Copyright © 2004 Mark Twain Forum
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John H. Davis
Murfreesboro, North Carolina
Those who recall David Ketterer's The Science Fiction of Mark Twain (1984) may find the title Tales of Wonder (2003) disconcerting and appropriate. It is the same book, in soft-cover with new title. With burnt-orange letters above and below a portrait of Mark Twain against a moonscape-like backdrop on the front cover, this book seems intended for a more commercial audience than the somber, solid-black original. Imprecise regarding critical purpose, this title implies a collection that will likely attract more general readers than the earlier title that suggested literature analyzed rather than anthologized. Despite new title, publisher, design, and soft format, arguments and examples are those offered in 1984, with no further discussion, stories, or updates to the already-extensive bibliography. This statement is not negative criticism. The earlier book made Ketterer's point: Twain is both major contributor and leader in developing the science fiction genre.
With definition and application, analysis and analogy, historical and critical research, examples and analogues, complete works and fragments, parallel and crossover ideas from Twain and from Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and others, Ketterer demonstrates Twain's relevance and impact as a science fiction author and innovator. The impact, mainly potential, lies within unfinished works published after his death.
Acceptance of Ketterer's 1984 argument is evidenced by commentary in Mark Twain A-Z (1995) and The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (1993); although The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain (2003) rejects it, Ketterer includes enough examples of Twain's writings to support his case. Further examples would only cement proof already set. Other literary choices not included, however, might be as pertinent and more attractive to a general audience than "Secret History of Eddypus" or "Earthquake Almanac," included works which are more related to proving points than entertaining readers. For instance, alternate realities in "Which Was the Dream?" and "Which Was It?" with its potential racial problems, antedating the Black Power movement, would be enticing if they had been included.
Beginning with a twenty-two page introduction, followed by four pages of notes, Ketterer asserts evidence of Twain's rightful place among major science fiction writers. He divides exemplary literature into three topical sections: "Whimsical Wonders," "Instantaneous Communication" and "Doubtful Speculations." Following these sections are five appendixes, eighteen pages of "Explanatory Notes," and a 4 1/4-page "Selected Bibliography." The 68-entry bibliography, with relevant scholarship extant in 1984, is an excellent resource about Twain and science fiction. One wishes, however, that Ketterer had expanded it for this new edition. Certainly, more specific criticism has appeared since 1984.
Following a short historical context in his introduction, briefly considering definition and distinctions between science fiction and fantasy, Ketterer explains reasons for his selections. Within the chronological explanation is justification of Twain's significance in science fiction development. Ketterer cites Darko Suvin's assertion that, had Twain finished and published particular fragments, he would doubtless replace H. G. Wells as "'the major turning point in the tradition leading to modern SF [and] Stapleton as the inventor of fictional historiography'" (xiii). Selections appear essentially chronologically from 1862 to 1905 (section one covers ten years, the second twenty, and the third seven). Items in the appendixes come from the late 1860s, middle 1870s and 1880s, late 1890s, and early 1900s. So, choices are representative of Twain's authorial career.
"Whimsical Wonders" contains "Petrified Man," "Earthquake
Almanac," "A Curious Pleasure Excursion," "The Curious Republic
of Gondour," and "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven." Ketterer's
introduction links literary hoax and tall tale to science fiction and petrified
corpses to repetitive preserved bodies in Twain's works, culminating in fragments
foreshadowing "The Great Dark" and a parallel to Cat's Cradle,
Vonnegut's end-of-the-world story. Ketterer contends "Earthquake Almanac,"
which connects literary hoax and science fiction, is Twain's only world-ending
story, but fails to note that the proposed endings of "The Great Dark"
and "No. 44" (which Ketterer does not include) would have made them
world-ending stories. Its ending figuratively places Connecticut Yankee
with such stories. Ketterer categorizes this section as Twain's less-serious
science fiction. Even so, "Pleasure Excursion" presents interstellar
travel and missionaries to other worlds. Offering alternative visions of Earth
and types of Utopias, "Gondour" and "Stormfield" represent
the sub-genre of alternate worlds. "Stormfield" contains early non-humanoid
aliens. "Gondour" presents "a rational Utopia" (xviii) with
universal suffrage where the learned and propertied vote more times than "the
ignorant and non-taxpaying classes" (10), depending on amount of education
and value of their property. Praised as placing the best people in government,
the amendment "enlarging" suffrage resembles the 3/5 amendment that
effectively granted slaveholding states more votes. Whereas the educated gain
"greater homage" than the wealthy, the legislation ironically devalues
poor, uneducated people, who (with fewer votes) receive less respect than "important"
people, a result intensified by custom, "that most powerful of all laws"
(11). As this modified republic differs from American expectations, so does
Stormfield's "materialist heaven [. . .] in interstellar space" from
religious ones (xviii). Stormfield's comet ride there may suggest the rules
for space travel in "Pleasure Excursion."
Concepts about swiftly transporting people, sound, images, and thoughts over time and space fascinate Twain. Entries in "Instantaneous Communication" include "The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton," "Time-Travel Contexts from Connecticut Yankee," "Mental Telegraphy," "Mental Telegraphy Again," "My Platonic Sweetheart," and "From the 'London Times' of 1904." They more distinctly merge scientific interests with fiction. "Loves," the first story to include and use a telephone as a plot device--a year after the first commercial telephone--anticipates long-distance calling, calling and paying for the time, bugging a phone, "stealing" music over wire, prevention with anti-tapping devices, portable phones, and specific places for home phones. In "'London Times' of 1904" (1898), Twain merges telephones with "television" and expands television coverage decades before satellites permit world-wide broadcasts. Resembling contemporary camera-phones, these phones permit close-ups and panning, all in living color.
The Connecticut Yankee's movements physically through time and space are well-known, but Twain's interest in travel by thoughts or between minds is not as famous. Considered in two similarly titled essays, Twain's mental telegraphy, resembling telepathy, influences thoughts and actions of others. Not having heard from someone, Twain writes that person and, while writing, he concentrates on that person, then destroys the letter, and shortly receives one from the person. The concentration linking them prompted the other to write. In this manner, he believed minds could communicate over wide distances. A visual example is Twain's seeing someone, not present, he later meets dressed as he saw her; her knowledge she would meet him linked their minds. Mental telegraphy explains similarities of Rasselas and Candide, written by contemporaries separated by the English Channel, just as Twain influenced William Wright to write about silver mines when he, in the East, conceived the idea and thought Wright, in the West, the man to do it. The internally-directed concept of a second-self in dreams and, later, other possible dream-selves and lives led Twain deeper into the subject. Ultimately, these other selves seemingly refer to the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious (conceived without consciousness of Freud) that evolved in Mysterious Stranger fragments (not in Ketterer's anthology) into Waking (Workaday) Self, Dream-Self, and Spiritual-Self (Immortal Soul). An early expression of the second-self's life in dream is "My Platonic Sweetheart." In meetings with a dream sweetheart over many years, lovers never age. Despite speaking dream-language, they always understand each other, and though their names change, they are the same people who always know one another. Dream feelings and language instantly translate, apparently because of harmonious minds.
"Doubtful Speculations," with "The Great Dark," "The Secret History of Eddypus," "Sold to Satan," and "3,000 Years Among the Microbes," is more science fantasy than science fiction. Ketterer notes analogies of the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage to "3,000 Years" (374). He could also have compared "The Great Dark." In the film, scientists miniaturized by advanced nano-technology enter an injured man's bloodstream to save vital information. With a specially designed craft, they encounter microscopic dangers before removing an inoperable brain blood clot. In "The Great Dark," characters on a ship in a water drop under a microscope are threatened by creatures their larger selves had seen with it. In "3,000 Years," a magician transforms narrator Bkshp, former scientist, into a cholera germ in the body of Blitzowski, a tramp labeled a planet. Implicit in both is the idea of multiple microcosms within multiple macrocosms, diminishing each subsequent race's importance. The ending, "I then went to bed" (324), suggests a cycle: one dream-experience ends (379); another begins. Twain's notes are explicit that "The Great Dark" is a dream with nightmare experiences so real that reality becomes uncertain.
According to the Nightmare of History theory, events cycle, continually casting civilization into darkness. Ketterer calls "The Secret History of Eddypus" "the clearest exposition of MT's nightmare vision of history," which "3,000 Years" and Connecticut Yankee also exemplify (361). "Eddypus" projects a future developed following guidelines from Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science founder. Though puns and coinages based on "Eddy" and sarcasms toward Christian Science abound, this mock history more intently urges a cyclical view of history, in which, paraphrasing Yeats, "All things fall and are built again" to fall again, a constant encroachment of darkness (ignorance, folly, depravity, greed, cowardice, slavery) upon light (freedom, knowledge, charity, wisdom, kindness, fellowship). Emphasizing this cycling, in which even names of things may be reproduced (Fables of Man, 401-402), a future scribe, reflecting on the progressive nineteenth century, frequently jumbles events, people, times, names, and eras, so that a person of one century appears beside a person of another: Columbus and Uncle Remus discover America; William the Conqueror dies at Bunker Hill; Emerson invents yellow journalism; Washington drowns at Waterloo. Similarly, Bkshp mixes Cleopatra, King Herod, and Catherine of Aragon, but as germs, and says Washington commanded Hessians and Franklin was at the Diet of Worms. History becomes nightmare when it becomes chaos and replaces reality with dream-becoming-reality.
Lacking analogies to preceding works, "Sold to Satan" does fit all three section titles. Its whimsicality derives from the narrator's decision, prompted by Stock Market slumps, to sell Satan his soul. Applicable to "Instantaneous Communication," Satan reads thoughts. Speculations concern radium, Satan's protection from Hell-fires, as potential unlimited power source for humanity.
Appendixes parallel and fill in the progression the three sections present. "The Generation Iceberg" and "Shackleford's Ghost" complement "Great Dark" and "'London Times'"; "Shackleford" and "The Mysterious Balloonist" contain plot-details of "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage," synopsized because of its unavailability in 1984. Like it, "Generation Iceberg," whose inhabitants know only an icy interior as reality, anticipates enclosed-worlds (and Lost World themes of Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs) in "3,000 Years" and "Great Dark" (xxv-xxvi). "Dark's" Superintendent of Dreams recaps "Shackleford's" Invisible Man (357). Citing Tuckey, Ketterer offers "History 1,000 from Now" as "the germ of "Eddypus""(380).
Ketterer's Explanatory Notes supplement the introduction, amplifying contributions and providing context. For example, concerning "The Great Dark," Ketterer explains such antecedents as "The Enchanted Sea-Wilderness," "Indiantown," and "Which Was It?" He provides De Voto's summarized Conclusion-Notes, biographical relevancies (Susy's death, Twain's height, Twain's letter to wife Olivia), and links to Twain's readings (Lichtenberg, Russell, Brown, Bullen). Though Ketterer cites titles, a final quibble is the absence of a selective bibliography of Twain's other science fiction.
Enthusiasts of Twain, science fiction, and futurology should commend Ketterer
for recognizing Twain's literary contributions and significance which had been
unrealized by the general public and Twainians who had not connected the dots.
Ketterer's single-volume sampling is now a convenient soft-cover edition. Though
a subtitle would clarify content and purpose, as burnt-orange letters attract,
content should hold, readers.