Rudyard Kipling Invented SF!

Ever had a moment when somebody else drops an insight on you, and you feel
totally stupid because you had all the facts and all the motivation to generate
it yourself, it was about something you’re expert at, but you
just…didn’t…see…it? And you should have, and you’re damn annoyed with
yourself for missing it?

This happened to me recently. I gave permission for the newletter
of the Libertarian Futurist
to print my essay A Political
History of SF
In it, I wrote:

Heinlein was the first of Campbell’s discoveries and, in the end, the
greatest. It was Heinlein who invented the technique of description by
indirection — the art of describing his future worlds not
through lumps of exposition but by presenting it through the eyes of
his characters, subtly leading the reader to fill in by deduction
large swathes of background that a lesser author would have drawn in

This is pretty much the standard account by historians of the
field. One William H. Stoddard wrote the newsletter editor as
follows. He agrees that Heinlein introduced indirect exposition into
SF, but observes:

In fact, that technique had already been used, several decades
before, in Rudyard Kipling’s two science fiction stories, “With the
Night Mail” and “As Easy as A.B.C.”

Mr. Stoddard goes on to note that Heinlein wrote a number
of Kipling tributes into his own work, most notably in the early scenes of
Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), and to speculate plausibly on
Kipling’s influence on Heinlein.

This is the point at which I slapped my forehead and swore. For,
indeed, I know With the Night Mail well, have reread it
many times, and have described it to friends as an important work of
early proto-SF. I had noticed before that the story prefigures modern
Campbellian and hard SF very exactly in its concerns, its narrative
tone, and its management of information about the imagined future.
And that it could have been written by Heinlein if he had been more than
a child of five in that year; I knew this. But….grrr….I
missed the implications.

You see, I had a perspective problem; my eyes were too modern. I
am so used to reading the idiom of hard SF in our time that until
William Stoddard pointed it out, I was unable to see quite how unique
and pathbreaking With the Night Mail had been in its
time. Once Stoddard woke me up to this point, I immediately realized
that the story was not, as I had previously thought, merely a sort of
historical curio thrown off on the way to modern genre SF, but almost
certainly one of the key steps without which modern genre SF as we
know it would never have existed!

In researching the matter, I discovered an excellent essay by
long-time fan Fred Lerner, A Master of our Art:
Rudyard Kipling considered as a Science Fiction writer
develops this case in detail. Again, little in it was factually new
to me; the biggest surprise is the report that John W. Campbell
regarded Kipling as “the first modern science fiction writer”. But
Lerner draws together well-known facts into a new shape, arguing
effectively that both Campbell (the theorist of modern SF) and
Heinlein (its first great practitioner) both saw themselves as
explorers in a direction first set by Rudyard Kipling.

Having considered the matter, I think the sharpest insight in
Lerner’s essay is his proposition that Kipling invented the technique
of exposition by indirection while writing his India stories; and that
it is in Kim (1901) — that great, warm, wonderful,
sprawling, picaresque novel of the Raj and the Great Game — that
the technique found expression in a form barely distinguishable from the SFnal
use Heinlein and those who followed him would put it to forty years
later. As Lerner himself puts it:

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.

The point to keep bearing in mind (one that I think Lerner doesn’t
emphasize enough) is that this had never been done before.
There is no such subtlety in the contemporary proto-SF of H.G. Wells
(mostly between 1894 and 1907) and Jules Verne (between 1863 and
1905). These authors rely on expository lumps almost as heavily as
did pre-Campbellian genre SF in the 1910s and 1920s — and for
precisely that reason, they seem far more dated than Kim
or With the Night Mail do to an SF fan reading today.

My title exaggerates a little; Kipling did not single-handedly
invent modern SF. But I think we may safely credit him with inventing
the style of exposition that was to become modern SF’s most important
device for managing and conveying information about imaginary futures
and otherwheres. In doing so, he exerted an influence on the style, tone,
and even content of SF that remains pervasive.

Once we understand this, there are some apparently accidental
features of the genre that make a great deal more sense. One is the
degree to which SF and SF-influenced fantasy, essentially alone among
modern genres, carry forward a tradition of high-quality
moral-didactic children’s fiction that can be read with pleasure by
adults. Robert Heinlein’s juveniles and even J.K. Rowling’s
Harry Potter sequence are not just coincidentally like
the Kipling of Kim, Stalky & Co. and
The Jungle Book — they are organically derived from
his work through the technique of indirect exposition.

Another is the persistence of military SF. The similarity between
Kipling’s prose and verse about the North-West Frontier and genre SF’s
frequent celebrations of the military ethos in exotic surroundings is
hardly accidental either. These stories too, are all about indirect
exposition — immersing the reader in a strange and challenging
environment, not by telling but by showing. As I have discussed elsewhere, military SF tends
to have as important subtext an examination of the soldier’s proper
relationship to his society — much as do Kipling’s barrack-room

Lurking behind both these features is SF’s abiding concern with
morality, right living, and humans’ place in the cosmos. Now of course
all literature touches these concerns; but part of the SF tradition is
a tendency to do so in ways that emphasize politics and psychology
rather less, and the inexorableness of natural law rather more.

The archetypal example of this emphasis is Tom Godwin’s classic
The Cold Equations (1954), in which an innocent and likeable
girl stows away on a spaceship and must die — must, in fact, be
killed — because she overstrains the capacity of
the vessel, which is delivering supplies vitally needed to prevent
mass death.

What is this, really, but Rudyard Kipling’s Gods of the Copybook
(1916) in the idiom of the Space Age? Perhaps Kipling’s
most lasting legacy in the content of SF is his insistence
(one expressed hardly ever, if at all, in literary genres other than
SF) that human feeling and social construction cannot override natural
law; that a tough-minded grasp of the way the universe actually works
is both possible and necessary.


  1. Interesting explanation. I can tell I’m going to have to read some Kipling; I hadn’t before last night (I found With the Night Mail online.) One quibble: In The Cold Equations, the stowaway must die because her additional mass would make it impossible for the ship’s engine to change the ship’s vector enough to allow a safe landing.

  2. Good to see you blogging again, ESR!

    This stuff about natural law is interesting. Do you mean it in a Randian way? It would be cool if you could devote a blog entry to it, perhaps…

  3. Thanks very much for the acknowledgment and for the change to read the interesting discussion that resulted from my brief comment. I’m glad my letter was so useful to you!

    On the matter of Kipling’s spiritual outlook as an influence on sf (as opposed to his technical innovation of indirect exposition), I have thought a number of times that his poem “The Hymn of Breaking Strain” has an sfnal quality, not only in its sustained use of an engineering metaphor to say something about the human spirit, but in the lines in the third verse

    “We hold all Earth to plunder,
    All time and space as well,
    Too wonder-stale to wonder
    At each new miracle.”

  4. I have, unfortunately, not read very much of Kipling’s work. I did read part of the Jungle Book when I was younger, and I’ve seen a few of his poems. I was never particularly interested in his work, but I may have to give it another try. Perhaps I’ll like it more now that I’m older.

  5. Kipling’s poems are rather too influenced by Victorian poetical modes to be very appealing to modern tastes. If you really want to give Kipling a try, Jordan, look for some of his short stories about life in India–any good general Kipling anthology or “unabridged” Kipling should have them. Such an anthology might even have the science fiction short stories (and I’ve read “As Easy as A-B-C” so I can attest that they truly are science fiction in style as well as content) Eric talks about above.

  6. Cathy, I love you dearly but on this one I think you are dead wrong. Kipling’s verse still resounds to the modern ear — I can think of at least three filks that are straight Kipling, and when I quote ‘The “Mary Gloster”‘ in my talks the audiences eat it up.

  7. Not much need for dead-tree Kipling, a hell of a lot of it’s out there (including “Night Mail” and “As Easy As ABC”) if you look around. Though I don’t think it’s officially OOC till next year.

  8. “officially OOC”? Surely you jest. Nothing has entered the public domain since WWII, and I’m sure that copyright holders want to keep it that way.

  9. Speaking of The Cold Equations, there’s an excellent page here relating it to UI design – essentially, the girl dies not because of her own stupidity, nor even the inexorability of physics, but rather because of the incompetence of the shuttle designers.

  10. I’m not sure it’s not rather a too narrow take on Kipling to see his poetry as “Victorian”. He was a very widely read man and drew from all over. He was deeply influenced by Horace to give one example: I recall one translator who says his original pieces in Horace’s style are truer to the original than some people’s translations.

    I never know how to pin him down. Just when you think you have him, you wonder if you have. Take a piece like “One View of the Question” from _Many Inventions_. What is he really doing there? Is the narrator a device whereby Kipling is enabled to give an oblique commentary on contemporary London? It’s a tempting thought, but maybe he is just playing with an idea and asking, “What if …?” Well, what would Shafiz Ullah Khan really think? Often I am sure Kipling simply wants to use his art to catch a sensibility, to show it, and not undercut it with an authorial viewpoint.

    I just don’t know. C. S. Lewis has him pegged as an aesthete. I think there’s much in that. Kipling was a man who would polish a sentence again and again. He’s been a fascination to other fine stylists, like Hemingway. And if you can’t see it in his writing, you’ve only to look round his house in Burwash to realize it. Lewis contrasts Kipling with Langland and says that you could show Langland any human activity and he “knew” whether it was “true worship” or “idolatory”. But he thinks there is a vacancy at the heart of Kipling. So there may be a characteristic Kipling way of writing a story that bears certain valuations with it, but if he suited him he could have written the same story from another point of view, or a third one … and sometimes does.

    I hate to cross swords over English literature with someone who held chairs at both Oxford and Cambridge and who’s been described as the best read man of his generation, but I’m not totally convinced by that either. I think Kipling had at least some strongly held beliefs, if not always the ones that casual readers foist on him. Kipling is said to have pulled strings to get his son in the army during the Great War, so I suppose he believed in that. John Kipling died at Loos with the Irish Guards. Kipling wrote:

    “My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew
    What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.”

  11. I can think of at least three filks that are straight Kipling, and when I quote ‘The “Mary Gloster”‘ in my talks the audiences eat it up.

    Whether I’m persuaded depends upon what filks you’re thinking of. It may also make a difference whether you mean the original (i.e., the song being filked) is “straight Kipling” or the filk itself sounds like Kipling. If the former, people usually choose to filk particular songs for two reasons: (1) it’s easy to match new lyrics to the existing words/music, or (2) the lyrics contain a potential for being satirized that is irresistible. Either way, the fact that said poem/lyrics may have been chosen doesn’t necessarily mean that the filker really likes the original as poetry–or even that his audience does.

    As for your audiences’ reaction to “Mary Gloster”, it may well be that your audiences are reacting to the sentiment expressed in your quotation from the poem and not the language of the poem itself. (And is it in fact “Mary Gloster” you mean? I found a copy of it at the following URL and it didn’t sound familiar, either from your road show or otherwise.

  12. The three I was thinking of are “Woad”, “Harp Song of the Dane Women”, and “Rimini” — straight Kipling. Most people who know of it think Kipling wrote “The Bastard King of England”, so that probably counts too.

    And yes, it’s ‘The “Mary Gloster”‘ I’m thinking of. The lines I generally quote are these:

    And they asked me how I did it, and I read ’em the Scripture text
    “You keep your light so shining, a little ahead o’ the next.”
    They copied all they could copy but they couldn’t follow my mind
    And I left them sweating and stealing a year and a half behind.

  13. One thing about _With The Night Mail_. The story is written in the form of a first-person magazine article; the narrator rides with the crew of the airship carrying overnight mail from Britain to Canada. In _Actions and Reactions_, This “article” is embedded in about 20 pages of stuff that might appear in the magazine with it: a book review, official notices from the A.B.C., an advice column, classified ads, and even advertisements with artwork! Enormous fun, and I would like to find out whose idea it was and who worked with Kipling on it.

  14. “Woad” is Kipling? I don’t think so.

    But there’s lots of Kipling sung by filkers, because Leslie Fish is a big time Kipling fan, and has set many of the poems to music. “Danegeld”, “Song from the Men’s Side”, “Boots”, “A Servant When He Reigneth”, “Recessional”, etc.

  15. Interesting observations.

    But isn’t Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus considered science fiction? I thought it was widely considered one of the first sf novels.

    Also, I thought Edgar Allen Poe is credited with writing some stories that are in essence science fiction.

    Kipling’s way of handling exposition does not make his stories science fiction. He was writing about the India of his present time.

    In other words, doesn’t science fiction need to have some science in it?

  16. Behind the curve here. What’s “filking”? And I would cite Balzac in support of an author’s ability to use indirect description before Kipling. He used tons of descriptive passages, too, but only when the story allowed for it. See “The ’93”.

  17. Filking is a form of popular art associated with SF fandom. Originally it referred to folk-song parodies with SFnal lyrics, but nowadays includes a lot of original composition. It is well within the filk tradition to set poetry to music; Kipling is one of the poets for whom this works best.

  18. Kipling as SF?

    It was true then (I was surprised when I read “Night Mail” this year to find that it was a theme that Eric Flint stole in “Peshwar Lancers”) and it’s even more true now.

    In modern SF, both David Drake and S.M. Stirling have stolen directly from Kipling, most notably in their joint series “The General”. More recently, see the early works of John Ringo (esp: his “March to . . .” series), where he quotes directly from Kipling but doesn’t necessarily steal his stories.)

    If you, like ‘Jordan’, were “never much interested in his work”, I refer you to some of his more blood-curdling poetry:

    The Ballad of the King’s Mercy (1889) and The Ballad of the King’s Jest (1890)
    The Grave of the Hundred Head
    What Happened?
    Public Waste
    And especially (one of the stories used by Drake & Stirling) . . . Snarleyow

    Re: Mary Gloster
    Another chiller, and to prove it’s not a one-time theme of Kiplings, read “The Prodigal Son” (The ‘enlarged’ version from “Kim”.

  19. _The Peshawar Lancers_ was Stirling. And yeah, it’s an obvious homage (in part) to the Kipling stuff.

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