On the day I started writing this article, a warm fire crackled in the hearth, snow fell outside the window, and a cup of English tea steamed at my elbow. A setting like that — a cozy, human spot with friends and family near by — really puts me in the mood for just one thing: Science Fiction. You heard right. Science Fiction. Of course, I don't mean just any Science Fiction. I don't mean the sort of thing where characters named "Zargon" from places called "Hydra-Gamma III" listen to bald-headed creepozoids in silver BVDs rant about "pure logic." No, the kind of science fiction I'm thinking of is different. Warmer. Richer. More human. On this kind of science fiction adventure, you don't want skin-tight leotards and chrome bikinis. You want big wool sweaters, hiking books, English tweed and pith helmets, with ankle-length skirts and parasols for the ladies. Yes, this is a special brand of science fiction — my favorite kind. Ever since I was a kid, I've always loved the sort of movie where a proper Victorian professor journeys from the smoke-filled adventurer's clubs of London to some impossible lost world in his own gilded or wrought-iron invention. The kind of story that somehow seems to bypass some of the dead-ends of certain other science fiction; seems to allow us to ponder the kind of mysteries science fiction explores so well without asking us to leave our roots in the past behind. I loved it then, and I still love it today.
These words, penned by Rod Bennett in his article Voyages Extraordinaires on Film: A Survey of Fireside Science Fiction, are perhaps the richest summary of that strange, delightful, fantastic, but all-too brief genre called "Scientific Romance."
Originally the term was employed to describe the new type of dramatic novel in the Romantic spirit of Alexandre Dumas or James Fenimore Cooper: novels that were scientifically-minded, paeans to exploration and technology, unapologetically adventurous, and sometimes daringly futurist, by a new breed of author like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Garrett P. Serviss, Edward Everett Hale, George Griffith, Rudyard Kipling, Sir H. Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edward S. Ellis, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allen Poe. "Scientific Romance" is, however, more than a merely outdated term for Science Fiction, for that is itself a far too prosaic term for fiction about science and the social issues brought on by scientific discovery.
Romanticism in itself began largely as a reaction against the Rationalism of the Enlightenment and its subsequent revolutions, industrial and political. Humanity became a means to an end of industrial production, wealth generation, scientific dissection, and imperial expansion, rather than an end unto itself which found its fullness in God. The Enlightenment, for all its promises and proclamations, seemed only to lead to moral, economic, social, and spiritual destitution. In speaking of the German thinker Novalis, Pauline Kleingeld describes Romanticism's objections:
The early German romantics criticize the Enlightenment for failing to appreciate the most essential components of truly human life: love, emotional bonds, beauty, shared faith, and mutual trust. They claim that the Enlightenment emphasis on reason, abstract principles, and rights overlooks these crucial aspects of human existence... In their own way, they endorse many of the ideals of the Enlightenment, especially the ideals of individuality, freedom, anti-authoritarianism, and equality. But they accuse the Enlightenment of having degraded these very ideals to atomistic individualism, rootlessness, selfinterestedness, and abstract legalism...
Romanticism looked mainly to the European Middle Ages as a spiritual, intellectual, nationalistic, and aesthetic model, but was also satisfied with any faraway times, exotic places, and indigenous cultures... Anything that would help counterbalance the deadening weight of the Enlightenment's dark age. Nature held a particular resonance for the Romantics, as the embodiment of wild, untempered, unfettered, and untamed emotional and creative processes, as well as for its own intrinsic spiritual and aesthetic value.
Early in his career, Jules Verne was well on the Romantic road trod by Dumas, Longfellow, Cooper, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, or Shelly. His first novel, the unpublished Paris in the Twentieth Century, exposes a mind made cynical by advancements without progress, and intimately critical of urban, consumer modernism. However, between Paris in the Twentieth Century and his first published novel Five Weeks in a Balloon, Verne discovered something that would given shape to an entirely new genre of fiction. He realized that the solitary creative genius of Romanticism could be a man of science, and that technology could be the vehicle to a transcendental appreciation of nature. Reason need not be the enemy: it could be a tool to reach that which is beyond it. As George Bernard Shaw said, "The man who listens to Reason is lost: Reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her." In the words of Verne,
My object has been to depict the earth, and not the earth alone, but the universe, for I have sometimes taken my readers away from earth, in the novel. And I have tried at the same time to realize a very high ideal of beauty of style. It is said that there can’t be any style in a novel of adventure, but it isn’t true...
Scientific Romances sought out the romance implicit to science, the poetic probing of the mysteries of Space, Time, Nature, and even Divinity. They are, in many ways, a hymn to the beauty, wonder, and majesty of Creation. That hymn includes an exultation in humanity and its varied, diverse, creative prowess.
At the time they were made, Scientific Romances were the current concern. Looking back upon them now and embracing them a century or more after the fact, they compensate for the humanity lost by modern Science Fiction. The bland, antiseptic world of modern speculative fiction - devoid of any genuine sense of culture, history, religion, tradition, or art - has colonized the universe with humanistic human beings who have ironically left their humanity behind. Even those that claim to draw inspiration from the Victorian Era have the same problem... An endless parade of brass goggles, metal plates, iron rivets, pointless gears, and countless bashed-together projects that, despite pretenses of being hand-crafted, all look identically like nothing. These dirty, industrial-looking Urban Fantasy worlds tell the observer nothing about these societies except that they are dirty and industrial.
If Scientific Romances are guilty of anything, it is looking too much like everything. The idea of Scientific Romance denotes the combination of things: Science and Romance, stories of adventure with a flair of style, exotic exploration in civilized comfort, progress directed by tradition, moving into the future without leaving the past behind. This combination and contrast was implicit to the Victorian Era. Jan Morris, in her book The Spectacle of Empire: Style, Effect and the Pax Britannica, observed that the British Empire at its height "was flamboyant indeed, coloured as much by oriental despotism as by feudal example from nearer home. If it was modernist in some ways, it was antique in others. It embodied the marvelous energy of steam as well as the immemorial pride of horseflesh. It was queenly, but it was savage. It was partly the consequence of dukes, but partly the beat of jungle drums..."
Scientific Romances exult in the humanity of human beings. They even serve, in a sense, to humanize everything else, both the steam power and the horseflesh. According to G.K. Chesterton:
George Wyndham once told me that he had seen one of the first aeroplanes rise for the first time and it was very wonderful but not so wonderful as a horse allowing a man to ride on him. Somebody else has said that a fine man on a fine horse is the noblest bodily object in the world. Now, so long as people feel this in the right way, all is well. The first and best way of appreciating it is to come of people with a tradition of treating animals properly; of men in the right relation to horses. A boy who remembers his father who rode a horse, who rode it well and treated it well, will know that the relation can be satisfactory and will be satisfied. He will be all the more indignant at the ill-treatment of horses because he knows how they ought to be treated; but he will see nothing but what is normal in a man riding on a horse. He will not listen to the great modern philosopher who explains to him that the horse ought to be riding on the man... And horse and man together making an image that is to him human and civilised, it will be easy, as it were, to lift horse and man together into something heroic or symbolical; like a vision of St. George in the clouds. The fable of the winged horse will not be wholly unnatural to him: and he will know why Ariosto set many a Christian hero in such an airy saddle, and made him the rider of the sky. For the horse has really been lifted up along with the man in the wildest fashion in the very word we use when we speak 'chivalry.' The very name of the horse has been given to the highest mood and moment of the man; so that we might almost say that the handsomest compliment to a man is to call him a horse.
Being timely then and historical now, Scientific Romances are necessarily rooted in culture and tradition. Chesterton's affection for the horse and the man ennobling each other has been extended to the lazy, luxurious steam train in this modern commuter age. A good Scientific Romance will take the reader into uncharted territories of space and the centre of the Earth, but most of all into that least-appreciated one marked "history"... All the while wrapped up in that gilded and wrought-iron invention, and that smoke-filled adventurer's club, and that impossible lost world.
"History," wrote historian Henry Steele Commager, "is useful in the sense that art and music, poetry and flowers, religion and philosophy are useful. Without it... life would be poorer and meaner; without it we should be denied some of those intellectual and moral experiences which give meaning and richness to life." Another historian, David McCullough, adds that "History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are." But in the mainstream of Science Fiction, the bland featurelessness of inhuman humans may have been the consequence of minds slavishly devoted to a kind of scientism, materialism, and consumerism that denigrated all other pursuits of art, music, poetry, flowers, religion (especially) and philosophy as poor and mean things. That is especially sad considering that the root of each of these rich and great things, including science, is a robust sense of wonder.
"The world will never starve for want of wonders," wrote G.K. Chesterton, "but for want of wonder." Wonder manifests itself in sublime astonishment and the apprehension of the beautiful, which are aligned so clearly with the religious and the romantic sensibility. Montague Summers, the scholar of Gothic literature, wrote of this sensibility in his introduction to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto:
There is in the Romantic revival a certain disquietude and a certain aspiration. It is this disquietude with earth and aspiration for heaven which inform the greatest Romance of all, Mysticism, the Romance of the Saints. The Classical writer set down fixed rules and precisely determined his boundaries. The Romantic spirit reaches out beyond these with an indefinite but very real longing to new and dimly guessed spheres of beauty. The Romantic writer fell in love with the Middle Ages, the vague years of long ago, the days of chivalry and strange adventure. He imagined and elaborated a mediaevalism for himself, he created a fresh world, a world which never was and never could have been, a domain which fancy built and fancy ruled. And in this land there will be mystery, because where there is mystery beauty may always lie hid. There will be wonder, because wonder always lurks where there is the unknown. And it is this longing for beauty intermingling with wonder and mystery that will express itself, perhaps exquisitely and passionately in the twilight moods of the romantic poets, perhaps a little crudely and even a little vulgarly in tales of horror and blood.
Summers was, of course, writing to the people of his time. It is not difficult to see how, where the people of the 19th century romanticized the Middle Ages, we today might romanticize the 19th. Not wholly, for there was much that was unappealing about the Victorian Era that needs to be properly understood... The overreach of colonialism, the intergenerational tragedies of slavery and cultural genocide, the soul-crushing advent of industrialization. Nevertheless, evil does not negate goodness and ugliness does not negate beauty. "The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful," wrote French scientist Jules Henri Poincaré. "If nature were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and life would not be worth living."
The necessary outcome of absorbing these tales of historical adventure is to affect this same quality within oneself. Nurtured on such tales, we are invited to reinvest in our own histories, to reclaim ourselves. That, ultimately, is the point of this exercise in studying history and creatively adapting it, to integrate one's past with one's present. This pleasure helps to integrate oneself in the narratives of history so that they can give depth and breadth to one's present. This works itself through everything from simple aesthetics that refuse to give up the beautiful things of the past to a realization of oneself in one's society and time. It means to step out and explore for oneself with a heart and a mind attuned to the wonders around us.
At last there was nothing to do but go; and go we did, into that wondrous land of far-off valleys where the great rivers of a Continent come leaping down in little brooks and arching waterfalls from the ice-tongues; where rise, beyond the old horizon, the castellated crags and snowy spires we had read and dreamed of... We were not pioneers ourselves, but we journeyed over old trails that were new to us, and with hearts open. Who shall distinguish?
These words were penned by James Monroe Thorington in his 1925 travelogue The Glittering Mountains of Canada, and I think he beautifully encapsulates the spirit of the true Romantic in our modern age. Around the same time as Thorington wrote, G.K. Chesterton devised a simple methodology for telling the true Romantic from the false one: the false Romantic loves castles just as well as they love cathedrals. The distinction may appear strange at first, but it subtly recognizes the distinction between loving the past because it is dead and loving the romance because it is alive. "If the poet or the lover admires the ruins of a feudal fortress as much as the ruins of a religious house, then what he admires is ruins; and he is a ruin himself," he writes. "He likes medievalism because it is now dead, not because it was once alive; and his pleasure in the poetic past is as frivolous as a fancy-dress ball. For castles only bear witness to ambitions, to ambitions that are dead... But the cathedrals bear witness not to ambitions but to ideals; and to ideals that are still alive."
This true Romanticism is the inexorable pull to see the places read about and dreamt of, the irresistible magnetism of a landscape that is sublime and wonderful because it exists regardless of who and how many have seen it before. Every place we have not been ourselves is a terra incognita, imploring us to become our own Phileas Foggs and Professors Arronax. This is the highest purpose behind enculturating our souls with tales of Victorian adventure in pasts that never were. They encourage us to appreciate the past that was as a living tradition that carries on today. The paths may be old, but they are new to us, blazed by ancestors who wished for us to feel the same exhilaration that took their own breath and carried it to Heaven. In the end, the enjoyment and appreciation of Scientific Romances is very much about today.