Edgar Allan Poe | The Mysteries | The Science Fiction | Mellonta Tauta
Influences on Later Science Fiction: With the Night Mail and Cordwainer Smith | Jules Verne | Edward Page Mitchell | Fitz James O'Brien | Harriet Prescott Spofford | Jorge Luis Borges | H. P. Lovecraft
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Most of Poe's mystery stories were written during a relatively short period, 1841 - 1844. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) is the most important of Poe's mystery works. It is the first, and the one that set the form of not only Poe's other stories, but of all subsequent mystery fiction.
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" seems like a direct ancestor of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales. The relationship of Holmes and Watson seems similar to that of Dupin and the narrator. They meet and move in with each other, just as in A Study in Scarlet. And the narrator deeply admires Dupin, just like Watson and Holmes. The storytelling style also seems close to Doyle. The way in which Dupin announces he has a visitor coming, whom they must capture to solve the mystery, is very close to Doyle's climaxes. The emphasis on Dupin's intellect, and the use of reasoning and deduction to solve the mystery, anticipate both Doyle and detective fiction as a whole. Dupin's explanations of how he solved the case seem very similar to those of Holmes.
In many ways Poe is one of the main architects of sf as a genre. Despite the contributions of Lucian of Samos, Sir Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Peter Wilkins, Ludwig Holberg, Jonathan Swift, Mercier, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Mary Shelley, Poe's works often read like the first real crystallization of sf in the form we know it today. Poe took a genre dominated by fantastic voyages, Utopias, sleepers into the future (Mercier, Washington Irving) and gothic scientific experimenters (Hoffmann, Godwin, Shelley & Hawthorne), and turned it into modern sf.
The future depicted in "Mellonta Tauta" is not Utopian, like most earlier future tales, such as "L'An 2440" of Mercier, or disastrous, like Mary Shelley's "The Last Man", but simply very different. It incorporates many scientific advances, and social and historical changes, from the society of the present day.
"Mellonta Tauta" shows a different future from the present, in several areas:
Cognition. "Mellonta Tauta" discusses what Poe believes are new ways of scientific reasoning: imaginative theorizing; and consistency as a marker of truth. It thus looks at cognition: ways human beings think, reason, perceive, learn and understand. Cognition is a subject that runs through some key later works of science fiction:
"Mellonta Tauta" discusses two well-known, existing methods of scientific reasoning: the deductive logic studied by Aristotle, and the inductive reasoning that is part of the scientific method, advocated by Francis Bacon. It also proposes two allegedly new methods: imaginative theorizing; and consistency. All four of these methods are important bases of science and scientific reasoning today.
They are also key subjects in Artificial Intelligence. For computer programs to be "smarter", they have to incorporate reasoning methods: likely including all four such methods discussed by Poe. As well as perhaps other techniques not mentioned by him, such as genetic algorithms, mathematical induction, etc.
It is important to realize that such techniques are not only part of futuristic tech like Artificial Intelligence. Some of these techniques are in widespread use today in computers. For example, Aristotle's deductive reasoning includes the "syllogism". Syllogisms are formally equivalent to the "join", a database technique used to combine information from two or more database tables. Joins are one of the most popular, fundamental and powerful database techniques. I don't have accurate statistics, but it is likely that computer programs today perform hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions or tens of millions, joins every day. When the average computer user runs a program, gets information from a database or does "research" on a computer, often times the computer is quietly performing a join to get the answer. So "deductive reasoning" in the form of "joins" is being done by computers millions of times every day. (A detailed technical discussion of joins can be found in the Wikipedia article on Join (SQL) - although this sort of detail is not necessary to understand the point I'm making here.)
The techniques discussed by Poe in "Mellonta Tauta" are also relevant to the arts. Poe's depiction of "imaginative theorizing" sounds similar to a writer constructing the plot of a story. Whether it's a mystery writer constructing a "mystery and its solution", or a science fiction author constructing life in a "imagined future" or "alien planet", their act of imagination is similar to a scientist constructing a "theory". All of these activities require a similar imagination. And Poe's criterion of "consistency" is used in judging the value of scientific theories, mystery writers' plots, and the futures and alien planets of science fiction authors.
Poe's "New" Techniques. "Mellonta Tauta" claims that imaginative theorizing and consistency are two new techniques, not used by scientists before Poe. I would argue instead, that similar principles were and are in widespread use by scientists. However, Poe's version of "imaginative theorizing" does have some significant differences from actual scientific practice.
A key part of real science is "hypothesis creation". Scientists are always coming up with new hypotheses to test. A hypothesis can range from a simple one-sentence idea, to a huge theory that takes many pages to explain. When scientists generate a hypothesis, they are in fact doing something very similar to Poe's "imaginative theorizing". Developing a hypothesis takes a huge act of creative imagination by a scientist.
Science insists that a hypothesis has to be grounded in fact: observation and the results of experiments. This differs from Poe's "imaginative theorizing", which claims that an act of pure imagination, if creative enough, will inevitably arrive at truth, without paying any attention to experiment. I don't think that many scientists would endorse Poe's point of view.
However, in practice many of the hypotheses invented by scientist are wildly imaginative creations. While grounded in fact, they often soar to unexplored concepts and wild new ideas. So in practice, lots of real-life hypothesis generation is pretty close to the sort of "imaginative theorizing" advocated in "Mellonta Tauta".
Poe depicts "consistency" of theories as a criterion for their truth. In reality, scientists demand that the hypotheses they generate be consistent. They are already testing their hypotheses against the criterion of consistency, and rejecting those that fail by being inconsistent. So a form of "consistency" is in widespread use in science already.
Poe goes beyond this in "Mellonta Tauta" to argue that "consistency" GUARANTEES truth. Most scientists would reject this. Scientists believe that a theory has to be consistent to be true - but that consistency is not enough: there must also be evidence in the form of observation and experiment.
New York: Land Use and Political Systems. "Mellonta Tauta" describes a future emperor converting the entire island of Manhattan into a garden for his palace. Later, a key work of science fiction, the novel Ralph 124C41+ (1911) by Hugo Gernsback, will picture the East end of Long Island turned into a public park for all to use (Chapter 5). Gernsback's idealized vision of the future has turned out to be wrong, at least for now: that end of Long Island is mainly residential private property of some of the world's richest people, and is known as the Hamptons.
In both "Mellonta Tauta" and Gernsback, the use of land is linked to political systems. Poe has an absolute monarch using land for his exclusive benefit, Gernsback has a Utopian government using land to benefit millions of people in the public. By contrast, in real life an extreme form of capitalism that promotes inequality has caused the real Long Island to be exclusively a playground for the very rich.
Algis Budrys thinks that "With the Night Mail" possibly inspired Cordwainer Smith's tales of a very strange future. "Mellonta Tauta" also has a Smithian feel. If Borges were to write a "Precursors to Cordwainer Smith", as he did for Kafka, both "Mellonta Tauta" and "With the Night Mail" would figure prominently. Smith's works are among the masterpieces of modern sf, especially his short stories and novellas.
The Time Travel in "The Clock That Went Backward" (1881) seems to be in the same mode as Poe's in "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains". In neither works by Poe or Mitchell, do the time travel stories add up to a logically consistent picture, by the standards of modern science fiction. In both, people from the present go back in time and turn into, or somehow coincide with, people from the past. These stories show a great deal of imagination, but they are not the sort of logically consistent time travel tale found in modern sf, apparently initiated by H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine" (1895).
Poe's "Hans Pfaall" briefly echoes the ideas he had about the Antarctic in "M.S. Found in a Bottle".
"M.S. Found in a Bottle" is remarkably dream like, especially in such details as the men who do not see the protagonist as he walks among them (the sort of event that often occurs in dreams), the ship that grows larger, and the final geography of the end. This story is one of the more genuinely dream like works in literature, and makes one wonder if it had its origins in an actual dream. In any case, the logic of the story, the way it makes "sense" even though it has so many unexplained elements, reminds one of dreams.
The geography, with its long passage through a narrow chamber, and final entry into a circular amphitheater, will be repeated in Poe's great landscape tales, "The Domain of Arnheim" and "Landor's Cottage". What does it symbolize: birth? a return to the womb? sex? something very different from these, perhaps some sort of archetypal pattern or geographic dream?