Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950

Well, I’ve known about this book for years, but it was pricey on the second hand market, but I got it for Christmas.

A lot of science fiction crit books from the 1980s I’ve purchased recently seem to be deaccessioned from university libraries. This one came from the Columbus College Library in Columbus, Georgia.  It seems to have been checked out only once, in 1995. That matches Brian Stableford stating, in his essay “The Profession of Science Fiction” that he only sold “157 copies in the UK, not counting remainders”.

While several of the blogs I read are interested in this kind of thing, it’s definitely a niche interest.

Review: Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950, Brian Stableford, 1985. 

Stableford makes a convincing case that the British scientific romance was not the same as American sf though the two merged around 1950. The two differed in many respects: publishing markets, tone, subject, and the types of authors that wrote it..

American sf could be published in many magazines. The authors of scientific romances had only the low-brow penny dreadfuls in England, and, until around 18890, novels were published in three-volume installments intended for the upper classes. It also was about that date that magazines aimed at the middle class were first published in the UK. I was also interested to learn that Britain had paperback books slightly earlier than America.  However, they had nothing like the American pulp magazines though you could buy bundles of them (so-called “Yank mags”) that were brought over, supposedly, as ship’s ballast.

The tone of the scientific romance, particularly after World War 1, was pessimistic. Its stories often dealt with civilizational collapse or decadence. American pulp sf was optimistic.

The latter was defined by stories of space travel and interplanetary adventure. British scientific romance produced more stories with evolution and mutation as themes. The scientific romance also frequently featured future war stories.

There was a big drop off in scientific romances in Britain from 1918 through 1931 though the presence of an almost entirely British form, the “speculative essay”, increased in popularity in those years. It was closely related to science fiction and first started at least as far back as Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and took off in 1923 with J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus; or, Science and the Future.

The extent writers involved themselves in sf and scientific romances also differed substantially on each side of the Atlantic. Some mainstream British writers wrote one or two works of scientific romance, most notably Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. It was not, however, considered respectable, just eccentricity. The American pulps had many writers who specialized in writing for them.

H. G. Wells, the most famous writer of scientific romance, disparaged his scientific romances when he finally got around to having an omnibus of them published in 1927. Stableford sees early Wells as just exploring ideas and looking at their implications whereas later Wells, the artistically unsuccessful Wells, offered solutions to problems and not very convincing ones either. 

Stableford sees the ideal mix of sf/scientific romance as playfulness with serious intent to look at problems in the world. For him, American sf was vigorous in its action plots and romantic settings but not very serious in looking at the real world. The British scientific romance, with its utopian works, examinations of supermen, and how to avoid another World War, was serious but in a dull way. He thinks the post 1950 amalgam of the two was a good thing. Stableford sees John Wyndham and John Christopher as the two writers who most successfully combined the two traditions.

The book is divided up into time periods with in-depth looks at important authors of the period and its general themes. Each discussed author and their works are indexed.

Stableford makes me want to re-read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World when he notes Huxley’s succeeded where many other authors who dealt with similar issues are forgotten. Stableford credits Huxley’s lighter touch. He had more irony and didn’t, unlike Wells’, make a deliberate statement on the nature of his society. He left unanswered the question of why, exactly, the world After Ford was so bad. People are happy after all.

Interestingly, one of the many forgotten writers mentioned is Muriel Jaeger. Her The Question Mark, which may have inspired Huxley’s novel, has recently been reprinted.   

Stableford makes me now see Olaf Stapledon in a new light as a man seeking psychic communion and community. Interestingly, he was the reverse of so many of the writers Stableford discusses. He was raised by an atheist and became a sort of believer. Most of the authors covered took the opposite trajectory – sons of religious men who rebelled.

Naturally, if you are the type who would read this book, you’ll find new books and authors you want to read. The most prominent names in that regard for me are H. F. Heard, who later moved to California though, even after becoming acquainted with American sf, he still wrote in the tradition of the scientific romance. The other is John Gloag. Stableford actually got to interview Gloag before his death. Unlike many of the authors of scientific romances, Gloag (like S. Fowler Wright) was a man of the political right though Stableford puts this down to a general skepticism rather than loyalty to a particular political creed.

It’s a fascinating read with Stableford ably summarizing many a story and novel.

I would recommend this book to others interested in the history of science fiction, but, I suspect, it’s been superseded by Stableford’s four volume New Atlantis. Published in 2017, it pushes his survey back in time to some works of proto-scientific romance starting with Francis Bacon.

7 thoughts on “Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950

  1. I’ve also wanted a copy of Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 but haven’t bought one since the used prices are so high. Currently, there is one copy at ABE for $96.37, and non on eBay.

    However, I do have the four-volume New Atlantis. So, is there any need for me to have the older volume? Any content not included in the newer set?

    It’s a shame that Stableford can’t have it reprinted as reasonably priced Kindle book.

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