…what interest I could to an actual passage from the earth to the moon, describing the lunar scenery as if surveyed and personally examined by the narrator.”

In “Hans Pfaall,” all of Rotterdam is in disorder when a balloon made of dirty newspapers descends to town square and throws a scroll to the mayor. The scroll is Hans Pfaall’s confession, a citizen who, with three companions, disappeared five years ago. While in Rotterdam, he escaped creditors and a nagging wife by reading scientific books, leading him to discover a lighter gas that would propel him to the moon. He murders his creditors and alights to space with three other ruffians, landing finally on the moon. Poe incorporates meticulous scientific detail, such as Pfaall’s expostulations on how to reduce hydrogen, calculations of the distance between earth and moon, and how gravity would affect the balloon’s levity. However, in the narration framing Pfaall’s letter, the unnamed narrator relates to the reader second-hand accounts of the Rotterdam incidents, including evidence that Pfaall and his companions were sighted outside of town a few days before the balloon arrived, and that the balloon’s patchwork newspapers were recently dated.

Published in the June issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, “Pfaall” did not succeed as a hoax because the The New York Sun simultaneously published Richard Adams Locke’s “Discoveries of the Moon.” “Discoveries” was everything “Pfaall” should have been. The The New York Sun claimed to have reprinted it from an “official” scientific periodical, and Locke wrote it as the scientific log of Sir John Herschel. Herschel’s grandfather, William Herschel, had invented the household reflecting telescope. The younger Herschel (Locke) claimed in “Discoveries” to have surpassed his grandfather by making a more superior telescope that saw life on the moon.

Everything that could have been false in Locke’s “Discoveries of the Moon,” was validated by authenticity. Furthermore, the subject toed the line of absurdity rather than falling into it. The idea of a powerful telescope was more plausible than any balloon flight to the moon. Poe was impressed with Locke’s success, and craved crafting a similar fictional sensation.

Every mistake Poe made with “Pfaall” was rectified in “The Balloon Hoax” ten years later. Published in the The New York Sun as a newspaper article on April 13, 1844, “The Balloon Hoax” veered away from improbable journeys to a more “down-to-earth” balloon voyage across the Atlantic, completed within 75 hours. The story created a sensation, forcing The New York Sun to print an afternoon edition. The special issues sold 50,000 copies in one day, outselling Locke’s moon hoax by 30,000 readers.

Like Locke, Poe used characters named after real members of the ballooning community. The protagonist Monck Mason is based on Thomas Monck Mason, author of several books about his ballooning excursions across England. The majority of the dispatches were taken from Mason’s journal, dated the week before the The New York Sun went to press. The dispatches were factually saturated with speculations so accurate that “the first transatlantic balloon voyage, exactly a century later,” writes Poe scholar Harold Beaver in The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, “recorded almost the same number of hours and many of the incidents in Mr. Monck Mason’s log.”

Mason’s log described atmospheric changes and geographical descriptions, and promised more observations for the The New York Sun after recovering from landing in Fort Moultrie. In the end, neither Poe nor the editors could keep up the hoax, and the The New York Sun retracted the story on April 15.

Poe’s next two successes did not create as much frenzy as “The Balloon Hoax,” but nonetheless were received as truth. “Mesmeric Revelations” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” are sister pieces dealing with overcoming death by mesmerism, a pseudoscience at its peak of popularity in the 1840s. Discovered by Dr. Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer in 1772, mesmerism is the belief that the life force is governed by magnetic force. Mesmer would often treat ill patients with his force by laying his hands upon them while they were hypnotized. By the 1840s, mesmerism had become lecture circuit fodder, one of the most popular lecturers being the American mesmerist Andrew Jackson Davis, who communicated with the dead through automatic writing.

Both stories are told by the physician P. who presumes to freeze death in its tracks. In “Mesmeric Revelations,” P. alleviates the bedridden Mr. Vankirk’s pain by putting him under hypnosis. In-between waking and dreaming, Mr. Vankirk seems to have discovered life’s answers, and is on the verge of revealing all to the inquisitive P. when his body expires.

Perhaps inspired by the events witnessed with Mr. Vankirk, P. continues his mesmeric experiments in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” With only 24 hours to live, M. Valdemar “donates his body” to test whether mesmerism could prevent or postpone death. Valdemar is hypnotized and observed by P. for seven months. Eventually, P. dismisses the experiment and awakens Valdemar, realizing–as he watches Valdemar’s body decompose–that the man had been dead the entire time, despite showing vital signs and talking with P. while under hypnosis.

Poe wrote both stories like scientific reports, using professional witnesses such as other doctors and mocking “non-believers” for credibility. Newspapers and scientific periodicals reprinted both stories as fact, allowing readers to identify P. as Poe. Especially the mesmerist community, who believed Poe had found the animal magnetism grail and endorsed his discoveries overseas. “Valdemar” was republished and distributed as a factual pamphlet throughout London, its cover exclaiming: “The effects of the mesmeric influence, in this case, were so astounding, so contrary to all past experience, that no one could have possibly anticipated the final result. The narrative, though only a plain recital of facts, is so extraordinary a nature as almost to surpass belief.”

“It has an amazingly moon-hoaxy air”

Von Kemplen and his Discovery” was Poe’s last attempt at science foolery and biggest flop. Published in 1849 in The Flag of Our Union, it was not reprinted in other publications. By this time, the public and Poe’s editors had been fooled too many times and ignored Poe’s swan-hoax. Spoofing the gold rush, the story purports to be an editorial on the arrest of one Von Kemplen, who had discovered how to successfully transmute lead into gold by reading physicist Sir Humphry Davy’s diaries. As with the other hoaxes, Poe uses scientific situations, as well as references to other newspapers covering the fictional story. He creates a metatextual world of authority where the narrator openly doubts and discredits various newspaper articles providing the testimony, making the arrest seem to have really occurred outside the tale. Poe also avoids divulging Von Kemplen’s process, a missed opportunity for truly testing Poe’s plausible style.

Besides Poe’s now-established reputation for hoaxes, Von Kemplen failed because it deviated from what it was spoofing: the gold rush. Poe’s other hoaxes of ballooning and mesmerism dealt directly with public interests. Van Kemplen dealt with alchemical metallurgy, a dying and esoteric science, which kept the story at a fairy-tale distance from its readers.

Writers may find Poe’s last “hoax” the most instructive. Poe’s failures with “Von Kemplen” and “Pfaall” stemmed from an audience disconnect. The science of “The Balloon Hoax” and the mesmerist pieces was more in tune with the discoveries and theories of Poe’s time. His conceit also got the best of him. In “Pfaall” and “Van Kemplen,” Poe seems more concerned with jibing at vulnerable readers than celebrating with them man’s potential.

By today’s standards, what with biotechnology and last century’s space race, Poe’s science fiction may seem quaint and antiquated. Many of his stories are filled with archaic and humorless jokes, and many of his tropes were reinvented more memorably by successors Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Even so, as the world begins to reevaluate Poe’s importance at his bicentennial, it is undeniable that Poe set precedence for our science fiction expectations: the reader must be fooled into believing.

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6 Responses »

  1. I’m happy to say I haven’t read a more informative and focused piece on Poe’s “hoaxdom.” The writing professors of the world would do well to follow your example. . .

  2. Thank you. I am glad you liked it.

  3. A very good article, but I have a quibble with your conclusion. Even as I was reading, I was reflecting that the attempt to fool the reader into confusing fact and fiction was itself a very old and obsolete conceit. Modern Science Fiction does not try to “fool the reader into believing” so much as “seduce the reader into believing”. There is a reason that the concept of Willing Suspension of Disbelief is strongly associated with speculative fiction, even though it properly belongs to all fiction and all media.

  4. Hi M.,

    I see your point.

    Perhaps I should of presented a step in-between Poe’s fooling and where we are now. I still think sci-fi writing during Poe’s time was based on its “hoax-ability.” Even Frankenstein was thought real for a brief time. But that’s because the society did not have a universal general knowledge of science. Now in 2009, we all have a similar basis of scientific understanding, so it is hard to be fooled and we have to be seduced like you say.

    Thank you for your comment and for reading!

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