The Science Fiction of Mark Twain Essay - Critical Essays

Mark Twain


Although A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is widely recognized as a pioneering time travel story, few people are aware of the full variety of Mark Twain’s science-fiction writings. He explored almost every facet of the field, including aliens and superbeings, alternate histories, closed universes, extrasensory powers, time travel and alteration of history, future histories, utopias, and unlimited energy.

Never a respecter of standard literary genres, Twain persistently mixes fact and fiction, autobiography and tall tales, and realism and fantasy. He is equally careless in mixing fantasy with what is now called science fiction. He applies the same boundless imagination and inventive gifts to his speculative fiction that he does to his work as a whole. As the stories in this collection demonstrate, his imagination stretches from microscopic worlds to distant-future histories.

Fascinated by science and technology, Twain was himself a dabbler in inventing. His speculative fiction anticipates many real developments, such as coast-to-coast telephones, television, interplanetary travel, nuclear power, and full woman suffrage.

Twain is also deeply concerned with questions about free will, humankind’s place in the universe, and whether God exists. He thus often addresses epistemological questions and explores religious themes, such as those expressed in “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” and “The Secret History of Eddypus, the World-Empire.” His personal disdain for humanity’s significance in the universe finds outlet in stories as different as “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” and “The Great Dark,” whose protagonist is reduced to microscopic size. Questions about freedom and authority also pervade his writings. Fear of the power of established churches, for example, is central to both A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and “The Secret History of Eddypus, the World-Empire.”

Taking into consideration Twain’s more purely fantasy writings—notably his “Mysterious Stranger” stories— there are few ideas in modern science fiction that he did not anticipate in some form. The reason that he is not better known as a science-fiction pioneer is that he left much of his most original science-fiction work unfinished. Much of this material was not published until decades after he died. David Ketterer, the editor of The Science Fiction of Mark Twain, argues that if Twain had published more of this work during his lifetime, his present stature in the field of science fiction would rival that of Jules Verne and Olaf Stapledon.