Why I'm tired of seeing Nikola Tesla in science fiction

There is no doubt that Nikola Tesla was a brilliant inventor, but he has also become the go-to historical mad scientist for science fiction writers. I worry that he—and his name–are popping up in fiction a bit too much.

Top image from Jeff Smith's RASL.

Before I launch into this rant, I just want to make one thing clear: This piece has nothing to do with Nikola Tesla as a historical figure. There are plenty of reasons to honor the technological legacy of Tesla, including through efforts like the Tesla statues in New York and, soon, Palo Alto and the creation of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe. This is about Tesla's role in fiction.

Last week, I read Bone creator Jeff Smith's latest comic RASL, which just came out in a collected hardcover edition. There's a lot to recommend about RASL: the cartooning is masterful, the dialogue engaging, and the idea of an art thief who steals famous paintings from other universes and then fences them in ours is a lot of fun. But somehow RASL manages to be a bit less than the sum of its parts, and I believe that a lot of that is a result of the comic's over-reliance on the biography of Nikola Tesla.

Tesla is a fun figure to play with in fiction. He was a true blue lover of science and many of his experiments seem fantastical even today. Many of his publicity photographs evoke our classic ideas of the mad scientist. He lived and worked during a time period that makes him well suited for steampunk stories and alternate histories of the First World War. He's been terrifically portrayed by David Bowie in Christopher Nolan's adaptation of Christopher Priest's The Prestige. Elements of his biography make him a tragic figure: a prolific inventor who died penniless and alone. Plus, writers love to use Tesla as a weapon against the legacy of the more business-minded Thomas Edison.

Why I'm tired of seeing Nikola Tesla in science fiction

But as the list of Tesla's appearances in fiction (and his list of fictional inventions) grows longer, I begin to worry that he's being reduced to an easy name for writers to grab for, a box you can check to prove the geek cred of your work. I'm by no means calling for a moratorium on all of Tesla in fiction, simply a thoughtful approach that keeps Tesla from becoming a throwaway name in fiction.

Why are we using Tesla?

RASL, at least, has some justification for referencing Nikola Tesla. Without going into too much detail, the comic involves the idea that a sufficiently powerful weapon could be used to bring about global peace, an idea that fits with Tesla's notion of a "peace beam," a weapon that could fend off any attack. But as the comic progresses, it becomes clear that the connections between Smith's story and Tesla's biography are tenuous and that Smith wanted to talk about Tesla in his comic because he found Tesla to be an interesting figure. Certainly there's nothing wrong with writing about Tesla simply because the author finds him interesting, but when that writing doesn't go far beyond a cursory retelling of now well-worn biography, it feels tacked on, as if he's included less because he was integral to the story or inspiring than because he's the mad scientist du jour.

Nikola Tesla is in danger of becoming the human equivalent of a brass gear, something that we affix to our fictional inventions to give them a certain flavor. The TV series Sanctuary, for example, was quick to hop on the Tesla bandwagon, but delivered a character who bore little relation to the historical Tesla. (Granted, he was also a vampire.) And now Tesla's name gets slapped on all manner of weapons and vaguely scientific characters. He's increasingly becoming a literary crutch, a figure and a name that are easy to reach for when discussing remarkable feats of engineering. I find myself thinking of Nikola Tesla the way that a lot of people think of zombies: a figure that can still be used to tell great stories, but who also enables some laziness in storytelling.

The Man or the Myth?

As Tesla appears more and more in fiction, the narrative of his life has become increasingly streamlined. Matthew Inman's The Oatmeal installment on Nikola Tesla is a perfect example of Tesla's biography as heroic ballad. Nikola Tesla was a brilliant scientist, hurrah, hurrah. He fought the right side of the current wars, hurrah, hurrah—and so on. To some extent, this simplifying of Tesla's biography has been done to portray Tesla as a science hero, a person that we might strive to become. The tragedy of his story makes him a compelling figure, and encourages us to honor his love of science and his big dreams.

Why I'm tired of seeing Nikola Tesla in science fiction

But in turning him into a mascot for the brilliant but ignored, we risk forgetting the man. As Matt Novak recently pointed out over at Paleofuture, there is far more to Tesla's biography than that simple narrative. Yes, not all of it is pretty; Tesla made his share of mistakes along the way and held some views that in the present era would be considered abhorrent. That doesn't mean that discussing Tesla's warts doesn't have value. Myths are power things, but to insist on perpetuating the mythological image of Tesla is to suggest that we have nothing else to learn from his life. I don't for a moment think that I've read everything interesting or valuable about the life of Nicola Tesla, but I find myself repeatedly confronted with variations on the grade school textbook version of Tesla's biography.

Let's Deepen Our Bench of Historical Scientists in Literature

When Tesla first began to appear more and more in fiction, he was a relatively obscure personage, someone we pointed to when we spoke of Thomas Edison or Guglielmo Marconi. It seemed a crime that someone who had contributed so much to our technological archive was so forgotten by history. Including him in works of fiction seemed an excellent way to keep Tesla's legacy alive, to inform the ignorant of his accomplishments and inspire the curious to learn more about him.

Today, Tesla's name is splashed across the bumpers of premium electric cars and members of the public have chipped in more than a million dollars to purchase the site of his Wardenclyffe Tower laboratory. Certainly it's important to ensure that people continue learning about his accomplishments as well as those of other inventors. But let's not be content to merely pat ourselves on the back for pulling Nikola Tesla back into the limelight. Let's dive back into the annals of history and find other fascinating scientists who didn't pop up in history class. Nikola Tesla is the easy name to reach for at this point, and sometimes he may be the perfect figure for the story being told. All I ask is that when writers find their minds drifting toward Tesla, they ask themselves if some other historical scientist might be a better or more interesting fit. I believe that science fiction and our cultural knowledge of science history could be enriched by adding more historical scientists to our pantheon of science fiction characters.