Edgar Allan Poe – The father of science fiction?

Gautham Shenoy January 19, 2019

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Edgar Allan Poe – born January 19, 1809 – was a master of the macabre and horror writer extraordinaire as also the progenitor of the modern detective story. But there is one more branch of genre fiction Poe’s contributions to which are not as popularly known, the genre we know today as science fiction.

Among the first people to acknowledge Poe’s status as the creator of the ‘scientific novel’ was none other than Jules Verne, one of the two people from that era most commonly referred to as the fathers of modern science fiction (the other being H.G. Wells), when he referred to Poe as ‘le créateur du roman merveilleux scientifique’. Not surprising given that Verne was a fan of Poe’s works which were a big influence on his own novels. Verne would also write what is possibly the first piece of fan fiction but more on that later.

In 1905, an anonymous article in the Saturday Review titled ‘Science in Romance’ (disparagingly) referred to Poe as “…probably the father of that pseudo-science fiction which still has its living practitioners in Dr. Conan Doyle and Mr. HG Wells”.

The editor and pioneering publisher, Hugo Gernsback – after whom the Hugo Awards are named and yet another person described as the ‘father of science fiction’ – while credited with coining the term ‘science fiction’ preferred another term, ‘scientifiction’ to refer to the genre and this is how he described it, “By scientifiction, I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story.” In fact, the first issue of the first magazine dedicated to science fiction, Gernsback’s Amazing Stories contained reprints of six SF stories including one by Edgar Allan Poe.

In his acclaimed and award-winning nonfiction 1999 book, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, the writer Thomas M. Disch calls Edgar Allan Poe the first SF author referring to him as ‘the source’, while the SF author, critic and historian, Adam Roberts – writing about Poe in his 2006 book, The History of Science Fiction – notes that, “…a significant portion (perhaps a fifth) of his output was SF, and this includes some of his very best work.”

So, which are these SF works of Edgar Allan Poe that make a case for him to be considered one of the fathers of modern science fiction?

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe by Samuel Osgood

Amongst the stories, oft-ignored is a one that Adam Roberts calls ‘the key piece of Poe science fiction’, the 1935 short story, The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, which shows Poe at his imaginative best and makes for a good starting point to explore his SF output. Written as a hoax, and read only as such to its great detriment, Hans Pfaall when read as an SF text that is amongst the earliest ‘journey to the moon’ tales of that age, brings together all the elements that make for a good science fiction story: adventure, space travel and strange aliens, told through the point of view of the protagonist, the titular Hans Pfaall who travels to the moon in a balloon of his own making. The story contains just enough scientific verisimilitude, given what was known at the time – with its details of the vacuum of space, how Pfaall overcomes it to its descriptions of the moon and its inhabitants – to make a case for Poe’s science fiction taking root in science and then soaring skywards with its intuition, imagination and fictional extrapolations. In the years to come, The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall would influence many a writer, not least Jules Verne whose novel, From the Earth to the Moon takes inspiration from – and references – Hans Pfaall. Another balloon tall-tale by Poe, The Balloon Hoax about a lighter-than-air balloon trip would inspire Verne to write his own, well-received, story, Five Weeks in a Balloon.

The other must-read is Poe’s 1838 story, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, his only complete novel-length work that tells the tale of one Arthur Pym, a stowaway on a ship. Partly-autobiographical and narrated as a first-person account, what begins as an adventure at sea soon turns into something more, much more involving amongst others, cannibalism until Pym is saved by the crew of another ship which then leads to them encountering mysterious islands, strange lands and stranger cultures around the South Pole before ending abruptly, but not before touching upon the ‘Hollow Earth’ theory. A theme that can also be found in another Poe short story, MS. Found in a Bottle’ about an unnamed narrator who finds himself in bizarre circumstances as a passenger upon a ship, whose subsequent capsizing leads to supernatural happenings of horror, the moorings of which are nonetheless in scientific extrapolations as Edgar Allan Poe saw them. As an admirer and reader of Poe’s fiction, Jules Verne – bothered by the fact that The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket seemed incomplete due to its abrupt ending – would go on to write a sequel, An Antarctic Mystery (also translated as The Sphinx of the Ice Realm).

What strikes one when reading these stories is how easy Edgar Allan Poe makes it for the reader to suspend disbelief by making all the goings-on and explanations sound commonplace and more importantly, plausible and believable, indeed markers of good SF.

Speaking of which brings me to mention just a few of the other SF stories that Edgar Allan Poe wrote: The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion, a post-apocalyptic short story about Earth’s encounter with a comet and our planet’s  subsequent destruction brought about by too much oxygen in the atmosphere; Mellonta Tauta (Greek for ‘things that are in the future’), a satirical dystopian story set in the 29th century (year 2848); the short story featured in the first issue of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, a proto-zombie story in which a man on the threshold of death is hypnotised (‘mesmerised’) to continue living as the undead; The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade, a science-fantasy tale written as a humorous continuation to One Thousand and One Nights which, in keeping with the spirit of its inspiration, mentions many fantastical wonders including a chess-playing automaton and Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and Some Words with a Mummy about the ‘scientific’ revival of a long-interred Egyptian mummy. With the exception of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, all of the stories mentioned above – and many more, including Poe’s prose-poem, Eureka (subtitled ‘An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe’) can be found in the Penguin collection, The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, edited – and with an excellent introduction and extensive notes – by Harold Beaver.

Covers of two editions of The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe from Penguin (cover image is a detail from a lithograph by Odilon Redon, inspired by Poe’s work)

A poet foremost, with extraordinary vision, a critic, an editor, a great storyteller and a master of the art of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe lived a hard life and never got his due during his lifetime, in more ways than one. As unfortunate in death as he was in life, just a few months after he’d just turned forty, Poe was found in a delirious condition in a Baltimore street – in mysterious circumstances, wearing someone else’s clothes – and would pass away on October 7, 1849.

Today, more than a century and a half after his death, you can find Poe anthologies in any and every self-respecting book store. Universally hailed as one of the greatest short story authors who ever lived, it gives one great joy to see Poe being enjoyed and discovered with pleasure by each new generation of readers. But when it comes to science fiction – that most ubiquitous and popular of genres gone mainstream – the name of Edgar Allan Poe is seldom mentioned in the same breath as Mary Shelly, Jules Verne or H.G. Wells when speaking of the people who played a major role in birthing this ‘literature of ideas’ and to whom we owe modern science fiction.

This edition of FactorDaily’s New World Weekly then concludes on a hopeful note, just as much as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s entry about Edgar Allan Poe ends, “If his career had lasted longer, he might have awoken us more inescapably to his vision; as it stands, we must awaken ourselves to him.”


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