Monday, January 5, 2009

SF authors born 1864-73: 1868

1. John Stewart Barney
2. W.E.B. Du Bois
3. Gaston Leroux


John Stewart Barney (1868-1925)

* L.P.M.: The End of the Great War (Putnam: New York, 1915). John Fulton Edestone (Everett F. Bleiler speculates the name is a portmanteau word for Edison and Firestone) is a millionaire industrialist who has discovered the secret of antigravity: changing the electric charge of atomic particles.

"I have invented an instrument," continued Edestone, "which I call a Deionizer. With this, so far as regards any phenomena of which we are conscious, I am able to change the electrical condition of an object, provided this object is insulated from electrical contact with the earth. That is, I can change it from the so-called minus condition, which is attracted by the earth, to the plus condition, which being the same condition as the earth, is therefore not attracted by it. The object in that state can be said to have no weight, although frankly for some reason which I have not yet discovered it does not lose its inertia against motion in any direction relative to the earth."

Edestone feels strongly about the loss of life in the European war, and incorporates his antigravity device into a thousand-foot-long aerial dreadnought — the Little Peace Maker — capable of traveling 150 mph. German agents work against him, as he campaigns for peace in London; when the Kaiser attempts to steal the L.P.M., Edestone uses it to sink the German fleet, destroy ammunition dumps, and shell Berlin. Now de facto master of the world, Edestone forces the warring nations to disarm. The world — including its religions, economies, and ethnic populations — will from now on be governed rationally by a Board of Directors, with Edestone its chairman.

Gratuitous racism: "I am an American and I am proud of it," says Edestone. "Not because of the great power and wealth of my country, nor of its hundred and odd millions of people made up of the nations of the earth, the sweepings of Europe, the overflow of Asia, and the bag of the slave-hunter of Africa, which centuries will amalgamate into a _cafe au lait_ conglomerate, but because I am proud of that small group of Anglo-Saxons who, under the influence of the free air of our great country, have developed such strength that they have up to this time put the stamp of England upon all who have come in contact with them."


W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, Mass., to a domestic and an itinerant mulatto barber of French extraction. Scholarships from Congregational churches sent him to Fisk University in Nashville, and in 1890 he was the first African American to earn a B.A. in philosophy from Harvard. He wrote a dozen monographs in urban sociology, history, politics, and cultural anthropology, in addition to five novels and three autobiographies. He was the architect of civil rights in the US, founder of the Niagara Movement in 1905 and a co-founder of the NAACP in 1910. Later, he was an architect of pan-Africanism. He was among the first American intellectuals to assert that hyphenated Americans were not cultural contradictions but the embodiment of an enriching diversity.

Du Bois led the way, along with anthropologists Franz Boas and Melville Herskovits, in recovering the major lost civilizations of sub-Saharan Africa, in books such as The Negro and Black Folk Then and Now. Also known for the elitist 1903 "Talented Tenth" essay. In his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois prophesied that the problem of the 20th century would be the color line.

* "The Comet" (Darkwater, Harcourt Brace: New York, 1920). Du Bois' 1920 essay and fiction collection, Darkwater, included a melodramatic SF story, "The Comet." It displays DuBois's view of race as a social construct, a pathological and absurd creation of social forces — and offers a prophetic, if illusive, humanist vision of the world freed from the "veil" (his term) of race. Jim Davis, an African-American bank flunky, is sent to its deepest, flooded vault on an unpleasant errand — while the Earth is passing through the tail of a comet. He ascends again to discover that everyone in New York is dead:
In the great stone doorway a hundred men and women and children lay crushed and twisted and jammed, forced into that great, gaping doorway like refuse in a can — as if in one wild, frantic rush to safety, they had rushed and ground themselves to death.

Jim meets Julia, a wealthy young white woman who'd been shut up in her darkroom when the comet's poison gases swept over the planet:
Yesterday, he thought with bitterness, she would scarcely have looked at him twice. He would have been dirt beneath her silken feet. She stared at him. Of all the sorts of men she had pictured as coming to her rescue she had not dreamed of one like him. Not that he was not human, but he dwelt in a world so far from hers, so infinitely far, that he seldom even entered her thought.

Together, they search the city — including Harlem — for their loved ones, but to no avail. Julia panics:
For the first time she seemed to realize that she was alone in the world with a stranger, with something more than a stranger, — with a man alien in blood and culture— unknown, perhaps unknowable. It was awful! She must escape — she must fly; he must not see her again. Who knew what awful thoughts—

They flee the city together, though. Inchoate utopian fancies, of a truly multiracial society, of which they'd be the Adam and Eve, begin to stir in their fancies:
All nature slept until — until, and quick with the same startling thought, they looked into each other's eyes — he, ashen, and she, crimson, with unspoken thought. To both, the vision of a mighty beauty — of vast, unspoken things, swelled in their souls; but they put it away.

That night — it's a fast-paced tale — Julia has a vision:
She was no mere woman. She was neither high nor low, white nor black, rich nor poor. She was primal woman; mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life. She looked upon the man beside her and forgot all else but his manhood, his strong, vigorous manhood — his sorrow and sacrifice. She saw him glorified. He was no longer a thing apart, a creature below, a strange outcast of another clime and blood, but her Brother Humanity incarnate, Son of God and great All-Father of the race to be.

Even as wealthy white Julia becomes primal, impoverished black Jim becomes royal, in a vision of his own:
Memories of memories stirred to life in the dead recesses of his mind. The shackles seemed to rattle and fall from his soul. Up from the crass and crushing and cringing of his caste leaped the lone majesty of kings long dead. He arose within the shadows, tall, straight, and stern, with power in his eyes and ghostly scepters hovering to his grasp. It was as though some mighty Pharaoh lived again, or curled Assyrian lord.

And then, just as they're about to consummate their new relationship, Julia's father and fiancé return from out of town, along with a crowd of other whites, and "rescue" her; it turns out that only New York was affected by the comet. "Well, what do you think of that?" cried a bystander; "of all New York, just a white girl and a nigger!"

Du Bois' story suggests that more radical measures than piecemeal reform and reluctant gradualism are needed to make America an authentic multicultural democracy.


Gaston Leroux (1868-1927)

Gaston Leroux was a French journalist and author of detective fiction. In the English-speaking world, he is best known for writing the novel The Phantom of the Opera (Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, 1910).

His most important journalism came when he began working as an international correspondent for the Paris newspaper Le Matin. In 1905 he was present at and covered the Russian Revolution. Leroux's contribution to French detective fiction is considered a parallel to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's in the United Kingdom and Edgar Allan Poe's in America.

* Le machine à assassiner (The Machine to Kill, 1924). Benedict Masson has been arrested, tried, and guillotined for a series of torture murders; Christine Norbert caught him burying a corpse in his cellar. Christine's father, a neglected horological genius, has created an artificial mechanical man (dubbed Gabriel) that can pass for a human. His nephew, Jacques Cotentin, a brilliant young surgeon, has equipped it with neural channels and a radioactive serum that will keep it alive. All that is needed is a brain... which is obtained from the guillotined Masson. As the story opens, the automaton has kidnapped Christine; everyone assumes that Masson, now alive in Gabriel, is seeking revenge. It turns out, however, that Masson (who is unable to speak) wants Christine to help him demonstrate his innocence. Sadistic crimes like those for which Masson was executed continue, and the police decide the automaton is committing them.

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