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 centralperhaps the centralstrain 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 onthat is, classic American
literatureis 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
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 readingreading 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
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
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,
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
juvenilesincluding, 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
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
novelistssuch 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).
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