Fire in the Stone

Jonathan McCalmont reviews Nicholas Ruddick’s The Fire in The Stone – Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel (Wesleyan University Press, 2009)

Read enough reviews, blog posts and criticism and chances are that you will eventually come across an accusation of nostalgia. Recent years have seen conspicuous numbers of genre authors turning their gazes from the future to the past. Sometimes this past is real as in the case of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, sometimes this past is fictitious as in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and sometimes this past is entirely fantastical as in Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters or Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. As techniques associated with alternative history become more and more popular, and the authors deploying these techniques more and more prominent, it was perhaps inevitable that some commentators would spot a cultural sea change.

According to some, the growing popularity of the past marks, not a sudden interest in history, but rather a retreat from it. The argument has it that science fiction has always been in the business of writing about the future. However, facing growing international instability and domestic cultural fragmentation whilst lacking any believable political narrative through which to engage this uncertainty, science fiction has stopped writing about the future in order to dwell on the past. The past is safe, it tells us stuff we already know. It is comforting, it allows us to re-fight old battles that we know we can win. We always get to be on the right side of the argument:

Who knows whether you will have a job in six months’ time? That’s pretty damn scary, so here’s a picture of a clockwork Darth Vader to take your mind off it!

Will America decide to invade Iran thereby plunging the West into a nuclear war that will kill hundreds of thousands and destroy a global economy entirely dependent upon oil? That’s an unpleasant thought, so distract yourself by killing MechaHitler with a Gatling gun!

Links to various articles on the subject of steampunk can be found at the foot of this review.

With style and aesthetics forming such a fundamental part of Steampunk’s appeal, it is tempting to write off the current vogue for alternative histories as harmless fluff in which speculative techniques designed to engage with the world are deployed instead to help readers escape from it into a more comforting and appealing set of fictions based upon old historical certainties. But is backward-looking speculative fiction necessarily about consolation, or can it be used to ask more profound and pressing questions? Nicholas Ruddick’s book The Fire in The Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel goes some way to providing us with an answer.

The primary focus of The Fire in the Stone is to provide a critical history of the prehistoric fiction (PF) genre from its first emergence in Pierre Boitard’s posthumously published Paris Before Man (1861) right up to the release of certain canonical modern works such as William Golding’s The Inheritors (1955) and the Earth’s Children series by Jean Marie Auel, which began with the publication of The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980). Ruddick pursues this focus thanks to the easy access into the topic provided by the book’s two central chapters; the first a strictly chronological account of the genre’s evolution, and the second a thematic examination of that history using a succession of critical lenses including race, gender, language and human nature. It is this second chapter that provides much of The Fire in The Stone’s conceptual fireworks as, though extensively researched and elegantly communicated, the chronological chapter does tend towards dryness simply because, in order to isolate PF’s tropes, Ruddick must make clear the ’family resemblances’ between dozens of different stories.

Ruddick uses the acronym ’PF’ in order to drive home the idea that prehistoric fiction should be understood, not as a subset of historic fiction, but as a part of the speculative genre continuum alongside science fiction, fantasy and horror. The reason for this is that, for Ruddick, the act of telling stories about the unwritten prehistoric past mirrors the act of telling stories about an as yet unwritten future; both are acts of speculation which, though frequently informed by empirical research and the best available thinking, are ultimately reliant upon a bold imaginative leap into the unknowable. It is Ruddick’s analysis of this imaginative leap that allows The Fire in The Stone to provide a major step forward in the way we think about genre.

While The Fire in the Stone’s account of contemporary PF is over-shadowed by two writers (Auel and Golding), the same can also be said of its depiction of early PF. Intriguingly, the writers in question also dominate the landscape of early science fiction. However, where H.G. Wells and Jules Verne are towering and heroic figures in the history of SF, Ruddick presents them very much as the villains of the piece. The reason for this lies in The Fire and The Stone’s central concept: the idea of ’Hominization’.

Hominization is an old idea with intellectual roots stretching back as far as Aristotle’s muddle-headed ideas about foetuses becoming ’ensouled’ forty days after conception. In more modern times, the term has come to signify the process of becoming human. But what is it that does the becoming? Is it an individual, a species, or a branch of a particular phylogenetic tree? In truth, the term is actually quite nebulous and therein lies its theoretical spiciness. The term can apply equally well to attempts by paleoanthopologists to isolate the point at which humans became distinct from pre-human species, to the much more abstract and quasi-moralistic discussions of whether or not Pinocchio is a real boy and, much more sinisterly, to whether members of different ethnic groups are really human. Indeed, if there is a process of becoming human then it follows logically that there must be a process of becoming inhuman, and it is in this area where Wells and Verne cast their ominous shadows.

Ruddick presents Verne as a reactionary Catholic martinet who, upon learning of the work of Darwin, went out of his way to create a counter-narrative that might provide people with reasons for rejecting evolution in favour of the Church-sanctioned creationist theories of the day. Indeed, in 1867 Verne revised Journey to the Centre of the Earth to reflect the possibility that the fossils unearthed by early paleoanthropologists were not the remains of pre-human species but rather those of non-human species that had co-existed with humans in ancient times. However, by 1901, as evidence for the existence of pre-human species began to accumulate, Verne’s strategy began to shift from a narrative of creationist denial to one of racial exceptionalism as The Village in the Treetops drew on the work of Carl Christoph Vogt to suggest that non-white humans were descended from entirely different species of apes. As Ruddick puts it :

’By this new narrative strategy, Verne’s aim was now not so much to deny the antiquity of man as to affirm that the chasm between his own race and people with darker skins was unbridgeable’ [p. 169]

This eerily fascistic viewpoint on early human history is also present in the PF writings of H.G. Wells. ’The Grisly Folk’ (1921) — one of Wells’ last short stories — mirrors the writings of the paleontologist Marcellin Boule by presenting Neanderthals as a savage and atavistic people. As Ruddick puts it:

’The evidence from the earliest PF suggests that Boule’s dehumanization of the Neanderthal was not so much a product of rational deduction as a product of an emotional reaction already thoroughly conditioned by scientific racism.’ [p.160]

While Wells was not alone among PF authors in imagining that modern-day humans are the product of a superior human strain to the extinct Neanderthals, what singles Wells’ fiction out is the genocidal fury that animates his vision. Indeed, ’The Grisly Folk’ is full of talk of ’true men’ having to fight for survival against the stupid, cannibalistic and ogre-like Neanderthals. For Wells, had the Neanderthals not died out it would be necessary for us to expunge them.

Taken together, the PF works of Verne and Wells paint a picture of an early paleoanthropology where scientific thought cohabited with racist superstition and outdated received opinion. Indeed, one of the more fascinating aspects of The Fire in the The Stone is the extent to which the relationship between PF and early paleoanthropology is presented as a two-way street with actual science informing PF just as easily as fictional speculation informed scientific discourse. This blurring of the line between science and outright fiction in the process of Hominization is what makes the concept so fascinating and powerful in the study of genre.

The history of PF and the history of paleoanthropology illustrate a continually evolving conception of human nature. While works such as those of Verne and Wells sought to exclude certain racial and cultural traits as ’inhuman’, later works such as those of Auel and Golding sought to reclaim the previously ’inhuman’. They present not only a more inclusive and generous conception of what it is to be ’one of us’, but also a more tolerant and open-minded attitude to the Other.

Because Hominization is partly a reflection of an author’s cultural values it effectively provides a means for contemporary authors to engage with the world through a fictionalised and speculative past. When Golding and Auel re-invent the Neanderthals as a species whose difference in no way impedes their capacity to generate sympathy, they are not merely writing about Neanderthals but about us. By stressing the importance and desirability of certain traits relative to others in their accounts of human origins, PF authors are presenting these values, not merely as desirable or useful in evolutionary terms, but as central to what it means to be human. And any trait seen as central to the human condition cannot but be placed at the top of a moral and aesthetic hierarchy. For example, when Golding’s The Inheritors describes homo sapiens as ’clever, conflicted, cunning, cruel, corrupt’ and yet strangely sinister when compared to the far more sympathetic Neanderthals, Golding is emphatically rejecting any correlation between evolutionary utility and morality. For Golding, the world is an ugly and terrifying place precisely because the ’wrong’ species survived.

By decoupling Hominization from any notion of objective evolutionary ’progress’ and revealing it to be just as much a question of fashion and individual judgement, Ruddick provides us with a powerful lens through which to observe all kinds of speculative historical fiction. Indeed, if we extend Ruddick’s argument beyond the boundaries of PF then one could argue that all visions of a speculative past — whether they are historical, fictionalised or fantastical in character — depend primarily upon an act of interpretation by the author. This act of interpretation edits and orders the facts of history so as to present an image of a fictionalised past that is all about the values and attitudes of the present. In effect, this act of interpretation asks the same sort of ’What If?’ question as acts of speculation about the future. Indeed, instead of asking ’What if the future is formed by x, y and z?’ writers of speculative historical fiction are asking ’What if x, y and z had formed the past?’. By asking these sorts of questions, writers of speculative historical fiction are taking the values and facts of our world and our history and interrogating them by projecting them against the past.

Thus, far from being seen as a retreat from the real world, works of Steampunk can be understood as attempts to confront the sense of disenchantment that has grown alongside the technological accomplishments of the modern world. Similarly, by asking us to sympathise not with Leibniz or Newton but with the decidedly contemporarily-minded Daniel Waterhouse, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is asking us to dwell on the extent to which matters of social class and religious doctrine might stand in the way of today’s thinkers as they struggle to make sense of the universe. Meanwhile, Whitfield’s In Great Waters follows Golding’s The Inheritors by showing us that, even in a fictionalised past, the savage, ruthless and psychopathically detached would inevitably rise to the top regardless of how humble their origins might have been.

As though to underline his book’s utility to anyone thinking seriously about contemporary science fiction, Ruddick ends The Fire in The Stone with an impassioned coda singing the praises of Stephen Baxter’s novel Evolution. By fictionalising not only the emergence of the human genome but also the extinction of the creature with the last surviving human trait (maternal love), Baxter is demonstrating the profound kinship between PF and SF. As Ruddick so beautifully puts it at the very end of the book:

’It is profoundly in our nature to seek to understand ourselves and our destiny by returning to our mysterious beginnings. And it is always in this hope that we mount our imaginary time machines, fuelled by unquenchable primate curiosity, and vanish into the unknown past or future.’ [p. 205]

This image of a Wellsian time machine disappearing as easily into the past as into the future drives home the book’s message of a profound kinship between speculation about the future and speculation about a past that may or may not have ever existed. Both involve the projection of our values and our beliefs against a human timeframe that can never be completely understood. By speculating about the future and the past we are speculating about ourselves and by speculating about ourselves we are engaging with the world in a way so basic and so profound that it should never be dismissed as mere escapism or nostalgia.

Further reading on the Steampunk debate: