From Intern Nathan Keckley:
The Victorian era introduced many of the concepts, traditions, and inventions familiar to us today, from toilets to modern education. Science fiction is one of these inheritances. Science fiction – often called “speculative fiction” – permeates our society with countless television shows, films, video games, books, and comics. Like most genres, it has acquired a very specific style: gleaming spaceships traveling faster than light; human good guys and arthropod alien baddies; superhuman powers and beeping computer consoles. Sci-fi wasn’t always covered in chrome and hemolymph, however, and many Warsies and Trekkies might drop their bickering to gape in confusion at what was once considered part of the realm of “science fiction” by the Victorians. While the Victorians’ works may seem obsolete at first glance, however, in reality they are extremely contemporary and topical, and many of the ideas and tropes modern sci-fi concerns itself with were introduced by the Victorians. This essay will demonstrate the remarkable similarities of nineteenth century science fiction to that of our age.
While scholars have credited authors from the ancient to Medieval eras as “pioneers” of the science fiction genre, one of the most important works of literature to deal with fantastical elements in a scientific light was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is often associated with that time period due to the 1931 film adaptation – yes, the black-and-white one you always watched on Halloween – which is set in what appears to be Oktoberfest in Victorian Busch Gardens. Though pop culture and this film have indelibly associated Frankenstein with Victorian Gothic, Shelley published her magnum opus in 1808 – nearly twenty years before the Victorian era.
Regardless of Frankenstein’s precise time period, it was a work that dealt with a very scientific (and, as is typical of science fiction, very speculative) idea: the creation of new life from non-life. It also deals with this idea in a scientific manner . . . sort of. Victor never actually reveals how he managed to animate his creation, only giving very vague descriptions of arcane and forbidden lore he has uncovered. This, of course, quite conveniently masks Shelley’s own lack of knowledge about anatomy and biology. In addition, this cover-up would set the precedent for modern sci-fi “techno-jargon.”
Shelley’s work dealt heavily with life – specifically the creation and modification of it –and to what degree humans have a right to control and manipulate it. This weighty topic is brought up frequently in modern sci-fi franchises as well. Examples include the mentally-modified River from Firefly, the Cybermen from Doctor Who, and the entire premise of Jurassic Park. Star Trek’s Khan, with his Promethean role as the ultimate human, represents Victor’s most noble aspirations in the creation of his monster. Perhaps one of the most obvious similarities is Lieutenant Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Throughout the series, the android Data seeks to attain human emotions and feelings, mimicking the species as Victor’s monster does. Data’s nefarious twin, Lore, on the other hand, sees his physical and intellectual superiority to humans as a right to rule over them, embodying the most ignoble feelings of the monster.
While Frankenstein wasn’t technically Victorian, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde most certainly was. Published in 1886, Stevenson’s novella has now become as iconic as Frankenstein, and for similar reasons. Though it doesn’t deal with the creation of life itself, it deals with the various facets of that life. Like Frankenstein, Jekyll & Hyde features a protagonist with a medical background. The doctor’s serums showcase the Victorian fascination with the advancements made in modern chemistry, as well as identifying the dangerous Freudian consequences of the Victorians’ emphasis on restraint and suppression of baser, “bestial” instincts. With the advent of Freud and his work, this idea has perhaps become even more prevalent in our society than it was in Stevenson’s. Again, Star Trek’s writers drew heavily from Victorian literature like Jekyll & Hyde. Those who have lazily binged their way through the original Star Trek on a rainy weekend may recall one of the earliest episodes, “The Enemy Within.” In this episode, the transporter malfunctions (big surprise), splitting Captain Kirk into two entities: a wishy-washy loser who can barely stand on his own two feet, and a feral, violent beast who craves alcohol and sex (foreshadowing Wesley Crusher and Commander Riker, respectively).
Science-minded protagonists are, understandably, very common in science fiction. One of the most famous science fiction authors, H. G. Wells, featured the chemist Griffin in one of his works, The Invisible Man. Fitting the archetype of mad scientist to a tee, Griffin’s lust for scientific knowledge and the power accompanying it leads him into a downward spiral. In another of Wells’ works, The Island of Doctor Moreau, the titular vivisectionist lives in isolation on an island, stitching together animals, heedless of the consequences. This trope of the mad scientist continues to saturate science fiction well after the days of Frankenstein, Jekyll, Moreau, and Griffin. Sometimes they are well-meaning, sometimes megalomaniacal. Famous (or infamous) specimens include Einstein look-alike Doc Brown from the Back to the Future trilogy, Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor, and Dr. Wu, Jurassic Park’s dinosaur-breeder extraordinaire, to name a few.
Wells also penned The Time Machine, in which . . . you guessed it! Someone finds a time machine. The protagonist (identified only as The Time Traveler) travels into the future, where he encounters humanity’s future: a stunted, unhealthy species which has overrun the natural world with technology, rendering intellectual and physical exertion unnecessary and, as a result, obsolete. Naturally, Wells had the twenty-first century in mind when he wrote the novel. His book conveys a very cynical view of the future, compared to Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic utopia, in which everyone is fit, healthy, and can rock a jumpsuit. This idea of a feebler, stupider humanity has been reiterated in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the Pixar film WALL-E. The Time Machine would set the precedent for many, many time-travel books, films, and television shows to come, including the Back to the Future trilogy, every other episode of the original Star Trek, and, perhaps most obviously, Doctor Who.
The Wells novel that takes the fake Portal cake is, however, The War of the Worlds. In this novel, Wells covers yet another huge trope of science fiction: aliens – specifically Martians – invading the Earth. This is brought up in countless films (Independence Day), shows (the Daleks of Doctor Who), and video games (Halo). On a less significant note, the Martian tripods may have been a very prototypical inspiration for the AT-AT and AT-ST walkers in the Star Wars saga. In addition to its initial success, The War of the Worlds received national fame in America on Halloween of 1938 when CBS aired a radio dramatization of the novel. Directed by Orson Welles, the program included quite realistic special effects – for the time at least. The majority of the broadcast was presented in the form of news bulletins and announcements. As a result, uninformed listeners tuning into the channel were greeted, apparently, with the news that Martians were invading Earth. Indeed, many listeners were not aware that the broadcast was fictional. It was not, as is sometimes sensationally put, a nation-wide crisis, but some areas did experience panic-stricken mobs, and the broadcast had to be shut down by the police, securing The War of the Worlds’ place in infamy.
There is one Victorian author who tops Wells, however, for sheer volume of literature, and that is Frenchman Jules Verne. Over the course of his prolific career, Verne would publish over fifty novels and plays, including Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Mysterious Island, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Many of Verne’s novels are speculative adventure stories in which characters travel underground, in the deep sea, in balloons, on a comet, and to the moon in a rocket ship, to name a few. Verne’s settings include the core of the earth, the depths of the ocean, the lunar surface, and a forgotten island. This coupling of adventure and science fiction would later culminate in Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and numerous other franchises. Furthermore, both Journey and Twenty Thousand Leagues carry on the sci-fi trope of mad scientist, with the monomaniac Professor Lidenbrock and the Ahab-like misanthrope Captain Nemo.
The presence of these sci-fi authors would seem to indicate that the Victorians were keenly interested in science and science fiction, and indeed the Victorians were! In the century between 1820 and 1920, the world, most notably Europe and America, were transformed irrevocably by scientific advances. The Industrial Revolution, occurring between the twenties and forties, brought numerous inventions and methods of increasing production, just as our own technological revolution has brought massive improvements to computer technology. For us it is the Information Era; for the Victorians it was the Industrial Era. Along with these advancements in the sciences came a new interest in chemistry, anatomy, geology, astronomy, engineering, and other fields of research. Those works of the time which we now call science fiction often reflected that fascination, as in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde or Journey to the Center of the Earth. The characters of Victor Frankenstein and Professor Lidenbrock embody the delight with modern science and a thirst for knowledge which the Victorians possessed in such quantities.
There were some, however, who were less than enthusiastic about these scientific and technological advancements. Appearing on the cusp of the Victorian era, the Romantic poets were the first to voice this displeasure. Wordsmiths such as Coleridge or Wordsworth exhibit a scorn for the smoggy machinations of London and Manchester, lauding instead peaceful copses, awesome mountains, and verdant glades. Mary Shelley was one such writer. While Frankenstein the film may be a gripping thriller, Frankenstein the novel has long, often dull passages describing the glories of nature. Such oppositions to industrialization continued on into the Victorian era proper and were often reflected in the literature of the time. Science fiction in particular was the perfect medium through which authors could explore the era’s conflicting views of science and technology. The mad scientists of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Robert Louis Stevenson all serve as cautionary stories, like the faerie tales of Germany, warning their society that too much of a good thing can have sinister consequences. Victor Frankenstein is the prototype and epitome of this motif: the Faustian man of brilliance, brought low through his blind meddling.
It is a testimony to the timelessness of these concerns that science fiction has so heavily saturated our society even to this day. Now our fascination with the brilliant unknown is embodied in the wonder-filled exploits of the U.S.S. Enterprise and the TARDIS in addition to The Nautilus and the time machine. We explore the Delta Quadrant along with mysterious islands and dormant volcanoes. Our concerns, fears, and doubts are now addressed by the dystopias of Star Trek, Maze Runner, and Mad Max. The scientists of Jurassic Park and Back to the Future typify our Jekylls and Griffins. Our fears of environmental destruction are still alive and well. Now, however, it is not only coal smog we fear, but oil spills, chemical refuse, and nuclear waste. For us lab experiments no longer hold the threat of mutation, but genetically modified foodstuffs and chemical preservatives have created new worries for us. We are even able to clone living creatures now – perhaps Frankenstein’s dilemma of the sanctity of life will be pushed to the front of the table once more.
The genre we now know as science fiction was to the Victorians what it is to us: entertainment; a conduit for our concerns and fears; and tangible evidence of our hopes, aspirations, and wildest dreams.
 “Techno-jargon” refers to a method of scriptwriting used in the Star Trek franchise. In an interview, Jonathan Frakes explained that whenever the writers of the show decided to introduce some scientific concept when, say, the warp core was breeched, rather than pulling an explanation out of their hats they would instead hand the script over to a team of actual scientists with the section marked “TECHNO-JARGON.” These scientists would promptly proceed to pull an explanation out of their hats, but their explanation at least sounded feasible.
 In fact, Wells coined the term “time machine.”