Forgotten Futures

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Brian Stableford sheds some light on a neglected chapter in science fiction history.
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One of the reasons that I am grateful for reading Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 is that it confirmed a long-held suspicion. After reading this book, it is clear to me that most literary steampunk, despite its claims to the contrary, bears very little resemblance to its "honored ancestors". The stories written today may be set in a Victorian world, and they may pilfer machinery from the back catalogues of Wells and Verne, but they are not scientific romances. They are reheated American pulp in English clothing. Which is a great shame, as the forgotten imaginative world Brian Stableford unearths is far wilder and sadder than anyone could imagine.

Stableford's argument is that the type of science fiction created by British authors in the first half of the 20th century can be thought of as a single unit. Nowhere does Stableford attempt a prescriptive description of "scientific romance"; given the variety of subjects and approaches within the body of work under discussion, any such description would be incomplete. Instead, Stableford argues for the inclusion of stories under the label based on a shared outlook on the world and on recurring themes, both of which can be contrasted with the American "scientifiction" that was emerging at the same time.

The first major epoch of the scientific romance came in the 1890s with the rise of the weekly and monthly periodical. In broad outline the situation resembled that of the American pulp market: an expanding literate audience clamored for entertainment, and publishers began to commission all sorts of stories to fill the demand. However, the British periodicals were targeting a middlebrow audience, rather than the working class and immigrant audiences that favored the pulps in America. As a result a different type of author was sought out, and a different type of story appeared.

The scientific romances of the 1890s, written by such men as George Griffith, M. P. Shiel, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Hope Hodgson, J. D. Beresford, and above all H. G. Wells, bear a passing resemblance to the early science fiction of America, but there are marked differences. Most of the British stories are not built around narrative drive. The characters are not heroes, eager to make it to the frontier and claim it as their own, and the stories do not hinge on the machinations of plot. In most scientific romances, the protagonist is not a character but a viewpoint, a perspective that travels through a realm and records his impressions. It is a storytelling of observation and meditation, not of action or psychological exploration.

While it is traditional to decry such narrative passivity as "bad writing", there is a rationale for this style. The heart of the scientific romance lies in its capacity for allegory, a rhetorical mode that is largely absent from its transatlantic brethren. Most scientific romances can best be read, not as realistic novels, but as attempts by their authors to grapple with some great issue of the day. (Indeed, there are a number of scientific romances that cannot be described as novels at all.) Stableford argues that this tendency was due to both the legacy of the imaginary voyage in European literature as well as the tradition, unknown in America, of British intellectuals using speculative essays and fiction to engage with the public on scientific and philosophical issues. While every author had their own particular obsession (the work of William Hope Hodgson, for instance, evinces a truly impressive fear of bodily corruption), the one that all authors working in scientific romance shared was over The Question of Evolution. Today it is hard to imagine the reaction of both British intellectuals and the British public to Darwin's theory, of how its implications prompted many to reassess the fundamental underpinnings of life. In a world where science has marched in triumph for over a century, it is difficult for us to understand what it meant in those days for men raised in the Christian tradition to be confronted with the possibility that man is not a sacred creation, but merely one creature out of many. In discussing the lives of writers of scientific romance, Stableford notes that the vast majority of them came from religious families, only to convert to atheism or "free thought" as young men. However, while they had rejected the primacy of Scripture, there was still a tendency among many to try and preserve some element of the Christian tradition. As a result a great many scientific romances are fusions of science and spirituality, with Christian elements refashioned toward allegorical ends. Even H. G. Wells dabbled in this with his 1895 work The Wonderful Visit, though he was the most comfortable among the early writers with a wholly materialist world.

The first stage of the scientific romance did not last long beyond the periodical boom of the 1890s. As the audience matured and modern newsmagazines emerged, the market for scientific romances dried up. At any rate, most writers were drifting away from the genre by the end of the decade, and by 1910 it was essentially dead. Over the next twenty years there was a small trickle of stories as the genre moved away from periodicals and into short novels. It was the novel, long enough to advance an argument but short enough to avoid page-filling worldbuilding, that proved to be an ideal form for the genre as it reemerged in the 1930s.

The authors of the 1930s were still wrestling with the same questions that occupied the authors of the 1890s, but there was a change in attitude. While the earlier stories always had a certain anxiety in their speculations, in the 1930s that anxiety became a state of being. Given the period, this is perhaps not surprising; Britain may have won the First World War, but you would not be able to tell that from looking at the literature. The destruction and loss of the war combined with the increasingly troubled nature of both postwar British society and the world at large combined to produce a literary imagination fraught with hope and uncertainty.

A few earlier authors, with Wells again standing over and above, returned to scientific romance in the 1930s, but their best work was long behind them. The new authors, S. Fowler Wright, Olaf Stapledon, Neil Bell, and John Gloag, borrowed from their ancestors, but their era and their idiosyncrasies took the scientific romance in a new direction. In the 1930s, the Question of Evolution had modulated into The Question of Utopia. In the majors works of the period, the failure of contemporary society was a given, and the new question was what sort of great change would come to reorganize the world, and whether it should be embraced or feared. The solutions ran the gamut from H. G. Wells' technocratic dictatorship of the pilotariat to S. Fowler Wright's abandonment of civilization itself as irredeemably evil in exchange for a violent Rousseauian libertarianism. Many writers, however, were never able to fully trust their solutions to humanity's ills. The champion among these doubters was probably Olaf Stapledon, a man Stableford describes as forever searching for a faith he could never allow himself to accept wholeheartedly. His most famous work, Last and First Men, imagines the struggle of eighteen species of humanity over two billion years to find the ideal way of life, none of which wholly succeed. Stapledon, along with other writers, also dabbled in the now-clichéd SF plot of the alien or superhuman creature that comments satirically on the ills of modern society.

Reading of these stories from the perspective of eighty years later is a unique experience. There is an extremism and fatalism to many that is frankly shocking to read. Given the intellectual climate and the influence of the utopian experiments underway in Europe during the period, as well as the peculiarly British fascination with decline and decay, their emergence is not surprising, but their complete lack of faith in every facet of their society is. However, within that element of disgust for the everyday is a genuine optimism, a sense that, while the world has serious problems, there is still some way in which man can be taught and society can be built so that every soul will be able to live the good life, whatever that may be. Compared to the scientific romances of the 1930s, our contemporary post-apocalyptic literature is rather dispiriting, imagining no greater future for our species beyond a return to the idiotic self-absorption of village life.

Scientific romances still continued to be written into the 1940s, though at a much reduced volume. The events of the Second World War, oddly enough, had less of an effect on the genre than the First. Of course, given the concerns the writers of the 1930s had, the events of the war generally did not come as much of a surprise. However, the 1940s were the swan song of the scientific romance. After the war, American publishers began to make inroads into the British market, effectively leading to the colonization of Britain by science fiction. Stableford notes that scientific romance never developed the culture American science fiction did; rather than networks of writers and cross-pollination, scientific romance was always a very individualistic affair, with writers having only a few lines of communication between each other (mostly through H. G. Wells himself). There was also never anything like a "fan culture" for scientific romance; the fan societies that emerged in Britain between the wars were focused more on American material, and it was from this area that the new generation of British science fiction writers emerged in the 1950s.

However, while the story of the scientific romance ended in the 1950s, and many of its practitioners fell into obscurity, it was never wholly forgotten. Even today, Anglophone science fiction can be thought of as a creature of two minds, the American impulse for action and narrative coexisting with the British impulse for meditation and evolutionary perspective. Perhaps the clearest expression of this can be found in space opera; it was Arthur C. Clarke who fused the worldview of Stapledon and Wells into the planetary romance of the pulps, creating a duality that can be seen running from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Trek and all the way down to the ending of Mass Effect 3. The British New Wave of the 1960s also took its cues from the works of earlier writers, though it was more the province of writers like Brian Aldiss and J. G. Ballard than Michael Moorcock. There's even Stableford himself, whose works in the later 1980s and 1990s are far more in tune with the trends he outlined in his book. (For the record, Scientific Romance in Britain was published in 1985.) Influences can be seen among any number of contemporary writers; Stephen Baxter is perhaps the most obvious, indeed going so far as to reimagine works from earlier authors with a hard-science basis. The melancholic worlds of Ian R. MacLeod, with their characters who anxiously stand at the cusp of transcendence, also echo an earlier age.

Scientific romance is a literature for dreamers. The stories may be crude, they may not follow the rules of good literature, and they bear the mark of their times. And yet, there is something thrilling about these stories. They introduce us, not just to a forgotten era, but directly to the hopes and fears of their authors. They are personal; each imaginary world is, at heart, the attempt by one man to make sense of an unknowable world and make peace with it, if only for a while. It is a struggle all of us face every day, and to see that struggle mirrored connects us. By reading these authors, we know the past, and we know ourselves.

It's why I read.
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Comments (go to latest)
Alice at 14:34 on 2013-08-04
You know, Alasdair, whenever I read one of your articles, I think "gosh, this is really interesting and well-thought-out -- and I'm glad you've written about it, because I'm too much of a wuss to engage with the text directly!". ;-)

I generally find the real world depressing enough that I try to avoid depressing/disturbing fiction, but I often find it quite interesting to read about said fiction at a filtered distance -- in the same way that I'm too squeamish to watch Hannibal, but really enjoy reading Cleolinda's recaps of the show & the discussion in the comments.

(This possibly entirely meaningless comment brought to you by my realisation that while I always enjoy your articles I very rarely comment on them, which makes me feel slightly guilty.)
Melanie at 19:41 on 2013-08-04
the protagonist is not a character but a viewpoint, a perspective that travels through a realm and records his impressions. It is a storytelling of observation and meditation, not of action or psychological exploration.


...This sounds fantastically interesting. Especially with the bit about it coming partly from the "imaginary voyage" thing, because I'm a sucker for that.

(This possibly entirely meaningless comment brought to you by my realisation that while I always enjoy your articles I very rarely comment on them, which makes me feel slightly guilty.)


...ditto.
http://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 18:54 on 2013-08-05
Isn't there a rather prominent french author missing here? It's always problematic to delineate literary trends (especially so the more "literary" it gets, authors tends to read each other voraciously) I've noticed.

Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:12 on 2013-08-10
I generally find the real world depressing enough that I try to avoid depressing/disturbing fiction, but I often find it quite interesting to read about said fiction at a filtered distance -- in the same way that I'm too squeamish to watch Hannibal, but really enjoy reading Cleolinda's recaps of the show & the discussion in the comments.

Aw, that's very sweet of you to say! Truth be told, I think you may be overselling my critical abilities; certainly I don't think of myself as being in the league with some of the people I've read here and elsewhere. Still, I try my best.

Isn't there a rather prominent french author missing here? It's always problematic to delineate literary trends (especially so the more "literary" it gets, authors tends to read each other voraciously) I've noticed.

I am slightly embarrassed that my first guess was that you were thinking of Camille Flammarion (who Stableford notes had quite a bit of influence on the early wave of scientific romance through his speculative essays) rather than Jules Verne. Given that the book is solely about British writers, Verne is only discussed in passing, mostly in terms of his influence. Oddly enough, after about 1905 or so, Verne's speculative works were marketed in Britain as "boy's books," and they didn't enjoy much crossover with the more "adult" fare. It's one of those examples of how things don't always translate between cultures; before the 1950s, most American planetary romances ended up under the "boy's book" banner as well.
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