Edisonade

Tagged: Theme

Daedalus was the first inventor hero, but he was also a bureaucrat; and when he built the Labyrinth he did so as a wage-slave or sharecropper, on hire to the king. For that reason the headword for this entry, which is about the creation of an American dream of freelance heroism, has not been formed from his name. As used here the term "edisonade" or "Edisonade" – which is derived from Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) in the same way that "Robinsonade" is derived from Robinson Crusoe – can be understood to describe any story dating from the late nineteenth century onward and featuring a young US male inventor hero who ingeniously extricates himself from tight spots and who, by so doing, saves himself from defeat and corruption, and his friends and nation from foreign oppressors. The Invention by which he typically accomplishes this feat is not, however, simply a Weapon, though it will almost certainly prove to be invincible against the foe, and may also make the hero's fortune; it is also a means of Transportation – for the edisonade is not only about saving the country (or planet) through personal spunk and native wit, it is also about lighting out for the Territory. Afterwards, once the hero has reaches that virgin strand, he will find yet a further use for his invention: it will serve as a certificate of ownership, for the new Territory will probably be "empty" except for "natives". Magically, the barefoot boy with cheek of tan will discover that he has been made CEO of a compliant world; for a single, revelatory maxim can be discerned fuelling the motor heart of the edisonade: the conviction that to fix is to own.

Daedalus could never, therefore, have starred in an edisonade; he lacks the same final ingredient in the definition – that the hero takes the world he shapes, sometimes literally – whose lack also disqualifies Nikola Tesla, who inspired Weldon J Cobb's To Mars with Tesla, or the Mystery of Hidden Worlds (1901; vt A Trip to Mars; Or the Spur of Adventure 1927), or Hiram Maxim (1840-1916), who inspired George Griffith's The Outlaws of the Air (1895). Though Edison was certainly no more inventive than either of these figures, he differs from them in that he created a public narrative of his life that made him world famous. It is this Edisonian image of the hero inventor – which is by no means a full factual story of Edison's life and career – which may have been used to model some central aspects of the fictional character who seems almost definitively to embody this dream of innocence and conquest: E E "Doc" Smith's Richard Seaton, the inventor-hero of the Skylark series.

Edison's self-invention did not come immediately. In his early years he was a practical professional, a tinkerer of genius, and the inventor (or inspired improver) of a wide range of implements, most of them electrical, from the phonograph to the lightbulb. It was only from the beginning in the 1880s that he transformed himself into an advertisement of genius, the magus of electricity, and only from this point that the mythopoeic power of the Edison name outstripped that of his rivals, no mean publicists themselves. For nearly half a century, the senatorial Sage of Menlo Park waxed ever greater in the public imagination, writing articles, making speeches, chairing commissions, granting oracular interviews whose subject was, very frequently, weapons he claimed to be about to unveil which would make the USA utterly invincible and war impossible. From 1890 he claimed more than once – or those whom he may have hired to ghost some of his articles claimed – to have invented devices of war which did not, in fact, exist outside his imagination, or which had been created by others (perhaps his employees). It may be of interest to note that the language in which these claims were made bore a strong resemblance to the urgent telegraphese Mark Twain fell into whenever he was expounding a technical notion; much of A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1889) is so couched, and the resemblance between the Boss protagonist of that novel, and the self-image that Edison expressed in his writings, is most striking. In his later years Edison was, in short, something of a fraud; he could easily have served as a model when L Frank Baum was creating the Wizard of Oz – and may well have, so pervasive was his presence on the stage of America. But this, one might argue, could be precisely the point. It might be relevant to note that not only are edisonades dreams which come true for the protagonist but that they also embody and justify the shaping fantasies of that protagonist, who is not in the end as innocent as he seems. Like Edison himself, the hero of the edisonade is at some level, conscious or unconscious, an impostor or confidence-man.

The first proto-edisonade was probably the first dime novel (> Dime-Novel SF) to feature a boy inventor, Edward S Ellis's The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868), and the first edisonade proper was the Tom Edison, Jr. sequence of dime novels (1891-1892) by Philip Reade. Young orphan Tom (ostensibly unrelated to Thomas Alva) responds to the challenge of his enemies by inventing a succession of ever more impressive devices, most of which double as weapons and forms of self-propelling transport. In these and other similar tales – most significantly the Frank Reade sequence (mostly by Luis Senarens; > Frank Reade Library, who probably wrote more edisonades than any other individual) – the presence of the US frontier as a barrier to be penetrated is nearly always evident, though sometimes only subliminally. The topological similarity between penetrating a frontier, and gaining knowledge through Conceptual Breakthrough, is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the boys' edisonades written at a time when America's literal frontiers were only just snapping shut – Frederick Jackson Turner's seminal essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", was first delivered at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and then instantly published. A sense of the inherent historical precariousness of the form may have moved Jeff Nevins, in "The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk" (in Steampunk, anth 2008, ed Ann Vandermeer and Jeff VanderMeer), to suggest, intriguingly, that Steampunk was in part created as a counter to the fragile triumphalism paraded in the edisonade. The felt evanescence of that world is also clear in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (2006), an ambivalent lamentation for the closing of the American West (and much more) that begins with an edisonade-influenced sequence in 1893 in Chicago during the Western world's last innocently triumphal exposition.

Oddly enough, however, the first adult novel to make use of Edison was not by an American author at all. Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's L'Ève future (1886; trans as The Eve of the Future 1981; new trans as Tomorrow's Eve 1982) features a character, Thomas Alva Edison, who rescues a handsome young lord, whose fiancée's crassness has cast him into despair, by providing him with an impeccable Android duplicate. Edison the "electrician" is given so significant a role in this tale almost certainly because he had himself in real life toured a walking mechanical woman-shaped doll through France [see further reading below], but more fundamentally because electricity itself had acquired an almost occult significance for late-nineteenth-century romantics like Villiers, who in a sense created a decadent version of the edisonade before any ostensibly adult edisonades had in fact been written. The first non Young Adult-oriented US example did not, in fact, appear for over a decade. It was not until the newspaper publication of Garrett P Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars (6 February-13 March 1898 The Boston Post; 1947), a tale of quite extraordinary thematic clarity, that the native edisonade – in complete ignorance of Villiers' oblique use of the fabulous inventor – took on its mature shape. Written as a direct and consciously American response to the "defeatist" implications of H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898), the tale depicts Edison himself inventing weapons of great power as an unfettered and spunky response to the continuing threat from the external enemies. Armed with a disintegrating weapon and Antigravity, and accompanied by most of the world's best Scientists, Thomas Alva heads to Mars, where he commits triumphant genocide before granting the survivors colonial status. It should be noted that Edison's Inventions and his conquest of Mars are both consequences of the actions of others: he and the America he represents are innocents; they have been forced to respond to a wicked world with all the Trickster effrontery of their native genius; and after their victory they are forced to become owners of what their genius has conquered. Simon Newcomb's His Wisdom, the Defender (1900), J Weldon Cobb's A Trip to Mars; Or the Spur of Adventure (1901) and Hollis Godfrey's The Man Who Ended War (1908) demonstrate the power of Serviss's inspiration, though the tale itself soon disappeared from view, and except for contemporary readers of the evanescent newspaper serial – possibly including both Newcomb and Cobb – remained unavailable until 1947.

Between Serviss and E E Smith, many edisonades repeated the basic story in plots which often represented an American version of the European Future War novel. Three can stand as examples. In J S Barney's L.P.M.: The End of the Great War (1915) a US scientist called Edestone invents enough weapons to defeat the corrupt and aggressive nations of Europe, and to establish a world government; in J U Giesy's All for His Country (1915) a young US inventor's gravity-defying airplane is sufficient to defeat Japanese aggressors; and in Cleveland Langston Moffett's The Conquest of America: A Romance of Disaster and Victory: USA, 1921 AD (1916) Edison himself reappears as a repository of anti-socialist US virtue and the creator of an invention sufficient to see off the aggressive Germans. In all cases, the aggression is from without; the weapons are invented by a free spirit who is not on hire to a corrupt government; and in the end the world is passed into the ownership of innocent Americans who had wished only to be left alone to enjoy their virgin paradise.

This basic story has been an essential shaper of US realpolitik for more than a century, and its manifestations are far broader than those encompassed by the relatively simple edisonade, whose precarious concentration on a tangibly implausible model hero seemed to guarantee its early death as a literary form, though the most famous juvenile edisonade sequence of all – the Tom Swift stories, extending through four series from 1910 into the 1990s – demonstrates how long-lasting and evocative the model has been. But Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C41+ (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; fixup 1925), though constructed around an inventor with Edisonian characteristics, is too focused on the minutiae of Technology, and Ralph himself is too visibly a corporation man, for the tale to entrance the readers its author hoped to educate. And the forty-three Doctor Hackensaw stories (1921-1925) by Clement Fezandié, though amusingly varied in their presentation of the Doctor's scientific feats, seem more an epilogue than a way forward. But at about this time the seemingly moribund edisonade was given some lease of life by Space Opera. E E Smith's Skylark sequence opened up to its kid-inventor-genius and entire Galaxy (for beginners) as playground and estate, provided an infinity of frontiers to penetrate, territories to stumble into and to claim, and entrepreneurial empires to build in all innocence. Though other authors – like Jack Williamson in his Legion of Space sequence from 1934 – wrote within the overall frame of the edisonade, it was the Smithian edisonade, with its inexorable tropism towards the huge sublime, that has remained the central model of the form for entertainment space opera ever since.

It might seem, however, that Genre SF as a whole outgrew the edisonade by about 1940, when John W Campbell Jr's Golden Age of SF was at its height, and for a few years at least it looked as though hillbilly Tricksters with the Touch had become comic turns whose proper place was in the less serious pages of Unknown, and in the light-fingered grasp of such writers as L Sprague de Camp. But a glance at the central male role model promulgated by the core authors of the Golden Age might disabuse readers of this assumption, for the Competent Man is Thomas Alva Edison in sheep's clothing, disguised partly by his genuine proficiency (because writers like Robert A Heinlein were the first sf authors able actually to convey the feel and describe the process of Higher Tinkering) and also by his ability to explain himself: which was the worm in the apple. Being able to explain himself, the Competent Man of the 1940s, as created by Heinlein and his followers, soon began to advocate his line of thought; and as soon as this happened, innocence fled.

As soon as the plucky lad of the primitive edisonade begins to issue mission statements, Frank Reade becomes a flim-flam man or, even worse, a prophet. L Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology is in truth the Church of Edison. The overbearing serial protagonist of Heinlein's later novels is in truth the Sage of Menlo Park after one too many interviews. Only the unexamined edisonade is worth reading – the several protagonists of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (see above) who seem to be embarking on edisonade-shaped careers are in fact victims of a vision of the nineteenth century that locks them into quagmires; and a sophisticated literary sf take, like Stephen Millhauser's "The Wizard of West Orange" (April 2007 Harper's Magazine), may find that no version of the edisonade is ultimately tellable, in this new century. Up to and including E E Smith's protagonists, the heroes of the edisonade never thought of themselves as heroes of an edisonade. Once they do so, the form turns sour, self-serving and entrepreneurial, and we find ourselves in the land of some Hard-SF writers of the 1980s, whose protagonists are never poor, and never lose, and never give; nor would it perhaps be stretching the term too far to find in the ruthless protagonists of much Survivalist Fiction ghostly and solipsistic echoes of the edisonades of a more innocent time when the hero did not have to understand the consequences of his triumphs. Even worse perhaps than a Thomas Alva Edison who doesn't know the score is a Thomas Alva Edison who does. [JC]

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