2023 Quarry Farm Symposium – Mark Twain: Invention, Technology, and Science Fiction

October 6 & 7, 2023 – Elmira, NY 

The Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College hosted its annual Quarry Farm Symposium from Friday, October 6 and Saturday, October 7, 2023, organized around the theme of Mark Twain: Invention, Technology, and Science Fiction. The keynote address was presented by Sheila Williams, the multiple Hugo award-winning editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. The annual symposium gathers scholars from various fields around a theme related to Mark Twain studies or the nineteenth-century more broadly and is held at the historic Quarry Farm site, where Twain wrote his most famous works during summer stays with his wife’s family in Elmira, New York. 

In his landmark 2010 essay, “On Defining SF, or Not: Genre Theory, SF, and History,” John Rieder wrestles with the slippery definition of “science fiction.” He notes that clear genre definitions are frequently demanded by “two institutional locations, commercial publishing and the academy, and this pair of institutions bears no accidental resemblance to the oppositions between high and low culture….” (204). Building from Bourdieu and Habermas, Rieder argues that because of these “contradictory drives for economic profit and cultural prestige in commercial publishing, the history of sf is well positioned to contribute importantly to broader cultural history…” (206). 

Scholars have acknowledged that much of Twain’s work could be labeled “science fiction” if it were published today, an understanding that goes back at least as far as David Ketterer’s 1984 collection, The Science Fiction of Mark Twain. Twain’s writing appeared in the nineteenth-century literary marketplace side-by-side with dime novels about boy explorers in submarines or airships, hero-worshipping biographies of famous inventors, and the translated works of contemporaries like Jules Verne. Moreover, Twain embodies the straddling of popular success and cultural prestige that Rieder mentions; then and now, Twain’s career navigated these contradictions. Locating when and how Twain’s work fits the “science fiction” label can help us see the limits and utility of genre. 

Of course, Twain is more than just a literary figure; he was part of a culture immersed in science and technology. Alan Gribben, in Mark Twain’s Literary Resources, Vol. 1 (2019), specifically notes science was one area Twain read voraciously, including “an entire set of Charles Darwin’s works” and “at least a dozen titles” on astronomy (44). Once he had money, Twain constantly sought new inventions to fund; his investments in new printing technology partly caused his bankruptcy. Gary Scharnhorst’s recent biography The Life of Mark Twain: The Final Years (2022) reminds us that Twain spent his later years scrutinizing osteopathy, Christian science, and other nascent medical movements, partly to help his ailing wife and daughters. Twain constantly interacted with all these developing fields and more, frequently in very public, mercurial ways. 

With all this in mind, this symposium worked to understand the “broader cultural history” Rieder mentions by placing Twain and his contemporaries within the cultural transformations of science and technology, and within the broad literary boundaries of science fiction. What do we learn if we look at science fiction through the lens of Mark Twain, or Mark Twain through the lens of science fiction? The symposium welcomed a range of papers on this theme, including the following topics and more: 

  • Portrayals of science and technology in fiction by Mark Twain and/or his contemporaries 
  • Scientific and pseudo-scientific ideas that influenced literature during Twain’s lifetime (1835-1910) 
  • Critical interrogations of nineteenth-century scientific rhetoric, knowledge-making, and science-related art and letters 
  • Critical examinations of the writing surrounding nineteenth-century invention and science, including patents, copyrights, planning documents, promotional materials, and more 
  • Research on inventors in Twain’s circle of acquaintances, including James Paige, Nikola Tesla, Jan Szczepanik, or larger concerns such as Hartford’s Colt Arms Factory, and their portrayals by Twain or by other writers in “heroic” biographies, magazine features, etc. 
  • Science fiction in nineteenth-century humor, including frontier narratives, tall tales, scientific romances, and satires 
  • Twain’s place in the evolving definition of science fiction, including perceptions of him among writers of the Gernsback era, the “Golden Age,” the New Wave, Afrofuturists, and other movements 
  • Modern technologies and their role in reproducing Twain in online editions, in memes, in repurposed quotations on Facebook, et al. 
  • Studies of appropriations of Twain’s image or work in science fiction, including steampunk, space opera, or other sub-genres 



Shelia Williams, editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction

SESSION ONE: Twain in the Context of Science Fiction

Edward Guimont, “Shadow of the Comet: Celestial Speculation in Twain’s Lifetime”

James D. Keeline, “Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone and Hugo Gernsbeck and Ernst Ruhmer and the Telephot”

Bruce Michelson, “AI and the Technological Seductions of Mark Twain’s World”

SESSION TWO: Technology in Twain’s Novels

Chander Shekhar, “Navigating Whites’ Utopia: An Active Readers Response to Puddn’head Wilson

Todd Nathan Thompson, “Weapons of Mass Distraction: A Comic Genealogy of A Connecticut Yankee‘s Speculative Exceptionalism”

Judith Yaross Lee, “Responses to Todd Nathan Thompson and Chander Shekhar: Technology and Imperialism in Mark Twain’s Novels”

SESSION THREE: Science Fiction from Twain’s Era

Patrick Prominski, “‘The Diamond Lens’ and Fitz-James O’Brien’s Imagined Order”

Ronny Litvack-Katzman, “Science Fiction at the Boundary of Genre”

Anjalee Gunaratnam, “Aliens of Our World: Nineteenth-Century Naturalists in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and John Clare’s Bird Poems

SESSION FOUR: Twain, Science, and Religious Faith

Nicole Amare and Alan Manning, “Twain to Twilight: Latter-day Saint Motifs and Fantasy and Science Fiction Writing”

Max Chapnick, “Mark Twain vs. Christian Science and Empire”

Matt Seybold, “The World-Empire”