Entry updated 20 November 2023. Tagged: Theme.
We live in an age of imminent resources crisis, anxiously anticipating the depletion of fossil-fuel reserves even while we become reluctant to rely on Nuclear Energy because of the Pollution problems caused by radioactive wastes and the necessary expense of decommissioning obsolete, contaminated installations. New options rely either on discoveries not yet made – the development of nuclear-fusion reactors, or of more efficient ways to convert solar energy into electricity – or on a political will which governments of all persuasions seem too short-sighted to exercise, as with tidal and wind power. There was, however, little trace of such anxieties in sf published before public concern began to grow; the future scenarios envisaged by early sf writers frequently assumed our energy resources to be potentially infinite.
For most of human history, Machines were worked by three basic power sources: wind, water and muscle. For millennia people used fire as a source of heat and an agent of physical and chemical change without learning how to harness it as an energy source in mechanical work; then the invention of the steam engine precipitated the Industrial Revolution. Sf writers, following in the tracks of countless optimists who had tried to sidestep the problem by inventing "perpetual-motion machines", were only too ready to imagine future revolutions of similarly awesome scope. Electricity was often viewed as a quasimagical animating force, as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831) and Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Los Amigos Fiasco" (December 1892 Idler). In Lord Lytton's The Coming Race (1871) the key to energy-prosperity is vril, a kind of "atmospheric magnetism" administered by a device bearing a suspicious resemblance to a magic wand (a wand waved to considerable effect in The Vril Staff  by XYZ) (see Pseudoscience). Percy Greg's Across the Zodiac (1880) employs the equally mysterious Apergy, which seems to be Antigravity with a seasoning of electrical mysticism; like vril, apergy was borrowed by other writers, including John Jacob Astor in A Journey in Other Worlds (1894), and it is the obvious model for the antigravity devices used in Robert Cromie's A Plunge into Space (1890) and H G Wells's The First Men in the Moon (1901). In Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870; trans 1873) Jules Verne was ready to assume that electrical energy could be drawn from sea water by quasimagical means. This optimistic outlook was boosted by the discovery of X-rays in 1895; for many years thereafter unlimited power was casually generated in sf stories by the invocation of magical Rays. The discovery of radioactivity only a few years later provided yet another jargon: power derived from atomic breakdown, spontaneous or forced. This, of course, turned out to be a real possibility, but its prominence in early sf owes more to convenience than to an assessment of its true potential. Genre SF inherited this considerable jargon and understandably made the most of it. E E "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946) begins when a bathtub coated with "X, the unknown metal" reacts to the appropriate Open Sesame by releasing limitless quantities of "infra-atomic energy" – a moment cruelly parodied by the discovery of the cheese-based "Cheddite" in Harry Harrison's Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers (1973).
Given this confidence in the imminent availability of unlimited power, it is not surprising that the most thoughtful work of speculative writers in the early twentieth century deals with the question of the social responsibility of Scientists making such discoveries. An early Cinema example featuring a monopoly on the world's power supply is the German Algol – Tragedy of Power (1920). Stories of wise men blackmailing the world into peace and social justice for all are common, but much more delicate exercises include Karel Čapek's satire The Absolute at Large (1922; trans 1927) and his surreal "atomic phantasy" Krakatit (1924; trans 1925). The former concerns the "Karburator", which not only releases the energy bound in matter but also the spiritual "power" which went into its creation, generating worldwide Religious fanaticism; a later Satire with a related theme is Romain Gary's The Gasp (1973), in which the energy of immortal souls is harnessed as an industrial power source. Pulp sf celebrated the imminence of what Hugo Gernsback sometimes called the "Age of Power Freedom". Antigravity and wonderful Rays were given carte blanche to defy the conservation laws – a situation encouraged rather than inhibited by the real-life discovery of atomic power, which was for a brief period taken as "proof" that limitless energy was actually available. Jack Williamson's "The Equalizer" (March 1947 Astounding) is a thoughtful attempt to analyse the social consequences of free power for all, resurrecting the vril staff as a literary device. Raymond F Jones's "Noise Level" (December 1952 Astounding) supposes that the only thing standing between science and the discovery of limitless power is the belief of scientists in its impossibility. So convincing was this line of argument to readers of Astounding Science-Fiction that the story gave rise to several sequels, letters and articles criticizing contemporary patent law for its unfair treatment of perpetual motion and its blatant discrimination against discoveries of new fundamental principles in science. This optimism waned rapidly during the 1960s, although Theodore Sturgeon's "Brownshoes" (May 1969 Adam; vt "The Man Who Learned Loving" October 1969 F&SF) is a heartfelt parable about the difficulty of making a gift of perpetual motion to mankind in a world where so many vested interests (e.g., oil companies) would do their utmost to suppress it.
Frank Herbert's The Dragon in the Sea (November 1955-January 1956 Astounding as "Under Pressure"; 1956; vt 21st Century Sub 1956; vt Under Pressure 1974) posited a fuel shortage in future America, alleviated by dangerous submarine missions to pirate Soviet oil reserves from a well Under the Sea that is unknown to the USSR. The dependence of the developed countries on shrinking coal and oil reserves was brought home dramatically from 1973 on by the emergence of OPEC as a political force capable of dictating energy policy to the West. The Politics of energy came to play a major part in many near-future novels, including Frederik Pohl's JEM: The Making of a Utopia (1979) and The Cool War (1981), the latter also being one of several stories to explore the idea of transmitting power in the form of microwaves down to Earth from solar cells mounted on satellites. Far-out variations of solar power include a Time Travel link to tap the energy of the nova which our Sun has become in the Far Future of Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955), and direct extraction of power from the present-day sun via a Time Viewer tuned to its location.
The OPEC-precipitated oil crisis of the 1970s inspired such unlikely projects as the attempt to hijack the Middle-Eastern oilfields by Time Travel in Wolfgang Jeschke's The Last Day of Creation (1981; trans 1982) and the use of exotic living machinery to extract oil in Rory Harper's Alternate-History story Petrogypsies (1989); many Technothrillers are concerned with power sources in one way or another, standard plots often centring either on squabblings between multinational power companies or on the discovery – usually merely as a McGuffin – of new ways of producing energy. Fantasies in which energy sources appear by miraculous fiat, like D G Compton's Ascendancies (1980), acquired a sharp cautionary note.
The dream of attaining atomic power without its attendant inconveniences has led to the sf assumption that cheap power may be extracted from Antimatter (which see) or a variety of imagined ideal fuel metals: Illyrion in Samuel R Delany's Nova (1968; text corrected 1969), "safe uranium" in Walter Tevis's The Steps of the Sun (1983) or "Protonite" in Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept sf/fantasy crossover series (see Science and Sorcery). Power is derived from Parallel Worlds or universes by a semi-mystical route in Robert Heinlein's "Waldo" (August 1942 Astounding) as by Anson MacDonald, from similar sources via "electron pump" in Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves (March/April-May-June 1972 Galaxy; 1972) and from Hyperspace in Iain M Banks's Culture sequence.
The broadcast-power concept originally imagined by Nikola Tesla is driven by Antimatter in Jack Williamson's Seetee Shock (February-April 1949 Astounding; 1950) as by Will Stewart, which builds towards the Utopian "Fifth Freedom" of free broadcast power throughout the solar system. An ancient Martian broadcast-power transceiver is studied in George O Smith's Venus Equilateral story "Lost Art" (December 1943 Astounding), and adapted to draw power directly from the Sun in the sequel "The Long Way" (April 1944 Astounding). Power transmissions appear in many other sf scenarios, for example sustaining the Robot Aliens of Eric Frank Russell's "Mechanistria" (January 1942 Astounding). Robert A Heinlein adds a note of perhaps prophetic concern about such widespread broadcasts' effect on the human nervous system in "Waldo" (August 1942 Astounding) as by Anson MacDonald.
Safe and efficient nuclear fusion power is very frequently assumed in optimistic sf scenarios. Fusion of light elements to generate heavier ones plus excess energy is routinely achieved in the high temperature of the Sun and other Stars: the difficulty for earthbound reactors is not so much attaining the necessary temperature – regularly done on a small-scale experimental basis – as containing the superhot plasma and extracting sufficient energy yield to make the reaction self-sustaining. A barely fictionalized account of 1970s fusion expectations, with magnetically contained deuterium plasma superheated to fusion point in a toroidal containment device, appears in Milton A Rothman's "Fusion" (in Stellar 1, anth 1974, ed Judy-Lynn del Rey). Meanwhile Urban Legends "explain" that clean and cheap or free energy sources are already available but have been suppressed by big business.
A real measure of imaginative fervour with respect to marvellous power sources survives in the matter of Spaceship propulsion, ranging from the solar yachts of Arthur C Clarke's "Sunjammer" (March 1964 Boys' Life; vt "The Wind from the Sun" in The Wind from the Sun, coll 1972), which use the Solar Wind, to the Black-Hole propulsion system for interplanetary vessels in the same author's Imperial Earth (1975) and the "quantum ramdrive" which taps "Planck fluctuations" in space – essentially a free and unlimited energy source – in his The Songs of Distant Earth (June 1958 If; much exp 1986). Particularly grandiose is the "cosmogonic engine" of Ken MacLeod's Learning the World (2005), whose every pulse creates and extracts power from a new universe, a tiny Big Bang. [BS/DRL]
- Matthew Chrulew, editor. Phase Change: Imagining Energy Futures (Yokine, Western Australia: Twelfth Planet Press, 2022) [anth: pb/Perdita Phillips]
previous versions of this entry