Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

On being a pedantic old fool

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09-00,WTNM2It’s a sad fact I’m getting too old for this stuff.

No, ok, let me give you a little background on what happened today.
My friend Claire did a piece on her Italian blog, about Kipling’s science fiction stories.
Kipling’s two science fiction stories, meaning of course With the Night Mail and As Simple as ABC.

Which is all good and fine.
OK, Claire has a take that seems to me a little bit too dark on the stories, but apart from that, reading her piece was…

Surprising.

Because Claire is good, has a wide and deep knowledge of English literature and is doing a great series of posts for the Kipling anniversary, but you see, Rudyard Kipling did write quite a bit of science fiction.
According to John Brunner – and he’s pretty knowledgeable on the subject – Kipling did write at least nine science fiction stories.

Indeed, the story I remember the best in the whole Kipling catalog is called A Matter of Fact, and it is a story about three journalists meeting some kind of prehistoric creature, hauled up from the abyss by a volcanic explosion.

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Which, in my book, is something I’d call science fiction, considering it was written in 1893.
And what about the alternate history of The Eye of Allah?TSFSORK1994

And yet, ask around, ask those that are very familiar with Kipling’s production, and they’ll mention only two SF stories – yes, the ones Claire mentioned in her piece.

So, what’s the problem?

I think there are two main reasons why the remaining stories are overlooked, forgotten or simply not considered science fiction.

The first reason is obviously embarrassment.
C’mon, it is Rudyard “Nobel Prize” Kipling we’re talking about… and five of the nine stories singled out by Brunner were published after the Nobel award.
And we all know Nobel-class authors don’t write science fiction.
Hacks, former journos, scientists and engineers and assorted weirdos write science fiction, right?

So, I may be wrong, but I think Kipling’s SF was somewhat pushed in the background, because, you know… it was embarrassing.
Talking animals and espionage on the Northwestern Frontier? Ripping yarns, great for the young’uns!
Airships, radios and future society? Ehm, yes, that too… but what about the double-edged praise/critique of British Imperialism?! And his poetry? Ah! That was great, Nobel-worthy writing!1

diversityThe second reason why, in my opinion, Kipling’s SF is somewhat overlooked comes probably from the fact that while always strongly connected with the developments of the age – airships, radio, the discovery of circadian rhythms and the weird Austrian ideas you can cure loonies by talking to them – Kipling’s approach is always rather soft.
Except for those two stories – With the Night Mail and As Simple as ABC – Kipling is probably closer to, say, Roger Zelazny than to Isaac Asimov.
Even Wireless – about the joys and experiences of a radio enthusiast – focuses on other things than wires and electricity.
And often, to the occasional reader, science fiction means technological novelties: robots, energy beams, starships… airships.
As easy as A, B, C.

But what about a story about doctors putting two depressive patients together as a way to cure their depression?
Is it science fiction?
Of course it is – but it does not feature gadgets.
And that story about radios… c’mon, we all have a radio in our house! It can’t be SF, right?

And these are the reasons why even the best still think of just two stories when Kipling and SF get mentioned in the same phrase.

But as I was saying, I’m getting too old for this stuff.
I’ve been going through Kipling’s SF stories – and a lot of other old proto-steampunk literature – due to my work on the GreyWorld Project.
And it is a well known fact that I am a no-class hack that not only reads, but even has the poor taste of writing science fiction and fantasy.
But this is not a good reason for sending a private message to my friend pointing out her sins, and giving her a short lecture on the subject.
Or for inflicting on you, dear reader, an even longer lecture.
Thus proving myself, once and forever, a pedantic bore.
It’s just the old age.
The biological clock ticking.
Which is, curiously enough, a pretty science-fictional idea Kipling explored in his story Unprofessional, written in 1932.
Well after his Nobel award.
Strange they did not ask him the badge back, what?


  1. don’t make that face… it’s not like this is the only instance of writers being “too good to write SF”… Kurt Vonnegut, anyone? 
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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “On being a pedantic old fool

  1. 😀 I confess: to me it takes airships – or it is not science fiction… You know, don’t you, that I have a strange, morbid kind of SciFiphobia? Well, this gave me food for thought. Expect a post (over at SEdS, to begin with), on my distorted perceptions on the matter…

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  2. Actually I’m the old pedant in the conversation, but am told by my wife (coincidentally enough an Italian American by descent and personal pride) that it’s more than OK: as long as an exit route is available. Incidentally she is also a generation (15 years) younger than this pedant. That sketch for Kipling’s “A Matter of Fact” I hadn’t seen before but it immediately found its place in imagination. Zelazny influenced my early views, perhaps as much as Herbert. As always thanks for the points of arrival and departure.

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