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Georgia Review

Edgar Allan Poe—Science-Fiction Pioneer

Author(s): Clarke Olney
Source: The Georgia Review, Vol. 12, No. 4 (WINTER - 1958), pp. 416-421
Published by: Georgia Review
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Accessed: 27-06-2016 09:15 UTC

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Edgar Allan Poe- Science-Fiction Pioneer
By Clarke Olney

themodern Allan mystery
modern Poe is or generally
mystery detective acknowledged
or detective story. story.His
His tales to be ofoftheratiocination,
tales ratiocination, father of
as he delighted in calling them, instituted formulas, techniques, and
conventions which were later adopted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in
his Sherlock Holmes stories and continued by the Dickson Carrs and
Agatha Christies of today.
What is perhaps not so widely recognized is that Poe was also the
originator of a genre which has come to rival the mystery story in
popularity. It probably cannot be maintained that Poe intended to
invent the science-fiction tale. But he was in effect doing so when
he established standards for the telling of such stories which have
been accepted by most subsequent practitioners.
The science-fiction story in its modern form has characteristic fea-
tures and conventions which warrant its being considered a distinct
genre. The device upon which modern science-fiction writers prin-
cipally rely is "extrapolation." This term, borrowed from statistics,
may be defined as the imaginative projecting of developments which
might conceivably be possible on the basis of present scientific knowl-
edge, and the assumption that such developments have, in fact, been
made. Thus a great deal of science-fiction has to do with events oc-
curring in the future. For example, when man first learned that he
could leave the surface of the earth in free flight, it might be ex-
trapolated that he could soar even higher into the then unexplored
stratosphere. The next step, by extrapolation, would be for him to
rise above the stratosphere and journey to the moon. That is as far
as Poe attempted to carry the sequence. The modern science-fiction
writer, of course, with a substantial body of aeronautical and as-
tronomical data from which to extrapolate, projects his voyager into
interplanetary space and beyond, and scorns distances not measured
in light years.
Additionally, the modern writer of science-fiction, if he would
play the game according to the rules, must avoid any use of the super-
natural and be able to account for the happenings in his story by
natural laws, once his extrapolations have been established.

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There is obviously nothing new in fictional accounts of amazing or

improbable adventures. The older literature abounds in imaginary
voyages to mythical lands, like Gulliver and his travels, and Hythlo-
day's journey to Utopia; but these stories were primarily used as ve-
hicles for sociological or philosophical ideas: only rarely and inciden-
tally were they in the least scientific.
As Marjorie Hope Nicolson makes clear in her book Voyages to the
Moon, the three ancestors of modern science-fiction were tales which
for the most part were concerned with man's questing through space-
a theme which still intrigues the modern writer. The Greek legends
of flying gods Hermes) and flying mortals (Daedalus and Icarus)
and their Oriental analogues are of great antiquity. In the 17 th and
1 8th centuries several fictional accounts of voyages to the moon
appeared; but as these postulated supernatural means of locomotion,
or such manifest absurdities as flight by the assistance of birds or by
means of wings attached to the body, they can scarcely be considered
science-fiction. Even Kepler, whose Sominum appeared in 1634, relied
upon a dream experience to get his hero to the moon; although he did,
at least, try to extrapolate the nature of the moon and its inhabitants
from his knowledge of astronomy which, for that time, was con-
Poe's role in the creation of the modern science-fiction genre was
of primary importance. He was the first writer of science-centered
fiction to base his stories firmly on a rational kind of extrapolation,
avoiding the supernatural. This has proved to be the underlying
convention of science-fiction, and Poe may be said to have established
it. He also, as in his ratiocinative tales, employed the detailed realism
which, as Defoe and Swift had so clearly demonstrated, is necessary
to the creation of verisimilitude. This, too, the modern science-fiction
writer has learned. Thus Poe created what is substantially a new
genre, anticipating the matter and methods of Jules Verne and H. G.
Wells and the legion of science-fiction writers who have succeeded
His method of relating science-fiction stories was very similar to
that he employed in the ratiocinative tales. It should first be pointed
out that Poe did not confine his ratiocinative method to the solution
of crimes. One thinks, of course, of "The Purloined Letter," "The
Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in
this connection; but actually the method is equally apparent in such

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tales as "The Gold Bug," "Maelzel's Chess Player," "A Descent into
the Maelstrom," and even "The Pit and the Pendulum," which have
nothing to do with criminal affairs. What really mattered, to Poe at
least, was that the problem- whether it be an unsolved crime, a crypto-
gram, or a matter of survival- be solved by a strictly ratiocinative
process: the application of severely logical reasoning to observed data
in order to arrive at a solution.

The technique of Poe's science-fiction follows much the same pat-

tern. Starting with known- or generally believed- scientific facts, he
proceeded by the presentation of realistic details in a logical fashion
to advance toward and ultimately arrive at a logical-seeming and
credible result. This has become the basic method of both mystery
stories and science-fiction, a truth some writers disregard when they
rely upon violence, sensationalism, and fantasy instead of logic.
Poe's range of subjects was not broad; but it should be remembered
that he was writing at a time when the new science was still beyond
the horizon, and that he was limited to the then-known for his basic
material. With recent discoveries in electronics, miracle drugs, nuclear
physics, astronomy, and psychology, the contemporary science-fiction
writer now can, and does, cultivate an almost boundless field.
Poe had a fondness for the odd and the unusual. His writings show
an almost childlike delight in the display of esoteric learning in litera-
ture, history, geography, religion, and the arts. He was especially
interested in the sciences of his day. Although he had no particular
scientific training, his wide reading had acquainted him with a variety
of little-known and surprising facts- or near facts- such as those that
constitute the substance of his "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of
Sheherazade"; but this story cannot be considered legitimate science-
fiction in the modern sense.
Poe wrote, in all, seven stories which may be classed as science-fiction.
The first scientific subject he attempted was ballooning, in "The Un-
paralleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaal" (1835); he later returned to
the subject with "The Balloon Hoax" (1844) and "Mellonta
Tauta" (1849). The first of these tales concerns a balloon journey to
the moon, the second a transatlantic balloon flight; the third is a kind
of Wellsian peep into the future.
"Hans Pfaall" deserves special mention as Poe's first attempt at
science-fiction. He evidently felt that he was creating something new
and original. In none of the earlier writers who had described voyages

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to the moon, he said, had there been "any effort at plausibility in the
details of the voyage itself. ... In 'Hans Pfaall' the design is original,
inasmuch as regards an attempt at verisimilitude, in the application of
scientific principles ... to the actual passage between the earth and
the moon." This is Poe's own statement of the principle of extrapola-
tion, a word to him unknown but in which he would undoubtedly
have delighted.
The story begins on a somewhat farcical note when a comical little
man (a moon-dweller) in a balloon made of old newspapers drops a
manuscript into the midst of a crowd gathered in the public square
in Rotterdam, and then soars away out of sight. This episode, which
serves only as an introduction, is clearly not science-fiction; but the
main part of the story- the adventure related in the manuscript- clearly
is. This proves to be a factual account of one Hans Pfaall, who has
constructed a practical balloon, equipped it with a variety of scientific
instruments, and journeyed in it to the moon. Poe has carefully extra-
polated the difficulties of space travel- at least some of them- such as
the absence of oxygen outside the earth's atmosphere, and by various
ingenious devices has enabled his hero to surmount them.
The title of "The Balloon Hoax" was not given to that story until
some time after its original publication. It was written as a newspaper
stunt and was actually published in the New York Sun as a sensational
news story, a scoop. Its subject matter is best described by its original
caption or headline: "Astounding News by Express, via Norfolk!
The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days, Signal Triumph of Mr. Monck
Mason's Flying Machine! Arrival at Sullivan's Island, near Charleston,
S. С.- After a Passage of Seventy-Five Hours, etc."
What follows is a most convincing account of a guided and powered
balloon flight across the Atlantic, with a plausible and circumstantial
explanation of mechanical details, such as the air screw (spring driven! ) ,
the use of drag ropes to control altitude, and the rudder. It is not sur-
prising that readers of the Sun believed the story authentic. There is
no nonsense or farce involved, and no suggestion of a hoax. Poe had
evidently learned that this new form he had discovered needed no
mummery to make it acceptable to his readers.
The last of the balloon stories, "Mellonta Tauta" ("These things
belong to the future"), is less successful than the others in that it is
overloaded with rather immature satire and philosophizing. It does,
however, project man into the future (A.D. 2848), and with some

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attention to technical details envisages mass transportation of humanity

by air at dizzying speeds of 150 miles an hour.
In "Von Kempelen and His Discovery" (1849), Poe treated a dif-
ferent theme, the ancient science of alchemy. His story takes the form
of a journalistic report of the successful efforts of a scientist to trans-
mute lead into gold. Poe wrote to his friend Duyckinck that he hoped
this story would be believed and might thus mitigate the gold frenzy
that was sweeping the country in 1849.
The remaining three science-fiction stories all have to do with
hypnotism, or, as it was known at that time, "mesmerism" or "animal
magnetism." As Sidney E. Lind points out in his article "Poe and
Mesmerism," interest in this new "science" was widespread and intense
during the first half of the 19th century. Poe was familiar with some
of the considerable literature on the subject, being especially indebted
to the Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend's Facts in Mesmerism (1844).
The phenomenon which we now call hypnotism, first brought to public
attention by the German physician Friedrich Anton Mesmer late
in the 1 8th century, was still but little understood; but the interest
of reputable investigators had given it standing as a new science.
Poe seized upon it, applying extrapolation in his stories "Mesmeric
Revelation" (1844), "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" (1844), and
"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845). There is no hint of
the hoax in any of these tales. Each is presented as a serious scientific
report, but each goes far beyond any observed hypnotic phenomena.
In "Mesmeric Revelation," perhaps the least effective of the three,
a man dies while in a mesmeric trance, and the suggestion is made
that some of his "revelations" may have been made after he was dead.
"A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" combines mesmerism, mental
telepathy, and metempsychosis. The scientist in the story, a doctor,
commenting on the strange and unlikely events, at last condudes
"with an air of deep solemnity . . . 'that the soul of the man of today
is upon the verge of some stupendous psychal discoveries. Let us con-
tent ourselves with this supposition.' "
The best of the mesmeric stories, the one, that is, that most success-
fully creates the macabre effect that Poe valued so highly, is "The Facts
in the Case of M. Valdemar." Like "Mesmeric Revelation," this story
has to do with the mesmerization of a dying person. M. Valdemar,
who is mortally ill, is the subject of the experiment, and dies while
under hypnosis. He lies dead but unaltered for nearly seven months,

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until at last the narrator decides to break the mesmeric spell. In the
process the corpse speaks tortured words, pleading for release; and
when the trance is broken, the flesh melts away before the observers'
eyes in horrible corruption.
It must be granted that Poe's science-fiction stories are relatively
few, and not among his best. There can be no doubt that Jules Verne
and H. G. Wells, among others, far surpassed him in this field. But
Poe should be looked upon not as a master but as a pioneer of modern
science-fiction. For one thing, he did not have at his command the
body of scientific information that later writers have profited by.
For another, the genre was not ready-made for him. It was he who
originated the conventions and form of this new kind of fiction, just
as in his ratiocinative tales he had originated the classic conventions
and form of the mystery story. And remembering his widespread
reputation and influence abroad and at home, it is not surprising that
other writers of science-fiction were willing to accept the principles
which his stories had established.
Verne and Wells, like Poe, were literary artists, and felt the obliga-
tion to endow their stories with plausible plots and to people them
with recognizable human beings. It is to be feared that most con-
temporary science-fiction writers- with their sub- and super-human
characters and their absurd pseudo-scientific jargon of space-time
vectors, telekinesis, mind-matrices, and the like- have taken to writing
a kind of comic-book fantasy which has insulted and alienated many
intelligent readers. But the principles of good science-fiction, a genre
which Poe pioneered and whose conventions he largely established,
will no doubt find other dedicated and conscientious practitioners in
the years to come.

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