Science Fiction Studies

#60 = Volume 20, Part 2 = July 1993

R.D. Mullen

From Anglo-American to Amero-British, Alas!

Nicholas Ruddick. British Science Fiction: A Chronology, 1478-1990. Bibliographies and Indexes in World Literature #35. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood Press, 1992. xxv+251. $55.00. (Credit-card orders 800225-5800).

Nicholas Ruddick. Ultimate Island.- On the Nature of British Science Fiction. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy #55. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood Press, 1993. xi+203. $47.95. (Credit-card orders 800-225-5800).

Ithaca itself ties close in to the mainland the furthest from the gloom, but the others lie apart toward the Dawn and the sun-a rugged isle, but a good nurse of young men; and for myself no other thing can I see sweeter than one's own land--Loeb Library translation, by A.T. Murray, of the four Greek lines (Odyssey ix, 25-28) that serve as epigraph to Ultimate Island.

"Are you British?" "No, not really. Welsh."--Exchange in an Analog story that I can no longer identify.

In literary culture down to about 1950, in both serious and popular fiction, the United States was as much a British dominion as Canada or Australia. A young reader growing up in Kansas in the '20s (as I can personally testify) was as familiar with London as with New York. Despite the great difference in population, more new titles were published each year in England than in the US. Novels by British authors often made up more than half of the US best-seller lists. American pulp-magazine editors shopped on Grub Street. In the typical American college, a six-hour Survey of English Literature was required of all students, whereas the three-hour Survey of American Literature was simply an elective. Times have changed: now we typically find a Survey of British Literature matched by an equally long Survey of American Literature, with both perhaps required (though generally only of English majors) or both perhaps elective (even within the major). We have thus moved from a time when anglophone literary culture was predominantly British even in the US to a time when contemporary American fiction holds its own with contemporary British fiction, at least with American readers. If Anglo-American was a proper term for anglophone literature during the time of British predominance, then Amero-British would be appropriate in cases where the situation is reversed.

The history of literature is to some degree a history of movements. In American serious fiction, beginning with the realists and naturalists, there was once a movement envisioning a distinctive American tradition concerned with peculiarly American themes and promising the Great American Novel. The rise of such commercial genres as the historical novel, the detective story, and the Western story can hardly be said to have resulted from anything that could be called a movement, nor can the writing in this period of utopias and works described as scientific romances or scientific novels. But a genuine movement marked by missionary zeal did begin in 1927 in the correspondence columns of Amazing Stories and continues to this day, having spread first to Britain and other anglophone countries and then around the world, with SF by American writers everywhere the predominant influence, outselling SF by British writers even in Britain itself. Some scholars (e.g., Samuel R. Delany and Gary Westfahl), argue that only the products of this movement should be regarded as true science fiction.

Taken together, the two books by Nicholas Ruddick, British Science Fiction (BSF) and Ultimate Island (UI), constitute a declaration of British independence in science fiction. For Ruddick, "Science Fiction is any literature that seems conscious of the ideological dominance of science, a consciousnes that it may express in any manner between the extremes of placid endorsement and vehement denunciation" (UI 2) and thus could not have come into existence in Britain until after the publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species, which led to the replacement of religion by science as the dominant ideology (3). In addition, SF is not a genre but a "field ... a much looser association of different elements by contiguity....constituted by external agency, and defined by whatever the perceiving eye interprets its boundary to be" (BSF xiii). Finally. British SF is SF by "writers who (regardless of where they were born) either live(d) and write/wrote, or publish(ed) first, chiefly in Britain." This statement is qualified by a parenthesis, "Even so broad a net fails to catch a big fish like Arthur C. Clarke" (xiv), which I can interpret only as meaning that Clarke (whose works are nevertheless listed) is dubiously British since he has lived and written for most of his life outside Britain and published his stories and books "first, chiefly" in the US.

In the BSF chronology, the section for each year has one or more of four rubrics running down the left margin: "BIO FIC, FTV GEN." The biographical entries list only births and deaths, with no entries for such events as Clarke's taking up residence in Ceylon in 1956. The fiction entries include books and some magazine stories, with some titles marked with braces as not or probably not actually SF. The film-TV lists are subdivided with bracketed rubrics for films, radio series, TV series, and made-for-TV films. The general list is also subdivided: anthologies, critical and scholarly volumes, comics, essay collections by SF writers or influential on SF, milestones in fandom (including important fanzines), the first professional SF publication of selected writers, publishing milestones (especially the establishment of professional SF magazines), and awards won by British writers.

The chronology begins with 1478 (the birth of Thomas More). The years 1478-1894 are dealt with under the rubric "The Descent of Scientific Romance." The four periods in the history of SF proper are captioned "The Wellsian Synthesis: 1895-1936," British Science Fiction: 1937-1961," "New Wave S(peculative) F(iction): 1962-1978," and "The British Fantastic: 1979-1990.)"

Utimate Island is "a literary study, primarily concerned with aesthetic evaluation rather than the description of sociological trends" (x). The book consists of a three-chapter discussion of pertinent stories and novels framed by a theoretical and anti-American polemic, consisting of the Preface, the Introduction, and Chapters 1 and 5. Chapter 2, "The Island of Mr. Wells," is devoted to discussing how the motif of "the Island," which has been "used to powerful effect in many well-known works of English literature [and] has been adopted equally effectively in a body of texts that forms a central—perhaps the central—strain of British science fiction" (55). Chapter 3, "Peopling the Ruins: Disaster Fiction Before World War II," begins: "If the Island is a dominant motif in British science fiction, then Catastrophe is a dominant subject" (97). Chapter 4 bears the title "The Nature of Catastrophe: Disaster Fiction after World War IV'

Although there are backward glances at Mary Shelley's The Last Man and George T. Chesney's The Battle of Dorking and mentions or brief discussions of a number of other authors, Ruddick finds the specificity of British SF chiefly in the work of 13 authors, beginning with Wells, moving on (in topical rather than chronological order) to S. Fowler Wright, William Golding, Jacquetta Hawkes, M.P. Shiel, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edward Shanks, JJ. Connington, John Collier, Alun Llewellyn, R.C. Sherriff, John Wyndham, and John Christopher, and concluding with J.G. Ballard, whose stature in Ruddick's view should be as great as Wells's. I find the discussion persuasive and the evaluations solid (Ruddick is especially good on Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids and Sherriff's The Hopkins Manuscript). 

The value of this brilliant critical essay is not that Ruddick has demonstrated the importance of a tradition of disaster/catastophe in British SF or that the British have handled the concepts involved both more frequently and more effectively that Americans, for these are familiar propositions that no one has ever denied, but that he has analyzed the traditions and the fictions involved more fully and cogently than other critics. Even so, this tradition can be said to be typical of or predominant in British SF only if one discounts not only the work of hacks and minor writers but also (as Ruddick grants in his final chapter) that of such major writers as Clarke, Aldiss, and Brunner.

I cannot see that the essay gains anything from its polemical frame other than the convenience (under the field concept) of not having to justify the inclusion of such novels as Golding's The Lord of the Flies or Ballard's Crash. But perhaps it should be said that the book is a polemic on SF in general and British SF in particular with the argument supported by an evaluative critical essay on certain themes as they are worked out in certain stories and novels. If so, it remains true that the polemic, in its anti-American aspects at least, has to stand on its own.

For me there is nothing more foolish than the idea of Americanness, the idea that certain things are American and other things un-American. In apparent agreement with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee of infamous memory (or its successor, the McCarthy committee) on what is and is not American, Ruddick writes:

Science fiction in America is, by its nature, antiliterary because the values enshrined in the canon of American literature tend to be profoundly adversary to American values. To put it bluntly, the fiction of Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Twaine, Crane, Dreiser, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and so on—that is, classic American literature—is deeply un-American. American science fiction steps into the breach, so to speak, to defend and promote that values that American literature seems only interested in subverting. (11)

Ruddick would perhaps grant that you and I, like the Great Authors mentioned, are exceptions to the all but universal acceptance by Americans of those dreadful true-American values. On an earlier page, in an attack on Asimov:

as the 1960s wore on, traditional science fiction, like traditional American values themselves at the time of the Vietnam War protests, seemed to be in danger of being overrun by a bunch of long-haired radicals and feminists who wrote stories about the heat-death of the universe without feeling the need to invoke the second law of thermodynamics. (9)

From this, from the whole discussion, one would never know that Asimov, if not a radical, was still a long-haired liberal, that he supported feminist causes, and that he was opposed to the Vietnam war, as were at least half of the leading SF writers. Ruddick has here confused literary and political attitudes. It was possible in the 1960s and is possible now to believe that science is a necessary component of SF without believing that it was unAmerican to oppose the Vietnam War. Furthermore it was possible to support the Vietnam War without subscribing to the values Ruddick ascribes to Americans in general. Heinlein did so, for he held to the principle of my country right or wrong, but whatever you may think of the values expressed in Stranger in a Strange Land, they are certainly not the true-American values of the UnAmerican Activities Committee.

Perhaps even more irrelevant than this concept of the power of "American values" in determining the nature of American SF, is the concept of the deterministic power of the presence or absence of national literary traditions. America (as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the anglophone communities elsewhere in the world) is as much heir to the centuries of English literature as is Britain itself. In teaching anglophone literature, it is necessary to divide it into such portions as can be covered in three-hour courses, and it is possible to find national traditions (English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, overall British, American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African) around which to form the subject matter of a course, but does not the stressing of such traditions distort the realities of the great body of literature in English, and does not the fact that we have all studied literature in such courses tend to make us see such traditions as more important than the really are? Come down to the individual poem, play, story, novel. Was any national tradition so influential on its shaping that we can ignore or minimize the influence of all the author's reading—reading often if not always done with little or no thought about the text's country or even language of origin?

Having denounced American SF on one page as anti-literary, Ruddick on on another discusses David Ketterer's New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (1974) as a work that "isolated and specified the particular qualities of American science fiction, revealing how it, too, has profound ties with the indigenous literary tradition" and thus "presupposes and validates the existence of British science fiction" (35-36). This apparent contradiction can perhaps be reconciled by recognizing that the two most important traditions operating universally in literature are those of the serious and the trivial, the latter often catering to lowbrow tastes.

The first great debate on what SF should be occurred in the "Discussions" department of Amazing Stories during 1927-29, a debate between readers who enjoyed Edgar Rice Burroughs and found H.G. Wells boring and, on the other hand, those who admired Wells and found Burroughs puerile. The anti-Wellsians were in the majority among the readers of pulp magazines, who were for the most part not well-educated, and perhaps even among the early contributors to the SF pulps, who if they had attended college tended to have majored and minored in fields other than literature. The absence of literary values in the bulk of American SF down to about 1960 can very simply be ascribed to the fact that most of its readers and writers have been, with respect to literature, lowbrow rather than highbrow or even middlebrow. Consider the relationship of The Time Machine to Ray Cummings’"The Girl in the Golden Atom," a work of literature condensed and simplified to suit lowbrow tastes.1 Consider also the reviews of movement-SFs first critic, CA. Brandt, Literary Editor of Amazing Stories under Gernsback and Sloane.2 In the March 1930 issue Brandt wrote, "Compared to another well-known ‘time’ story, ‘The Time Machine,’ by Wells, ‘The Man Who Mastered Time’ [by Cummings] seems to me to be more ingenious in its conception, more full of action and more plausible. It is excellent reading" (4:1188). And in the April 1932 issue his review of Brave New World, entitled "Highbrow Science Fiction," reached the conclusion that "From the point of view of the scientific fiction fan, this book is decidedly a flop." What developed in Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories was a melodramatic-sentimental fiction with an admixture of scientific/technological speculation, fiction that developed through the vulgarization of Verne and Wells by British as well as by American writers. It was not exactly Burroughsian, for it carried a heavier weight of speculation, but then in 1930 Clayton Magazines launched Astounding Stories, with stories written by veteran pulpsters (as opposed to the SF enthusiasts willing to write for the half-cent a word or less paid by Gernsback and Sloane). The Burroughsian Astounding prospered while the Sloane Amazing and the Gernsback Wonder faded away.

During the Golden Age of Campbell and the early Heinlein (which was also the age of Ray Palmer's Amazing and of Thrilling Wonder Stories, magazines even lowerbrow than their predecessors), SF (in Astounding) became more interesting, but the defiant lowbrowism remained, as can be seen in the sneers at littérateurs in John Campbell's editorials and by the contempt for contemporary mainstream literature expressed in Heinlein's essay "Science Fiction, Its Nature, Faults, and Virtues" (54-57).3 Consider also the relationship of Robert Graves’ I Claudius, and Claudius the God to A.E. van Vogt's stories of Lord Clane.4 Again we have a work of literature adapted to lowbrow tastes-not only in the foregrounding of melodramatic and sentimental elements but above all in the simplification of complex matters, with interrelationships reduced to good-guy-bad-guy or us-them conflicts. What Reader's Digest does to articles, the likes of Cummings and van Vogt do to literature.

Was the situation much different in the UK? Ruddick compares the work of British mainstream writers (10 of the 13 named above) who ventured into SF with that of American writers who developed in the SF pulps, 5 and has little to say about the origins and development of the British branch of the Amero-British SF movement. So far as I can judge, it was much the same as in the US. It too grew out of the correspondence departments of the American SF pulps, and it too eventually found a home in magazines, British magazines modeled on the American SF pulps. And was not its prehistory also in a mix of British and American fiction on the Burroughs-Cummings level, including the stories and novels of such British writers as George Griffith and George C. Wallis?

The science fiction of the Amero-British SF movement came into its own when certain writers began to minimize melodrama and sentimentality in fictions that dealt seriously with scientific, technological, and social issues.

It is still a matter, in both mainstream fiction and SF, of separating the wheat from the chaff, the serious from the trivial.

Nicholas Ruddick was born and schooled in England, but by his own criteria he is not a British writer, for he lives in Canada and his books have been published by US publishers. But his criteria for Britishness is not as well worked out as it might be, and there is as much justification for listing his own work as for listing Clarke's. That is, his book on Christopher Priest should have been included in the non-fiction section of the 1989 list, and the two books reviewed here should appear, each in its appropriate place, if an updated edition of BSF is ever published.

Although I feel that Nicholas Ruddick is wrong-headed about "national cultures," I also feel that he is one of the most interesting of the younger SF critics. In this essay I have used the term Amero-British as an attempt at humor. Although not offended by Anglo-American, I much prefer Anglophone, for Canadian and Australian writers have written some good SF, and perhaps even New Zealanders, though so far as I know there is only one New Zealander whose work I love, Katherine Mansfield.


1. See my article, "Ray Cummings as the American H.G. Wells," Extrapolation 32:305-08, Winter 1991.

2. Gernsback may be characterized as middlebrow in that he sought to gain respectibility for Amazing Stories by reprinting Wells, Verne, Poe, O'Brien, et al., but the trashy stuff by other authors that he reprinted or published for the first time is surely a better indicator of the height of his brow with respect to literature. His reprinting of Verne is also a case in point. It may be true that he had read Verne in French, but what he reprinted consisted of the trashy Anglo-American translations that gave Verne in the Anglophone world his reputation as only a writer of juveniles—including, in the first two issues of Amazing, though himself a Jew, a virulently antisemitic version of Off on a Comet. It is possible, of course, that he simply thrust the story into the magazine without reading the "translation."

3. Basil Davenport, ed., The Science Fiction Novel- Imagination and Social Criticism (Chicago: Advent, 1959; 2nd ed. 1964), 17-63.

4. First published in Astounding 1946-50, later incorporated in Empire of the Atom (1957) and The Wizard of Linn (1962).

5. Paraphrasing a passage in Brian Stableford's Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (NY, 1985), Ruddick writes: "certain ‘serious novelists’such as Anthony Burgess, Robert Graves, and Angus Wilson, were able to ‘venture occasionally into speculative fiction’ in postwar Britain (331), a circumstance without proper parallel in America" (6). May I instance George R. Stewart, John Hersey, Walker Percy, and Hortense Calisher, not to mention Pynchon and the other slipstream writers who could be brought into SF under Ruddick's field theory. One thing wanting in SF scholarship is a satisfactory survey of 20th-century SF by American mainstream writers who have "ventured occasionally into speculative fiction," one that would begin where Bruce Franklin ended in Future Perfect. American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century (1966).

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)   Back to Home