Invention

Tagged: Theme

This thematic topic is closely linked to that of Discovery (which see), but has a considerably broader scope since sf inventions are not necessarily based on brand-new discoveries but can result from a synthesis of existing principles by Scientists, Mad Scientists, or (frequently) a Common Man with a lucky insight. Further entries with substantial discussion of inventions include Edisonade, Imaginary Science, Machines, Power Sources, Prediction, Technology and Transportation. There is also a small subgenre of stories, not all sf, dealing with the life and marvellous inventions of Leonardo da Vinci (whom see).

The invention story was prominent in nineteenth-century sf, notably in the works of Jules Verne, who could almost be said to have invented it. Vernean inventions, particularly of new kinds of transport, were a feature of Dime-Novel SF. Yankee knowhow and inventiveness were carried into the past with Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). (A twentieth-century version of Twain's story, with a more sophisticated view of History, is Lest Darkness Fall [December 1939 Unknown; exp 1941; rev 1949] by L Sprague de Camp.) Edward Everett Hale invented orbital satellites in "The Brick Moon" (October-December 1869 Atlantic Monthly). Later in the century the US inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) became a hero figure; his exploits were much imitated in sf, and his name often borrowed (see Edisonade); some of these stories are also described under Scientists. Rudyard Kipling invented the transatlantic airmail postal service in "With the Night Mail" (November 1905 McClure's; rev 1909 chap). H G Wells invented a huge number of devices – some fantastic, as in The Time Machine (1895), and some realistic, as with the tanks in "The Land Ironclads" (December 1903 Strand) and atomic war in The World Set Free (1914). Samuel Chapman's Doctor Jones' Picnic (1898) features a busy inventor who creates a huge aluminium Balloon and a homoeopathic cure for cancer. The index of Everett F Bleiler's Science-Fiction: The Early Years (1990) lists 134 stories and novels according to their particular inventions, those for "g" being "gasoline substitute, ghost condensor, gravity storage apparatus, gunpowder engine"; other letters of the alphabet produce examples just as eccentric.

The invention story had an especially strong vogue in the early Pulp magazines, where it was equalled in popularity as an sf subject only by the Future-War story and the lost-race story. Examples are: George Allan England's The Golden Blight (18 May-22 June 1912 Cavalier; 1916), in which a gold-disintegrator effects economic revolution; William Wallace Cook's The Eighth Wonder (November 1906-February 1907 Argosy; 1925), in which an eccentric inventor threatens to steal the world's electricity supply with a huge electromagnet; and Garrett P Serviss's The Moon Metal (1900), in which a Matter Transmitter is invented to obtain artemisium, a rare valuable metal, from the Moon.

The years 1900-1930 were largely those of scientific Optimism, and in the pulps Hugo Gernsback was one of its prophets. Before founding Amazing Stories he did well with his magazine Science and Invention, which featured much technological fiction. His own Ralph 124C 41+ (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; fixup 1925) is one of the most celebrated of those novels whose raison d'être is to catalogue the inventions of the future; they include television.

Several generalist magazines such as The Idler and The Red Magazine particularly welcomed tales of inventions. Likewise, the discovery/invention story continued to pop up every now and then outside Genre SF, as in C S Forester's The Peacemaker (1934), in which a pacifist invents a magnetic disrupter which stops machinery; E C Large's Sugar in the Air (1937), in which a process for artificial photosynthesis is discovered; and William Golding's play The Brass Butterfly (1956 as "Envoy Extraordinary"; 1958), in which a brilliant inventor in ancient Greece is given short shrift by his ruler, who sees the new inventions as an unpleasing threat to the status quo. Norman Hunter's The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (coll 1933) and its sequels star the title's scatty Mad Scientist inventor, and the first book's illustrator W Heath Robinson was famed for his many depictions of bizarre though rarely science-fictional gadgets. An idiot-savant inventor, whose Antigravity device (constructed from junk) is incomprehensible to mere Scientists, is central to Lion Miller's "The Available Data on the Worp Reaction" (September 1953 F&SF).

But it was inside genre sf that the invention story found its true home, though tending to become more sombre when the central metaphor of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) – the inventor being destroyed by his creation – was given contemporary relevance by the dropping of the atom bomb over Hiroshima. Even before that, stories featuring Nuclear Energy, such as Lester del Rey's "Nerves" (September 1942 Astounding), had been very much aware of the dangers of such inventions. John W Campbell Jr, both as a writer and as editor of Astounding, was taking a gloomier view of technological advance by the late 1930s, although his own The Mightiest Machine (December 1934-April 1935 Astounding; 1947) had been a jolly romp, featuring the invention of a Spaceship which can take its energy direct from the stars. Campbell's Astounding continued through the 1940s to publish a number of invention stories, in which scientific plausibility was emphasized as never before in genre sf. The results included Robert A Heinlein's "Waldo" (August 1942 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; vt Waldo: Genius in Orbit 1958). This is a gripping, optimistic invention story; the term Waldo is still used today for remote-control devices. George O Smith's Venus Equilateral sequence collected as Venus Equilateral (stories October 1942-November 1945 Astounding; coll of linked stories 1947; exp 1975 UK 2vols; vt The Complete Venus Equilateral 1976) features much inventive work in radio Communications across the solar system. Astounding's invention syndrome was given a boost by James Blish's Okie stories, which feature the Spindizzy, one of the most attractive of all sf inventions; they appeared 1950-1954, and in book form as the first two volumes of the Cities in Flight tetralogy: Earthman, Come Home (April 1950-November 1953 var mags; fixup 1955; cut 1958) and They Shall Have Stars (February 1952 and May 1954 Astounding; fixup 1956; rev vt Year 2018! 1957). Astounding sometimes struck a lighter note vis-à-vis inventions, notably in the 1940s Galloway Gallegher stories by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner). These feature an inventor whose creative faculties are released by the intake of large quantities of alcohol, and his irritating robot sidekick; they were collected as Robots Have No Tails (stories January 1943-April 1948 Astounding; coll of linked stories 1952) as by Kuttner. Meanwhile Astounding's competitors were also featuring lighthearted invention stories alongside the more doom-laden variety. A notable example of the former was the Lancelot Biggs series of Space Operas by Nelson S Bond, which appeared mostly in Fantastic Adventures (1939-1940) and were collected in revised form as Lancelot Biggs: Spaceman (coll of linked stories 1950).

Discovery/invention themes still proliferate in sf, as by the nature of the genre they always will. Important examples from the 1950s onward have been: Fred Hoyle's Ossian's Ride (1959), in which a sinister-seeming cartel has cordoned off southwest Ireland as an invention-producing area; Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Cat's Cradle (1963), in which havoc is wreaked by a newly discovered form of ice (ice-nine) whose melting point is 114.4°F (45.8°C) and which infects and crystallizes any cooler liquid water it touches; Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves (March/April-May-June 1972 Galaxy; 1972), in which a new energy source, the positron pump, is invented with a great show of plausibility; and Bob Shaw's Other Days, Other Eyes (fixup 1972), based on his short story "Light of Other Days" (August 1966 Analog), which features Slow Glass, one of the most convincing and original inventions of sf (it slows down light, thus effectively allowing events to be viewed after a time-lapse; the privacy-invading social consequences of this unusually plausible Time Viewer are intriguingly explored). Arthur C Clarke's Fountains of Paradise (1979), a classically optimistic work of technological invention, envisages the building in a Near-Future Earth of a 36,000km (22,400 mile) tower to be used as a Space Elevator.

A theme anthology collecting many relevant Genre SF stories Science Fiction Inventions (anth 1967) edited by Damon Knight. [PN/DRL]

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.