Techno-apocalypses

Imagined conflicts-to-come between the nineteenth century and the eve of WWI

By the beginning of the Twentieth century, the imagery related to future wars already had precedents, having been a topic touched upon in future-set narratives across different textual genres since the Seventeenth century. Early examples had used ominous depictions of future invasions and scenarios of armed conflict to argue in favour of specific political options in texts whose primary aim was to influence the political debates of the day.

Argaud de Barges, La Thiloriere ou Descente en Angleterre: Projet d’une Montgolfiere capable d’enlever 3.000 Hommes et qui ne coutera que 300.000 Francs [etc.], etching and pointillé gravure (Paris: Chez Boulard, 1803), Bibliothèque nationale de France, accessed via Gallica, identifier: ark:/12148/btv1b8509550q.

During the first years of the nineteenth century, however, future-war literary fictions were few in number, while war technologies were of course object of fantastic representations also unrelated to future settings, a notable example being Baron Munchausen’s adventures on battle fields and on cannonballs becoming means of transport across Earthly territories and even to the moon.[1] Future settings were also exploited by prophetic novels imagining remote futures for humanity or one subject as the sole survivor of a catastrophe indebted to Romantic inspiration (e.g. Restif de la Bretonne’s Les Posthumes in 1802, Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s Le Dernier homme in 1805, Félix Bodin, Le Roman de l’avenir in 1834).[2] While important milestones were reached in later decades by Louis Geoffroy’s alternative history Napoleon et la conquête du monde 1812-1832: Histoire de la Monarchie universelle (1836),[3] and by the American Civil War imagined by two American authors, Nathaniel B. Tucker (The Partisan Leader, 1836) and Edmund Ruffin (Anticipations of the Future, 1860), future-war narratives did not become a codified sub-genre until the 1870s.[4]

By then, the presence of intertextual references to similar texts, a shared encyclopaedia of recurring motives and topoi, and textual devices implying a recognition of existing readers’ expectations had gradually led to the sub-genre taking shape, helped by the emergence of a mass market for magazines and books, a rich breeding ground for popular publishing formulas.

Particular attention has been paid by recent scholarship to the seminal role of George T. Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871), given the innovative nature of a setting located in a very near future, and the public debate that followed its publication in England, originating sequels, editions, and translations over a number of European countries and the US. Designed to encourage reform and modernisation in the British army, Chesney’s book was written after the Franco-Prussian War, and envisaged a scenario in which Germany had taken France’s place as the invader able to cross the English Channel.[5] According to Mike Ashley, “Chesney’s alarmist story had catapulted the genre of future-war fiction into the public arena.”[6]

The ensuing decades saw waves of imagined conflicts-to-come especially notable in England and Germany, in the short-story form as well as in serialized long narratives and volume-length novels. Depicted conflicts were consumed between European powers, as well as on a global scale (such as Robida’s La guerre au vingtième siècle, and Giffard and Robida’s La guerre infernale). Invasions from the east were relevant to the codification of the Yellow Peril theme (e.g. M. P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger, 1898), and threats from mad scientists and terrorist organizations were also imagined (e.g. George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution, 1893).

In H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), the novelty of having extraterrestrials as invaders made explicit the relationship between ideas of progress and the recourse to the future as an imaginative device for conducting hypothetical experiments, informed by conceptualisations of historical time as characterised by a unidirectional flow. As John Rieder has argued, “… Wells asks his English readers to compare the Martian invasion of Earth with the Europeans’ genocidal invasion of the Tasmanians, thus demanding that the colonisers imagine themselves as the colonised, or the about-to-be-colonised. …  the analogy rests on the logic prevalent in contemporary anthropology that the indigenous, primitive other’s present is the colonizer’s own past … The confrontation of humans and Martians is thus a kind of anachronism, an incongruous co-habitation of the same moment by people and artefacts from different times.”[7]

In the years immediately preceding World War I, future wars became part of a proto-science fiction repertoire, in works written, published and read as entertainment.[8] Notable cases include William LeQueux’s bestseller The Invasion of 1910 (1906), and Saki [Hector H. Munro]’s When William Came: A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns (1913), apt examples of the coeval Germanophobia caused in England by the perception of an increasing Teutonic menace.[9] Imagined conflicts became a fairly well-established subgenre, in which technology supplied a spectacular element, while being a focal point for anxieties related to the increasing speed of technological progress and world connections, as well as of international relations characterised by instability and/or by the emergence of non-Western actors such as Japan and China, with their economic and demographic power.

The next post will aim to understand and critically assess the wave(s) of future-war narratives that characterized European illustrated periodicals and book markets before 1914.


Notes

[1]  [Rudolf Erich Raspe], Gulliver revived, or The vice of lying properly exposed. … Also an account of a voyage into the moon and Dog-Star; with many extraordinary particulars relative to the cooking animal in those planets, which are there called the human species (London: Printed for C. and G. Kearsley, 1793).

[2]  Marc Angenot, “Science Fiction in France before Verne,” Science Fiction Studies 5, no. 14 (1978): 58-76.

[3]  Published anonymously until 1841; Pierre Versins, Encyclopédie de l’utopie, des voyages extraordinaires & de la science-fiction (Lausanne: L’âge d’homme, 1972), ad vocem.

[4]  Darko Suvin, “Victorian Science Fiction, 1871-85: The Rise of the Alternative History Sub-Genre,” Science-Fiction Studies 10, no. 2, (1983): 148-169; see also Brian M. Stableford, “Future War,” SFE: Science Fiction Encyclopedia, ed. John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls, Graham Sleight, 2005, last version 2018, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/future_war.

[5]   First published in Blackwood’s Magazine, and reprinted as a stand-alone pamphlet. A contemporary edition is in Clarke, British Future Fiction, vol. 6: 1-44; on its reception: I. F. Clarke, “Before and after ‘The Battle of Dorking,’’’ Science Fiction Studies 24, no. 1 (1997): 33-46, see 42-44; on its innovative role see also: Paul K. Alkon, Origins of Futuristic Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 40.

[6]   Mike Ashley, “The Fear of Invasion,” British Library, Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians, 15 May 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-fear-of-invasion.

[7]   John Rieder, Colonialsm and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), qt. 5.

[8]   Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 90.

[9]   Cecil D. Eby, The Road to Armageddon: The Martial Spirit in English Popular Literature, 1870-1914 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988), 33 and ff., 80 and ff.

This post is adapted from Giulia Iannuzzi, “The Illustrator and the Global Wars to Come: Albert Robida, La guerre infernale, and the Long History of Imagined Warfare”, Cromohs – Cyber Review of Modern Historiography22 (2019): 95-136; par. “Techno-apocalypses”, pp. 111-113. DOI: 10.13128/cromohs-11706. Full text available in open access: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/cromohs/article/view/11706.

See here all posts in the future-wars series

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Techno-apocalypses," in Geographies of Time, 15/11/2020, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1539.

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

The Illustrator and the Global Wars to Come

Fantastic narratives and illustrations as part of a broader social history of ideas of space and time

Ne soyez point en peine de ce Heros inconnu qui se presente à vos yeux. Encore qu’il ne soit pas ny de ce Monde ny de ce Siecle, il n’est pas si farouche ny si barbare, qu’il ne soit capable de faire un beau choix, & qu’il n’ait jugé aussi juste de vostre merite, que l’auroient pû faire tous ceux qui ont l’honneur de vous mieux connoistre.

JACQUES GUTTIN [MICHEL DE PURE], Épigone, histoire du siècle futur (A Paris: Chez Pierre Lamy, 1659), aij-p.nn.

My latest work on the conceptualisation of historical time in late modern and early contemporary European culture is now on Cromohs: Cyber Review of Modern Historiography.

Late modern and early contemporary imageries related to techno-driven globalization processes are to be found, in some of their most popular and graphic expressions, in visual and literary works of fiction. Made possible by the emergence of new ideas of a secularized historical time, early speculative fiction is an exceptional vantage point from which to observe the birth and development of popular themes and tropes related to those compressions of time and space, which increasingly characterized the world system between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century.

Louis-Sébastien Mercier, L’an deux mille quatre cent quarante (1774; nouvelle edition, Paris, an X [1801-1802]) vol. I, 12. Looking at the public notices posted on a wall, the protagonist realizes he has slept for 672 years. Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In the European cultural space, and especially in mature publishing markets such as the French one, speculative fiction set in the future became an apt expression of new imageries related to techno-science, including new communication and transportation systems and the astonishing speed of their development. Narratives and illustrations interpreted the appearance of new forms of awareness of globalization processes, becoming part of a communicative circuit, which was expanding its audience at a fast rate, thanks to the increasing presence of the popular press.

In this phase of techno-scientific acceleration and tumultuous changes in cultural habits, speculative fiction began to depict a major shift that had been occurring in the European mind-set during the late modern era: the emergence of a plastic future. New ideas of the future were a consequence of new, secularized temporalizations of history. The conception of historical time as home to linear processes of development was in turn deeply influenced by a close encounter with “others,” by explorations, voyages and the availability of written, figurative and material sources regarding remote parts of the world, which documented Western forms of ethnocentric hierarchization and, at the same time, began the task of problematizing them.

Fantastic narratives and illustrations can be read as part of a broader social history of ideas of space and time, and work as litmus tests of the complex reconfigurations they underwent in the Western mind, as global interconnectedness brought new subjects and issues onto the stage.

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