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.

Aftermath

The Charles Sheffield series continues.

Raw Feed (2000): Aftermath, Charles Sheffield, 1998.

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Cover by Paul Youll

I thought this was going to be a post-apocalypse novel about life on Earth after Alpha Centauri goes supernova. But it’s clear that, except in the setting itself, Sheffield doesn’t have much interest in writing a true post-apocalypse novel.

There are multiple viewpoint characters apart from some brief opening scenes in which three characters, who we, of course, never see again, die to show us the opening effects of the supernova. This is a standard technique of the suspense blockbuster, and Sheffield here seems to be trying to write in that style since the hard science he is known for is at a minimum.

There are no scenes of desperate violence for precious resources, no calculation of whom is fit to live and die, no bands of marauders, none of the bread and butter scenes that the usual (and enjoyable) post-apocalypse story has.

The part of the novel I liked best was the part I expected to like least: the plot involving the brilliant scientist – and serial killer – Oliver Guest. My original fears that he seemed to be an imitation of Thomas Harris’ infamous Hannibal Lector were partly realized. He is brilliant and cultured with peculiar motivations to kill. Most of the information about him comes from his secret diary – which he explicitly acknowledges is meant, as all diaries are, to be read by someone else someday. Continue reading “Aftermath”

Modern SF: Plots About Creating Life

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The look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with “plots of creation”, specifically ones where life is created.

Gunn is no vitalist, so he draws no distinction between “chemical life” and “mechanical life”. The former is based (as far as we know) exclusively on carbon, the former is based on inorganic compounds. Chemical life is “vitalized in the cell; mechanical life is vitalized in the ‘mind’ and power center”.

Of course, the creation of artificial life and seemingly sentient machines has a history before sf. It features in legend and folklore. There’s even a flying brass horse in The Canterbury Tales.

Creating “chemical life” seems more magical, a veritable resurrection of the dead according to Gunn. By doing that, humans assume God-like powers as opposed to creating “mechanical life” which has more the air of supreme artisanship or mechanical skill though, especially when creating machines that seem or are sentient, it can also seem God-like. Continue reading “Modern SF: Plots About Creating Life”

Forgotten Science Fiction: Goslings by J. D. Beresford

James W. Harris over at his Auxiliary Memory blog (see below) started an interesting discussion on post-apocalyptic novels, a favorite subject of mine, so I’m doing something different and reblogging his post and adding a list of some of my own favorite post-apocalyptic novels.

A note on taxonomy: the science fiction subgenres of the disaster and post-apocalyptic novels often blur. I’m not going to mention novels where the old order is essentially reasserted after some convulsion be it via plague, war, asteroid impact, or nanotech disaster.

For purely sentimental reasons, I’ll start with Christopher Anvil’s The Day the Machines Stopped. This one has electrical technology grinding to a halt after some accident in the Soviet Union. To be honest, I don’t even remember how it ended, so I don’t know if qualifies as a true post-apocalyptic novel or not. I read it decades ago, in grade school, during the 1970s. I just remembered the gun battles around grocery stores, and my young brain thinking, “Why, yes, that’s how it would be if there was no more electricity.” A lifelong fascination was born.

Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer is long and goes the whole spectrum from pre-disaster, through cometary impact, and the new world after. Some issues raised: Are accountants really useful after civilization ends? How do you store books in a hoard? If you’re a feudal lord who used to be a U.S. Senator, do you really owe anything to that one time campaign contributor?

One of the characters in Lucifer’s Hammer was a postman still making his rounds because communicating with other survivors is still useful after life as we know it ends. I suspect he inspired David Brin’s The Postman. Its titular character not only helps bind communities together, but he becomes the accidental and reluctant nucleus for a revival of civilization. Yes, the novel ends with silly super-survivalists, but I still liked it.

Perhaps not a truly post-apocalyptic novel but still good and a fascinating look at the possible effects of even a limited nuclear war was Whitley Strieber (yes, the Communion guy) and James Kunetka’s War Day. Using the John Dos Passos mosaic style, it’s a trip through an America that survived in a shaken and rattled state.

Something a little different but along the same line are the first two installments of Dean Ing’s Ted Quantrill trilogy: Systemic Shock and Single Combat. Set in a “streamlined America” after a limited nuclear war (specifically Ing used, as his starting point, the events of Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War there’s a recent look at it here), it has America under the thumb of a Mormon theocracy with its young hero, Quantrill, as a government assassin. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the plot. (Ing wrote a straight up survivalist novel called Pulling Through which featured an appendix on how to build an improvised fallout shelter in a hurry.)

John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass  aka The Death of Grass is a very good novel, another work that starts in the world before it falls apart, covers the unfraying of civilization due to the death of all grain crops, and covers the beginning of the new order.  There’s Pierre the gun store owner who is one of those memorable characters who comes into his own during the disaster. But he’s not the protagonist. The hero becomes the de facto leader of a group of survivors, and the novel ends memorably with a tragic incident that shows the loyalties and relationships of the old world now count for nothing.

For reason’s Jim covers ably in his reviews, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids are rightly regarded as classics. (I take an extended look at the tter here.)

Wyndham’s Out of the Depths is also worth a read. It’s a combination post-apocalypse and alien invasion novel. Wyndam’s interest in the practical skills needed to maintain life and society probably owe something to his unusual education at England’s Bedales School, an education which emphasized gardening and crafts besides traditional academics.

 

 

Auxiliary Memory

Goslings

by

J. D. Beresford

, is a 1913 post-apocalyptic novel about a plague that sweeps across the world and kills mainly men.  If you follow the link from the book title you can read a 23-part serialization from HiLobrow Books, which is illustrated with period photographs.  HiLobrow also has

reprinted the novel

as a paperback and ebook as part of their

Radium Age Science Fiction Series

.  I listened to the

Dreamscape edition

from Audible.com that was elegantly read by Matthew Brenher who did a bang-up job narrating the British dialect – just look at this

reproduction of the English edition

to see how hard it would be for a modern American to read.  The book was called

A World of Women

when first published in America.

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Beresford was an admirer of H. G. Wells, and combined fiction with scientific philosophy in Goslings, that is part satire, part…

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