Monday, April 13, 2009

Astounding news!




This was the headline on the front page of the New York Sun on April 13, 1844. The article below it described, in great detail, an amazing variation on a hot-air balloon invented by the well-known balloonist Monck Mason. Using a propeller, Mason was able to lead his balloon, full of riders, across the Atlantic Ocean in an impressively-fast 75 hours. This discovery would have marked an epic moment in trans-Atlantic flight, which suddenly made the world seem a little smaller and a little more accessible... as the article states: "The air, as well as the earth and the ocean, has been subdued by science." The article sums up:

This is unquestionably the most stupendous, the most interesting, and the most important undertaking, ever accomplished or even attempted by man. What magnificent events may ensue, it would be useless now to think of determining.

...If only the story were true.

Known today as "The Balloon-Hoax," Edgar A. Poe made quite a sensation with his "news" story, only a few months after his relocation to New York. Excited readers in the city demanded to know more, and copies of the newspaper quickly sold out. In fact, those who didn't get a copy "besieged" the newspaper offices and demanded more be printed. "I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper," Poe wrote. His hoax had certainly made a hit.

That's not to say everyone was taken in by the hoax. It was spoofed only a day later in the Mercury, under the headline "Astounding Intelligence from the Man on the Moon." Some critics pointed out how suspicious it was to already have an image of the balloon in New York — that's some quick turn-over time in making an engraving, if the balloon had only landed in Charleston, South Carolina, just four days before publication. Poe was sure to let readers know it was all a fake within a couple of days. But Poe proved something important: he was capable of writing impossible ideas with perfect plausibility. Scholars and critics today think "The Balloon-Hoax" falls under the category of "tales of ratiocination," the early form of detective fiction which Poe invented. More importantly, however, the story is an early form of what would become known as "modern science fiction."

Early forms of sci-fi prior to Poe were not interested in presenting plausible stories. Read Frankenstein (1818), for example, and you are not given a recipe for creating a living creature out of dead people — quite the opposite, in fact. In Poe's story, however, he gives you all the details: he gave the names of everyone involved (some were real people, including novelist William Harrison Ainsworth), the balloon's exact size (13' 6" x 6' 8", filled with 320 cubic feet of gas), the materials which were used to build it, and even included snippets of the journal which Mason kept during the travel.

What denotes Poe's science fiction, then, is its emphasis on science rather than fiction. Other sci-fi works by Poe (which you've probably never read!) include "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" (1835), "Mellonta Tauta" (1840), "Mesmeric Revelation" (1844), and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845). Arguments have been made for several others, including "A Descent into the Maelstrom" (1841) and, of course, Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848). Another example that Poe is much more than a writer of scary stories!


Amateur Reader said...

Those slackers at the Library of America omitted the engraving - thanks for posting it.

I wonder if Ainsworth's inclusion in the party has some particular meaning. Poe pretty well shellacs Ainsworth in his reviews. Classic tomahawking.

Rob Velella said...

Good question about Ainsworth. I think Poe was going for someone who was popular, but also someone who was believable as a passenger aboard the balloon. I also think it has something to do with what Poe thought of Ainsworth's writing, which he believed appealed to low, popular tastes - like the general newspaper-reading public?

Gina said...

Eat your heart out, Orson Welles. :-)