Thursday, 2 February 2012

1912: Zenith of the Scientific Romances

The 1912 is a critical one in retrospect for the appreciator of Scientific Romances, with 2012 a consequent year of significant centennials. For events notable and ignoble, 1912 shines as some of the genre's greatest achievements and some of the world's most harrowing disasters.

Edgar Rice Burroughs burst onto the literary scene in 1912 with two pulpy novels introducing readers to two of fiction's most enduring characters. One was A Princess of Mars, the first story for John Carter. Spawning a lengthy series and finally reaching the silver screen this year courtesy of Disney, A Princess of Mars begat the most well known saga of Planetary Romances.

As if to outdo himself, Burroughs also published the first adventure of Tarzan this same year. Like John Carter, Tarzan of the Apes would also father a commercially successful series of novels. Unlike Carter, Tarzan truly hit pop-culture with a fury. The first film version of his exploits flickered across the screen in 1918 and has rarely been absent from it. Johnny Weissmuller's portrayal in the 1930's, complete with his Tarzan yell, is one of Hollywood's most iconic characters. What Carter was to Planetary Romances, Tarzan was to Imperialist Romances.

However, even Burroughs was to be outdone in that genre by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Having reluctantly brought his famed detective back to life in 1901's The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle was still looking for ways to shake off this albatross of his own invention. By 1912 he invented Professor George Edward Challenger, the great, controversial and irascible scientist who discovered a hidden plateau in South America where dinosaurs still reigned supreme. The Lost World, though never as popular as the Holmes novels, is perhaps his second best known work, arguably the first full dinosaur novel and true "Lost World"-type story.

Hugo Gernsback, whose Amazing Stories defined Science Fiction (or as he preferred to call it, "Scientifiction") during the Interwar years, completed the serializing of his first story Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660. Begun in 1911 in his own magazine Modern Electrics, this ofttimes "tawdry" tale outlines the futurist vision that would later adorn the covers of Amazing Stories. Ralph 124C 41+ is a liminal tale on the cusp between Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romance and modern Science Fiction.

There were other notable publications in 1912, including several Tom Swift novels, Garrett P. Serviss' The Second Deluge and William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land. Serviss described the end of life as we know it on Earth and Hodgson wrote of its aftermath, in a story that H.P. Lovecraft himself described as "one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written." Their shared dread was not unfounded. 1912 was the beginning of the First Balkan War in which Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro won independence from Turkey. Ending in 1913, it was a direct prelude to World War I.

It was still a notable year for exploration and scientific expansion. Wegner first proposed the theory of Continental Drift in 1912 and the Piltdown Man surfaced. Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated expedition did successfully reach the South Pole, though they did not successfully return. Roald Amundsen announced his previous victory at the same endeavour. Perhaps inspired by the journey, Georges Méliès released one of his last films: The Conquest of the Pole.

With the poles conquered in fact and film, the air became the next proving ground. The Wright Brothers were the first to fly in 1909, but the first to cross from Paris to London was Henri Seimet in 1912. That same year, Harriet Quimby was the first woman to follow across the Channel. Italy was the first to use airplanes for military purposes, as reconnaissance vessels, and England established the Royal Flying Corps, realizing what H.G. Wells predicted in his 1908 novel The War in the Air (in 1912, he was writing Marriage and The Great State).

Airplanes were first used for bombing during the Balkan War and the American military invaded both Nicaragua and Cuba. These cast a pall over technology and politics, but nothing impacted the public so gravely as the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April. As the largest and most advanced steamship ever built, the Titanic was considered the apogee, if not the apotheosis, of industry. Exquisite in every detail, from luxury to service to safety, the ship's owners felt secure enough to undersupply lifeboats and overtax speed in the iceberg-laden North Atlantic waters. The inevitable result was a collision that cost the lives of over 1500 people and shook the West's faith in technological progress.

1912 was a year of transition. Woodrow Wilson won the American presidency for the Democrats against Taft's Republicans and former president and all-round toughguy Teddy Roosevelt's third party Progressives. Emperor Meiji of Japan died with the crown passed to Emperor Taisho, whose ineffective rule led to the rise of conservative militarism. Power was also shifting from the West to the globe: just the year before, Milo Hastings published In the Clutch of the War-God, one of several novels from both the West and East outlining the possibilities of war between America and Japan. The causes of Suffrage and Labour continued apace, including the Bread and Roses Strike, the largest and most successful in American history.

From the sinking of the Titanic to the advent of aerial warfare, from the introduction of Edgar Rice Burroughs to the exit of Georges Méliès, 1912 was one of those critical turning points in history. It was a pivot in Scientific Romances especially.


Anonymous said...

I was wondering if anyone else besides me remembered that 2012 was a special centennial year for some literary greats lke Tarzan and John Carter. Thank you!

Cory Gross said...

Remember? I've shaped this blog's year around it! This month is Tarzan, next month is John Cartner, April is the Titanic, and September is The Lost World. Between those I'm going to have a month devoted to invasion literature, Atomic Age films, and a smackdown between Verne and Wells.

I hope you'll enjoy it!