Futurism and Modernism in Conflict: How Science Fiction Saved the Future

(Quick note: These examples of futurism are provided to give a brief overview of the types of works which reached across from literature to film and are not meant to represent a full accounting of the hundreds of authors and stories that informed the futurist movement between the two wars)

  

     In his seminal work Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Modris Eksteins develops a thesis that World War I is responsible for any number of the modern world ills; from the coarsening of public artistic performance to the emergence of Fascism and in particular the horrors of Nazism. This paper will seek to counter some of Eksteins’s contentions and present a secondary analysis of the cultural climate that grew out of the First World War. Alongside the modernist movement there was a second cultural trend that grew out of the First World War. This trend transcended the modernist penchant for nihilism and sought to put a positive and progressive face on the future. Out of this cultural movement grew much of our modern world, our technology, and our modern idea of human equality. The most important thing this cultural trend brought about is how Western society looks at the future. This was a futurist movement; one in which depictions of the future, while not always perfect, were certainly wreathed with hope. This hopeful and powerful message was almost universally accompanied by an open-minded and progressive social and political message. One in which mankind transcends its childhood and the petty bickering that brought about the Great War. This movement predicted man would inherit the stars if only he embraced his fellow man.

      Eksteins laments the rise of the Nazis and the modernist movement believing the ideas of the modernists “in striving for freedoms… have acquired the power of ultimate destruction”[1]. Eksteins’s view of the world is based on a pessimistic belief that modernism had infected all aspects of society’s cultural and social life blood. This modernism would be the foundation for the changes brought about by the war and lead ultimately to the extremes of fascism. The modernist movement was art meant to challenge traditional morals and free man from the constraints of the prior age. This movement sought to replace the old conservative beliefs utterly even if it meant revolution or even war. The rise to power of Hitler brought about a new wave of modernist thought; one that sought to murder tradition and reform society in his image.  It was a movement that lacked a moral compass and those who embraced it saw themselves above the morals of any age.  Hitler would ride this wave of modernism from the Rites of Spring into the Reichstag and bring with him artistic as well as cultural nihilism. “Nazism was a headlong plunge into the future.”[2] Hitler sought to create a new world and a man of the future. A human being divorced from morals owing allegiance only to the nation. This was the culmination of the modernist idea, a man of tomorrow- the nihilistic superman.

      Where modernism invaded the elite levels of society turning the art world upside down and creating spectacle out of art, and monsters out of men, the futurist movement invaded the more pedestrian levels of society.  The penny dreadful gave way to the pulp novel and anthology industry of the early 1920’s. The futurists were just finding their footing after the war. They found a home in the lurid covers of the pulp magazines displacing the aging Gothic horror stories with tales of ray guns and heroes like Buck Rogers.  These new pulp writers rejected both the conservative ethos of the past and the nihilistic ethos of modernism. Instead they embraced a new moral philosophy. This futurist philosophy envisions a different kind of superman than the modernists. The futurist Overman was a moral paragon. He believed in equality not just between men and women, but between the races. He would assert that there was only one race and that was the human race. These new writers wrote about overcoming the short falls of mankind through the application of his intellect. The futurist movement was even embedding itself in the old guard of science fiction writers. H.G Wells’ tone of writing changed dramatically after the war. Moving away from tales that depicted the morose and dark end of the human race or an island full of subhuman monsters that hinted at the base animal nature of man himself, Wells moved into more upbeat and dramatic stories like The Shape of Things to Come in which the future while at times bleak still holds hope for mankind. This different type of science fiction begins to see the light of day at the movies as well. A host of movies with futurist themes begin to crop up targeted at the middle and lower classes. These movies captured the imagination of the people who viewed them and often changed the way the average person thought about how the future would unfold. The culmination of the futurist movement would be a hope and optimism about man’s future.

     Wells lays out an outline for the futurist movement in the introduction of The Shape of Things to Come. Here he discusses the fact that the world must come to grips with its own power and that the time has come for the world to look at itself as one community of men rather than separate countries. “Steam power, oil power, electric power, the railway, the steamship, the aeroplane, transmission by wire and aerial transmission followed each other very rapidly. They knit together the human species as it had never been knit before.”[3] The very essence of futurism is the idea that the human race is an innovative and technologically advanced people who must stand together and stride forward together into the future. Of course this is a very Utopian idea and even Wells realized it would be an idea that could only be accomplished through an application of force which as a pacifist he abhorred. Thus The Shape of Things to Come becomes a treatise on the application of kindly force. This idea of the force for good that protected civilization against the enemies of tolerance and fellowship became almost ubiquitous in futurist literature and informs such modern genre staples as Star Trek’s Federation.

 

     Even before Wells had a chance to write The Shape of Things to Come the ideas of futurism were infecting the pulp literary scene. Anthony “Buck” Rogers (as he was called in the novel) premiered in 1928 in a pulp publication called Armageddon 2419 AD.  This novel by Francis Phillip Nowlan would be an unwitting blue print for the ideas of futurism. It contains all the tropes associated with the movement. It not only had rayguns, flying packs, and rockets, but it also included social commentary. Social commentary would be the staple that bound together the entire futurist movement. Anthony Rogers was also a new type of man. The character had been a soldier in the Great War. He had become an engineer upon coming home and had been thrust into the future because of an accident in a mine. He was a fish out of water. A character who was used to examine and comment on the social and political customs of the future with little or no reason given for why he was doing this. From his perspective we learn about the future and how that future was different from our own time. This is an important part of the futurist model in the early years and this trope would recur time and again as a descriptive methodology.

 

  The women in Nowlan’s novel particularly Wilma Derring are the equals of any man[4]. This was not just a rehash of the “New Woman” feminist from the Victorian period. Wilma Derring and women in the pulps often not only broke stereotypes they were in fact the heroes. Looking at the pulp novel covers one may think these women are little more than damsels who were in need of saving. That was advertising what the reader discovered inside was often an entirely different story.  In his book Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965, Eric Leif Davin contends that in the 1920s and 1930s women writers in particularly feminists often wrote for the pulp science fiction market and brought in very active and powerful female characters. “In their stories we find women as social reformers, abolishing war, and transforming government and society.”[5] This speaks to both the influence of women in the early futurist movement and the power of their ideology which is a polar opposite of that of modernism. While the contributions of these early female authors would be forgotten and even written out of the history of science fiction during the more conservative 1950s their contribution and humanizing of the genre early on gave the futurist movement a more socially conscious foundation. Strong female characters would persist in the literature of the movement even if they were not translated into visual depictions on the pulp covers or in the movies. 

 

      Besides the feminist overtones these novels also introduced the common science fiction trope of the authoritarian and fascist government that had to be overthrown by the heroes. This could be viewed as a direct assault against the nihilism of the modernist movement. Hitler could have easily fit into the role of any of the dictator type characters that had become a common pulp science fiction trope by the 1930s.  Ming the Merciless who was Flash Gordon’s nemesis was particularly prophetic. While Ming could be seen as a very direct allusion to the “Yellow Menace” his appearance and attitude is much more in keeping with Hitler and Nazism. These villains began to take on even more Nazi like traits in the science fiction serials as the run up to the Second World War began. Wells’s novel The Shape of Things to Come would be translated into film in 1936. It too would prophetically predict the atrocities of men like Hitler, warning the viewer that “If we don’t end war, war will end us.”[6]. 

   Besides the social aspects of the futurist movement, which are important, the main thrust of the movement is the attempt to envision the future. Technological advancements and how these achievements would revolutionize the future is the main aspect which sets it apart from the other social and cultural movements. We know that the plups made everything from rockets to ray guns popular, but it was often the small things that made the most impact on the audiences. Small innovations first visualized from reading about them or seeing them in movies would entrance the public. If in a year or two after seeing or reading about these innovations they were suddenly part of real life the audience became more willing to suspend their disbelief and believe that futurism really did hold the key to the future. Little known today the movie Transatlantic Tunnel featured a host of time saving and entertaining futuristic devices that were merely background props, but would soon become reality. Released in 1935 the movie depicts the building of a railway tunnel under the Atlantic between Great Britain and the United States. The movie features innovation that was unheard of in 1935. Video phones, pocket sized radio phones, live feed global television etc are all seen in the film as a common and unremarkable part of the future[7].  The movie is grounded in such a way that it plays out not as some futuristic epic, but as a time just a few years into the future. The clothing and the sets are familiar to the viewer. These inventions are treated as inevitable eventualities not fantastic creations of an unreachable and unknowable distant future. This is the allure of futurism and this is how it took hold in the minds of average people. They expected the world to conform to this new model. This model allowed the creation of today’s world a world in which progress is inevitable. Futurism provided the modern world with that expectation of the newer better model of ever invention just around the corner.

  
       The futurist movement was not a movement that attracted as much attention as the modernist movement. It was a movement outside of the society elites and spoke directly to the middle class. It crept along quietly infecting the masses with ideas of ray guns, rockets, cell phones, and computers. It was a movement that spoke to the future and offered to people ways to look at society in new and innovative ways. Here was a secret almost furtive movement that became an avalanche. The Futurist movement slowly fulfilled its promises with one technological innovation after another. A man transported in time from 1880 to 1940, a mere 60 years, would barely have been able to fathom the technological changes. These changes were heralded not by the modernists, but by the futurists.  Middle class kids who grew up on Buck Rogers’s pulps and H.G. Wells novels in the 1920s and 1930s became engineers and scientists who made their childhood dreams into reality. The same kids who went to the movies to watch Metropolis and The Transatlantic Tunnel would create technological wonders that rivaled anything they watched on the movie screen. 

These same kids would grow up and face off with the modernist ideology of Hitler and Nazis. World War Two would be the climax in a struggle not just for territory or political power it would be ultimately a struggle between two competing philosophies. These philosophies could not exist in harmony. They were natural enemies in a struggle to tame the future. Modernism rejected the past, but sought to remake the future in a cacophony of violence and disruption. Futurism also sought to throw off the conservative past, but sought a future of progress both technologically and socially. Futurism did not wish to throw away morality it sought a new morality one more humane than what had gone before. This did not mean that the futurist idealist would not fight to protect the future they envisioned. Wells had laid the ground work in The Shape of Things to Come. The future was worth fighting for and it was the futurist movement, born out of the conflict of the First World War, that provided the inspiration for the machines that would eventually end the Second World War, and begin the modern age.

  

End Notes

 

 

1. Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000),14.

2 . ibid, 303.

3.  H.G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come (London: Gollancz, 2011), 22.

4. Philip Francis Nowlan, Armageddon–2419 A.D. (Project Gutenburg.Urbana:University of Illinios, 2010), http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/32530/pg32530.txt (accessed November 30, 2013).

5.Eric Leif Davin, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), 234.

6.  Things to Come, Directed by William Cameron Menzies, 1936 (Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment, 2001), DVD.

7.  Transatlantic Tunnel, Directed by Maurice Elvey, 1935 (Hollywood, Calif: PRS Productions. 2009), DVD.

 

About Jonathan David Baird

Jonathan David Baird has worked as an archaeologist for the past fifteen years throughout the Southeast. He left full-time field work in 2011 to finish graduate school. In 2012 Jonathan received a masters degree in English literature from Fort Hays State University. His focus of study was late Victorian Gothic horror. In 2014 he finished a second masters in American history with a focus on the Frontier. Jonathan is the editor and a major contributor to NukeMars.com and has written for and edited several anthology collections.
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