A revealing study of the connections between nineteenth-century technological fiction and American religious faith.
In Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America, Nathaniel Williams analyzes the genre of technology-themed exploration novels—dime novel adventure stories featuring steam-powered and electrified robots, airships, and submersibles. This genre proliferated during the same cultural moment when evolutionary science was dismantling Americans’ prevailing, biblically based understanding of human history.
While their heyday occurred in the late 1800s, technocratic adventure novels like Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court inspired later fiction about science and technology. Similar to the science fiction plotlines of writers like Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard, and anticipating the adventures of Tom Swift some decades later, these novels feature Americans using technology to visit and seize control of remote locales, a trait that has led many scholars to view them primarily as protoimperialist narratives. Their legacy, however, is more complicated. As they grew in popularity, such works became as concerned with the preservation of a fraught Anglo-Protestant American identity as they were with spreading that identity across the globe.
Many of these novels frequently assert the Bible’s authority as a historical source. Collectively, such stories popularized the notion that technology and travel might essentially “prove” the Bible’s veracity—a message that continues to be deployed in contemporary debates over intelligent design, the teaching of evolution in public schools, and in reality TV shows that seek historical evidence for biblical events. Williams argues that these fictions performed significant cultural work, and he consolidates evidence from the novels themselves, as well as news articles, sermons, and other sources of the era, outlining and mapping the development of technocratic fiction.