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From alchemists to mad scientists: Part II

Scientists in Victorian lit and beyond

Kirk Smith 16 September 2015

Rough seas: illustration of a Jules Verne classic

During the early decades of the twentieth century, new discoveries increased at an exponential pace, but the winds of public opinion constantly changed direction. The two opposite views flowed through literature side-by-side

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the second of a three-part essay review of a truly classic text in the history of science in fiction – From Faust to Strangelove by Roslynn B. Haynes – by our regular contributor Kirk Smith. Use the navigation buttons on the top right to catch up.

The novelists of the early years of the Victorian Era generally treated scientists and their motives more favorably than earlier writers. In my own blog posts, I’ve discussed the relatively sympathetic treatment of an astronomer in Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower (1882) and a physician and medical researcher in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72).

Of the latter, Haynes writes, “…unlike earlier novelists, she [Eliot] does not merely tell us that Lydgate is a medical researcher; she places him in the milieu of convincing medical research so that his actions and assumptions, his motives and behavior result from and interact with this background.” In doing so, Eliot was a trailblazer for the lab lit genre, as she was in so many other ways a literary pioneer. Haynes attributes the improving image of scientists in part to the impressive gains in medical science during that time and the successful application of scientific knowledge to improving the quality of life at least for some people.

Haynes also makes the point that the Victorian era saw the appearance of the full-time professional scientist. This distinction is well illustrated in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives & Husbands (1865). Of the three characters that are scientists, two are amateurs, while Roger Hamley, who was modeled on Charles Darwin, is the first instance of a professional scientist in literature. Note that all the fictional Victorian scientists that Haynes cites, whether amateur or professional, are portrayed as working alone, while their day-to-day social lives are filled with non-scientists who not only don’t understand their motivations or their work but also consider the latter unimportant or even trivial. These people are important in the characters’ lives, however, and they put a great deal of pressure on the scientists to be more like them.

A sequence of three chapter titles in Hayne’s book captures the range of protagonists that writers chose during the closing years of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century: Chapter 9 is titled “The Scientist as Adventurer,” but then Chapter 10 is subtitled “The Scientist Under Scrutiny.” Chapter 11 returns to another positive protagonist with “The Scientist as Hero.” She illustrates the characters’ varying moral standing with a wealth of examples drawn from the works of little-known authors along with some of the best known. She reserves some of her more extensive analyses for the less well-known novels of famous authors.

I’ve selected examples of better-known titles to illustrate each of the chapters listed above. In Chapter 9 Haynes discusses how Jules Verne portrays the geologist and protagonist in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). Professor Lidenbrock comes across as an intrepid and courageous adventurer, the equal of the celebrated explorers of the eighteen and nineteenth century. In Chapter 10 Haynes devotes several pages to the eponymous scientist of H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). Moreau is the essence of the evil and irresponsible scientist. In a sense, this novel perpetuated the Frankenstein prototype of the evil scientist. Like Viktor Frankenstein, Moreau creates half-human/half-animal organisms, but reflecting the advances in medical science, he employs surgical procedures, often demonstrably painful ones. Some of his experiments even involve powerless humans.

Chapter 11 returns to portraits of “The Scientist as Hero.” In a surprising one-eighty, H. G. Wells weighs in with The World Set Free (1914), in which a physicist named Holsten works out the details of nuclear fission but tries to keep it secret. His failure to do so leads to the development of an “atomic bomb” (a phrase invented by Wells). Its use in the ensuing war destroys most of the civilized world, but Holsten becomes a political leader who guides the survivors into a utopian world governed by the principles of science and freedom. The World Set Free is set in the 1950s, and not only anticipates much of what happened in real life but also anticipates the emotional responses of the physicists who created the first real bomb and saw it used as a weapon. Wells, however, proved to be too optimistic about the political influence of physicists in the years that followed.

Wells, one of period’s best-known writers, is a particularly interesting example of the twists and turns of popular sentiment of the period. In his views on the moral values underlying science, he poses a moving target. His earliest scientists, with the exception of Doctor Moreau, were morally complex. They combined the virtue of commitment to rational thought and the scientific method with the faults of insensitivity to the impact of their work on the people around him and a lack of attention to consequences and applications of their results. However, in his later utopian novels, Wells endowed his scientist protagonists with an almost saintly combination of brilliant intellect and moral superiority. Not only were they clever and knowledgeable scientists (and sometimes talented engineers to boot); they turn out to be wise and benevolent as political leaders.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, new discoveries and the new technologies resulting from them increased at an exponential pace, but the winds of public opinion about these developments constantly changed direction. The two opposite views flowed through literature side-by-side. While Haynes sheds light on this ambivalence, she sometimes fails to clarify how these two attitudes coexisted. The organization of her book suggests a more monolithic cultural perception that swung back and forth like a pendulum.

Both Verne and Wells are usually cited as the authors who “invented” the genre of science fiction. Significantly, scientists were important characters in these influential novels. Over time, readers tended to split into science-fiction genre devotees and mainstream fiction readers. Even when the setting was the present or very near future, the dependence on science tended to mark a work of fiction as “sci-fi,” as the genre came to be labeled. At the same time, scientists began to fade from the cast of characters, replaced by adventurers and space soldiers. Rarely did a sci-fi novel make its way onto the literary best-seller lists, even when it tackled significant and current social, political, and environmental issues.

Before leaving the scientist as adventurer, it’s worth mentioning that Haynes devotes several pages to Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Challenger” series. Doyle is of course best known for his Sherlock Homes character; however, beginning with The Lost World (1912), many of his readers followed the exploits of an arrogant biology professor named George Edward Challenger. Challenger courageously pursued scientific questions as tenaciously as Holmes stalked criminals. However, he becomes the butt of Doyle’s sarcastic humor when he viciously attacks his rivals as incompetent. A debate set in London’s Zoological Institution turns into pandemonium during an argument with other eminent biologists. Thus, Doyle presents readers with a mixed message about science and scientists: contentious and a little silly in their egotism, but unflinching in their pursuit of nature’s mysteries.

Following the 1898 publication of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, Mars figured in much of the flurry of short stories and pulp fiction devoted entirely to science fiction. While the majority of this publishing phenomenon was what Haynes calls, “…space cowboys slaying galactic Indians,” some did have scientists as heroes. Their roles invariably called for them to apply their knowledge to the development of either innovative methods of travel or new weaponry with which to combat the alien villains. Haynes’s take on pre-WWII science fiction is that it was

…incredibly regressive and unimaginative. Not only did it portray a male-dominated world, but it also drew its plots from the world of the British Empire with its conquering, colonizing and “civilizing” of primitive or warring nation-states. Though treated as heroes, scientists figure as inventors in the weapons industry, a role that became a reality at the end of the War.

The scientist as world savior was a somewhat different theme in the first part of the twentieth century. The most spectacular example of this storyline is Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie’s When Worlds Collide (1932) in which astronomers discover a burned-out star with its planet on a collision course with the Earth. The hero is “the world’s greatest physicist,” Cole Hendron, who plans an evacuation project involving two rocket ships that will successfully carry 500 bright, physically fit people (mostly scientists, as it turns out) to safety on the planet. Hendron turns out to be an expert, not only in physics but also in invention, security (necessary when the rest of the world wants to get on the ships), and later political leadership when the two ships arrive on the new home planet in the sequel, After Worlds Collide (1934). He becomes the driving force behind establishing a new society run by “wise and incorruptible” – who else? – scientists.

Stanley Kubrick’s quintessential mad scientist, Dr. Strangelove, had many less well-known predecessors. As early as 1895, Robert Cromie’s The Crack of Doom starred a truly crazy scientist named Herbert Bronde. He believes that “the universe is a mistake” and in the interests of correcting it, decides to blow it up, or at the very least, to destroy the Earth. Given the date of publication, it’s astonishing that Cromie has him applying his newly discovered knowledge of the atom to create a runaway chain reaction, such as some skeptics feared might result from detonating the first atom bomb. Better known writers Upton Sinclair and Anatole France had similar plotlines in the former’s play, “The Millennium: A Comedy of the Year 2000” (1907) and the latter’s novel, Penguin Island (1908).

In her treatment of the literature of the Victorian era and beyond, Haynes makes it clear that not all scientists in fiction were evil, crazy or morally irresponsible. Some novels actually erred in the opposite direction, presenting readers with unrealistically virtuous and admirable versions. Hayes argues that these contrasts reflect society’s ambivalence toward science itself and those who pursue it.

In Part III of this review, I’ll describe how Haynes applies her thesis to the growing number of scientists who appeared in writings in the period just before and following WWII, and especially to how the unleashing of the world’s first nuclear weapon affected the way scientists were represented in fiction.

To be continued…