A Master of our Art

Rudyard Kipling considered as a Science Fiction writer

(by Fred Lerner)

[June 3 2004]

Poul Anderson, a leading American science fiction writer, has these words to say about one of his predecessors: “He is for everyone who responds to vividness, word magic, sheer storytelling. Most readers go on to discover the subtleties and profundities.” His colleague Gordon R. Dickson calls him “a master of our art.” The man they are praising was born in the 19th century and died in the 20th. He wrote of new inventions and future wars, and warned of the social consequences of technological change. And he exerted an immense influence on modern science fiction.

They are not speaking of Jules Verne (1828-1905) or of H.G. Wells (1866-1946). True, both names come immediately to mind when we seek the roots of science fiction. When Hugo Gernsback founded the first real SF magazine in 1926, he filled out the early issues of Amazing Stories with reprints of their stories. The writers who shaped modern science fiction, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A.E. Van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, read Verne and Wells as boys. But today their works have achieved the status of classics: much honored but little read. It was their contemporary Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) who has exerted the most lasting influence on modern science fiction. And it was Rudyard Kipling of whom Poul Anderson says, “His influence pervades modern science fiction and fantasy writing”.

Like Verne and Wells, Kipling wrote stories whose subject-matter is explicitly science-fictional. "With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D." portrays futuristic aviation in a journalistic present-tense that recalls Kipling’s years as a teenaged subeditor on Anglo-Indian newspapers. "The Eye of Allah" deals with the introduction of advanced technology into a mediaeval society that may not be ready for it.

But it is not this explicit use of science and technology in some of his stories that makes Kipling so important to modern science fiction. Many of Kipling’s contemporaries and predecessors wrote scientific fiction. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, Mark Twain and Conan Doyle are among them. Yet echoes of their work are seldom seen in today’s science fiction. Kipling’s appeal to modern readers lies instead in his approach and his technique.

The real subject-matter of Rudyard Kipling’s writing is the world’s work and the men and women and machines who do it. Whether that work be manual or intellectual, creative or administrative, the performance of his work is the most important thing in a person’s life. As Disko Troop says in Captains Courageous, “the most interesting thing in the world is to find out how the next man gets his vittles”.

This is not a view shared by most of 20th-century literature; nor is Kipling’s special sympathy with the work of Empire. This may explain why Rudyard Kipling has received less attention from the literary establishment than his writings deserve. But he was an enormously popular writer, especially among working people. Even to this day he is widely quoted, often by people who would be shocked to learn the source of the colorful expressions they so often use. Today’s science fiction writers find their audience among the same strata of society that in Victoria’s time read Kipling: adults engaged in the shaping of our world and young people exploring what life has to offer.

Kipling’s writing embodies an attitude toward that work that places its satisfactory completion above convenience, desire, and comfort in the scheme of things. This attitude toward work and duty is also characteristic of modern science fiction. It places men and women in the role of creators and maintainers, rather than victims. It prefers exploring the intricacies of the craftsman’s vision to indulging the subtleties of the narrative voice.

This exaltation of work and duty may be unfashionable in literary circles today, but no technological society can flourish without it. Science fiction may not be essential to the survival of Western civilisation; but some literary tradition that embodies its essential attitudes will always accompany humankind on its road to the stars. The influence of Rudyard Kipling will be writ large upon that literature, whatever form it may take, for many years to come.

Kipling faced the same technical problem that the modern science fiction writer faces: the need to make an alien time and place understandable to his audience. Whether the scene be India under the British Raj or Mars under the Solar Federation, the reader needs to know the essential differences in biology, technology, and sociology that govern the characters and their actions. This information needs to be provided without interfering with the narrative. The reader wants a story, not a lesson.

John W Campbell, the magisterial editor who shaped the Golden Age of science fiction, considered Rudyard Kipling the first modern science fiction writer. Kipling, he explained, was the first to go beyond simply providing the reader with the essential background information needed to read his story. He was thinking here of "With the Night Mail". When this pseudo-journalistic account of transatlantic dirigible traffic first appeared in 1905, the text was accompanied by weather advisories, classified advertisements, shipping notices, and a wide range of other snippets intended to suggest that the tale was in fact appearing in a magazine published in 2000. All this stage business was extraneous to the story, strictly speaking; but it did help to establish the setting.

Kipling had learned this trick in India. His original Anglo-Indian readership knew the customs and institutions and landscapes of British India at first hand. But when he began writing for a wider British and American audience, he had to provide his new readers with enough information for them to understand what was going on. In his earliest stories and verse he made liberal use of footnotes, but he evolved more subtle methods as his talent matured. A combination of outright exposition, sparingly used, and contextual clues, generously sprinkled through the narrative, offered the needed background. In Kim and other stories of India he uses King James English to indicate that characters are speaking in Hindustani; this is never explained, but it gets the message across subliminally.

Modern science fiction writers and their readers have become so accustomed to this sort of thing and so dependent on it that it has made much of the genre literally unreadable to many who have not learned its reading protocols. Samuel R Delany has observed that a statement that is meaningless in mimetic fiction (such as “The red sun is high, the blue low”) can be a matter of simple description in science fiction, and a statement that could only be metaphorical (“Her world exploded”) might be meant as literal fact in SF. It is this divergence in the way words are used, rather than any particular exoticism of subject-matter or the use of experimental narrative strategies (here SF is usually very conservative), that separates modern science fiction from the literary mainstream. And all this began with Kipling.

It is certainly a matter of fact that Kipling’s works are immensely popular among SF writers. Allusions to Kipling in story titles and quotations from his verse may be found throughout the genre. Autobiographical essays and story introductions widely acknowledge Kipling as a favorite writer and a major inspiration. David Drake and Sandra Miesel have assembled two anthologies of stories written under the influence of Kipling, accompanied by introductions in which the likes of Poul Anderson, L Sprague de Camp, Joe Haldeman, and Gene Wolfe describe the impact that reading Kipling has had on their own writing. (Heads to the Storm, and A Separate Star: A Science Fiction Tribute to Rudyard Kipling were both published by Baen Books in 1989.)

But the best way to understand why Kipling has exerted so great an influence over modern science fiction is to read his own work. Begin with Kim, the most successful evocation of an alien world ever produced in English. Follow the Grand Trunk Road toward the Northwest Frontier, and watch the parade of cultures that young Kimball O’Hara encounters. Place yourself in his position, that of a half-assimilated stranger in a strange land; and observe carefully the uneven effects of an ancient society’s encounter with a technologically advanced culture. SF writers have found Kim so appealing that several have told their own versions of the story: Robert Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy and Poul Anderson’s The Game of Empire are two of the best.

Then look at Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, two collections of linked stories in which Kipling brings incidents of English history and prehistory to life, both for the children for whom the books were ostensibly written and for their elders. One could classify them as time-travel stories, thus bringing them into the taxonomy of science fiction. But their real relevance lies in the careful evocation of time and place, echoed in so many later stories by other writers who bring a modern observer into direct contact with earlier days.

And by all means read Kipling’s own science fiction stories. Most of these were collected in Kipling’s Science Fiction (New York: Tor Books, 1992), edited by the late John Brunner, a noted British SF writer. But anyone with access to the standard collections of Kipling’s short stories will be able to find them.

Let us consider Kipling’s science fiction stories (in chronological order of initial publication) with particular attention to those aspects that place them in the science fiction category.

"A Matter of Fact" (from Many Inventions, 1893) is a tall tale in which three journalists sailing from Cape Town to Southampton aboard a tramp steamer encounter a dying sea-monster and its mate. Though the monster is vividly described, the story’s emphasis is not so much the creature itself as the journalists’ varying responses to it and to the story that it represents. The American Keller is eager to telegraph a scoop to his paper, while the German Zuyler and the (unnamed) English narrator are hesitant to report the story. Once the three come ashore, Keller is abashed by the stolid antiquity of the England he sees from the train window, and comes to understand that he has not really got a story to tell. The sensationalist American papers, in which “everything goes”, regard it as just one more example of playing the reading public “for suckers”; and the English paper he approaches takes it as an unwelcome practical joke. The narrator tells Keller that his plan is to recount the story as fiction:
“...for Truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behooves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face to the wall and vow that he did not see”.
A journalist himself, Kipling is naturally sensitive to the way in which the public receives and understands the news. As in the later “The Eye of Allah” he explores in this story the implications of bringing a scientific discovery to a public unprepared to deal with it.

"The Ship That Found Herself" (from The Day’s Work, 1898), one of several stories in which Kipling employs the pathetic fallacy, is the story of the Dimbula’s maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York. The primary characters are personifications of the freighter’s component elements or of the environmental forces that act upon her. The ship’s officers appear at the beginning and end of the story, but only as commentators, not as actors. The essence of the story is the melting of all Dimbula’s separate pieces “into one voice, which is the soul of the ship” — which happens when all realise that they have their part to play, and that playing that part is the most important thing that there is.

".007" (from The Day’s Work, 1898) is another venture into the personification of inanimate objects. This time the characters are steam locomotives, entire great machines rather than mere components, and most of them are experienced veterans of Massachusetts railroading. The exception is '.007', whose “red paint was hardly dry on his spotless bumper-bar”. He suffers the disdain of his roundhouse-mates, enjoys the sympathy of “a small, newish switching-engine” called Poney, and by rescuing one of his tormentors from derailment finally earns the respect of his seniors and the status of “full and accepted Brother of the Amalgamated Brotherhood of Locomotives”. Though in outline it resembles a classic school story, the essence of “.007” is Kipling’s fascination for the work of the world, and his respect for the men and women (and machines) who perform it.

"The Army of a Dream" (from Traffics and Discoveries, 1904) is less a story than a tract: an argument for universal military training, starting in childhood. The Narrator encounters his old comrade-in-arms Boy Bayley, now commanding “the Imperial Guard Battalion of the old regiment”. Bayley and his mess-mates spend the afternoon explaining the structure of Britain’s military system, in which “all boys begin physical drill to music in the Board Schools when they’re six” and continue soldiering for decades. It is an all-volunteer army — “But as a little detail we never mention, if we don’t volunteer in some corps or other — as combatants if we’re fit, as non-combatants if we ain’t — till we’re thirty-five — we don’t vote, and we don’t get poor-relief, and the women don’t love us.” (This will sound familiar to readers of Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers, set in a society which restricted citizenship to veterans of military service.) The Narrator sees a competition for admission to the Guard Battalion, and at the end of the day is taken to a park “dotted with boys in and out of uniform, armed and unarmed” to watch their manoeuvres. At the end we learn that all this was indeed a dream.

In ‘Wireless’ (from Traffics and Discoveries, 1904) Kipling captures the excitement of the infant science of radio, and the single-mindedness of the young experimenter. The first-person narrator is visiting a chemist’s shop where the proprietor’s nephew is an avid investigator of “this Marconi business”, and plans to demonstrate this new form of communication. “There’s nothing we shan’t be able to do in ten years”, he exclaims. “I want to live—my God, how I want to live, and see it develop!” But the narrator spends most of the evening with the chemist’s tubercular assistant, who inexplicably begins to recite verses channelled from some source unknown to himself — but quite familiar to our narrator. In parallel with the transmission of Morse across the ether, we share the unconscious communication of a dying lover with the poet who a century before had shared both his emotion and his consumption.

"With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D." (from Actions and Reactions, 1909) and its sequel "As Easy as A.B.C." (from A Diversity of Creatures, 1917) explore the social as well as the technical side of a world economy based on air traffic. Technological change touches human lives, individually as well as collectively, and in these stories we see that ordinary people as well as heroes will be affected by aerial technology and the social structures set up to govern it. "With the Night Mail" is a journalist’s account of a dirigible voyage aboard 'Postal Packet 162', carrying the mails from London to Quebec. The voyage itself is the story: no particular dramatic incident occurs, but that is precisely the point. Transatlantic aerial voyaging is a routine fact of life at the end of the 20th century. Kipling takes great pains to tell the tale as though he were reporting it in 2000 to readers familiar with the technology and sociology of travel: after the title appears in parentheses “Together with extracts from the contemporary magazine in which it appeared”. In "As Easy as A.B.C.", set sixty-five years later, Kipling investigates the nature of a society that might exist in a world of aerial traffic and the 'Aerial Board of Control' that exists to regulate it. But despite their remit to provide for “the planetary traffic…and all that that implies”, the Board members’ primary concern is the investigation of the cardinal sins of 21st-century civilisation: “crowd-making and invasion of privacy”. Against these evils they deploy an armoury of high-technology weapons — and the ingenuity of a music-hall promoter with an eye for a profitable freak-show. (Poul Anderson described “As Easy As A.B.C.” as “a wonderful science fiction yarn, showing the same eye for detail that would later distinguish the work of Robert Heinlein”.)

"In the Same Boat" (from A Diversity of Creatures, 1917) explores the frontiers of psychology. Two physicians discover that each has a patient suffering from paralyzing attacks of depression. Drugs are no use: they may “veil the horror” but cannot prevent its return. Being English physicians, neither even considers the talking cure. Instead the two patients — a young man and a young woman — are sent off together on a series of overnight railway journeys, during which they help one another to discover the prenatal traumas at the root of their afflictions and lend each other the strength to overcome them. (Although Freudian ideas seem to underly this story — The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900 — neither his name nor the word “psychoanalysis” is mentioned.)

"The Eye of Allah" (from Debits and Credits, 1926) deals with the introduction of advanced technology into a mediaeval society that may not be ready for it. In the dining-room of a 13th-century English monastery are gathered lay brother and miniature painter John of Burgos, Abbot Stephen de Sautré and his lady, the abbey’s infirmarian, a visiting physician from Salerno, and a friar of Oxford with a taste for natural philosophy. John has brought back from Spain a small device of “art optic”, with whose aid he has examined the minuscule creatures that inhabit a drop of ditch-water and found models for devils to illuminate the Gospel of Luke. This is science, not magic, and all present know it; but the Abbot, discerning a choice between two sins — “To deny the world a Light which is under our hand, or to enlighten the world before her time” — chooses the lesser evil. "The Eye of Allah" is a specimen in miniature of the “alternate history” story, the tale set in a world estranged from our own by some significant historical event that unfolded differently from our consensus reality. Though in this case the alteration is only hinted at, Kipling manages to recreate convincingly and empathetically the mediaeval attitude toward science and faith.

"Unprofessional" (from Limits and Renewals, 1932) tells of four scientifically inclined friends whose leisure time and financial resources enable them to undertake research meant to understand “on what system this dam’ dynamo of our universe is wound”. Their investigation of the “tides” in living cells discover differences between the behavior of normal and malignant tissue, variations that apparently determined by some external influence. Whether Kipling was anticipating subsequent discoveries about circadian rhythms (as John Brunner suggests) or hinting at a scientific basis for astrology (as J.M.S. Tompkins suggests) is unclear; like “Mrs Bathurst”, this story may have been overenthusiastically subjected to Kipling’s blue pencil.

Science fiction writers know Rudyard Kipling as a tremendously versatile writer, a superb literary craftsman, and an inspiration to those who have chosen to write of people and the work that they do. Heads to the Storm and A Separate Star make this inspiration explicit, but any substantial collection of science fiction and fantasy will inevitably include many stories written under his influence. As any science fiction writer will cheerfully admit, Rudyard Kipling is indeed “a master of our art”.