“From ‘The London Times’ of 1904,” Mark Twain, 1898

“From ‘The London Times’ of 1904,” Mark Twain, 1898 — The narrator attends a function in Vienna in March, 1898, during which Lieutenant Clayton is involved in an argument with Dr. Szczepanik over whether or not the doctor’s invention, the telelectroscope, is of any use to humanity.  Clayton taunts Szczepanik and the inventor strikes him.

The story fast forwards to the autumn of 1901 in Chicago. The telectroscope has been realeased to the public. “As soon as the Paris contract released the telectroscope, it was delivered to the public use, and was soon connected with the telephonic systems of the whole world.  The improved “limitless-distance” telephone was presently introduced, and the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussable, too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues.” Eventually, the inventor is found murdered and Szczepanik is accused, put on trial, and imprisoned. While in jail, he requests the telectroscope.  The ability to gaze on the world makes him feel “as free as the birds”; he looks at the strange sights of the world, watches people, looks upon his own life. The device turns winter into summer, storm into calm, as he can look at any season somewhere else on the globe.

On the day of Clayton’s execution, the narrator uses the telecrtroscope and discovers that the inventor is still alive in another country. Clayton is cleared of the first crime, but since someone’s clearly been murdered, he’s tried for the second. Through some judicial tautology, because he was pardoned for a crime he didn’t commit, his is still guilty of the murder that did happen but wasn’t the correct murder. The narrator calls this “French justice,” of the sort of the Dreyfus affair which declared that all decisions by the court are permanent. Clayton is executed.

Comments: Online text at Project Gutenberg. An early foray into the possibilities for “distance vision,” as well as a last-minute satire of “French justice.”  Read in A Century of Science Fiction.  In his intro, Knight notes that Twain wrote other pieces of interest to sf historians.  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is “a rigorously worked-out story of extrapolation, on a theme L. Sprague de Camp was later to use in Lest Darkness Fall: What happens when a modern man, thrown back in time, tries to change history?”

See also H. Bruce Franklin’s commentary on this story in Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century. Franklin notes that in his essay, “Russia and the Congo Again” (1906), Twain explains that Connecticut Yankee was an attempt to imagine the conditions of medieval life, which is so often “pitied”; yet, “Russia’s hundred and thirty millions of miserable subjects are much worse off today…”  Franklin notes that here “Twain is developing an actual paradox of historical time, the continuing survival of feudal and even pre-feudal barbarity in the supposedly enlightened capitalist world, so that we may accurately speak of going back in time by merely traveling from place to place…[H]e is interrelating both chronological time and psychological time with what we might call social time, as measured along a scale of historical progress.”  In “From ‘The London Times’ of 1904,” Franklin notes that Twain “rephrases his question about the connections among these three kinds of time and the development of technology itself.”  In this story, there is a “reversal of historical progress” due to technology that has revolutionized society; Franklin asks the reader to note exactly how the Constitution is amended and consider that “the Czar of Russia is being crowned emperor of China.”

Author: Wikipedia: “Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910), better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist.”


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About jennre

Lifelong sf fan, first-time blogger
This entry was posted in 1926 and earlier, distance, favorites, identity/authenticity, in/visible, law, ny/paris, photo/film/image, satire, spectatorship/voyeurism, surveillance, television, the gaze, the scientist. Bookmark the permalink.

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