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Aerofuturism: Vectors of Modernity in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture


In Aerofuturism, I argue that the protean aviation technoculture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced a unique discourse network used by authors, painters, futurists, scientists, engineers, and policymakers to mediate and amplify public anxieties about the human body and its relationship to the surrounding built environment. Each of my four chapters covers a specific chronological period in the evolution of aerofuturist discourse.

Chapter One synthesizes representations of the bird's-eye view in late nineteenth-century painting and photography, providing the optic background for the remainder of the project, and then arguing that the aerial tropes mediate colonial views of subaltern groups. I analyze Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century (1890), and Mark Twain's underappreciated parody of balloon narratives, Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894).

Chapter Two shows how visionaries in the early twentieth century used aerial space to theorize nascent forms of eugenic posthumanism. Writers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Alfred W. Lawson, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and Algernon Blackwood all illustrate how an emerging air-body complex complicated contemporary discussions of evolution and problematized the pervasive eugenic tropes of the period.

In Chapter Three I examine two aerofuturist phenomena that bookended 1930s American culture: the floating cities featured in Hugo Gernsback's air pulps alongside the aero-cities of the 1939 New York World's Fair. I argue that the shift away from dystopian urban aerofuturism involves an unconscious occlusion of the brick-and-mortar dwellings of the former world in preparation for a coming global air war.

My final chapter considers aerofuturism's dormancy in the nuclear age and the Space Race, and its 1970s reemergence as retro-aerofuturism. Critically examining the way that authors like J.G. Ballard juxtapose aviation with eco-topian short stories, I tie their nostalgic narratives to ecological pressures emanating from the environmental movements of the period. The chapter is followed by a short retrospective coda that suggests the next stage of reanimating and recreating aerofuturist structures.

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