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Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.Getty Images/The Bridgeman Art Library

As we pack ever more computing power onto pocket telephones and tool around town in our hybrid cars, we can be excused for thinking that modern technology is taking us to wild new places. But it’s nothing compared to what happened to people in the late 19th century. A coal-powered world began to hum with the strange new power of electricity. Distances that once took months to cross via covered wagon were suddenly a few days away by train—or a few moments by telegraph.

It was a time of excitement about technology, but also a time of anxiety. Rosalind Williams, a historian of technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has made a career of studying the relationship between science and the society around it. In her new book, “The Triumph of Human Empire,” she takes a close look at the works of three writers who lived through the changes of the 19th century—Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and William Morris—to explore the worry that began to simmer below the surface of an age of unprecedented scientific discovery.

Each of the writers expressed this anxiety differently. Morris embraced socialism and turned toward nature; Stevenson and Verne suffused their adventure fiction with concerns about European colonialism and the misuse of innovations. Connecting all three, Williams found, was an awareness about human relationships with the planet that is strikingly modern. In their work, she says, we can see the origins of debates that we are having today, such as how to share the Earth’s finite resources among an ever expanding global population.

MIT’s Rosalind Williams.
MIT’s Rosalind Williams. Owen Williams

Williams spoke to Ideas from her home in Newton. This interview was edited from two conversations.

IDEAS: Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson were adventure writers. How did you come to view them in this new light?


WILLIAMS: Some of their best-known works are their buoyant, upbeat ones, but they both are dedicated writers who wrote an enormous amounts of material, and if you take a broader view they take a much broader range....In the case of Verne, you don’t have to wander very far to see that this is a complicated person with a complicated world view. I mean, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is a very tough captivity narrative. And Captain Nemo is a very disturbed person with a lot of complexity and anger in him. This is one of Verne’s best-known novels. Another example for Stevenson is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I mean, that’s a really scary tale of bioengineering.

IDEAS: Verne in particular seems like such a science enthusiast. What exactly did he worry about?

WILLIAMS: He tends to be really excited and happy about scientific discoveries, or possibilities for human objects or systems to do amazing things, like going “around the world in 80 days,” or finding out what’s at the bottom of the sea. But he sees huge dangers from a variety of sources. For example, he’s really worried about the power of the nation state, using these technologies to make war, to subject colonial peoples.


IDEAS: How about Morris and Stevenson?

WILLIAMS: From the start, Morris is very troubled by what he sees as modern civilization
losing its connection with the human past and the nonhuman world, creating ugliness and commercialism everywhere. But he discovers the sagas of the north, the Icelandic sagas, and in this case it’s a positive discovery—along, I should add, with socialism. This world is really difficult, that’s not a new perception for him, he’s very troubled by it. But he finds ways of confronting it that allow him to see the world as livable.

Robert Louis Stevenson takes a journey from Scotland to California. He is making this journey to track down the woman he loves and wants to marry. It’s a very romantic reason to make it. But on that journey he sees things he’s never seen before in terms of the human consequences of economic crisis, of unemployment, and of what I call semi-forced migration. And he became very ill himself, and the toughness of the journey by steamship and railway. By the end of it he had really changed. He said that he didn’t want to write about light things and travel anymore.

IDEAS: What most surprised you about your research?

WILLIAMS: I went to the map room of [Oxford’s] Bodleian Library, just browsing, and on the shelf was this jubilee atlas commemorating the 50th anniversary of Victoria’s ascent to the throne. It just really struck me that those people in 1887, they could see the end of the world, I mean in space, because the maps were so big and clear and full. But at the fringes they were still not quite sure about exactly how things were going to end. But you knew that they knew that before long those blanks would be filled in. I just thought of that moment: This is the western project since the Renaissance, mapping the globe, knowing the planet. It was a whole-earth moment where you see the globe as the globe and you say “Not only are we near the end, but this is all we have. There is nowhere else.”...That was where the thesis of the book came from, once you could see it on the map.


IDEAS: Do you think modern audiences can relate to this?

WILLIAMS: I think it is called environmental consciousness. What I’m trying to get at is the
paradox that, then as now, there was tremendous excitement about what we’ve learned, what we know, what we can do with what we’ve learned, and our ability to manipulate our surroundings. But at the same time, coexisting is a whole set of anxieties about the human relationship to the planet....It’s this coexistence of exhilaration and anxiety that I see with these writers at that time and that I see in our time.

IDEAS: Are there any insights we can take away from these authors in 2013?


WILLIAMS: What I find so fascinating about these authors is them trying to balance their personal life with this concern about where history is headed and a fascination with knowledge and power. That balancing act, I think, is so familiar, and hearing them, it gives us a little distance.

Noah Guiney is a freelance journalist currently working for The Boston Globe’s Opinion section. He can be reached at noah.guiney@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NoahGuiney.