1916: "Enoch Soames" (subtitled "A Memory of the
Eighteen-nineties"), a novelette by Max Beerbohm available e.g. at Project Gutenberg, is the story of an obscure poet, the titular Soames, unappreciated by his contemporaries, who sells his soul to the Devil for the privilege of spending an afternoon in a library (the reading-room of the British Museum) 100 years in the future, so that he can see how he is regarded by posterity.
Is it science fiction? Pact-with-the-Devil stories are generally classified as fantasy. On the other hand, this is also a time-travel story, and time travel has been a standard science-fictional theme since Wells's The Time Machine, which is alluded to in this story. In the following excerpt the Devil has made his proposal to Soames in the company of his friend Max Beerbohm, the author and first-person narrator:
'All right,' said Soames.
'Soames!' I entreated. But my friend moved not a muscle.
The Devil had made as though to stretch forth his hand across the table and touch Soames' forearm; but he paused in his gesture.
'A hundred years hence, as now,' he smiled, 'no smoking allowed in the reading-room. You would better therefore—'
Soames removed the cigarette from his mouth and dropped it into his glass of Sauterne.
'Soames!' again I cried. 'Can't you'—but the Devil had now stretched forth his hand across the table. He brought it slowly down on—the table-cloth. Soames' chair was empty. His cigarette floated sodden in his wine-glass. There was no other trace of him.
For a few moments the Devil let his hand rest where it lay, gazing at me out of the corners of his eyes, vulgarly triumphant.
A shudder shook me. With an effort I controlled myself and rose from the chair. 'Very clever,' I said condescendingly. 'But—The Time Machine is a delightbul book, don't you think? So entirely original!'
'You are pleased to sneer,' said the Devil, who had also risen, 'but it is one thing to write about a not possible machine; it is a quite other thing to be a Supernatural Power.' All the same, I had scored.
Moreover, as a result of this time travel, part of the story is set in the future year of 1997. The people of the future present a stereotypically futuristic appearance, as described by Soames to Beerbohm after his return:
'That's right. Try to remember everything. Eat a little more bread. What did the reading-room look like?'
'Much as usual,' he at length muttered.
'Many people there?'
'Usual sort of number.'
'What did they look like?"
Soames tried to visualize them. 'They all,' he presently remembered, 'looked very like one another.'
My mind took a fearsome leap. 'All dressed in Jaeger?'
'Yes, I think so. Greyish-yellowish stuff.'
'A sort of uniform?' He nodded. 'With a number on it, perhaps?—a number on a large disc of metal sewn on to the left sleeve? DKF 78.910—that sort of thing?' It was even so. 'And all of them—men and women alike—looking very waell-cared-for? very Utopian? and smelling rather strongly of carbolic? and all of them quite hairless?' I was right every time. Soames was only not sure whether the men and women were hairless or shorn. 'I hadn't time to look at them very closely,' he explained.
Also, the future people have instituted socialism and spelling reform, as can be seen from the next excerpt; so it is a kind of utopia or dystopia.
Is it self-referential? Soames spends a long time in the library, looking for any sign that he is remembered at all. At last, he finds his name in the index of a book by one T. K. Nupton. To his dismay, it is not a reference to Soames himself, but to the work of that title by Beerbohm, which Nupton takes to be fiction, and Soames to be a fictional character invented by Beerbohm! Here is the passage Soames copied out:
From p. 234 of Inglish Littracher 1890–1900, bi T. K. Nupton, published by th Stait, 1992:
Fr. egzarmpl, a riter ov th time, naimd Max Beerbohm, hoo woz stil alive in th twentieth senchri, rote a stauri in wich e pautraid an immajnari karrakter kauld 'Enoch Soames'—a thurd-rait poit hoo beleevz imself a grate jeneus an maix a bargin with th Devvl in auder ter no wot posterriti thinx ov im! It iz a sumwot labud sattire but not without vallu az showing hou seriusli the yung men ov th aiteen-ninetiz took themselvz. Nou that the littreri profeshn has bin auganized az a department of publik servis, our riters hav found their levvl an hav lernt ter doo their duti without thort ov th morro. 'Th laibrer iz werthi ov hiz hire,' an that iz aul. Thank hevvn we hav no Enoch Soameses amung us to-dai!
A time paradox is narrowly avoided because of Nupton's indolence, as Beerbohm explains:
In that extract from Nupton's repulsive book there is one point which perhaps puzzles you. How is it that the author, though I have here mentioned him by name and have quoted the exact words he is going to write, is not going to grasp the obvious corollary that I have invented nothing? The answer can but be this: Nupton will not have read the later passages of this memoir. Such lack of thoroughness is a serious fault in any one who undertakes to do scholar's work. And I hope these words will meet the eye of some contemporary rival to Nupton and be the undoing of Nupton.