Saturday, February 02, 2008

Kipling the first modern SF writers?

AboutSF has been posting a series of video clips to YouTube from their Literature of SF DVD. There are commentaries on SF from many leading lights of the past century, including Isaac Asimov and Damon Knight*.

In the clip below, SF writer argues that modern science fiction is characterized by a dynamic rational universe based on natural law and includes social changes driven by technological changes. According to those criteria, Knight argues that modern science fiction started with HG Wells, "who studied biology and dissection", in the late 1800s and early 1900s. More surprising to me was that his contemporary Rudyard Kipling also wrote science fiction.

While Wells is clearly a science fiction writer, it never occurred to me that Kipling was as well**. It turns out that Kipling's writing includes a lot more than just The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, Just So Stories and military poetry. Knight mentions his stories "With the Night Mail" and "As Easy as A.B.C.", but a number of his other stories can also be thought of as science fictional as well. Indeed, the Golden Age SF editor John Campbell considered him the first modern science fiction writer.

What's particularly interesting to me is the idea that his stories of India are the predecessors of SF with aliens and strange worlds.
But the best way to understand why Kipling has exerted so great an influence over modern science fiction is to read his own work. Begin with Kim, the most successful evocation of an alien world ever produced in English. Follow the Grand Trunk Road toward the Northwest Frontier, and watch the parade of cultures that young Kimball O'Hara encounters. Place yourself in his position, that of a half-assimilated stranger in a strange land; and observe carefully the uneven effects of an ancient society's encounter with a technologically advanced culture. SF writers have found Kim so appealing that several have told their own versions of the story: Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy and Poul Anderson's The Game of Empire are two of the best.
Those who believe we can communicate with unEarthly aliens should take note of the historical difficulties in communication between human cultures.

Kipling's science fiction stories don't involve aliens. Instead they involve new technologies that has affect his characters' lives. Many have seemingly supernatural elements, but that isn't so different from later science fiction writing. The works of Kipling have mostly fallen into the public domain, so you can read them and judge his writing for yourself. And it may not need saying, but Kipling used terms that we would consider racist (and sexist, but that doesn't seem as shocking to my eyes).

"With the Night Mail" (1911) and "As Easy as A.B.C." (1912):

Neither story is biological - they are based in a "future" world where easy air travel has shaped society. Of the two I find "As Easy as A.B.C" much more interesting - "With the Night Mail" reads to me like an adventure aboard a sailing ship transplanted to the air. If this is

"In the Same Boat" (1911):

In this tale, sufferers of nighttime horrors take Najdolene to try to help them sleep through the night, but side effects of the treatment are themselves debilitating.

On a certain night, while he lay between sleep and wake, he would be overtaken by a long shuddering sigh, which he learned to know was the sign that his brain had once more conceived its horror, and in time—in due time—would bring it forth.

Drugs could so well veil that horror that it shuffled along no worse than as a freezing dream in a procession of disorderly dreams; but over the return of the event drugs had no control. Once that sigh had passed his lips the thing was inevitable, and through the days granted before its rebirth he walked in torment. For the first two years he had striven to fend it off by distractions, but neither exercise nor drink availed. Then he had come to the tabloids of the excellent M. Najdol. These guarantee, on the label, ‘Refreshing and absolutely natural sleep to the soul-weary.’ They are carried in a case with a spring which presses one scented tabloid to the end of the tube, whence it can be lipped off in stroking the moustache or adjusting the veil.

Three years of M. Najdol’s preparations do not fit a man for many careers. His friends, who knew he did not drink, assumed that Conroy had strained his heart through valiant outdoor exercises, and Conroy had with some care invented an imaginary doctor, symptoms, and regimen, which he discussed with them and with his mother in Hereford. She maintained that he would grow out of it, and recommended nux vomica.

One sufferer, a Mr. Conroy, meets a woman with a similar affliction, and together they overcome both the Najdolene use and the night terrors. Kipling - who himself suffered from depression - seems to be saying that we should be able to overcome mental problems with difficulty, but without medication.

"Unprofessional" (1930):

Medicine and doctors played a role in many of Kipling's stories. Published in 1930, "Unprofessional" features what would have been cutting edge biomedical research.
Some of the samples—mere webs of cancerous tissue—he had, by arts of his own, kept alive in broths and salts after sentence had been executed on their sources of origin.

There were two specimens—Numbers 127 and 128—from a rarish sort of affliction in exactly the same stage of development and precisely the same position, in two women of the same age and physique, who had come up to Vaughan on the same afternoon, just after Vaughan had been appointed Assistant Surgeon at St. Peggotty’s. And when the absurdly identical operations were over, a man, whose praise was worth having, but whose presence had made Vaughan sweat into his palms, had complimented him. So far as St. Peggotty’s knew, both cases were doing well several months after. Harries found these samples specially interesting, and would pore over them long times on end, for he had always used the microscope very neatly.

‘Suppose you watch what these do for a while,’ he suggested to Loftie one day.

I know what they’ll do well enough,’ the other returned. He was hunting a line of his own in respect to brain-cells.

The tale goes on to a bit far-fetched ending that crosses the border from legitimate chronobiology to seemingly supernatural effects. It reminds me of some outside-the-mainstream (to put it mildly) biological research on "biophotons" and "morphic fields".

* Knight's most famous story, at least with regards to pop culture, is "To Serve Man"
** It turns out I had read "As Easy as A.B.C.", but somehow missed (or forgot) that the author was Kipling.

Image: Illustration from "With the Night Mail"

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  1. Very informative post,I knew Kipling as a poet and short story writer only who won Nobel prize for literature.His 'The Jungle book' is still a very popular book in India with many characters easily identifiable with the country's pathos and background.
    Still,Merry Shelly is definitely the first modern sf author with her magnum opus-Frankenstein !

  2. Kipling - how interesting.

    Can't say I agree that Kim is in any way a predecessor of science fiction. The Other has long been a fascination of literature in general.

    Thanks for the informative post!

  3. Arvind, I agree that Shelly was definitely SF, at least by my definition. I don't think she made Knight's list because Frankenstein isn't technological enough - the focus is on the monster and not how he was created.

    Mister Troll, while discovery of the "other" has indeed been a longstanding literary theme, my impression is that Kim brings in a new perspective: the "technologically advanced" culture meeting the "technologically primitive culture". I haven't actually read Kim, though, so I can't really say (here is how ignorant I am: when I first heard of the novel, long ago, I assumed it was about a girl.)

  4. Hi, Peggy, I know it's an old post, but you may find my comment interesting: a collection of Kipling's sf short stories is now being published in Hungary (hopefully in November); I was the translator. The short stories are:

    The Mother Hive
    A Matter of Fact
    The Wish House
    The Eye of Allah
    The Ship That Found Herself
    With the Night Mail
    As Easy as ABC

    (Had I known earlier that you were interested in Kipling, I could have asked for your help... Translating - even understanding - Kipling isn't an easy task at all.)

  5. Chelloveck: I find reading Kipling to be a bit tough going myself sometimes - probably due to his 19th century-style and the "Englishness" of most of his works. Translating his stories must have been a difficult task!


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