Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith and Empire in Mark Twain’s America by Nathaniel Williams
The notion that technological and scientific advances of the late-nineteenth century were the basis for a segment of the popular dime novels of the era is hardly surprising, given the present-day proliferation of comic books which continue to adopt new or imagined technologies in service of adventure and the containment of sinister forces. Williams’ text, however, is a genuine eye-opener, a thoroughly-researched and comprehensive immersion in the genre of “Edisonades” which will convince the skeptical scholar that focused attention on these “littery” works is warranted, not only because of their contemporary popularity, but because the tropes and thematic content of these “technocratic exploration tales” mirrored the scientific, political and religious concerns that dominated “serious” contemporary writing and debate, including the work of Mark Twain, particularly in the later years of his authorial career.
Williams provides a meticulous survey of the roots of this form of dime novel entertainment in the proto-science fiction of American writers like Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, proceeding to the flowering of unapologetic examples, such as The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) by Edward Ellis, considered the earliest American science fiction novel. The pattern of the format, the genius boy inventor creating a vehicle powered [End Page 177] by steam or electricity to roam the earth in search of adventure, treasure, lost civilizations and conquest is set by Ellis and rapidly becomes formulaic in the hands of others, notably Luis Philip Senarens, a Cuban-American writer who churned out many examples of this version of pulp fiction with the Anglo-American boy hero Frank Reade, Jr., leading the charge, just as Tom Sawyer would sail his balloon with Huck and Jim across Africa in Twain’s Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894).
Williams’ in-depth analysis of these mass-produced texts makes clear the at times not-so-subtle aims of these mythical ambassadors to the American West and the world at large. Imperialism, as an extension of the American assumption of Manifest Destiny, is readily seen in the battles with those who threaten civilization, notably the Native American in some of the early examples of these works, in which flying protagonists intervene in conflicts around the world to preserve and defend the American prerogative. Along the way, issues of race and religion are dealt with more directly than might be expected, with a general predilection to treat religion as the enemy of progress and simultaneously perpetuate the racial and ethnic stereotypes of post- Civil War United States.
Twain, of course, was fascinated by the new technologies and science revolutions of his time, famously visiting Darwin during a trip to England and maintaining a friendship with Nikola Tesla, inventor of alternating current. His writings often reflect this interest, and Williams has chosen as his focus A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) as the primary (but certainly not exclusive) example of Twain’s parallel interests with the creators of the “technocratic exploration tales.” Although Hank Morgan’s means of transit to a more primitive civilization are decidedly different, he nonetheless embodies the Anglo-Saxon ingenuity and arrogance born of technological know-how that fuels his quest to conquer and re-order Arthurian England, including a direct assault on its religious underpinnings. And, just as the explosive ending underscores the darker and double-edged aspects of technology, Williams notes the ambivalent tone regarding the idea of progress versus technology in the disposable novels that nonetheless shared Twain’s fascination, if not his racial politics or the anti-imperialist attitudes of his later years.
Williams’ book includes extensive notes, bibliography, and index, more than sufficient for the reader who desires a thorough grounding in what the reader will undoubtedly conclude is a vibrant form of American literature whose neglect is, putting it mildly, undeserved. Williams has certainly succeeded in blurring the distinction between serious and recreational literature in Gears and God. [End Page 178]