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May Day, 1871: The Day “Science Fiction” Was Invented

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This Sunday is the 140th anniversary of May 1, 1871. On that date Lord Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race and George Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" were both first published, and on that date Samuel Butler delivered to his publisher the manuscript of what would become Erewhon. (Erewhon was published in 1872). This is why critic Darko Suvin proclaimed May Day, 1871 the day that science fiction was invented in the UK.

This is overstating the case — as we'll see, science fiction was already well-ensconced in the public imagination as a discrete literary genre — but Suvin is partially correct. May 1, 1871, was the date on which "science fiction," the marketing genre, was invented.


The State of the Genre on May Day

The exact origin of science fiction can never be determined. But whether one agrees with Brian Stableford, that Frankenstein, in 1818, is the beginning of an ongoing, coherent genre of science fictional writing, or with Peter Nicholls, that modern science fiction is simply the latest iteration of imaginative fiction, the oldest genre of literature in human existence, it is clear that there was a substantial amount of science fictional material written before 1871. Moreover, by May Day 1871 there was not only a corpus of science fiction–at least one science fictional story or novel had been published every year since 1832–but a general consciousness that science fiction was a separate genre of fiction, and different in distinct ways from mysteries and romances and other fictional genres.


Descriptive labels had even begun to be attached to the genre. In 1842 Tennyson's poem "Locksley Hall" (1842) introduced the phrase "fairy tales of science," which quickly came to be used about books of scientific theories told in fairy tale form for a juvenile audience. This formation was still in usage in 1871. In 1851 William Wilson's A Little Earnest Book uses the phrase "science fiction" to describe similar works. In the 1860s in France the phrase "roman scientifique" ("scientific novel") was popularized largely because of a boom in popular science articles and books, many of which used fictional devices, which in turn led to a number of science fiction novels, including Achille Eyraud's Voyage à Venus (1865) and Hippolyte Mettais' L'An 5865 (1865).

So by May 1, 1871, the genre of science fiction had a body of work to call its own and labels which separated it from other literary genres. But for all that science fiction was an obscure literary sub-genre in the United States and Great Britain, both commercially and critically. In sales and output, science fiction was dwarfed by other genres, especially Sensation novels (melodramas about threats to middle class families) and historical romances ("romance" is used here in the older sense of "adventure"). Jules Verne was popular, but only three of his novels-From the Earth to the Moon, Five Weeks in a Balloon, and Journey to the Center of the Earth-and been published in English by 1871, and his only American counterpart was Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909), whose "The Brick Moon" (The Atlantic Monthly, Oct-Dec 1869) and "Life in the Brick Moon" (The Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1870) were Verne-inspired hard sf, was better known for his mainstream fiction. Science fiction was roughly the equivalent of modern Laboratory Literature: read by few and written by fewer.

May Day, 1871, permanently changed this situation. Bulwer-Lytton, Chesney, and Butler were influential both directly and on the genre as a whole.


The Coming Race

Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race is about the discovery of an underground civilization of biologically- and technologically-advanced beings, the "Ana" or "Vril-ya." Their civilization is a utopia, and they are generally peaceful, but on a few occasions they use violence, including hunting down atavistic subterranean monsters and even warring on other expansionist underground cultures and races. The Vril-ya take their name from "vril," a "unity in natural energetic agencies," an all-purpose electric-magnetic-galvanic energy which is capable of destroying almost anything but which the Vril-ya can control and which they use to power their civilization. The narrator of The Coming Race falls in love with one of the Vril-ya, but the Vril-ya cannot tolerate the idea of their civilization being sullied by one of their own marrying a lesser being, and ultimately the narrator is forced to flee back to the surface world.
[link]: ] As I mentioned here recently [/link], The Coming Race is a good example of what the critic John Clute defined as a "taproot text:" "those works which are both central to fantasy literature as a whole and have contributed to the cauldron of story from which modern fantasy authors ladle many of their basic ideas." The Coming Race was not the first Hollow Earth or Lost Race novel, but it was enormously influential on succeeding Hollow Earth and Lost Race novels. The Coming Race was not the first satire on utopias, but it was influential on the utopias which followed it. The Coming Race is arguably the first significant work of social science fiction (science fiction concerned with speculations about human society). And The Coming Race is full of ideas and concepts which would become standards in science fiction: atomic energy, psychic abilities, android servants, anti-gravity flight, nuclear war, and the future evolution of the human body.


The Battle of Dorking

Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking" is about the invasion which ended the British Empire. An unnamed (but implicitly German) enemy takes advantage of Britain's overconfidence and overestimation of the abilities of its Army and navy to invade and conquer England. The terms of the peace treaty are harsh: England loses its colonies and is forced to pay a ruinous war debt, leaving England a decrepit third-class power.

Chesney was a veteran of the 1857 Indian rebellion and the president of the Royal Indian Engineering College when wrote "The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer" for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. At this time, a common attitude in England was pessimism about the state of the Empire and its eventual fate. The confidence of the 1850s, the "age of equipoise," had been replaced by the troubles of the 1860s, including the cotton famine, widespread labor unrest, famous bankruptcies, the outbreak of cholera and bubonic plague, and increase in terrorist activity by the Fenians. Most distressing of all was Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Before the war England had felt secure due to its geographical isolation and the strength of its navy. Advances in military technology were not seen as a threat to the Empire; the English military felt that their military and naval technology would evolve at the same rate as their enemies'. But during the war the Prussians' superior technology, tactics, and military organization alarmed observers by humiliating the French army, which had previously been well-regarded. The idea that warfare was no longer being fought by traditional rules with traditional weapons implied that the English military, and England itself, might not be as secure as previously thought.


The reaction to this was a long series of opinion pieces by British policy makers about Britain's military unreadiness and cultural inadequacy. But Chesney was the first writer to write a fictional version of these opinion pieces. He was not the first to write what became known as "Future War" stories, about the invasion of England; such stories had been written (and in one case, such paintings had been painted) since the 1790s. However, he was the first to write a Future War story in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, and it was "The Battle of Dorking" which became so influential.

"Dorking" was immediately popular and controversial. The Blackwood's issue in which it first appeared was reprinted six times by the end of May, 1871, and a sixpenny pamphlet of "Dorking" sold over 110,000 copies. Prime Minister Gladstone personally denounced it during a speech in September, 1871, and numerous sequels to and rebuttals of "Dorking" were published, in Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States, over the next twenty years. More broadly, from 1871 until the beginning of World War One, hundreds of Future War novels were written around the world. Until roughly 1890, the vast majority of them were modeled on "Dorking." Even after 1890, when Future War novels began to mix with other novels, from science fiction to fantasy/horror, the influence of Chesney and "Dorking" is clear. As scholar I.F. Clarke wrote in 1997, "Chesney's Battle of Dorking....must be the most talked-about and imitated short story in the history of publishing."



Erewhon is about the visit of an Englishman to a utopian civilization, Erewhon, which he discovers in the mountains of what is implicitly New Zealand. The civilization is in some ways advanced, but substantially different from our own: besides their absurdities (like their University of Unreason), they have only the simplest machines (the narrator gets in trouble with the Erewhonians because of his pocket watch), because two centuries ago the Erewhonians had banned machines from a fear that they would evolve and eventually rule humanity. The narrator falls in love with the daughter of an Erewhonian and they both escape to England.


Erewhon was not overtly influential in the same way that "Dorking" and The Coming Race were. The Lost Race novels written in 1872 and 1873 were modeled much more on Bulwer-Lytton than on Butler. Erewhon's influence was in its raising of the topics of machine consciousness and intelligence and controlled evolution. For a satire–and Erewhon is largely a satire–the novel treats these topics seriously. Erewhon was the first significant work to do so, and was influential on successive works of science fiction, in the 19th and 20th century, although later writers like H.G. Wells and Karel Capek would examine those ideas in a more sophisticated fashion.

What The May Day Three Wrought

But it was the cumulative effect of The Coming Race, "The Battle of Dorking," and Erewhon that boosted science fiction from being an obscure sub-genre into something publishers made a point of selling.


This is not to slight Jules Verne in any way. His influence on science fiction from after 1875, when the full effects of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had set in and Anglophone audiences were able to read translations of Captain Hatteras, Dr. Ox's Experiment, and The Mysterious Island, cannot be overstated. But the bump in the number of science fiction stories, serials, and novels produced soon after May Day, 1871, was not due to Verne, but to the May Day Three.

1 work of English-language science fiction was published in 1866. 2 were published in 1867, 2 in 1868, 5 in 1869, and 6 in 1870. Excluding the May Day Three, 15 works of science fiction were published in 1871, 9 in 1872, 17 in 1873, 15 in 1874, and 7 in 1875. The dominant influence in 1871 is "The Battle of Dorking." The dominant influences in 1872 and 1873 are "Dorking" and The Coming Race, with Verne's influence growing more pronounced from 1874 on. But even after 1874 the influence of Bulwer-Lytton remains strong, as roughly a third of all the science fiction published 1875-1880 was Lost Race.


This latter point deserves emphasis. Verne is influential after 1874, but so is Bulwer-Lytton, still. Pointing out the Verne imitators is relatively simple–Mark Twain's "A Curious Pleasure Excursion" (New York Herald, July 6, 1874) is obviously Twain's reaction to Verne's From the Earth to the Moon–but even a cursory examination of the post-1874 science fiction authors shows the continuing influence of Bulwer-Lytton and The Coming Race, even on authors like Edward Page Mitchell who would become popular science fiction writers in their own right. The post-May Day boost in enthusiasm for science fiction came from the May Day Three and was abetted, not primarily driven, by Verne and Edward Everett Hale (whose story collection, His Level Best, was published in 1872).

The rise in production of Anglophone science fiction led to a shift in emphasis. Science fiction went from something predominantly European-more works of science fiction were produced in France from 1860-April 30, 1871 than in the United States and the United Kingdom combined-to something dominated by Anglophones, both writers and audience. (The number of English-language translations of European works of science fiction roughly quadrupled from 1870 to 1880). The increased output led to an increase in coverage by reviewers, but also by critics.


Verne gave the genre of science fiction critical respectability later in the 1870s, but it was Bulwer-Lytton who did it earlier in the decade. The Coming Race was initially published anonymously, but its true author was widely known, and Bulwer-Lytton's status as one of the most esteemed novelists of the time leant science fiction a respectability among critics it had not previously possessed.

Finally, it is no coincidence that the phrase "scientific fiction" as a descriptor for the genre of science fiction began appearing in the American and British press with a much greater frequency after May Day, 1871, or that publishers like the Tinsley Brothers (at the time best known for publishing Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Thomas Hardy) suddenly began publishing science fiction novels after May Day, or that magazines like Scribner's Monthly (in the United States) and Belgravia (in the United Kingdom) suddenly began publishing science fiction stories after May Day.


Jules Verne is justly seen as the father of science fiction, but Bulwer-Lytton, Chesney, and Butler, through The Coming Race, "The Battle of Dorking," and Erewhon, were the genre's step-fathers, or perhaps its mother's previous boyfriends.

Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.