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Edgar Allen Poe's Hans Pfaall

by Adam Roberts

Poe is often described as the place where Science Fiction, as we understand it, starts. Thomas Disch says it straightforwardly: 'Poe is the source' [Disch, 34]. Brian Aldiss (who thinks that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is 'the source') nevertheless traces the notion that Poe is 'the father of Science Fiction' all the way back to an anonymous review in 1905. 'The notion has rattled about ever since,' Aldiss comments, a little sourly, 'like the living dead.' Aldiss thinks that 'Poe's best stories are not science fiction, nor his science fiction stories his best ... far from being the Poe: Poetry and TalesFather of Science Fiction, this genius bodged it when he confronted its themes directly' [Aldiss, 58-9, 63]. He detects a fundamental inarticulacy in his work that is more artistically debilitating than the immaturity and schlock that other critics have sometimes identified as fatal flaws.

Disch admits the immaturity and schlock, arguing that SF as a whole has often traded in the same currencies, and asserting, surely correctly, that for all his over-the-top faults there is something about Poe, some powerfully imaginative ability to reach the reader. He discusses the 'truly god-awful' tale 'A Predicament' (included in Poe's 'How to Write a Blackwood Article', 1838) in which heavy-footed humour and a weary zaniness combine with a, for modern sensibilities, distasteful racism. The protagonist, Psyche Zenobia, climbs the tower of a gothic cathedral, and then stands on her black servant (using him, despite his complaints, as a footstool) so that she can poke her head out of an inaccessible opening and enjoy the view. She expatiates on the beautiful landscape before her until she is 'startled by something very cold which pressed with a gentle pressure on the back of my neck' [Poe, 293], something which pins her in place so that she cannot withdraw her head.

It is the minute hand of the steeple's clock, and Psyche describes, in the language of gothic horror, how the minute hand cuts through her neck so that first one and then the other of her eyes pop from her head, which is then severed from her body, all of which is described with prissy exactitude. [Disch, 48]

Disch, who is otherwise fulsome in his praise for Poe, describes this tale is 'moronic'. An understandable judgement -- and yet, despite this fact, as Disch goes on to point out, the critic Daniel Hoffman cites this story in particular as 'one of Poe's most telling works', partly because it reveals in crude form the underlying logic of his more accomplished tales, but mostly 'because its image of someone decapitated by the minute hand of a giant clock had invaded Hoffman's own nightmares as a teenager and had become a personal obsession' [Disch, 49]. Disch's point is that there is a spot-on, subconscious rightness about many of Poe's gothic tropes, that explains his continuing popularity, as well as his enormous influence upon the development of Science Fiction.

The Poe tale that has haunted me the most is also the most obviously science fictional of all his fantastical stories: 'The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall' (1835), in which the protagonist travels to the moon in a balloon of his own construction.

It seems to me truly odd that, whilst Poe's other tales have accumulated a vast library of critical study and exegesis, this tale has been largely ignored. Few academic critics note it; Disch and Aldiss mention it only briefly in passing. Where Poe's other seminal SF is read and analysed, Hans Pfaall is just too absurd to be taken seriously. Critics and aficionados of proto-SF choose other Poe to expatiate upon. In 'The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion' (1839) two spirits recall, in oblique terms, the destruction of the earth by a comet; in 'The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar' (1845) a sick man is mesmerised on the point of death, turning him into a sort of undead zombie; 'Mellonta Tauta' (1849) is set in the year 2848 and uses the form of a balloon journey across the Atlantic to comment, satirically, upon the USA of a thousand years before; and Poe's most famous literary achievement, his short novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) moves from a conventional sea-adventure tale (though an extremely bloodthirsty adventure, written in an unusually gnashing manner) into something far stranger at the end, where the narrator discovers bizarre lands and cultures towards the South Pole.

Given that the claim of Poe to a place as a key founder of Science Fiction seems to me undeniable, it is particularly surprising that 'Hans Pfaall' is not at the forefront of appreciations of Poe. 'Hans Pfaall' is SF to its very heart, much more SF than the texts mentioned above. These all have proto-SF aspects to them, it is true, yet they strike me as self-evidently, in order, Spiritualist, horror, satire and just plain weird (though in a wonderful way) rather than any of them being centrally SF. The danger, as Daniel Hoffman's experience mentioned above confirms, is that a story may lodge in the critic's unconscious for reasons that are not particularly reducible to conscious discourse. Of course I need to make a case for Poe's tale as a neglected masterpiece of Science Fiction in terms that go beyond my personal crotchets.

But I think I can do this: 'Hans Pfaall' is a brilliant quasi-scientific narrative relating a journey to the moon. It has a better claim to be the parent text of SF than (say) Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published a mere seventeen years before. Shelley's monster has always struck me as feeding down into modern-day Gothic and Horror rather than SF as such; but the heart of Poe's story, 'the journey to the moon' is the great dream of early Science Fiction, and when it was realised it became the core event of the twentieth-century, the moment when SF and real life truly connected for the first time. Rocket-ships, space-journeys and strange alien life -- all of which make a primitive appearance in Poe's tale, the first time in literature these three things are constellated -- are surely more centrally SF than bogey-man monsters assembled from charnel-house-leavings.

'The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall' falls into three parts. A brief, four-page opening section describes the 'high state of philosophical excitement' of the Dutch city of Rotterdam, occasioned by the appearance of a balloon made of dirty newspapers piloted by a very strange figure:

He could not have been more than two feet in height ... his hands were enormously large. His hair was gray, and collected into a queue behind. His nose was prodigiously long, crooked and inflammatory; his eyes, full brilliant and acute; his chin and cheeks, although wrinkled with age, were broad, puffy and double; but of ears of any kind there was not a semblance to be discovered upon any portion of his head [Poe, 'Hans Pfaall', 953]

This curious, earless, long-nosed proto-munchkin Complete Tales and Poemsbrings the balloon to within a hundred feet of the ground, drops 'a huge letter sealed with red sealing wax' over the side, and then ascends rapidly. The second portion of the story, constituting the bulk of the narrative, gives us the contents of this letter, Hans Pfaall's own account of his outlandish adventures. He introduces himself as a Rotterdam bellows-mender, with a family to support, who had fallen on hard times. In debt, he hatched a scheme to build a balloon and (inspired by 'a small pamphlet treatise on Speculative Astronomy ... by Professor Encke of Berlin') to pilot it to the moon. The canopy of this balloon would not be filled with air, but something far lighter, on the nature of which Pfaall is a little reticent: 'I can only venture to say here, that it is a constituent of azote so long considered irreducible, and that its density is about 37.4 times less than that of hydrogen' [Poe, 'Hans Pfaall', 958]. I especially like that 'about' modifying the '37.4'. Pfaall has persuaded three of his creditors to help him construct the balloon on vague promises that the project would help pay of his debt to them; but before he floats into the air on the 1st April he ignites a slow-burning fuse leading to several casks of gunpowder. From the height of fifty yards he looks down upon the explosion that destroys his workshop.

The following thirty pages are given over to a detailed account of his voyage to the moon. He fixes a 'flexible gum-elastic bag' around his basket, and has fitted himself with 'one of M Grimm's apparatus for the condensation of the atmospheric air'. But Poe refuses to believe that the space between Earth and Moon cannot be vacuum.

It is also calculated that at an altitude not exceeding the hundredth part of the earth's diameter - that is, not exceeding eighty miles - the rarefaction would be so excessive that animal life could in no manner be sustained .... But in point of fact, an ascension being made to any given altitude, the ponderable quantity of air surmounted in any farther ascension, is by no means in proportion to the addition height ascended, but in a ratio constantly decreasing. It is therefore evident that, ascend as high as we may, we cannot literally speaking, arrive at a limit beyond which no atmosphere is to be found. It must exist, I argued. ... It appeared to me evidently a rare atmosphere extending from the sun outwards, beyond the orbit of Venus at least, and I believed indefinitely farther, pervading the entire regions of our planetary system, condensed into what we call atmosphere at the planets themselves. [Poe, 'Hans Pfaall', 953]

Given this cosmological premise, and with his balloon filled with the improbably rarefied mystery gas, Pfaall is able to float up and up. On the nineteenth day of his voyage he finds himself plummeting towards the moon's surface, and is forced to throw overboard all his ballast including, eventually, the car itself:

And thus, clinging with both hands to the net-work, I had barely time to observe that the whole country as far as the eye could reach, was thickly interspersed with diminutive habitations, ere I tumbled headlong into the very heart of a fantastical looking city, and into the middle of a vast crowd of ugly little people. [Poe, 'Hans Pfaall', 993]

But here Pfaall breaks off his narration, with the promise of more interesting revelations to come if the burghers of Rotterdam are first prepared to give him 'a pardon for the crime of which I have been guilty in the death of my creditors upon my departure' [Poe, 'Hans Pfaall', 995]. In a page-long coda Poe relates 'astonishment and admiration' of the people of Rotterdam, and then immediately undercuts the veracity of the narration by itemising certain salient facts: that 'an odd little dwarf and bottle conjurer, both of whose ears, for some misdemeanour, have been cut off close to the head, has been missing for several days from the neighbouring city of Bruges', that 'the newspapers which were stuck all over the little balloon were newspapers of Holland and therefore could not have been made in the moon', and that Pfaall himself 'the drunken villain' has been seen drinking 'in a tippling house in the suburbs' with the 'three very idle gentlemen styled his creditors' [Poe, 'Hans Pfaall', 996].

Poe's appetite for hoaxes is one aspect of his genius for which critics today have little sympathy, and the heavy-handed 'hoax' ending has perhaps done more to sink 'Hans Pfaall' in current critical imagination than anything else. Poe wrote several other hoaxes, and 'Hans Pfaall' is itself partly a response to a famous moon hoax by Richard Adams Locke, published in the New York Sun earlier in 1835: Locke reported that a new telescope, 'at the Cape of Good Hope', with a magnifying power of 42,000, had observed objects on the moon's surface, amongst which were fields of reddish flowers, bison-like creatures with specialised eye-flaps and (most sensationally of all) furry, winged, humanoid inhabitants. But contemporary criticism has little purchase on the hoax as literary form; once the critic has distanced herself from the anxiety of 'being taken in', and once the acknowledgement has been made that hoaxes are supposed to be funny, there is little more to say apart from laboriously explaining the joke -- and a joke explained ceases to be funny.

Harold Beaver plots out the various fooleries in the text, notes that Pfaall lifts off from Rotterdam on April 1st, that his balloon is shaped like a 'fool's cap', and that the burgermeisters all have ridiculous names (Professor Rubadub, Mynheer Superbus Von Underduk), and so on. Pfaall actually flies to the moon by utilizing the principle of levity, and metaphorical 'levity' is what Poe aims for with his puns and jokes. His hoax inverts normal expectations, and turns the logical world upside down. 'Invert "phaal"', Beaver notes (referring to one of Poe's variants of the name 'Pfaall'), 'what sound do you hear but "laugh"?' [Beaver, 339].

But Poe is doing much more with his 'hoaxing' textual strategies than simply having a laugh. He uses some of the conventions of the April fool's joke, playing them off against the codes of scientific investigation, precisely in order to explore the dialectic relationship between ludic playfulness and 'scientific' seriousness. This same dialectic is also the aesthetic underpinning of Science Fiction: the interplay between the imaginative and the scientific.

Poe's skill is in the balancing of the two elements. We are given a narrative of journeying to the moon in a balloon: it is clearly more 'plausible' that this is a hoax, a fantastical story, than that Pfaall actually travelled to the moon in such a manner. In the 'real' world, such journeying is impossible. But when Poe divides his narrative between the 'real' world of Holland in the 1830s on the one hand, and the balloon-journey through space to the moon on the other, it is the real world that is rendered in a fantastical manner, and the implausible balloon journey that is treated with pseudo-scientific precision. Rotterdam, a real city, is populated with people named 'Rubadub' and 'Underduk', with earless dwarfs and balloons made out newspaper. When Poe details the actual, he adopts an archly satirical tone: Pfaall complains that it is the general march of the time towards 'liberty, and long speeches, and radicalism, and all that sort of thing' that bankrupted him as a bellows-mender: 'if a fire wanted fanning, it could readily be fanned with a newspaper' [Poe, 'Hans Pfaall', 955]. This, together with the 'balloon manufactured entirely of dirty newspaper' in which the dwarf/moonling descends at the tale's opening, points to some self-referential satire on behalf of Poe, a newspaperman himself. Newspapers, the implication runs, fill people's heads with ridiculous notions like 'liberty' and 'radicalism', things of which the conservative Poe broadly disapproved. At the same time as paying him money and giving him an outlet for his imagination, papers like the Southern Literary Messenger and the New York Sun, floated their gullible readers metaphorically off solid-earth into airy, lunatic speculation.

But Poe's stroke of genius was to reserve the ludicrous and satirical purely for the 'real' world; the implausible balloon journey itself is recorded with a scrupulous stylistic exactitude that lifts the whole out of the historically-specific quagmire of 1830s satire into a mind-expanding realm of SF. Although the notion of flying to the moon into a balloon is (in today's terms, of course) an impossibility, and (in terms of 1830s physics) extremely unlikely, yet there is a greater imaginative gravity and appeal, a greater literary punch, in this aspect of Poe's conception. He gives us numerous pseudo-scientific observations, performs experiments upon the birds and cats he has brought with him, and leavens his account with various precise-looking numbers. On the 4th April he declares the balloon to have reached '7254 miles above the surface of the sea', an impressive height but a tiny fraction of the '231,920 miles' or '59.9643 of the earth's equatorial radii' he has calculated as the distance he has to go. When Mary Shelley writes the fantastic elements of Frankenstein, she adopts a strained, elevated Gothic-sublime tone of voice; when Poe writes about the fantastic in this story he does so in as matter-of-fact a manner as he can.

This is a core strategy of SF. Novels based in 'the real world' can be written in an avant-garde, experimental manner: Joyce's Ulysses is utterly ordinary in subject, and thoroughly extraordinary in stylistic rendering. SF, on the other hand, being based in one or other fantastic other world, is most often rendered with realist stylistic verisimilitude: they accumulate detail and fact, they aim for a balanced neutral tone. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books are thoroughly extraordinary in subject, and deliberately quotidian in style and treatment. A bizarre world, rendered in a bizarre, experimental style, would for most readers be one bizarreness too many.

But, to return to the point I was making at the beginning, there is also a poetic rightness about Poe's underlying conception. For some reason the idea of floating to the moon in a balloon feels right. Perhaps it is because the moon itself -- a powerful lure to the SF imagination since the days of Lucian of Samosata -- looks so balloon-like. We know it is a massive ball of rock orbiting at terrifying speed; but we feel it is something light, aery, floaty. Spielberg-Kubrick's recent film AI plays on this age-old notion: in one scene a gleaming moon, the Dreamworks Logo (itself filched from ET), rises over the hill to reveal itself as a bright balloon. If the moon can float 'up there', then surely we can too?

And maybe Poe's imaginative conception means something new for the post-1969 readers. The Apollo programme told us that far from utilising levity to reach the lunar surface, a machine of enormous weight and mass was required: the Saturn V remains one of the largest machines for moving people about ever constructed. Balloon-flights remind us of a vanished age, gentler and more peaceful. It seems very likely that somesuch nostalgia lends grace Poe's conception. Certainly a work such as Bob Shaw's Ragged Astronauts (1986), a classic example of retro-SF. Shaw's tale (evidently indebted to Poe) sees primitive people travel through the hourglass shared atmospheric envelope of two closely-orbiting planets in a balloon, moving from world to world in what Shaw quaintly calls 'wooden spaceships'. This nostalgia is itself complicated by the fact that, increasingly, the Apollo programme is 'the past', a nostalgic dream of what used to be. Nobody will fly to the moon in the first few decades of the twenty-first century; that was what our forefathers did. We send pea-sized probes packed with computing power instead.

Nor does Poe's premise strike me as inherently unscientific. Given the existence of vacuum between ourselves and the moon, a balloon would need to be filled with something other than 'a constituent of azote'; but any SF writers worth his or her salt should be able to postulate some form of space 'lighter' than vacuum; imagine, for example, a canopy filled with spacetime purged of the fizzing subatomic activity that we are told goes on at the Planck scale, and which therefore could float up through the energetic vacuum.

We can read 'Hans Pfaall', then, in two ways: either as a hoax and rather clumsy satire on contemporary newspapermen full of heavy-handed jokes, or as a proto-SF text that works on a poetic, imaginative level. Many SF texts work both on their own terms and as satirical or otherwise commentaries upon the age that produced them: Dune functions both as an internally coherent portrait of a distant planet and culture and as a commentary upon 1960s drug-culture. The film of Planet of the Apes works both as a fantastic tale greatly removed from ordinary experience, and as a mocking distorting-mirror view of 1970s America. Poe's text is in the same category; it is unusual only in that those few critics who have noticed it have read it only as hoax and satire, and not as SF. But it is in its most suggestive passages that the text really comes into its own, most particularly at the abrupt end of Pfaall's narrative.

I have always been drawn to abrupt endings; elaborate tyings-up of loose ends, and a resounding final closure, seem aesthetically lumpen to me, and I prefer a certain brisk suddenness. In 'Hans Pfaall' the suddenness is, partially, accidental: Poe had intended to write a novel-length work, detailing the strange culture of the moon-inhabitants, but he ran out of time, or patience, and wrapped up his story with a promise that he had 'much to say' of the climate of the moon, and of the people who live on it ('of their peculiar physical construction; of their ugliness; of their want of ears, those useless appendages in an atmosphere so peculiarly modified, of their substitute for speech in a singular method of inter-communication', [Poe, 'Hans Pfaall', 994]). He mentions a strange affinity between each person of the moon and a life on earth, and hints at 'dark and hideous mysteries' that he encountered on the dark side, 'regions ... which have never yet been turned, and, by God's mercy, never shall be turned, to the scrutiny of the telescopes of man'. The shadow is a more terrifying quantity than the photorealist monster, howsoever cleverly designed. Poe hints at aliens who live in too rarefied an atmosphere for soundwaves, although the 'singular method of communication' is ambiguous between hand-signals, telepathy of something else. 'All this, and more -- much more -- would I most willingly detail' the narrator promises, although no further detail is forthcoming. After having raised the reader's imagination on the hot-air and paper of his tail, Poe is inviting him or her to continue the imaginative game alone: and that is what Science Fiction really ought to be all about.

works cited

Brian Aldiss, with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: the History of Science Fiction (London: Gollancz 1986)

Harold Beaver (ed), The Science Fiction of Edgar Allen Poe (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1976)

Thomas Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World (New York: Simon and Schuster 1998)

Edgar Allen Poe, Poetry and Tales (ed Patrick F Quinn, New York: Library of America 1984)


Poe's stories are available in a number of collections. For bookshop links see the infinity plus bookshop, or support this site by shopping through our links to and the Internet Bookshop.

Titles to look for:

  • Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Doubleday, 1966; ISBN: 0385074077)
  • Complete Tales and Poems (Book Sales, 2001; ISBN: 0785813500)
  • Poe: Poetry and Tales (ed Patrick F Quinn, Library of America, 1984; ISBN: 0940450186)

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© Adam Roberts 2002

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