Frederick Andrew Lerner, D.L.S.
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A Master of Our Art:
Rudyard Kipling Considered as a Science Fiction Writer

by Fred Lerner

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 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.

The legendary editor John Campbell, the man who brought about the Golden Age of science fiction, once explained why he considered Rudyard Kipling the first modern science fiction writer. He was the first to go beyond simply providing the reader with the essential background information needed to read his story. “With the Night Mail” is a pseudo-journalistic account of transatlantic dirigible traffic. In its original magazine appearance in 1905, the text was surrounded with 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 and fantasy stories. This has been made much easier by the publication of Kipling’s Science Fiction and Kipling’s Fantasy. In these two volumes, a noted British SF writer, the late John Brunner, has brought together pieces from the thirty-six volumes of Kipling’s collected works. (Both were published by Tor Books in 1992.)

Among the nine stories in Kipling’s Science Fiction are “With the Night Mail” and its sequel “As Easy as A.B.C.,” which 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.

In “‘Wireless’” Kipling captures the excitement of the infant science of radio, and the single-mindedness of the young experimenter. “There’s nothing we shan’t be able to do in ten years. I want to live—my God, how I want to live, and see it develop!” 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. “The Eye of Allah” explores a future that might have been, from the perspective of a 13th-century abbey. Kipling manages to recreate convincingly and empathetically the mediaeval attitude toward science and faith.

The collection also includes a tall tale about a sea-monster (“A Matter of Fact”), two stories that get inside the soul of great machines (“The Ship That Found Herself” and “.007”), and explorations of the frontiers of psychology (“In the Same Boat”) and medicine (“Unprofessional”).

The variety of Kipling’s Fantasy includes children’s tales from the Just-So Stories (“the Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo”) and Rewards and Fairies (“The Knife and the Naked Chalk”) as well as somber stories like “They” and “The Gardener” that recall the tragedies of Kipling’s own life. In “The Finances of the Gods” and “The Bridge-Builders” Kipling works with the material of Indian legend, while “The House Surgeon” is a very English ghost story. “By Word of Mouth” and “The Children of the Zodiac” recall Kipling’s brushes with death. But the most interesting stories in this collection are “‘The Finest Story in the World’” and “The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat,” two tales that explore that most mysterious of human activities, the act of artistic creation. (If you do not consider a perfectly-crafted hoax the epitome of the creative impulse, you might not like “Village.” If you hold the Art of Getting Even in high esteem, you will find it one of the funniest things you have ever read.)

And there’s more where they came from. Brunner omits “The Brushwood Boy” and “The Army of a Dream,” and no doubt other Kipling enthusiasts will think of additional tales that might have been included. Still, anyone who reads these two books will come away with a good idea of Kipling’s astonishing versatility as well as his prodigious capacities as a storyteller. His stories are set on every continent, and in every time from the days of the cavemen to the 21st century.

Rudyard Kipling is 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.”