Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America by Nathaniel Williams

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Professor Williams discussed his upcoming book as part of the Fall 2017 “Trouble Begins” Lecture Series.

  • Nathaniel Williams, “Mark Twain and the Inventor Fiction Boom: Technology Meets American Conceit, 1876-1910” (October 11, 2017 – Quarry Farm Barn)

Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America. By Nathaniel Williams. University of Alabama Press, 2018. Pp. 206. Hardcover $44.95. ISBN 978-0-8173-1984-7.

Mark Twain’s relation to technology, religion, and imperialism has been examined by a number of scholars, especially in recent years, but these topics have not been examined together, and they have certainly not been examined in light of proto-science fiction dime novels. In Gears and God, Nathaniel Williams has done just that. While only one of his study’s six chapters focuses solely on Twain, his thoroughly researched book sheds light on Twain by placing him in a context that has been previously ignored. The result is a study that succeeds in opening up new vistas in Twain criticism.

Williams’s introduction, “This is Religion and Totally Different,” relates Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) to the “boy inventor” dime novels of the time, over 300 of them, which melded travel, technology, and Christian exceptionalism. Williams states that he wants to accomplish two things: “reevaluation of the portrayal of empire that has pervaded earlier, genre-exclusive studies of these texts, and a consideration of their role in larger nineteenth-century conversations about science and technology’s impact on religious faith” (5). In six chapters, he achieves those two goals.

Ch.1, “Inventing the Technocratic Exploration Tale: God, Gears, and Empire,” examines how “American dime-novel invention stories performed significant cultural work in the United States” (13). Science fiction scholars have called this dime novel sub-genre “Edisonades,” after the inventor, but Williams adds the term “technocratic exploration tales” (14), emphasizing technocracy as a building block of empire. He shows how these texts both justified and undermined American imperialism.

In his second chapter, “Building Imperialists: The Steam Man, ‘Used Up’ Man, and the Man in the Moon,” Williams covers the early development of the sub-genre, looking back to Washington Irving’s 1809 tale of an invasion of the Earth by the Moon, and to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man That Was Used Up” (1839), about a soldier who has lost his limbs in the Indian Wars, and through the use of prosthetic devices becomes what science fiction scholars have called the first cyborg in fiction. His overview culminates with an 1868 dime novel by Edward S. Ellis, The Steam Man of the Prairies, which has been accepted as the first American science fiction novel. This early text set the prototype for the genre: a boy inventor and his steam-driven automaton, embarking on travel and adventure to conquer the West.

Ch. 3, “Imagining Inventors: Frank Reade and Dime-Novel Technocratic Exploration,” focuses on boy inventor Frank Reade Jr., the subject of many dime novels, written by Luis Philip Senarens, a prolific Cuban American writer. Frank Reade Jr. uses technology to travel to distant places, interfere in events, and right wrongs, which Williams aligns with Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. A few of the titles give a sense of the inventions and the locales: Frank Reade, Jr., and His Steam WonderFrank Reade, Jr., and His Electric BoatFrank Reade, Jr., and His Air-ShipFrank Reade, Jr.’s Great Electric TricycleFrank Reade, Jr., and His Electric Prairie Schooner; or Fighting the Mexican Horse ThievesAdrift in Africa; or Frank Reade, Jr., among the Ivory Hunters with His New Electric Wagon, and Frank Reade, Jr.’s Electric Buckboard; or, Thrilling Adventures in North Australia. His analysis of the Frank Reade Jr. novels chronicles the shift from American settings to international ones, including coverage of the Cuban Revolution, with Senarens siding with Cuba. One reason for the uproar over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Williams argues, was the perceived deleterious effects of dime novels on American youth. Williams moves to religious matters in his fourth chapter, “Discovering Biblical Literalism: Frank Reade Redux,” documenting a turn toward biblical issues: plots that found lost tribes and identified with conservative, literal interpretations of the Bible.

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Gears & God: What Powered Twain’s Speculative Fiction?

What do we learn when we read Mark Twain alongside long-forgotten novels about giant robots and electric tanks?

That was my initial question when I started the project that became my book, Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America.

I knew that, to understand a protean literary figure like Mark Twain, often the context we place him in reveals new areas of significance. American literature survey classes, for example, often read Twain through the lens of American realism via his friend and frequent editor W.D. Howell’s exhortation for “truthful treatment of the material.” Such courses (quite fairly) emphasize Twain’s unsentimental honesty

But some of Twain’s best work was enormously conversant with a genre that, at first glance, had no investment in truth or realism — the inventor exploration stories that proliferated during the late-nineteenth century.

Surprisingly, when I began to research Twain within the framework of the burgeoning nineteenth-century American science fiction genre, what jumped out at me had little to do with imaginary machines or fantastic events. Instead, it immediately foregrounded moments when technocratic optimism overlapped with Twain’s career-long deliberation on religious faith and reason. It underscored trends throughout the subgenre’s American material.

Twain clearly enjoyed writing about would-be scientists and technologists, having Colonel Sellers tinker with phonographs in The American Claimant (1892) or David Wilson dabble in fingerprinting science in Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). The preeminent character in this trend is Hank Morgan, narrator ofA Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), who gets sent back in time to the 6th century and proceeds to fill Camelot with telegraphs, bicycles, newspapers, modern plumbing, and dynamite.

Some Twain scholars have seen A Connecticut Yankee as indicative of the author’s enthusiasm for technology, while others see it as an implicit critique of Western imperialism’s tendency to use technology to subjugate and exploit people in the world’s remote, underdeveloped regions. Both are fair points.

Twain’s novel, however, came after a decade of books featuring young inventors crisscrossing the globe in airships, submarines, and other vehicles of their own design. Like the novels of their French contemporary, Jules Verne, they celebrate exploration and technocracy, and they anticipate Twain’s approach in A Connecticut Yankee.

Some of the similarities are simply amusing coincidences. For example, artist Dan Beard famously illustrated a scene where Twain’s hero sallies forth in uncomfortable chain mail as “Ye Iron Dude.” Plainly, Beard understood the humor behind having a nineteenth-century businessman strutting around in medieval attire. Eight years earlier, the writers and illustrators behind the Frank Reade, Jr. series had pulled a similar stunt, featuring a cover with their boy-inventor hero at the prow of his Electric Boat in “bulletproof” chain mail, shooting at bootleggers with a revolver.

Other similarities are more significant, demonstrating nineteenth-century America’s intersecting technophilia and racial animosity. The first major “boy inventor” story, The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) by Edward S. Ellis, features a hero named Johnny Brainerd, who builds an enormous, steam-driven automaton to transport him to a gold-mining operation out West. Once there, he engages in multiple fights against Native Americans. Our technocrat hero views native peoples dismissively, as mere obstacles to his dream of frontier wealth. This mirrors Hank Morgan’s views in Camelot, where he likens Arthurians to “white Indians” or “savages” that he is destined to tame through technology. Moreover, both stories find militaristic inspiration in the real-life Colt Arms Factory, where Morgan works before his journey in time and Brainerd’s sidekick, “Yankee” Ethan Hopkins, visits before heading West.

But the most fascinating connections occur when the technocratic exploration narrative overlaps American religious concerns. Twain’s era saw Darwinian evolutionary theory undermine the Bible as an authoritative historical document.

While realist writers plumbed the effect of this shift on American psyches, science fiction offered an outlet for imagining different outcomes. Writers repeatedly had technocratic explorers make discoveries validating the Bible’s creation story. It was one of the first times (and far from the last) that American popular media promoted the notion that science would ultimately make new discoveries contradicting Darwin and proving the Bible’s veracity.

Some of the most elaborate dime-novel storylines from the 1880s and 1890s featured explorers finding lost Biblical tribes or evidence of giant races described in Genesis and Deuteronomy. By the end of the century, fiction writers as dissimilar as astronomy lecturer Garrett P. Serviss and Colored American Magazine editor Pauline Hopkins were imagining Americans using technology to explore unknown worlds and make discoveries that proved the Bible’s history as fact. Even Twain’s older brother, Orion Clemens, took an early stab at the subgenre in 1878, voicing his religious doubts in a now-lost “hollow earth” manuscript akin to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. In letters, Twain warned his brother against mixing scientific exploration fiction and religious commentary.

Twain, however, couldn’t resist doing that very thing himself once technocratic exploration novels proliferated. He borrowed their template in two of his best novels, A Connecticut Yankee and the underappreciated Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894). Both books find their heroes backing up their technological expertise with religious views. Morgan assumes that his technological improvements will frighten the Church and sees it as his mission to replace it with the pluralistic American Protestantism of his era. Tom Sawyer Abroad begins with Tom desiring to have a “crusade” to the Holy Land to liberate it from its Muslim inhabitants. When Tom, Huck, and Jim find themselves alone in a technologically marvelous airship, Tom commandeers it with the same patriotic hubris that fueled many “boy inventor” novels. They fly through Africa and the Middle East, but Tom is never quite able to see the native inhabitants as his equals.

Here is where Twain’s use of early science fiction really shows us what made him tick. Both novels challenge readers to critique their technocrats’ religious beliefs, to see places where unreflective faith causes blind spots in their worldview. Twain understood connections between exploration, expansion, and mainstream American Protestantism. At a time when strange technology tales with religious subtext flourished, Twain was there, mocking and critiquing, a skeptical voice among more earnest, religiously orthodox science-fiction pioneers.

For more on Twain’s role in the history of technocratic exploration novels, see Gears and God.


Nathaniel Williams is a lecturer in the University Writing Program at the University of California, Davis. His essays have appeared in American Literature, Utopian Studies, and elsewhere. He serves on the advisory board of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction housed at his alma mater, The University of Kansas. He has also been a Quarry Farm Fellow and Trouble Begins lecturer.

The Android & The Icon: Mark Twain’s Appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation

With the upcoming premier of Star Trek: Discovery (CBS) on September 24, we thought it might be fun to look back at Mark Twain’s first appearance in the Star Trek universe.

Since the original Star Trek aired in 1966, the series and its spinoffs have attempted to align themselves with high literature. Even as the women wore campy costumes and the series boasted primitive special effects, the series grounded itself in references to important authors from William Shakespeare to John Milton to Herman Melville. In 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation focused more sharply on literary influences. Episodes would often involve characters on the Enterprise-D dialoging with characters, or perhaps even embodying characters, from Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Alexander Dumas on the Holodeck. Nevertheless, Star Trek rarely made a literary figure a central piece in an episode until The Next Generation’s “Time’s Arrow,” which depicts both Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Jack London as key figures in the episode’s plot.[1]

“Time’s Arrow” was split as the finale of season five with the conclusion at the beginning of season six in 1992. The episode involves Data (Brent Spiner), the Enterprise’s android operations officer, accidentally traveling back in time to 1893 San Francisco while hunting the Devidians, an interdimensional alien race who pose a threat to past and present humanity. In San Francisco, Data meets Samuel Clemens (Jerry Hardin), better known as Mark Twain.[2] The appearance of Clemens as a character in the episode attempts to connect the show directly to the American literary tradition, but does it succeed in this endeavor? While the episode pays homage to Samuel Clemens as an American icon and captures Mark Twain’s skepticism of humanity, the episode primarily presents him as a two-dimensional icon, as he is too easily convinced of humanity’s evolution despite clear indications to the contrary. Thus, the episode privileges his iconic status over his literary work, which only serves to reinforce Star Trek’s optimistic view of the future rather than engage in the complexities of Mark Twain’s life and work.

The presence of Samuel Clemens in “Time’s Arrow” largely seems an avenue for the series to pit Mark Twain’s pessimistic view of humanity against Star Trek’s idealistic vision of the future. When Clemens meets Data, who serves as a symbol for striving after humanity throughout the series, he is automatically skeptical of what Data might be planning. Clemens eventually learns that Data is from the future, and he automatically assumes that Data is playing an analogous role to Hank Morgan from Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1888). Clemens’s curiosity about Data’s plan leads him to discover that the rest of the Enterprise crew has arrived in the 19th century, which makes him suspect that a future invasion is underway. Seeing himself as the protector of humanity, Clemens stalks Data and the Enterprise crew, which eventually results in his being transported to the 24th century. There he discovers that humanity has progressed beyond the selfishness that defined the world during Clemens’s time. The episode ends with Clemens, as humanity’s satirical protector, accepting that “his business,” mankind, has fared well after all.

It is worth noting that very little scholarly analysis has been done on the implications of Mark Twain’s grand entrance into the Star Trek universe. Certainly, writers have remarked on the sense of adventure as the Enterprise crew meets Mark Twain, but it is mostly superficial praise. A few critics, such as Valerie Fulton, use the episode to illustrate Star Trek’s imperialistic overtones, especially The Next Generation. The episode’s rating on IMDb is a very respectable 8.2, which indicates that fans of the show enjoy it. For full disclosure, I have always enjoyed the episode. Indeed, “Time’s Arrow” was among the first episodes I watched in the entire Star Trek canon, and it is because of the episode that I became enamored with the Star Trek universe, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation. When viewed uncritically, the episode embodies the spirit of adventure and fun that fans of the show appreciate, with an appearance of one of the most iconic, cherished writers in American literature to boot. However, upon further examination, especially after studying Mark Twain more closely, cracks begin to develop not only in its depiction of Mark Twain, but also in its depiction of the Enterprise crew.

These cracks can also be seen in how Star Trek programs, at least before the film series that began in 2009, have positioned themselves culturally, especially with their references to literary classics. Above all, Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for humanity’s future was utopian in the sense that class, race, and, to a certain extent, gender distinctions were eradicated. The original series and TNG both placed minorities and women in prominent social positions, such as scientists, ship captains, and doctors. As developed and inclusive as this society appears, Brian Ott and Eric Aoki argue that the 23rd and 24th centuries are culturally homogenous, with a clear preference for the traditional Western canon over more diverse sources of literature. A number of factors contribute to this homogeneous depiction of culture, but the elevation and celebration of classical, Western literature over other forms of expression is a primary tool. For example, in The Literary Galaxy of Star Trek, James F. Broderick notes Trek’s connection to Western literature more enthusiastically, “Star Trek draws from both the letter and the spirit of many canonical authors” (6). A running joke among Trek fans is that judging from the literary references on the programs, no great literary works were written after 1900 because the show references very few contemporary, world, or visual works from that time period. One of the few exceptions to this tendency occurs in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which Spock refers to authors such as Harold Robbins as “the giants,” while virtually inviting the audiences to laugh derisively at such a thought. The joke in the scene is telling as it clearly privileges what one might call “traditional literature” over popular contemporary texts. Jim Collins notes that this kind of positioning is common in post-modern texts attempting to legitimize the value of their literary significance over those in their genres. Thus, Star Trek’s homogenous future under the influence of classical literature distinguishes it from the visions offered by other science fiction programs and film.

If we believe Broderick about the inclusion of canonical authors, the result of the synthesis between science-fiction and high literature is a new humanism, in which, “The Stories of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Italian Renaissance and subsequent literary periods reveal humanity at its best and point the way toward a future which endorses the values of the ‘humanities’—freedom, justice, equality” (8). If we believe Ott and Aoki, the literary allusions are indicative of a hegemonic 24th century, in which the Western ideal has obliterated all other sources of literature and tradition. However, we might more likely believe Kit McFarlane, who writes that “while the literary quotations and allusions scattered throughout the original Star Trek could make for fun viewing and even occasional authentic dramatic engagement, they’d completely lapsed into dull and passionless literary name-dropping by the time The Next Generation rolled around.” While one could certainly point to a few instances in the series that contradict McFarlane’s premise of meaningless literary engagement, he is largely accurate, especially in the case of Mark Twain’s appearance in “Time’s Arrow.”

As one of the giants of Western literature, Samuel Clemens is brought to life in “Time’s Arrow” by Jerry Hardin, a career character actor perhaps best known for his stints on L.A. Law and The X-Files. His still photo as Samuel Clemens, included here, is very likely the image that many Americans have of Mark Twain—complete with the white suit, unkempt hair, bushy mustache, and, of course, a cigar. One could hardly mistake Hardin’s visual appearance as anyone except Mark Twain. For his part, Jerry Hardin’s performance is quite good, even it is derivative of Hal Holbrook’s depictions of Mark Twain (to the point that many commenters on message boards believe that Holbrook starred in the episode). The major difference in Hardin’s portrayal lies in his dependence on exaggerated physical gesticulations and bombast as opposed to Holbrook’s more understated approach.

Nevertheless, the largest problem with the visual depiction of Clemens is over a decade before Mark Twain cultivates his image as the man in the white suit in 1906. Photographs of Clemens in the early 1890s, as this 1894 photograph of Twain in Nikola Tesla’s laboratory, often show him in a dark suit with intermittent gray hairs. Furthermore, Mark Twain was most likely residing in Europe, not on tour in San Francisco, during the episode’s 1893 setting. Clemens did not return to the United States until September of 1893 to meet with Henry Rogers in the hopes of rebuilding his financial portfolio after his bankruptcy. The episode also features a glancing reference to Halley’s Comet, when Clemens asks Counselor Troi if the Enterprise has ever encountered it. The quick reference establishes the importance of Halley’s Comet in Mark Twain lore. While one might give leeway for creative license when depicting historical figures, especially in a science-fiction setting, the episode’s writers merely provide a collage of well-known details from Twain’s life rather than building the episode on a more informed and complicated depiction of it. If asked to compile what an average person would know of Mark Twain, a white suit, cigar, San Francisco, and Halley’s Comet would likely appear in the Top 10, which makes one suspect that this episode is guilty of the passionless name-dropping that Kit McFarlane mentions. While these inaccuracies may seem slight, they reveal the episode’s inability to move beyond a surface portrait of Mark Twain, just as other episodes tend to draw simplistic analogies to classical works of literature.

Mark Twain’s depiction on “Time’s Arrow” further represents an oddity in Star Trek’s use of literary reference because the focus is not so much on Mark Twain’s literary works as much as on the personality and aura of Mark Twain, with the little focus on his work being overly simplified. In most of Trek’s literary references, various plot devices and characters serve as analogies to classical literature. For example, most famously in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Khan is a clear analogy for Captain Ahab; in addition, Khan takes on aspects of Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost as he and his followers are marooned on a deserted planet. Even if the analogies are sometimes clumsy or heavy-handed, they often fit the theme of the episode. “Time’s Arrow” obliquely references two of Twain’s literary works, one well-known and the other more obscure. The first reference is to an essay called “Was the World Made for Man?” (1903), and it occurs in the introduction of his character to the plot.[3] The essay, which was published posthumously, is a brief response to Alfred Russell Wallace’s book Man’s Place in the Universe (1903), which argues that man, because of his reasoning faculty, is the focal point of the cosmos—that the world, the universe, was created for man. The scene takes place in a lecture hall, in which Enterprise bartender Guinan, an ancient, recurring alien bartender on the series portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg, is holding a lecture, with Clemens in attendance as an eager participant. Data eventually interrupts the discussion because he believes that Guinan has also been thrown back in time and seeks her help. Though Clemens’s dialogue does not quote from Mark Twain’s essay on Russell verbatim, he does recount many of the points made in Twain’s essay.

The scene is meant to establish Twain’s skepticism of humanity, largely so that he can be convinced of its evolution later in the episode. After Clemens derides Wallace’s thesis and asserts that man becomes less significant if he is one among millions of intelligent species, Guinan asserts, “Some may argue that a diamond is still a diamond—even if it is one amongst millions.” Clemens’s response acerbically notes that in order to accept her analogy, one would have to believe that “the human race was akin to a precious jewel, but this increasingly hypothetical someone, would not be me.” The dialogue here perfectly sets up the image of Mark Twain as a cynic and misanthrope, especially concerning the ability of humanity to evolve beyond its crude state. The analogy also pits Clemens’s world-weary cynicism against Data’s innocence, though the episode does very little development of that particular motif. In making Clemens into such a cynic, the episode overplays its hand a bit in emphasizing this facet of Twain by ignoring the purpose of his satire. Clemens’s starting point is too close to nihilism to accurately portray Twain’s use of humor, and it especially undercuts Clemens’s self-proclaimed title, “Protector of Humanity,” after he learns that aliens and people from the future have arrived. If man is so insignificant, why does Clemens go through such great lengths to protect it in the episode?

To be sure, many of Twain’s writings display a lack of confidence in the human race, but Harold K. Bush also notes that “the moral aspect of his writings hinges upon both a desire for an unshakable faith in the possibility that things might change for the better and that his work would become an agent for such change” (224). Clemens’s opening scene and his dialogue with Guinan do not offer a glimpse into Twain’s love of humanity. The sole purpose of this construction of Clemens’s character is to set him on a journey from hopeless cynic to naïve acolyte by the episodes end. Thus, while the use of “Was the World Made for Man?” in Clemens’s opening scene does provide great potential in showing how he might interact with visitors from other worlds, that potential is eventually unfulfilled, since Clemens spends much of the remainder of the episode as merely an obstacle attempting to thwart Data’s plan to stop the meta-phasic aliens out of paranoia, which leads to the reference to one of Twain’s more well-known works.

The other reference to Mark Twain’s work clearly exemplifies the paranoia of Clemens. In the opening scene of Part 2 in “Time’s Arrow,” Clemens notes to a reporter that in one his novels, a time traveler goes back in time and destroys a civilization, and Clemens does not intend for some android from the future to mess with humanity. Of course, Clemens is referring to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In the episode, Clemens states, “I’ve long been interested in the notion of time travelers. In fact, I wrote a book about it. It chronicles the tale of a man from our era who fouls the sixth century by introducing newfangled gadgets and weapons, all in the name of progress.” On the surface, this synopsis of the novel is not wrong, but it is oversimplified. The passing reference to this episode seems clever on the surface, but other than time travel, the events in “Time’s Arrow” has very little in common with the novel. First, the writers of the episode err in having Clemens claim that the novel is a satire on Hank Morgan, the novel’s protagonist. In reality, the novel’s primary target is the romanticization of the Arthurian legends. Certainly, Twain does not leave the Gilded Age unscathed, and Twain castigates Morgan for his actions, but not more so than the primitive superstition displayed by nobility and Church of the medieval period. For the character of Clemens to say that Morgan “fouls up” Camelot is largely inaccurate because Twain emphasizes that Camelot is already fouled up throughout the entire novel. Moreover, that Clemens uses his own novel to suspect Data of foul play does not give Mark Twain credit for his openness to science, progress, and business. The episode might have been better served having Clemens assist Data because of his own technological curiosity rather than having him become a secondary antagonist.

Had the episode’s engagement with Mark Twain’s work and philosophy of humanity been more nuanced, the more superficial physical presentation and allusions to his work might be easier to overlook. Instead, the episode makes Clemens’s conversion too simplistic and unbelievable, without any of the skepticism exhibited by Mark Twain in his works, even though reasons for his skepticism are abundant in this particular episode. As Clemens tracks Data and the rest of the Enterprise crew, he finds them in a mining shaft, which is where the Devidians are transporting to 19th century earth. Clemens disrupts the meeting between the crew and the Devidians, which results in a portal being opened to 24th century Devidia II. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to visit the future, Clemens walks through the portal, where he is taken to the Enterprise while the crew determines the next course of action, since Captain Picard and an injured Guinan are left with an injured Devidian on 19th century earth. Picard learns from the dying Devidian that they have been targeting and killing elderly patients in 19th century earth because they are dependent on neural energy for a food source. When Picard asks if there might be some alternative food source, the Davidian protests that there is no other, and then promptly dies. Meanwhile in the 24th century, Clemens takes a tour of the Enterprise with counselor Deanna Troi, who explains to Clemens that the conflicts that defines his earth in the 19th century are no longer concerns in the 24th:

Troi: Poverty was eliminated on earth, a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it—hopelessness, despair, cruelty…

Clemens: Young lady, I come from a time when men achieve power and wealth by standing on the backs of the poor, where prejudice and intolerance are commonplace, and power is an end unto itself. And you’re telling me that isn’t how it is anymore?

Troi: That’s right. [with a smug expression]

Clemens: Hmmm…well…maybe…it’s worth giving up cigars for, after all.

Clemens’s change of heart regarding the evolution of man is a nice sentiment, but it also runs counter to what is happening in the episode. In particular, the Enterprise is trying to ensure that an alien race will quit feeding on sick people in the 19th century. The aliens do not appear to be killing people out of malice, hatred, or cruelty, but because they are desperate for a food source. Rather than working to solve the aliens’ problem, the Enterprise destroys the portal through which the aliens travel to the 24th century, and ostensibly destroys them in the process. In previous episodes of the series, Picard has attempted to help much more dangerous foes before pursuing a violent course of action. In “Silicone Avatar” (5.4), and episode from the same season, he seeks to communicate with the Crystalline Entity (pictured here), which had already destroyed numerous planets, before seeking to destroy it because he understood that the creature needed a food source that they might be able to provide. In “Time’s Arrow,” Picard and his crew never attempt to find an alternative food source for the Devidians; instead, they destroy their portal and leave them for dead. Given Clemens’s early skepticism toward the Enterprise, it seems as though this action might raise a bushy eyebrow or two.

However, Clemens celebrates his newfound optimism, which is still problematic because many of his most pessimistic works are written after 1893. Certainly, the writers could have explained that Twain’s later works bordered on pessimism because humanity was so slow in progressing after he had seen the potential of mankind fulfilled, or he could have had his memory of the incident wiped, a ready stand-by in science-fiction, or they could have found some clever way to tie it to one of his works. But the writers do nothing of the sort. After returning to the 19th century so that Picard can return to the 24th in time to decimate the Devidians, Clemens continues his life with no apparent closure to his journey. This lack of closure largely occurs because Clemens’s purpose for the episode has been fulfilled: a misanthropic old man has come to endorse the future. A future manufactured by the show’s writers that reflect assumptions of Western cultural superiority. Indeed, Valerie Fulton explicates the implication of such assumptions, writing,

Clemens’s appearance on the show underscores the extent to which t.v. programs themselves may unintentionally reproduce ideological assumptions that we consume, store, and later regurgitate….Clemens’s appearance on the episode in question as an inquisitive and bothersome fixture of the western American frontier situates him firmly in a past where the imperial self was a fixture both dominant and heroic. This portrayal does more than belie the strong anti-imperialist tenor of Clemens’s later work. (Fulton)

Because the writers misunderstand and even ignore the works and philosophy of Mark Twain, they trade on his status as iconic American writer in order to project American norms onto Starfleet and the Federation. Essentially, the episode is a fairy tale in which the timeline is reset, and the assumption of Federation moral and cultural superiority are reinforced.

While Star Trek adapts many classical works of literature in episodes, “Time’s Arrow” inverts this model. Rather than engaging in Mark Twain’s work, they instead misuse his iconic image to reinforce their mythology of the future. The episode raises complications for both parties involved. For Star Trek, the episode illustrates the series’ struggles to engage with classical literature any further than a surface level interpretation. For Mark Twain, the episode illustrates the inability of the popular imagination, as seen both in this episode and various adaptations of Twain’s literature, to move beyond the more iconic, less nuanced image of Mark Twain as the domesticated satirist.


Kaine Ezell is Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. He recently published his first book, Humor & Satire on Contemporary American Television: Animation & The American Joke. A version of this paper was originally presented last month at the 8th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. 


[1] Jack London’s role in the episode would require a different kind of paper, but on balance, his depiction in the episode is smoother than Mark Twain’s, perhaps because London does not enjoy the same iconic status as Mark Twain.

[2] To avoid confusion, I will refer to the real life writer and historical figure as Mark Twain, and I will refer to the fictional character in “Time’s Arrow” as Samuel Clemens.

[3] Another anachronism, since this essay, and Wallace’s book, are written almost a decade after the episode’s setting.


Works Cited

Broderick, James F. The Literary Galaxy of Star Trek. McFarland and Co., 2006.

Bush, Harold K. Mark Twain and the Crisis of His Spiritual Age. U of Alabama P, 2007.

Fulton, Valerie. “An Other Frontier: Voyaging West with Mark Twain and Star Trek’s Imperial Subject.” Postmodern Culture, vol. 4, no. 3, 1995, ProjectMuse. Accessed 10 July 2017.

McFarlane, Kit. “Star Trek’s Lost Legacy of Literary Pretension.” Pop Matters, 21 May 2009, Accessed 10 July 2017.

Ott, Brian L. and Eric Aoki. “Popular Imagination and Identity Politics: Reading the Future in Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 65, no. 4, 2001, pp. 392-415.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Directed by Leonard Nimoy, performances by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Deforest Kelley, Paramount, 1986.

“Time’s Arrow, Part 1.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Joe Menosky and Michael Piller, directed by Les Landau, Paramount, 1992.

“Time’s Arrow, Part 2.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by Joe Menosky and Michael Piller, directed by Les Landau, Paramount, 1992.

CMTS Partners with Chemung County Historical Society for “Twilight Zone” Lecture

Mark Dawidziak, author of the recently published Everything I Need to Know I Learned in The Twilight Zone and editor of several collections of Twain’s wit and wisdom, including Mark Twain for Cat Lovers, will explore the many intriguing personal and professional parallels between Twain and Rod Serling, two authors with profound connections to upstate New York. Both writers would retreat to upstate New York each summer with their families – Twain to Quarry Farm in Elmira, Serling to a cabin on Cayuga Lake – but that’s just one of the many fascinating points of comparison linking these two iconic American writers.

This lecture is free and open to the public.  It will take place Thursday, July 13 at 7pm at the Chemung County Historical Society (415 East Water Street, Elmira).

Mark Dawidziak is a television critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, as well as an acclaimed author, playwright, director, and actor who often portrays Twain in performances. A recognized Twain scholar, he has edited several books on the author, including Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing (1996), Horton Foote’s The Shape of the River: The Lost Teleplay About Mark Twain (2003), Mark Twain in Ohio (2015), Mark Twain’s Guide to Diet, Exercise, Beauty, Fashion, Investment, Romance, Health and Happiness (2015), and Mark Twain for Cat Lovers: True and Imaginary Adventures with Feline Friends (2016).