Reading Bitter Bierce: Bierce and Science Fiction

If you look up some standard reference works on science fiction, you will see a few Bierce tales mentioned. They always mention “Moxon’s Master” (1909), an early robot story, and “That Damned Thing” (1898), an early invisible menace story.

Robert S. Coulson’s entry on Bierce in the James Gunn edited The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction mentions both as well as “The Realm of the Unreal” which I’ve already discussed. 

The Bierce entry, authored by Peter Nichols and John Clute, in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia mentions several weird tales I’ve already discussed using the justification that “the speculative environment they create is often sufficiently displaced to encourage the interest of sf readers”. But they also mention “John Smith Liberator: (From a Newspaper of the Far Future)” aka “John Smith” (1873), “For the Ahkoond” (1888), and “The Ashes of the Beacon: An Historical Monograph Written in 4930” (1905) which is a radical revision of “The Fall of the Republic: An Article from a ‘Court Journal’ of the Thirty-First Century” (1888). I will be talking about all these stories in future posts except “John Smith” and “The Fall of the Republic”, neither of which I’ve gotten my hands on yet.

For now, though, I want to briefly talk about Bierce’s place in science fiction as an editor, critic, cheerleader and, in a sense, imitator.

I will be summarizing the information in Science Fiction in Old San Francisco, Volume 1: History of the Movement From 1854 to 1890 by Sam Moskowitz.Milne

Moskowitz’s book looks at the various writers in California, especially San Francisco, who produced early science fiction and weird tales. The names are mostly obscure now: Noah Brooks, William C. Morrow, Emma Frances Dawson, William Henry Rhodes, Frank Norris, Gertrude Atherton, Gelett Burgress, Nathan Koun, Henry Bigelow, Y. H Addis, Thomas J. Vivian, Arthur McEwan, Frank Bailey Millard, C. D. Willard, Geraldine Bonner, E. C. Clough, Edmund Stuart Roche, Julie Classon Kenly, and, by far the most important and subject of Moskowitz’s follow up volume, Science Fiction in Old San Francisco, Volume II: Into the Sun & Other Stories, Robert Duncan Milne.

The development of fantastic literature in San Francisco magazines and newspapers — and it often featured San Francisco as a setting — started with “The Eventful Nights of August 20th and 21st” by Ferdinand Cartwright Ewer. It was serialized in the October and November 1854 issues of The Pioneer, San Francisco’s first magazine. Moskowitz describes it as a work of occult fiction and awards the designation of the first science fiction story published in San Francisco to Noah Brooks’ “The Diamond Maker of Sacramento” published in the July 1868 issue of Overland Monthly. (In the critical works I’ve read of Moskowitz, he seems very concerned with determining “firsts” in the development of science fiction.)

Bierce, of course, was in California by 1868, but his first piece of fiction, “The Haunted Valley”, published anonymously, didn’t appear until the July 1871 issue of Overland Monthly. Brooks was one of the editor’s of Overland Monthly and Bierce helped another of its early editors, Bret Harte, put out the earlier issues. Bierce contributed poetry and other pieces (and even cartoons, according to Moskowitz) to other California newspapers, but his first editorship was for the News-Letter, a role he assumed in 1868. That magazine was established by Fred Marriot, an immigrant to San Francisco, who had founded the London Illustrated News and edited London’s Morning Chronicle.

But Bierce’s boss also had a keen interest in science. He had patented a steam-driven flying machine in England in 1842. He eventually constructed the machine and formed the Aerial Steam Navigation Company in 1866. He made a couple of successful public demonstrations in 1869. (There is a wiki entry on a Frederick Marriott, not the first time I’ve caught Moskowitz in a relatively minor, but annoying, error.)

Bierce’s job at the News-Letter ended with his marriage in 1871 and departure to England where he stayed until 1875.

Bierce re-enters the California literary scene when he accepts, after circumstances forced him to seek work as a night watchman at the San Francisco’s U.S. Mint, the Associate Editorship of the Argonaut.  The editorial writings of Frank Morrison Pixley, also one of the magazine’s founders, and Bierce were strong stuff. (Moskowitz says “Pixley was unquestionably one of the most trenchant and effective editorial writers of his time, Bierce not excepted.”) Bierce also wanted to publish cultural pieces and fiction in addition to political material. In Moskowitz’s words, Bierce “had no prejudice against a fantastic tale of science, horror, terror or the supernatural.” Moskowitz said the magazine, peculiarly, had a local distribution in the United States but was also sold overseas. However, he makes no attempt to determine its influence on those genres outside of San Francisco.

The first fantastic tale the Argonaut published was “My Little Dog Pickle” by somewhat noted British author George Robert Sims. (It’s about a dog being enabled to speak via hypnosis.) The story appeared in the magazine’s May 19, 1877 issue. Since the magazine had only appeared since March 25, 1877, it shows an early Bierce interest in publishing fantastic fiction.

An early “discovery” of Bierce’s was weird fiction writer Emma Frances Dawson. He waxed enthusiastic about her “Shadowed” in the January 14, 1878 issue. Indeed, Moskowitz says, “All his life Bierce remained her staunch advocate, willingly writing testimonials or introductions to her works.” She had actually, however, first been published anonymously in Overland Monthly in its January 1875 issue.

In 1877, Robert Duncan Milne, alcoholic, remittance man from Scotland, inventor, sheepherder, engineer, literary critic, and writer of what today we might call technothrillers, entered into the picture by submitting to the Argonaut. Milne was to become a longtime friend of Bierce’s. Naturally, the two spent a lot of time in saloons as well as at the office. Milne’s first piece appeared in the magazine’s March 2, 1878 issue. They were pieces, sometimes reminiscences of his days as a cowboy in Mexico, sometimes poems, that were non-fantastical. They sometimes showed the results of his expensive British education, and several seem to have been done very quickly to fill a gap in an issue.

Moskowitz says Milne’s lurch into science fiction is inexplicable. It began with a two-part story, “A Modern Robe of Nessus”, in the February 1st and 9th, 1879 issues of Argonaut. It was the first of nearly 60 works of fantasy and science fiction from Milne according to Moskowitz though the ISFDB entry only lists 28 stories for Milne.

Another writer favored by Bierce was  W. C. Morrow. Moskowitz asserts that for years it was claimed Bierce influenced Morrow’s choice of subject. Specifically, critics made this claim because Morrow’s collection The Ape the Idiot and Other Stories was published after the Bierce collections Tales of Soliders and Civilians and Can Such Things Be?. Moskowitz says that the original publication dates of the stories in those three collections shows Morrow’s work was published first. Argonaut co-founder and editor Fred Somers first published Morrow in the July 5, 1879 issue.

Bierce left the Argonaut in 1880 for his adventure with Boone May. By February 1881, he was back from Dakota Territory and working as a columnist and Associate Editor for The Wasp. In February 1887, he started working as a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. The newspaper was owned by William Randolph Hearst who turns out, in that paper, to have published a fair amount of fantastic literature. Bierce would work for Hearst, at the Examiner and later for Cosmopolitan, until 1909.

From 1887 to 1899, Bierce would write his “Prattle” column for the Examiner. It sometimes commented on fantastical works. He praised W. C. Morrow’s Blood Money. He said he stopped reading H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain midway because he objected to its using Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Xanadu”.

Hearst publications were an outlet for Bierce’s fiction too. I count 14 stories from Can Such Things Be‘s 1910 edition that were published in them.

In 1888, Bierce published his satires, some using the science fictional device of being future narratives, in the Examiner. They were “The Fall of the Republic, An Article from a ‘Court Journal’ of the Thirty=First Century”. It would be so extensively reworked to become “Ashes of the Beacon: An Historical Monograph Writtin in 4930” that Moskowitz says “a special dissertation is needed to deal” with the extant of the revisions. Another satire from 1888 was “The Kingdom of Tortirra”, “Some Account of the People of a Recently Discovered Country”, and “The Tamtonians, Some Account of Politics in the Uncanny Islands”.

During Bierce’s stay at the Examiner, his friend Robert Duncan Milne was working there as a reporter and feature writer as well as producing stories for the paper and other publications. Bierce and Milne both published in another magazine, The Wave.

Moskowitz’s history, because of its emphasis on Milne, winds up with his death in 1899.

Bierce’s championship of Milne and his enthusiasm for science fiction can be seen in his defense, in the December 6, 1891 Examiner, to what he perceived, in oh-so-Bierce fashion, to be an attack on a Milne story by another of Bierce’s friends, John O’Hara Cosgrave, in The Wave:

What under the seven suns does The Waveman mean by finding fault with the conclusion of Mr. Milne’s story , “A Question of Reciprocity”? It is hardly possible to think how it could have ended more impressively. Two warships are fighting, watched by the population of a great city. One has sent an automatically guided torpedo feeling for the other in a fog which has drifted over both and suspended  the battle while concealing them from the multitude on the shore. A dull, thundering sound is heard, the fog clears away, the people strain their eyes seaward. “Far as the eye could reach from Point Bonita to the Farallones, nothing could be seen but one white object, glistening like a swan upon the ocean.” The thing is dramatic inexpressibly! Did my good friend of The Wave wish to gloat upon the shattered hull, the flying masts, the hurtling marines, variously impaired and fitfully surprised by the mischance! Did he want to be shown a flapping and flinging about of tangles of entrails, the sky bombarded with unassorted viscera and the sea splattered and beslubbered by a sparent diffusion of gore! One wouldn’t think him that kind of a man; he doesn’t look it when you see him close to!

So, Bierce hung out with a great many writers of science fiction in California, published and championed some and may, in the case of W. C. Morrow and Milne, have changed the direction of his fiction because of that association. His associations with Marriot indicate an interest in technology echoed by the above quote about Milne.

Comments and corrections are particularly welcome on this posting.

Previous Installments in This Series

Reading Bitter Bierce

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 1

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 2

Reading Bitter Bierce: An Intermission

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Lovecraft Connection

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 1

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 2

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 3

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 4

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 5

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 6

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 8

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