Jess Nevins is on a roll over on io9. He Follows his two articles about pulp (which I recently covered) with one looking at the kind of early science-fiction that could be seen as proto-Steampunk (back when Steampunk seemed like the future). As always, he looks at the classics like Verne, but then digs deeper, dealing with those cashing-in on Verne’s success, and then sprinkles all this with some lesser-known gems.
I was especially struck by this early example, which touches on a few things I’m working on (without the dwarves and flying cows):
1902: In the early pulp Argosy Park Winthrop wrote a six-month-long serial, “The Land of the Central Sun.” Two American couples are on a pleasure cruise to South America when their yacht is blown off-course to Antarctica and trapped in the ice. The couples are rescued from certain death by an enormous zeppelin, the Meteor, which is owned by the suave and friendly Baron Montavo and operated by a crew of telepathic and telekinetic big-headed dwarf geniuses. Montavo takes the Americans to the center of Antarctica, where there is a tunnel leading into the Hollow Earth. Inside the Hollow Earth is the civilization of the telepathic dwarfs who crew the Meteor and a variety of strange animals, including winged cows and flying crocodiles. The dwarfs have an advanced civilization, with high technology (including a variety of zeppelins), and Montavo advises their king, but their oppressed under-class leads a rebellion, and the Americans barely escape.
I’d love to read it, but like a lot of the more obscure stories from this era (especially those serialised in the early pulps but not collected in book form) they are difficult to come by, even though they are public domain, so could be made available for everyone to enjoy, and crop up in overviews of the history of genre writing - TLotCS appears in histories of hollow earth literature, pulps and early science fiction.
I am drawing up a wishlist of public domain books that I want to read which are not currently out there as free eBooks, so I’ll post that at some point in the future in the hope it stirs someone to get scanning.
Anyway, enough of that, back to Mr Nevins:
1908: Louis Boussenard, known in his lifetime as the “French H. Rider Haggard,” wrote a serial “Les Gratteurs de Ciel” (The Sky Scrapers) in the magazine Journal des Voyages – Aventures de Terre et de Mer. “The Sky Scrapers” is about what happens when the teenaged journalist Dicky, known as the “king of the reporters,” discovers that foreign (non-French) powers are building a fleets of war-zeppelins. Dicky tangles with foreign spies and the French air fleet of super-fast atomic powered war-zeppelins fights the enemy fleets in the skies over Paris. Dicky aids the effort with “nuclear grenades.”
1928: Under the pseudonym of “Don Crosby,” pulp writer J. Allan Dunn wrote a series of six stories in the pulp Air Trails about the “young and intrepid inventor and pilot” Ace Ainsworth. In his laboratory on the outskirts of Cosmopolis, Ainsworth creates a variety of technologically-advanced vehicles and weapons. His two main inventions are both air vehicles named Falcon, one a helicopter and one a zeppelin. They are powered by “mysterious magnetic currents that flow between the poles and are cause by the rotation of the earth,” and are armed with “rapid-fire guns of light but efficient caliber.” Ainsworth also carries an “electro-pistol” and while flying wears a pair of goggles whose prisms allow him to see invisible airships. Ainsworth uses the Falcons to fight air pirates, explore the “city of the clouds,” fight high-tech cattle rustlers, and to loot Aztec gold in a remote city inhabited by Lost Race Aztecs.
1931: Pulp writer David H. Keller is best known for his series characters Cecil of Cornwall (a swords-and-sorcery character in Dark Ages Britain) and Taine (a detective with the “San Francisco Secret Service”). One of Taine’s enemies is the evil surgeon and Yellow Peril Wing Loo. In “The Steam Shovel” (Amazing Stories, Sept. 1931) Wing, having fled to Burma, hires out to a local rajah. The rajah is having difficulties getting his slaves to work for him, and is in fact facing a rebellion, so Wing decides to solve this problem for the rajah by transplanting an elephant’s brain into a steam shovel. If it works, huge numbers of artificial slaves could be created. Unfortunately, the operation backfires. The steam shovel kills the rajah and flees into the forest.
I have to say, I love the sound of this:
1931: Francis Van Wyck Mason is better known as a detective and thriller writer; his most famous character was the proto-James Bond Colonel Hugh North, who appeared in 26 novels from 1930 to 1968. Less well known is Mason’s stories for the science fiction pulps. In 1931 he wrote a two-parter for Astounding Stories, “Phalanxes of Atlans.” In the story two America explorers crash-land in the Arctic. One disappears, and the other, while searching for him, comes upon a hidden land kept warm by volcanic activity. The land has two races: the blond and red-headed descendants of the Atlanteans, and the Jarmuthians, who are the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel and who are portrayed in anti-Semitic terms. Both races, who are hostile toward each other, use the volcanic heat of the land to create steam, which powers their technology, including steam tube-cars (which reach 300 miles per hour), steam airships, and guns which shoot compressed steam. Both races also have a variety of dinosaurs, from Tyrannosaurus Rex to pterodactyls, which are used as everything from beasts of burden to war animals. Eventually the Atlanteans and the Jarmuthians fight and the two American explorers, and the Atlantean princess who loves one, escape on the princess’ pet pterodactyl.
And, as luck would have it, I find out I actually already own the story as I downloaded all the Astounding Stories eBooks that Manybooks has and the story is in two parts amongst those available: February and March 1931 - enjoy (Wildside Press offer a paper version, if you are so inclined). Manybooks also have some early copies of Argosy, so there is hope that someone will get around to the later issues.