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

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Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe's mystery and science fiction are under-acknowledged by realist literary critics. Poe was a pioneer in both genres, and together they constitute, in bulk, half of his short tales. However, the favorite Poe works among realists include "Ligeia", "The Fall of the House of Usher", and "William Wilson". These are the Poe works that are closest to conventional realistic fiction: there is an emphasis in these works on psychological portraiture, and the study of human relationships. This is quite common, to emphasize those works in an author's canon that correspond to the conventions of conventional literary thought, and ignore the rest. There is no mystery in these works, and the fantasy, where it exists, is strictly supernatural, with no scientific overtones.

The Mysteries

By contrast, the sheer amount of mystery and science fiction Poe wrote is usually not acknowledged. Poe's mysteries include not only "The Gold-Bug" and the three Dupin tales, but also, "Thou Art The Man" and "The Oblong Box". In addition, both "The Spectacles", and "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether" share much of the form of mystery tales, with surprise solutions hinted at through clues in the stories, and many scenes and incidents having two meanings, one surface, one hidden and revealed at the end, even though neither has a detective or an explicit puzzle to solve. "Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether" could be a formal model for Melville's mystery tale "Benito Cereno", although I know of no explicit evidence that Melville actually read Poe's tale.

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.

The Science Fiction

Poe's major contributions to the sf field include: Poe's emphasis on scientific plausibility in "Hans Pfaall", "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion", and "Mellonta Tauta", influenced not just the treatment of space travel, but all of science fiction. Such Poe tales mix much material about science, technology and mathematics: all key subjects of later science fiction. These can be seen as early examples of "hard science fiction": science fiction deeply concerned with science and mathematics.

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.

Mellonta Tauta

The Future. "Mellonta Tauta" shows a future that is different from the present. This is a key idea, and the basis of many subsequent great science fiction works.

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. Please see my list of science fiction tales about Cognition.

"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.

With the Night Mail and Cordwainer Smith

Poe's influence can be seen on several later writers. Kipling's tale of a strange future world, "With the Night Mail" (1905), could have been inspired by "Mellonta Tauta". Features in common: The strange "sound and light shows" of the storms in Kipling could have been inspired by the storm encountered by the balloon in "Hans Pfaall". (There is a similar storm in "The Fall of the House of Usher". The two storms are among Poe's best episodes.)

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.

Jules Verne

Jules Verne's tales of "Extraordinary Voyages" were greatly inspired by Poe, as he himself acknowledged. The sort of scientifically plausible space travel of "Hans Pfaall" and balloon flight in "The Balloon Hoax" are clearly the models for Verne.

Edward Page Mitchell

Edward Page Mitchell's works also seem very Poe inspired, even Poe derived. His remarkable tales of Automata, "The Ablest Man in the World" (1879) and "The Tachypomp" (1874), seem to be just a single step beyond "Maelzel's Chess Player".

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).

The fantastic tales of Fitz James O'Brien

O'Brien's tales are clearly inspired by Poe's. What is most surprising about them are their numerous cultural references. O'Brien is a writer, like Poe, Melville, E. M. Forster, Borges and Ballard, who adds many cultural allusions to his work. In all of these writers, these references are not mere window dressing, but part of the development of the ideas, plot and characters of the story. In J.G. Ballard's words, we are all living inside a gigantic novel, surrounded by fictions of every kind. These fictions form far more of our reality and environment than do mere physical surroundings, or even social institutions. O'Brien's allusions show great cultural sophistication, and contact with advanced currents of his era. They surprised me in an author who is often discussed in histories of fantastic fiction as a purveyor of mild horror effects.

M.S. Found in a Bottle - and Harriet Prescott Spofford

Harriet Prescott Spofford's story, "The Moonstone Mass", could have been inspired by Poe's "M.S. Found in a Bottle". Both tales deal with conditions at the Poles, at a time when little was known scientifically about this region of the Earth. Spofford's geography, with revolving currents, passageways and amphitheaters, also seems Poe inspired.

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?

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges' stories "Funes the Memorious" and "The Zahir" also reflect Poe's "Berenice", and the mental condition of its protagonist inspired those of Borges'.

H. P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft always referred to his horror fiction as his "Poe stories", and wrote them in conscious imitation of Poe. The Poe story that most closely resembles Lovecraft's works in technique is "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar". Elements in common include the "popular" murmurings at the beginnings; the mysterious allusions to as yet unnamed horrors; the reference to "the facts as I understand them"; the dry, precise "scientific" tone throughout; the somewhat laborious descriptions, as if in a scientific document; explicit self referential mentioning of when the story crosses the line into unknown scientific frontiers; the revelation two thirds through the story of a hair raising situation of the scientific unknown; and the slow, deliberate, conscious build up to a final image of total horror, constructed like a climax in music.