Drugs, technology, and capitalism- not yet starring Bradley Cooper

In a 1901 edition of Strand magazine Wells’s the New Accelerator found itself in the same volume as the Hound of the Baskervilles and a series of cute reader-submitted photographs including a guy in a chicken costume, somebody’s dog, and a bird’s nest made over a doorway. In 1926 Wells’s story found itself recontextualized in a magazine which, more than offering fantastically entertaining stories and dog pics, was aimed at a working class with aspirations for upward mobility through technological industries. To read the New Accelerator in Amazing Stories a reader would have to flip past an ad encouraging readers to go into radio -”Short hours. BIG Pay”- and another for the booklet “How to Work Wonders With Words” promising to offer readers the skills necessary to be upwardly mobile among professionals “In 15 Minutes a Day.”

Wells’s story is in this volume not as a curiosity but as a part of an imaginative enterprise which saw technology and technological professions as a way to disrupt the particular orientation towards time produced by wage labor, in this case the technologies of the growing pharmaceutical industry. But the pharmaceutical technology we find in this story does not offer utopia, it in fact furthers the one-dimensionalisation of time. The next step for the story’s professor after making the accelerator is to make a retarder, which allows people to check out of their lives. This choice between intense attention and dissociation operates along the axis of value, some time spent is valuable and some time is not, and the non-productive time is not worth experiencing at all. The accelerator also accelerates the unequal distribution of capital. The accelerator is to be sold at an expensive price, which means that those able to take advantage of its effects would already be those with access to capital. In thinking further about the implications of this story it’s also worth considering the horrific effects of the accelerators and retardants already in circulation in the early 20th century – I’m thinking here of the opioid addicted Freikorps and a Nazi war machine running on little chocolate flavored doses of Meth.

Scientifiction: certainly, definitely not “sex-type” pulp literature

Luckhurst describes Hugo Gernsback’s efforts to legitimate SF in Amazing Stories, where Gernsback distinguishes “scientifiction” as “‘literature which requires more intelligence and even more aesthetic sense that is possessed by the sex-type reading public’” (63).  Why focus on “sex-type”? Perhaps elevating scientifiction is a matter of elevating its content above the belt. 

What entails “sex-type” pulp? Perusing Wonder Stories (which Wikipedia tells me was also founded by Gernsback), one finds sex to be a recurring theme, except it’s mostly located in the back of the issue (much like the porn section of by-gone video rental stores). On page 1327, there is a quiz, entitled “What Is Your Knowledge of Science?” posing reading questions based off the stories in the issue: question eight asks, “What is polyandry? (Page 1245).” The question points the reader to the story employing the term, where women “were seldom beautiful or attractive” and “romantic love [and] strong passion were unknown things” (1245). Perhaps pulp is not “sex-type” as long as the women depicted are not sexy

Nevertheless, Wonder Stories is concerned with sexy sex, at least in the advertisements: “Get a 17 Inch Bicep” (1335); “The Greatest Sin of all is total IGNORANCE of the most important subject in the life of every man and woman–SEX…‘MODERN EUGENICS’” (1336); and in the Classifieds: “LONESOME FOLKS!  Dandy little ladies, desirable gentlemen, everywhere, will marry”; “SWEETHEARTS–do you want one?”; “ESCAPE from your lonely existence. Valuable information free” (1340). Though these items address sexy sex, they are framed in utilitarian terms: big biceps mean physical strength, practical knowledge of sex and access to sex is good eugenics (a wildly fraught term underscoring the undeniable significance of racial coding of sex discourses–let’s talk about this). Perhaps, then, scientifiction is not “sex-type” pulp because even its engagement with sexy sex is in service of serious ends. 

Finally, we can posit that “sex-type” pulp entails references to sex—be it intercourse, sexuality or love—that are not intended to be serious or related to knowledge proper. Therefore, legitimate literature like scientification only discusses sex in relation to philosophical, reproductive, or biological knowledge.  In this context, “The Conquest of Gola” represents a refreshing addition to what appears to be a white male dominated publication. This is precisely the kind of engagement with sex that I would expect from scientifiction: a story of technical mastery that complicates (“queer[s]”?) normative understandings of gender, social hierarchies, and human embodiment. The contextualizing paratext, however, doesn’t read Stone’s “‘queer’” story as seriously as a work of scientifiction presumably should be read since it is a “story that you cannot help but enjoy and chuckle over” (1280). Is it humor or is it critique? Or, perhaps the question of sex, at least in a story that denaturalizes white human male supremacy, shouldn’t be taken seriously after all?

Minding the Gap

While admitting to learning little about the “conveniences” of the “real future,” The Time Traveller (for so it will be polite to speak of him) makes an odd request of his captive audience: “Conceive the tale of London which a negro, fresh from Central Africa, would take back to his tribe!” Is this the role the Time Traveller has taken up in his recounting of this “fantastic and incredible” story? What interests me more, however, is the way the Time Traveller conceives the relation “between a negro and a white man.” While the Time Traveller describes the separation between himself and “those of the Golden Age” using terms that connote time (“wide interval”), the separation between “a negro and a white man” is described more ambiguously as a “narrow gap.”

Even if this supposed gap were infinitesimal, what constitutes it? Does “a negro tribe” in Central Africa not share time, so to speak, with white men in London? Is it possible for “a negro and a white man” to be contemporaries? Or is the suggestion of such contemporaneity a fantastic “interposition of [an] anti-cognitive law into the empirical environment” of a racialized world, making such a suggestion a disqualifier from the SF as a genre (Suvin 375)? Or to put it more bluntly, which is more conceivable a gapless existence between “a negro and a white man” or time travel?

Relatedly, in the Time Traveller’s attempt to explain the difference between Morlocks and Eloi by “proceeding from the problems of our own age,” I did not—contrary to his confidence—”anticipate the shape of [his] theory.” Fully expecting a (more explicitly) racialized understanding of these two groups, I was shocked to hear the Time Traveller theorize their relation as the “social difference between the Capitalist and the Laborer.” This was the “key to [his] whole position.” And while the Time Traveller sees things such as inter-marriage in London as slowing the inevitable gulf between Haves and Have-nots, I am left wondering: what, if anything, can close the gap between “a negro and a white man”?

He rises above cleverness

“The ‘fourth dimension’ is a matter which has troubled many minds,” writes The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record in 1895, “but the hero of this book discovers that it is found in time rather than in space […]” (685). “This account he gives [of his time travel] with all the circumstantial detail which imparts such an air of reality to the wild imaginings of M. Jules Verne.” I have a broad academic interest in discourse around access and accessibility, terms that seem often to drift around (at least non-academic) discussions of science fiction. It certainly seems like early reviewers of The Time Machine (or The Time Traveler) revel in the ways the text makes scientific theories (regardless of their accuracy) feel accessible.

“The style is rapid, unadorned, but admirably clear,” writes a reviewer in the July 27th, 1895 National Observer. “Depicting as he does a scene or series of scenes wholly imaginative, it is extraordinary what effect of realism he manages to get without, as it were, making the slightest effort to deaden our senses with the colouring of words” (327). Adjacent publications for natural histories, books about the colonial exploration of Africa, and language instruction “Handbooks for Tourists, Travelers, and Students” seem to evidence a public hunger not just for adventure narratives, but for narratives that perform a synthesis of thrills and instruction (The Publishers’ Circular Jan-June 1895).

I’m interested in the characterizations of science fiction as making science accessible to a general reading public, but I’m also interested in the way science fiction elides or makes inaccessible scientific ideas. One of the things it seems to me that Wells does, which is enforced by his reviewers, is make some science unspeakable. The two review quotes in The Bookman; a Review of Books and Life (1895-1933) from New York Commercial Advertiser: “[…] No synopsis can give an idea of the graphic and peculiar power of the story” and Boston Times “Nothing we can write can give an idea of this brilliant little book.” Maybe what’s compelling is the license this text gives us not to know.

SF in and beyond the university

Thinking through Guillory’s argument about cultural capital as “distributed” and “regulated” by the school/university in relation to SF specifically, how does the university structure a field of SF in ways that either bestow cultural capital onto non-university-based SF spaces or that “rescue,” elevate, and selectively legitimize certain kinds of SF literacy?

Guillory suggests that “the school…regulates access to literary production by regulating access to literacy, to the practices of reading and writing” (ix). The emphasis on textuality, reading, writing, and the framing of “literacy” as having the proper positionality/tools/posture for cultural consumption, raises the question of which SF objects are primed to be taken up by the school. What hierarchies would emerge within/between different media (novels, movies, TV, fanfic, etc.), and how would those valuations cross over the (hazy) boundary between university SF literacy and non-university SF literacy? Within non-university-based SF communities of readers/viewers/producers, issues of canon, literacy, and being a “real fan” (gatekeeping) are also present. How do these structures get co-opted, refuted, or reconfigured by the university’s claims to arbitrating “linguistic capital” (“the means by which one attains to a socially credentialed and therefore valued speech”) and “symbolic capital” (“a kind of knowledge-capital whose possession can be displayed upon request and which thereby entitles its possessor to the cultural and material rewards of the well-educated person”)?

Guillory argues that “literary works must be seen…as the vector of ideological notions which do not inhere in the works themselves but in the context of their institutional presentation, or more simply, in the way in which they are taught” (ix). Does this weighting of “institutional presentation” lead to a bifurcation between university SF worlds (their texts, preoccupations, modes of reading) and the sites of most SF production/consumption/circulation, each with its own regulations of “literacy”? What relationship would such a bifurcation create/exacerbate between those “literate” in SF within and outside of universities? So many questions (!), but basically I’m interested in how plural systems bestowing cultural capital onto SF changes the cultural field of SF and might lead to contesting fields/SFs.

unschooling with the FRS

What systems outside of the school are out there, and what happens when we read within those systems? What kinds and degrees of capital do the individuals reading within those systems possess before they start reading?

As Bourdieu bluntly puts it, “the educational system [contributes] to the reproduction of the social structure by sanctioning the hereditary transmission of cultural capital” (48). This idea is central to Guillory’s argument—Guillory details builds out the exact nature of the cultural capital Bourdieu identifies within the school (more specifically the university?). According to Guillory, “a literary education” a specific form of knowledge, and in turn cultural capital: a “cultural literacy” that Guillory defines as “the study of [“historical” and “important and significant”] cultural works as a practice of reading and writing,” which is also “the vehicle for critical thought” and ultimately “a relation to culture” (35, 52, 54, 56).

Crucially, the acquisition of cultural capital never happens within a temporal vacuum: students live full lives before they enter the classroom. They carry with them (or lack) what Bourdieu clarifies as “the best hidden and socially most determinant educational investment, namely, the domestic transmission of cultural capital” (48). Therefore, education is never merely “functionalist,” as “educational qualifications . . . are never entirely separate from their holders” (58). By this same principle, “academic qualification” confers “institutional recognition on the cultural capital [already] possessed by any individual” (51).

In 2020 SF is read in the school—by students—according to the framework above. But where else? And by who else? Following Lamont and Lareau, I want to call reading SF specifically in the school one practice, and reading it elsewhere a different kind(s) of practice(s). But of course, to study the many different kinds of practices available to an individual that incorporate reading SF, we must not just think strictly in terms of systems, but also, as Lamont and Lareau argue, “reconstruct the code prevailing in [the individual’s] environment in its entirety—a most difficult task” (157).

Mostly joking here, but maybe one (tiny) way in to one system (from last week): Hugo Gernsback, F.R.S.

Reception research: starting points

Reception and circulation in their broadest senses leave traces all over the historical record, but the richest medium for reception history is the periodical. Magazines and newspapers that take note of fiction are a good place to look for responses to particular stories or books as well broader discussion of writers or trends.

Big nineteenth-century periodicals databases have some coverage into the early twentieth century:

After that, things get trickier. Some major newspapers’ twentieth-century runs are available digitally in ProQuest Historical Newspapers, for example:

All of these, of course, regularly review books and cover literature from their distinctive positions. With some fiddling you can do a search across all of these at once from the ProQuest Database Select page. Many other magazines and periodicals are included there or in other big databases. As you get closer to the present, current-news databases start to capture some periodicals of interest. Start from the Libraries’ master database list or search the catalogue for particular titles.

One magazine is a particularly useful resource for US reception history: Publisher’s Weekly. We have access to a digitization of (almost) the whole run. Issues are served page-by-page (there’s no index to individual articles).

Gale’s Book Review Index is much less useful than one would hope but it is worth a try. Also from Gale is the Literature Resource Center, which is a grab-bag of digitized reference works and usually not very useful except as a basic biographical reference, but occasionally something interesting turns up.

JSTOR is focused on scholarly journals but of course scholarly reception is reception too, and often scholarship supplies information or references about circulation and reception.

Digitized versions of individual bound volumes of periodicals can be searched in HathiTrust if you can locate them. There is no simple way to search across the whole run of a periodical or across multiple texts.

But you can take the problem from the other end and do a full-text search of the whole HathiTrust database. That is the richest search of books as well as a way to catch the kinds of periodicals that ended up getting scanned as bound volumes. A full-text search of HathiTrust for a book title or author name is likely to yield many many false hits, but if you can find ways to narrow down (by publication date, etc.) you can often find likely possibilities. Then if you are lucky you will be able to see some or all of the book in question. HathiTrust and the increasingly tumbleweed-strewn Google Books overlap largely but not entirely, and Google will offer you previews of many copyright books that HathiTrust hides. For that matter, an ordinary Google web search often turns up things that no other technique will.

More specialized SF resources

(This list is largely the work of Suzanne Boswell.)

  • Pulp Magazines Project: We will make considerable use of this database of digitized early-twentieth-century pulps early on in the semester. When it comes to reception, try looking a few issues after the publication of a story to see whether reader letters or editorial comment registers a response.

  • The Internet Speculative Fiction Database: Remarkable bibliographic database of science fiction (aimed at fans and collectors). Particularly useful for tracing reprinting histories. Often links to cover images as well.

  • fanac.org: This site is devoted to the preservation and distribution of information about science fiction and science fiction fandom. It hosts a large archive of digitized fanzines, as well as reports on conventions. Authors’ appearances in the archive are indexed in the name cross-reference.

  • Locus magazine reviews: a major review outlet for SF, starting in 1968, with reviews available online from 1997. Scans of earlier reviews ought to be requestable by interlibrary loan.

  • Fanlore: a wiki about fandom, written by fans; not exclusively about SF. Significant coverage of SF awards (Hugos, Nebulas), fandom controversies old and new, etc.

  • File 770: a long-running fanzine which Suzanne suggests as a particular rich resource for contemporary fandom.


As in all digitized searching, it is very important not to overinterpret the presence or absence of search results in itself. You need some kind of comparative baseline in order to assert that something was popular or was ignored in some segment of the field.

Wells’s early circulation

As a first foray into reception and circulation, spend some time on the following documents related to The Time Machine. Do not read exhaustively here; skim strategically. At the same time, try to look around the periodical contexts for some of the items below.


Consider the periodical contexts of initial publication by browsing around some of the parts of the two serial publications leading to The Time Machine:

Edinburgh National Observer version

The British Periodicals database has scans of this earliest version of the novel:

  1. Time Traveling: Possibility or Paradox?” (March 17, 1894)
  2. The Time Machine” (March 24)
  3. A.D. 12,203: A Glimpse of the Future” (March 31)
  4. The Refinement of Humanity: A.D. 12,203” (April 21)
  5. The Sunset of Mankind” (April 28)
  6. In the Underworld” (May 19)
  7. The Time Traveler Returns” (June 23)

New Review version

This revised serialization is bizarrely inaccessible in the British Periodicals database, but the HathiTrust database of book scans gives us images:

First book versions

The first book edition was Heinemann’s, published in 1895; HathiTrust has a scan. The first American edition was issued by Henry Holt; again a scan is on HathiTrust. Most other book versions in HathiTrust are barred by copyright restrictions.

Further note, 9/17/20. An important catalogue-searching lesson: sometimes texts are published under other titles. Also available in HathiTrust is the 1924 republication of The Time Machine in The Works of H.G. Wells: Atlantic Edition, vol. 1 (London: Fisher Unwin, 1924); this is the version with reorganized chapters that is found in many reprints. Wells supplied a preface with some interesting remarks.


Two publishers’ ads for the book:

  1. A Heinemann announcement, London Publishers’ Circular, April 27, 1895: 1. Look for Wells twice.

  2. A Holt ad in the New York Bookman 1, no. 6 (July 1895): advertising supplement.


National Observer, July 27, 1895: 327.

Publishers’ Circular, June 22, 1895: 685.

Israel Zangwill, “Without Prejudice,” Pall Mall Magazine 7, no. 29 (September 1895): 153–55. Skim.

New Writers,” Bookman 8, no. 47 (August 1895): 134–35. Not a review but a profile.