Monday, February 21, 2011

Its cactus-like branches formed a carmine fringe - invasive species and Victorian ecosystem fiction

The Old Book Conundrum:  I make startling discoveries that are already well known to anyone who cares about the subject.  I plant my flag on the peak, not noticing the other flags, and the little book in the tin box which has been signed by thousands of other climbers, and the little café that sells hot cocoa and strudel.

Everyone already knew, yes, that in early English science fiction much of the “science” under discussion was Darwinism?  I had no idea.  I guess I thought it was all about machines.  The inventor in The Time Machine (1895) invents a time machine.  The invading Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898) crush humanity with their ray guns and space dreadnoughts and ansibles and whatnot.  Perhaps Jules Verne really is a bit more about machines?  Like I know from Jules Verne.

The time machine of The Time Machine is not related to science in any way – it’s pure fantasy.  Necessary, though, because H. G. Wells correctly understood the time scale of Darwinism.  If he wanted big evolutionary changes, he needed millions of years.  Thus, a veneer of time travel was draped over a story about advantageous evolutionary traits and natural selection.  Thus, the strange decision of the time traveler to constantly push forward – I hardly see how, for the sake of the story, Wells needed the final vision of the entropic death of the Earth.  But that scene, stripped of human content, is the thematic climax of the novel, and the best thing in the book.

Richard Jefferies explored new Darwinian ideas in After London, or Wild England (1885) by eliminating the machines altogether, regressing to medieval technology.  He was working on the idea of the ecosystem, although he did not yet have that word.  His novel was, in part, a mental experiment:  remove human pressure on the environment, and see what happens to fields, forests, rivers, wildlife, and, not least importantly, humans.  I’m sure a modern biologist would find it all too simple, but I was able to detect Jefferies’s excitement about the idea that it all fits together.  Or perhaps the new idea was that the system is dynamic, but coherent and understandable.

Wells was studying the ecosystem, too, in The War of the Worlds, this time by introducing invasive species.  I knew about the highly evolved Martians, of course, but not about the other invasive species:

[T]he seeds which the Martians (intentionally or accidentally) brought with them gave rise in all cases to red-coloured growths.  Only that known popularly as the red weed, however, gained any footing in competition with terrestrial forms…  It spread up the sides of the pit by the third or fourth day of our imprisonment, and its cactus-like branches formed a carmine fringe to the edges of our triangular window.  And afterwards I found it broadcast throughout the country, and especially wherever there was a stream of water.  (II.2.)

The red weed spreads throughout the novel, until it, too, succumbs to the clever ecological trick ending, when the terrestrial ecosystem strikes back.

I have not read any other Wells.  I would guess that The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) has more of this, while The Invisible Man (1897) does not, although I am probably wrong.  The novel about bicycles is presumably really about bicycles, maybe?

A day or two more, I guess, poking at the hideous corpses of the Martians.


  1. "poking at the hideous corpses of the Martians."

    You crack me up.

    If everyone know early science fiction was concerned with Darwinism, then I read at about the same level you do. I missed that completely. I've been slowly working my way through After London on audio. It's interesting as a piece of genre history, but I'm not finding much more than that in it.

    Science fiction continues to be interested in evolution to this day, though. May I recommend Theodore Sturgeon's novel More than Human and Ted Kosmatka's short story "N Words."

    If you're interested.

  2. Hilarious and perfect first paragraph. Exactly what I was feeling after reading Ethan Frome. Always nice to enjoy a good bit of strudel, though.

    Distracted from my Jefferies and Riding inquiries, but all in good time. Thanks for the helpful tip on spelling the name, a good quiet payback for my own Stephens alarms.

  3. Hang on, C.B. - I didn't know about the Darwinism before I read Wells - after, I got it all right! The War of the Worlds has a long chunk about how the Martians evolved so that their hands turned into tentacles, and they lost their digestive system, and their brains swelled, etc., etc.

    It's just like those articles, which for some reason I associate with Parade magazine, about how future humans will lose their hair and toes and so on.

    I've read that Sturgeon novel, but heck if I remember it. Kosmatka I've never heard of, so thanks. Clarke's Childhood's End has some of this, too, as do, come to think of it, a vast amount of current superhero comics. Who else - Bruce Sterling, Schismatrix, that's a good one.

    I do not want to guess how often I have misspelled Jefferies. It does not seem right. But repeition helps. Edgar AllEn Poe. Edgar AllEn Poe. And then there's Stendhal. I think I was on my third Stendhal book when I realized that I constantly misspelled his name.

    That Ethan Frome post was completely convincing. Have you scoured Kevin's Interpolations site for more Fromian posts? He's been on a Wharton kick.

  4. Ted Kosmatka's website. Several stories available on line, links on the Bibliography page.

  5. I just facebooked my friends that currently the book I am eager/dying to read is 1984. And now I read this. It's lovely how the different genres all developed. I would love to read these to know if they still match our world as we see it now.

  6. I'm much more intrigued by War of the Worlds now that I know it includes invasive plants (and very interested in connections between Wells and Jefferies and John Wyndham having just read Day of the Triffids which includes, among other things, hungry plants taking over the world and the destruction of London into a pile plant-covered rubble).
    I was similarly suprised to find The Time Machine to be about evolutions: "While the time traveller does encounter excitement in the distant future, most of the book is really his musings about . . . what the real implications of evolution, cultural and biological, might be." I did not realize the theme applied more broadly.
    Must read more.

  7. Nana - oh yes. I just wrote about a part of The War of the Worlds that is still all too relevant.

    SpSq - I think I read The Time Machine just after you wrote about it - well, six months after - so you set me on that path.

    Wyndham's Triffids are clearly a blend of Wells's Martians and the Martian creeper. Very clever! I had not thought of that.

    Yes, you would enjoy The War of the Worlds, and probably Jefferies, too.