I read a lot of old science fiction. I don’t know why, but I have a great affection for that pulpy, early 20th Century fantasy and SF. I re-read A Princess of Mars recently, Burroughs seminal first novel, and frankly, it seemed modern (the fact that I read it on my iPhone using the Stanza app may have helped). But they’re making a movie of it now, and it feels like it could be the next Lord of the Rings.
I don’t know, perhaps there is an innocence in that material, or an optimism. Or maybe the patterns were being set back then, and much modern stuff is just … variations on a pattern. I always want to go back to the real thing and experience whatever it was that got everybody so excited in the first place. So I’m drawn to early science fiction.
To tip the hat to that early optimism, here’s an article I recently found on Futility Closet, a cool site about various oddities here and there:
‘Martians Build Two Immense Canals in Two Years.’
How’s that for a headline? It ran in the New York Times Sunday magazine on Aug. 27, 1911:
Canals a thousand miles long and twenty miles wide are simply beyond our comprehension. Even though we are aware of the fact that â€¦ a rock which here weighs one hundred pounds would there only weigh thirty-eight pounds, engineering operations being in consequence less arduous than here, yet we can scarcely imagine the inhabitants of Mars capable of accomplishing this Herculean task within the short interval of two years.
The Times was relying on Percival Lowell, who was convinced that a dying Martian civilization was struggling to reach the planet’s ice caps. “The whole thing is wonderfully clear-cut,” he’d told the newspaper â€” but he was already largely ostracized by skeptical colleagues who couldn’t duplicate his findings. The “spokes” he later saw on Venus may have been blood vessels in his own eye.
Whatever his shortcomings, Lowell’s passions led to some significant accomplishments, including Lowell Observatory and the discovery of Pluto 14 years after his death. “Science,” wrote Emerson, “does not know its debt to imagination.”