[Editor: These comments originally appeared on Eric Raymond’s blog on December 2, 2005, in detailed response to Bill Stoddard’s letter printed on page 15 of this issue. With Raymond’s gracious permission I hereby reprint his entire remarks.]
Ever had a moment when somebody else drops an insight on you, and you feel totally stupid because you had all the facts and all the motivation to generate it yourself, it was about something you’re expert at, but you just…didn’t…see…it? And you should have, and you’re damn annoyed with yourself for missing it?
This happened to me recently. I gave permission for the newletter of the Libertarian Futurist Society to print my essay “A Political History of SF.” In it, I wrote:
Heinlein was the first of Campbell’s discoveries and, in the end, the greatest. It was Heinlein who invented the technique of description by indirection—the art of describing his future worlds not through lumps of exposition but by presenting it through the eyes of his characters, subtly leading the reader to fill in by deduction large swathes of background that a lesser author would have drawn in detail.
This is pretty much the standard account by historians of the field. One William H. Stoddard wrote the newsletter editor as follows. He agrees that Heinlein introduced indirect exposition into SF, but observes:
In fact, that technique had already been used, several decades before, in Rudyard Kipling’s two science fiction stories, “With the Night Mail” and “As Easy as A.B.C.”
Mr. Stoddard goes on to note that Heinlein wrote a number of Kipling tributes into his own work, most notably in the early scenes of Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), and to speculate plausibly on Kipling’s influence on Heinlein.
This is the point at which I slapped my forehead and swore. For, indeed, I know “With the Night Mail” well, have reread it many times, and have described it to friends as an important work of early proto-SF. I had noticed before that the story prefigures modern Campbellian and hard SF very exactly in its concerns, its narrative tone, and its management of information about the imagined future. And that it could have been written by Heinlein if he had been more than a child of five in that year; I knew this. But….grrr….I missed the implications.
You see, I had a perspective problem; my eyes were too modern. I am so used to reading the idiom of hard SF in our time that until William Stoddard pointed it out, I was unable to see quite how unique and pathbreaking “With the Night Mail” had been in its time. Once Stoddard woke me up to this point, I immediately realized that the story was not, as I had previously thought, merely a sort of historical curio thrown off on the way to modern genre SF, but almost certainly one of the key steps without which modern genre SF as we know it would never have existed!
In researching the matter, I discovered an excellent essay by long-time fan Fred Lerner, “A Master of our Art: Rudyard Kipling,” considered as a science fiction writer which develops this case in detail. Again, little in it was factually new to me; the biggest surprise is the report that John W. Campbell regarded Kipling as “the first modern science fiction writer.” But Lerner draws together well-known facts into a new shape, arguing effectively that both Campbell (the theorist of modern SF) and Heinlein (its first great practitioner) both saw themselves as explorers in a direction first set by Rudyard Kipling.
Having considered the matter, I think the sharpest insight in Lerner’s essay is his proposition that Kipling invented the technique of exposition by indirection while writing his India stories; and that it is in Kim (1901)—that great, warm, wonderful, sprawling, picaresque novel of the Raj and the Great Game— that the technique found expression in a form barely distinguishable from the SFnal use Heinlein and those who followed him would put it to forty years later. As Lerner himself puts it:
Kipling had learned this trick in India. His original Anglo-Indian readership knew the customs and institutions and landscapes of British India at first hand. But when he began writing for a wider British and American audience, he had to provide his new readers with enough information for them to understand what was going on. In his earliest stories and verse he made liberal use of footnotes, but he evolved more subtle methods as his talent matured. A combination of outright exposition, sparingly used, and contextual clues, generously sprinkled through the narrative, offered the needed background. In Kim and other stories of India he uses King James English to indicate that characters are speaking in Hindustani; this is never explained, but it gets the message across subliminally.
The point to keep bearing in mind (one that I think Lerner doesn’t emphasize enough) is that this had never been done before. There is no such subtlety in the contemporary proto-SF of H.G. Wells (mostly between 1894 and 1907) and Jules Verne (between 1863 and 1905). These authors rely on expository lumps almost as heavily as did pre-Campbellian genre SF in the 1910s and 1920s—and for precisely that reason, they seem far more dated than Kim or “With the Night Mail” do to an SF fan reading today.
My title exaggerates a little; Kipling did not single-handedly invent modern SF. But I think we may safely credit him with inventing the style of exposition that was to become modern SF’s most important device for managing and conveying information about imaginary futures and otherwheres. In doing so, he exerted an influence on the style, tone, and even content of SF that remains pervasive.
Once we understand this, there are some apparently accidental features of the genre that make a great deal more sense. One is the degree to which SF and SF-influenced fantasy, essentially alone among modern genres, carry forward a tradition of high-quality moral-didactic children’s fiction that can be read with pleasure by adults. Robert Heinlein’s juveniles and even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter sequence are not just coincidentally like the Kipling of Kim, Stalky & Co. and The Jungle Book—they are organically derived from his work through the technique of indirect exposition.
Another is the persistence of military SF. The similarity between Kipling’s prose and verse about the North-West Frontier and genre SF’s frequent celebrations of the military ethos in exotic surroundings is hardly accidental either. These stories too, are all about indirect exposition—immersing the reader in a strange and challenging environment, not by telling but by showing. As I have discussed elsewhere, military SF tends to have as important subtext an examination of the soldier’s proper relationship to his society—much as do Kipling’s barrack-room ballads.
Lurking behind both these features is SF’s abiding concern with morality, right living, and humans’ place in the cosmos. Now of course all literature touches these concerns; but part of the SF tradition is a tendency to do so in ways that emphasize politics and psychology rather less, and the inexorableness of natural law rather more.
The archetypal example of this emphasis is Tom Godwin’s classic The Cold Equations (1954), in which an innocent and likeable girl stows away on a spaceship and must die — must, in fact, be killed — because she overstrains the capacity of the vessel, which is delivering supplies vitally needed to prevent mass death.
What is this, really, but Rudyard Kipling’s Gods of the Copybook Headings (1916) in the idiom of the Space Age? Perhaps Kipling’s most lasting legacy in the content of SF is his insistence (one expressed hardly ever, if at all, in literary genres other than SF) that human feeling and social construction cannot override natural law; that a tough-minded grasp of the way the universe actually works is both possible and necessary.
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