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WASHINGTON, DC — Science fiction rose to prominence in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when authors like H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Mary Shelley imagined the extraordinary possibilities of advances in technology and exploration. Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction 1780–1910, on view in the newly renovated Smithsonian Libraries Gallery at the National Museum of American History, centers on this era of change and the dreams both dark and hopeful it inspired.
Curated by Kirsten van der Veen and Doug Dunlop, the exhibition is small, but ambitious. Everything from the laying of the transatlantic cable to the popularity of home aquariums is touched on, with plenty of early robots, airships, and Arctic explorers in between. The emphasis of the exhibition is on books, with some objects from the Smithsonian joining in the busy glass boxes in the dark gallery. It’s a shame there aren’t more of these objects though, as some are just teased in photographs, like an unsettling mechanized “creeping baby doll” from 1871 held by the museum.
A coinciding online exhibition explores the ideas more thoroughly, with better room for text than the gallery walls. Nevertheless, the physical iteration of Fantastic Worlds includes many beautiful and rare books from the Smithsonian Libraries, such as Rudyard Kipling’s 1909 With the Night Mail — set in the year 2000 in a world populated by airships, its deep blue cover showing a dirigible soaring amid the stars — and Thomas Baldwin’s 1875 Airopaidia, which features some of the first aerial illustrations of the Earth.
Arranged in seven sections, including “Age of the Aeronaut” and “Terra Incognita,” Fantastic Worlds compares concrete science to the fiction it influenced. Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, with its reanimated corpse, followed physician Luigi Galvani’s experiments with the “animal electricity” he perceived when his charged scalpel touched a dead frog’s leg and made it kick, and coincided the rise of electrical shocks used for medical treatments in the 19th century. Jules Verne channeled the doomed Franklin expedition to the Arctic in his 1864 The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, although in that tale his fictional crew found a volcano at the North Pole instead of resorting to cannibalism. A few years later, Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea delved into pioneering ocean exploration, with Captain Nemo’s submersible the Nautilus inspired by the author’s viewing of a French submarine at the Paris Exposition of 1867.
Strangely for an exhibition at an institution of US history, much of the work is European, and it would have been interesting to explore how even American writers not generally inclined to write fantasy were experimenting with science fiction narratives. For example, Jack London wrote The Iron Heel (1908), musing on a future United States where democracy had turned to oligarchy, and Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court involved time travel.
However, one of the most fleshed out incidents — the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1885 — was based in New York City. Richard Adams Locke with The Sun newspaper published fictional reports from real British astronomer John Herschel that he had spotted life on the moon, specifically “manbats.” It was intended as satire, but the public loved it so much that, according to the Smithsonian, “the Sun’s owner would not allow Locke to expose the truth.” As an odd footnote, none other than horror and mystery writer Edgar Allan Poe had penned his own moon hoax before The Sun, and was outraged at what he perceived as plagiarism. Like much of Fantastic Worlds, the incident pivots at the intersection of science and fiction, at a time when both fields were looking to a future that would surely be just as wondrous as it was strange.
Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction 1780–1910 from the Smithsonian Libraries continues through February 26, 2017, at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (1 West 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC).