POWER SOURCES
   We live in an age of imminent resources crisis, anxiously anticipating the depletion of fossil-fuel reserves even while we become reluctant to rely on NUCLEAR POWER because of the POLLUTION problems caused by radioactive wastes. New options rely either on discoveries not yet made - the development of nuclear-fusion reactors, or of more efficient ways to convert solar energy into electricity - or on a political will which governments of all persuasions seem too short-sighted to exercise, as with tidal and wind power. There was, however, little trace of such anxieties in sf published before public concern began to grow; the future scenarios envisaged by early sf writers frequently assumed our energy resources to be potentially infinite.For most of human history, MACHINES were worked by three basic power sources: wind, water and muscle. For millennia people used fire as a source of heat and an agent of physical and chemical change without learning how to harness it as an energy source in mechanical work; then the invention of the steam engine precipitated the Industrial Revolution. Sf writers, following in the tracks of countless optimists whohad tried to sidestep the problem by inventing "perpetual-motion machines", were only too ready to imagine future revolutions of similarly awesome scope. Electricity was often viewed as a quasimagical animating force, as in Mary SHELLEY's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831) and Arthur Conan DOYLE's "The Los Amigos Fiasco" (1892). In Lord LYTTON's The Coming Race (1871) the key to energy-prosperity is vril, akind of "atmospheric magnetism" administered by a device bearing a suspicious resemblance to a magic wand (a wand waved to considerable effect in The Vril Staff (1891) by "XYZ") (PSEUDO-SCIENCE). Percy GREG's Across the Zodiac (1880) employs the equally mysterious "apergy", which seems to be ANTIGRAVITY with a seasoning of electrical mysticism; like vril, apergy was borrowed by other writers, including John Jacob ASTOR in A Journey in Other Worlds (1894), and it is the obvious model for theantigravity devices used in Robert CROMIE's A Plunge into Space (1890) and H.G. WELLS's THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1901). In Twenty Thousand Leaguesunder the Sea (1870; trans 1873) Jules VERNE was ready to assume that electrical energy could be drawn from sea water by quasimagical means. This optimistic outlook was boosted by the discovery of X-rays in 1895;for many years thereafter unlimited power was casually generated in sf stories by the invocation of magical "rays". The discovery of radioactivity only a few years later provided yet another jargon: power derived from atomic breakdown, spontaneous or forced. This, of course, turned out to be a real possibility, but its prominence in early sf owes more to convenience than to an assessment of its true potential. GENRE SF inherited this considerable jargon and understandably made the most of it. E.E. "Doc" SMITH's The Skylark of Space (1928; 1946) begins when a bathtubcoated with "X, the unknown metal" reacts to the appropriate Open Sesame by releasing limitless quantities of "infra-atomic energy" - a moment cruelly parodied by the discovery of "Cheddite" in Harry HARRISON's Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers (1973).Given this confidence in theimminent availability of unlimited power, it is not surprising that the most thoughtful work of speculative writers in the early 20th century deals with the question of the social responsibility of scientists making such discoveries. Stories of wise men blackmailing the world into peace and social justice for all are common, but much more delicate exercises include Karel CAPEK's satire The Absolute at Large (1922; trans 1927) and his surreal "atomic phantasy" Krakatit (1924; trans 1925). The former concerns the "Karburator", which not only releases the energy bound in matter but also the spiritual "power" which went into its creation, generating worldwide religious fanaticism; a later satire with a related theme is Romain GARY's The Gasp (1973), in which the energy of immortal souls is harnessed as an industrial power source. Pulp sf celebrated the imminence of what Hugo GERNSBACK sometimes called the "Age of Power Freedom". Antigravity and wonderful rays were given carte blanche to defythe conservation laws - a situation encouraged rather than inhibited by the real-life discovery of atomic power, which was for a brief period taken as "proof" that limitless energy was actually available. Jack WILLIAMSON's "The Equalizer" (1947) is a thoughtful attempt to analyse thesocial consequences of free power for all, resurrecting the vril staff as a literary device. Raymond F. JONES's "Noise Level" (1952) supposes that the only thing standing between science and the discovery of limitless power is the belief of scientists in its impossibility. So convincing was this line of argument to readers of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE-FICTION that the story gave rise to several sequels, letters and articles criticizing contemporary patent law for its unfair treatment of perpetual motion and its blatant discrimination against discoveries of new fundamental principles in science. This optimism waned rapidly during the 1960s, although Theodore STURGEON's "Brownshoes"(1969) is a heartfelt parable about the difficulty of making a gift of perpetual motion to mankind in a world where so many vested interests (e.g., oil companies) would do their utmost to suppress it.The dependence of the developed countries on shrinking coal and oil reserves was brought home dramatically from 1973 on by the emergence of OPEC as a political force capable of dictating energy policy to the West. The POLITICS of energy came to play a major part in many near-future novels, including Frederik POHL's JEM: The Making of a Utopia (1979) and The Cool War (1981), the latter also being one ofseveral stories to explore the idea of transmitting power in the form of microwaves down to Earth from solar cells mounted on satellites. The OPEC-precipitated oil crisis of the 1970s inspired such unlikely projectsas the attempt to hijack the Middle-Eastern oilfields by TIME TRAVEL in Wolfgang JESCHKE's The Last Day of Creation (1981; trans 1982) and the useof exotic living machinery to extract oil in Rory HARPER's ALTERNATE-WORLD story Petrogypsies (1989); many TECHNOTHRILLERS are concerned with power sources in one way or another, standard plots often centring either on squabblings between multinational power companies or on the discovery - usually merely as a MCGUFFIN - of new ways of producing energy. Fantasies in which energy sources appear by miraculous fiat, like D.G. COMPTON's Ascendancies (1980), acquired a sharp cautionary note. A real measure ofimaginative fervour with respect to marvellous power sources survives only in the matter of SPACESHIP propulsion, ranging from the solar yachts of Arthur C. CLARKE's "Sunjammer" (1964; vt "The Wind from the Sun"), whichuse the SOLAR WIND, to the BLACK-HOLE propulsion system for interplanetary vessels in the same author's Imperial Earth (1975).
   BS

Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. . 2011.

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