- Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America by Nathaniel Williams
Nathaniel Williams. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2018. 224 pp. $44.95, cloth.
Nathaniel Williams’s Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America is a well-researched study of proto–science fiction. Although the subtitle features Mark Twain’s name, the majority of the book focuses on pulp fictions from the turn of the twentieth century, and only one of the book’s six full-length chapters centers on Twain. Nonetheless, the book will interest readers of this journal and students of American literary history in general. Williams argues that scholars have tended to project contemporary assumptions about science and secularism onto literary history, and he demonstrates convincingly that “too often” science and technology “are presented as opponents” to conservative Christianity “when they have frequently been uneasy allies” (162). While technocratic fictions offer a surprisingly consistent and positive representation of Protestantism, these texts often differ dramatically in their representation of imperialism.
In his introduction, Williams explains that he “want[s] to accomplish two things: a reevaluation of the portrayal of empire that has pervaded earlier, genre-exclusive study of [technocratic exploration dime novels], and a consideration of their role in larger nineteenth-century conversations about science and technology’s impact on religious faith” (5)—two objectives that he decisively meets in the pages that follow. In order to triangulate the three themes of this monograph, (technocracy, religion, and imperialism), Williams presents his study in two parts, “Gears” and “God.” The first part comprises three chapters, the first of which, “Inventing the Technocratic Exploration Tale: God, Gears, and Empire,” explains the key terms of the study clearly and chronicles changing attitudes about science and technology in religious institutions. The invocations of science and technology studies in this and the following chapter appear a little out of date and thin to this reader. For example, the distinction between science and technology is crucial for Williams, though he does not cite Leo Marx, Eric Schatzberg, Ruth Oldenziel, or other authors who think critically about the evolving definitions of technology in this time period. This oversight stands out precisely because other elements of the book are keenly researched and well supported. [End Page 181]
The second chapter, “Building Imperialists: The Steam Man, ‘Used Up’ Man, and Man in the Moon,” was particularly well crafted. Williams draws Washington Irving, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe into conversation with the oft-reprinted Steam Man, first published by Edward S. Ellis as The Steam Man of the Prairies. This juxtaposition breathes new life into readings of both canonical and noncanonical authors, provocatively framing Irving as a writer of proto–science fiction. By drawing innovative parallels among these authors, Williams demonstrates how the theme of advanced technological exploration could underwrite divergent portrayals of empire. Where Ellis promotes a technocratic and imperialistic ideology by suggesting that white inventors could and should subjugate racial others who are presumably lacking in technical know-how, Irving and Wells “force unreflective imperial audiences to imagine themselves as the subjugated other” (31). Poe also writes counter to Ellis; both writers imagine how technology could be used as a prosthetic, particularly in military contexts, but Poe ironizes the idea of technologically justified imperialism through dark humor and body horror. This chapter, like the chapters that follow it, pulls together an expansive archive of different sources to create a fascinating and multidimensional argument. While reading Irving’s A History of New York alongside The Steam Man, for example, this chapter also considers the critical reception of both texts as well as Edward S. Ellis’s broader career. Williams is a master contextualizer whose deep knowledge of his subject matter renders his thematic close reading all the more convincing.
The third chapter, “Imagining Inventors: Frank Reade and Dime-Novel Technocratic Exploration,” was perhaps the most interesting in Gears and God because it blends methodologies: along with the historical contextualization and close reading of previous chapters, “Imagining Inventors” aptly uses distant reading, creating maps and tables...