Thirty years ago (COVID-19 time) on May 1, I posted an article in which I explained why a film many view as a Hollywood musical is really a science fiction film. Today, on November 30, I’ll explain why one of Mark Twain’s novels is also a science fiction novel, and for the same reason.
Mark Twain, the pen name for Samuel Longhorne Clemens, was born in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1835. Best known for the novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, some of his work, at both novel a short story length, dabbled in the tropes common to speculative fiction. Perhaps most famous of these is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a novel that sends the title character back in time and which formed a template for L. Sprague de Camp’s later Lest Darkness Fall. Other Twain works which are clearly part of the genre include the short stories “Mental Telegraphy,” “Shackleford’s Ghost,” and “Extract from Captain Stormfields Visit to Heaven,” all of which, along with several other stories, were collected in The Science Fiction of Mark Twain, edited by David Ketterer and published by Archon Books in 1984.
The work that I would like to take a look at through a science fictional lens, however, is Twain’s 1894 novel Pudd’nhead Wilson. Originally serialized in The Century Magazine in 1893, the novel is generally known as a courtroom drama in which the title lawyer realizes that not only is the accused innocent of the crime, but that there is a deeper secret hidden among the residents of Dawson’s Landing, Missouri. The novel is also known for the pithy chapter headings which are purportedly taken from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s calendar, such as “Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond, cauliflower is nothing by cabbage with a college education.” Although Wilson is the title character and heavily involved in the novel’s denouement, he disappears for a large swathe of the novel.
Set in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, Twain focuses his attention of Roxy, a woman who is only 1/32 black, but that is enough to condemn her to a life of slavery serving the Driscoll family. It also means her son, Valet de Chambre, who is the result of rape by her master, Percy Driscoll, is also a slave. Very fair skinned, many comment on the similarity of appearance between Chambers, as he is called, and his half-brother, Percy’s legitimate son, Tom Discoll. When Roxy sees some slaves sold down-river, she decides she needs to protect Chambers from that fate and, after briefly contemplating murder/suicide, she decides, instead, to swap Chambers for Tom, raising the white boy as her own and letting the world think her own son is her master.
Chambers, raised as the lord of the manor, grows up to be entitled, arrogant, and cruel, even to Roxy. When he gets into financial trouble, he formulates a plan to frame two visiting Italian twins for a theft. It is at this point that Wilson gets involved again, not only proving that Chambers committed the crime, but also that Chambers was Roxy’s actual son and that the slave boy who people thought was Roxy’s son was the real Tom Driscoll. Tom’s rise to his proper estate, however, is not entirely welcome, for the other whites in town still view him as a Black man and as a free man and master, he can no longer maintain his relationships with the slaves he knew.
So, the question is, why is this science fiction?
I’ll refer back to a statement this statement from my earlier article, a definition I’m still using: In the April 1975 issue of Natural History, Isaac Asimov wrote,
Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.
In 1892, Francis Galton published the book Finger Prints, in which he argued that fingerprints could be used for identification purposes. The first fingerprint bureau for a police force wouldn’t be established until 1897 in Calcutta, India.
Twain was clearly keeping up on the literature, perhaps reading the Nineteenth Century equivalent of Scientific American (which would, in fact, have been Scientific American, which began publishing in 1845). Twain then did what generations of science fiction authors have done after him. He speculated on how the new technology could be used to improve people’s lives and change society.
In the novel, set long before fingerprints were be used to identify an individual, David Wilson, whose oddball, offhand comments have earned him the derogatory name “Pudd’nhead” collected the fingerprints from everyone in town, including the infant Chambers and Tom. Without understanding their importance, Wilson just saw them as interesting swirls and over the years came to understand that they could be used as an identification tool.
Twain doesn’t include technobabble in the novel to explain the innovative use of technology to change the way the people of Dawson’s Landing view their world. Instead, in chapters 20 and 21, he carefully guides the reader to the understanding that they need.
In chapter 20, the night before he is to present defense arguments in the murder case, he is looking over his fingerprint collection to try to find a match between the fingerprints on the murder weapon and a “veiled woman” who some witnesses placed at the scene of the crime. When “Tom Driscoll” stops by he leaves his prints on a glass plate Wilson was examining. Wilson spotted the print and realized it matched the one on the murder weapon. After Tom left, he looked at his print from when Tom was a child and realized they didn’t match, a perplexing outcome. Delving deeper, he discovered that Tom’s print matched the infant print made by Chambers, thereby realizing that Roxana must have swapped the children
In chapter 21, Twain spends many pages having Wilson walk both the courtroom and the reader through the science of dermatoglyphics With a flair for the dramatic, to demonstrate the usefulness of fingerprints, Wilson has several people in the courtroom, including the accused twins make fingerprints on a window while he isn’t looking. Wilson then identifies the makers of each set of fingerprints by comparing them to the samples he had already taken. Once the court has come on-board with the usefulness of fingerprinting, Wilson declares that Valet de Chambres, falsely called Thomas à Becket Driscoll, is the murderer.
While I noted that in the film I discussed in May did not have to explain the technology for the audience to understand it since the film was made several years after the technology was introduced and accepted, Pudd’nhead Wilson needs to explain the nascent science of fingerprinting, since, although it had been discussed for several years prior to the novel’s publication, it was still cutting edge technology, not fully accepted and even more rarely used, at the time the novel was released.
Steven H Silver is a seventeen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in The Tangled Web. His most recent anthology, Alternate Peace was published in June. His first novel, After Hastings, was published by Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press earlier this month. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.