Novel facts: astronomy and fiction’s authority in early 20th century European periodicals

30 September 2021

Adele GuytonUniversity of Leuven

On August 6 2021, the Wiener Zeitung dug into its archives and published an article from 1895 called “Die Welt in Hunderttausend Jahren” (the world in 100,000 years).[1] If it were published today, it would likely raise eyebrows, but as I hope to show in this essay, its quirks are not unusual for European periodicals at the turn of the century. Its author, Ludwig Karell, was a frequent popular science contributor to the Zeitung, yet here he summarises predictions about the future of the Earth, not from a recent astronomical or geological treatise, but from bestselling astronomy writer Camille Flammarion’s 1893 novel La fin du monde.[2] As if to emphasise the factuality of this (fictional) information and avoid the speculation inherent in the future tense, the descriptions of the future are mostly written in the past tense: for instance, the article states that in the thirtieth century, it ‘was already possible to predict the weather as exactly as we today predict a solar or lunar eclipse’.[3]

The authority lent to Flammarion’s fiction here does not seem to be an isolated phenomenon: Will Tattersdill (University of Birmingham) has shown how H. G. Wells’s authority to write on popular scientific topics is rhetorically bolstered in his non-fiction by his status as the writer of scientific romances.[4] In those publications, Wells’s editors, such as W. L. Courtney at the Fortnightly Review, emphasise his creative credentials, and Wells refers to his novels to furnish his non-fiction with examples.[5] Using examples from the popular astronomy of the time, I propose that far from being peculiar to H.G. Wells, the use of fiction to support scientific claims was common to periodicals across Europe.

As the title of La fin du monde might suggest, the turn of the century was obsessed with the end of the world, and popular astronomy in periodicals contributed a great deal to this fervour, using works of fiction to make astronomical projections or speculations more fun to read. Writing for Pearson’s Magazine (London, 1896-1939) in 1900, Herbert C. Fyfe lays out multiple possible endings for the world and eventually invokes none other than H. G. Wells to make       the eventual consequences of “heat death” tangible for his audience.[6] He claims that Wells’s predictions in The Time Machine are credible with the assertion that ‘Mr. Wells has the testimony of science on his side, and has indeed based his assumptions on the learned treatises of […] G. H. Darwin’.[7]

In other articles from the time, the pipeline from astronomical theory to fiction is more obscured. A pair of 1906 articles in Bibliothek der Unterhaltung und des Wissens (Stuttgart, 1876-1962) feature claims from Flammarion that almost certainly stem from La fin du monde, though the link is not made explicit. In one, the end of the world will result from a gigantic comet colliding with the Earth in the twenty-fifth century. In the other, Flammarion, like Wells, predicts adisastrous cooling of the earth. Both of these events feature prominently in Flammarion’s novel, though there the comet is a near miss. However, the fictional source of this information is omitted and its facticity emphasised when one author states that ‘the great French astronomer has calculated’ the comet’s impact, and the other turns to Flammarion’s prophecy after announcing that they will focus on the ‘views of modern scientific theories’.[8]

Finally, fiction is also invoked as a legitimate source of astronomical knowledge in other works of fiction. In George Griffith’s 1900 short story series Stories of Other Worlds in Pearson’s, one character instructs another to ‘get out your moon atlas and your Jules Verne and Flammarion, and study your lunography’ as their spaceship approaches the moon.[9] In a scientifically informed series of stories that later goes to some effort to describe issues such as exit velocity, it stands out that Griffith would invoke Verne of all writers as a source of knowledge about the moon.[10] The later stories in the series also notably invoke La fin du monde without mentioning its fictional status to make points about the ever-cooling future of the solar system.[11]

These examples from a sample of astronomy-related articles in just three periodicals lead me to speculate that for the writers, readers, and editors of popular European periodicals around 1900 it was commonplace to turn to fiction for new knowledge about science – perhaps even to see fiction as a site where contributions to science were made – as the German responses to Flammarion attest. This hypothesis rhymes well with Tattersdill’s conception of the fin de siècle periodical as a space in which science and fiction were able to merge in new ways around a principle of ‘wide-ranging enthusiasm’.[12] It is also significant that such periodicals were advertised for entertainment and education.[13]

I propose that these “fictional citations” deserve further investigation because they point to a broader spectrum of literary knowledge between the scientific ideals of the nineteenth-century novel and the special authority accorded to fiction by the twentieth century avant-garde. Their existence suggests that in popular culture at the dawn of the modernist period, fiction was not just responsive to science but held its own form of authority for audiences fascinated by the science of their day.


Cover image: Camille Flammarion, La Fin du Monde (1894). Source: https://www.hexapolis.com/2015/04/15/a-novel-published-122-years-ago-illustrates-how-people-back-then-envisioned-the-future/

Sources:

[1] Ludwig Karell, ‘Zukunftsvision aus 1895 – Die Welt in hunderttausend Jahren’, Wiener Zeitung (Vienna, 8 June 2021), section Zeitreisen <https://www.wienerzeitung.at/nachrichten/zeitreisen/2115333-Die-Welt-in-hunderttausend-Jahren.html&gt; [accessed 20 August 2021].

[2] First published in English by the Cosmopolitan Publishing Company in 1894 under the title Omega: The Last Days of the World.

[3] Karell. ‘Gegen das 30. Jahrhundert war es schon möglich, das Wetter eben so genau vorher zu bestimmen, wie man heute den Eintritt einer Sonnen- oder Mondesfinsterniß voraussagt.’ All translations from German are mine.

[4] Will Tattersdill, Science, Fiction, and the Fin-de-Siècle Periodical Press, Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 47 <https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781316534724&gt;.

[5] Tattersdill, p. 47.

[6] Heat death refers to the idea that the universe will eventually grow completely cold in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics.

[7] Herbert C. Fyfe, ‘How Will the World End?’, Pearson’s Magazine, July 1900, pp. 87–88.

[8] Anonymous, ‘Das Ende der Erde’, Bibliothek der Unterhaltung und des Wissens, 1906, pp. 222–25 (p. 224). ‘Camille Flammarion, der große französische Astronom, hat berechnet, daß die Erde im 25. Jahrhundert durch einen Zusammenstoß mit einem Kometen untergehen wird.’; Anonymous, ‘Das Ende der Welt’, Bibliothek der Unterhaltung und des Wissens, 1906, pp. 213–16 (p. 214). ‘Wir […] wenden uns der Betrachtung der modernen wissenschaftlichen Theorien zu.’

[9] George Griffith, ‘Stories of Other Worlds: A Visit to the Moon’, Pearson’s Magazine, January 1900 <http://www.forgottenfutures.com/game/ff2/moon.htm&gt;., http://www.forgottenfutures.com/game/ff2/moon.htm [Accessed 13 September 2021].

[10] George Griffith, ‘Stories of Other Worlds: The Planet of the War God’, Pearson’s Magazine, February 1900, n.p., http://www.forgottenfutures.com/game/ff2/mars.htm [Accessed 13 September 2021]; Flammarion was an advocate of lunar life, which while contentious, cannot be considered entirely fictional in 1900. See e.g. Michael J. Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900 : The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds from Kant to Lowell (Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 391-2.

[11] George Griffith, ‘Stories of Other Worlds: The World of The Crystal Cities’, Pearson’s Magazine, June 1900, n.p., http://www.forgottenfutures.com/game/ff2/jupiter.htm [Accessed 13 September 2021].

[12] Tattersdill, pp. 53–61.

[13] Bibliothek der Unterhaltung und des Wissens, for instance, translates as ‘library of entertainment and knowledge’.

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