A History That Repeats Itself
New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance. Rockville, MD: Wildside, 2016. Vol. I: The Origins of Scientific Romance, 308 pp.; Vol. II: The Emergence of Scientific Romance, 243 pp.; Vol. III: The Resurgence of Scientific Romance, 282 pp.; Vol. IV: The Decadence of Scientific Romance, 298 pp., $15.99 each, pbk.
More than thirty years ago Brian Stableford published Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (1985), identifying a distinctive and independent British tradition of speculative fiction descending from H.G. Wells. The genre of scientific romance, as Stableford defined it, had a lifespan of a little more than half a century before it was swallowed up by the behemoth of American sf. In the pages of this journal David Y. Hughes offered a balanced assessment of the achievements of Scientific Romance in Britain (its creation of a dual history of the relationship between fiction and science on either side of the Atlantic, its recovery of little-known texts, its exploration of market forces in the rise of “science fiction” and the demise of “scientific romance”) and the limitations of its sociological approach to fiction and its “rather bloodless” textual analyses (81). Hughes’s judgments of the strengths and liabilities of that book still hold up.
Stableford’s new multi-volume history of the scientific romance is similarly a mixed, if very much larger, bag. Attention is given to some writers who did not appear in the earlier book: Katharine Burdekin, author of Proud Man (1934) and the chilling Swastika Night (1937); the futuristic playwrights of the 1930s Charles Duff and Lionel Britton; biologist John Lionel Tayler, who self-published the far-future narrative The Last of My Race (1924). And some writers who got only passing mention in 1985—C.H. Hinton and Fred T. Jayne—now have sections of the history to themselves. But much of New Atlantis is not fundamentally new, and many parts are taken wholesale from Scientific Romance in Britain, bulked up with additional biographical information, more detailed plot summaries, and long blocks of quotation. Clocking in at nearly 1100 pages, its four volumes amount to a swollen recapitulation of the 1985 book. The overarching title given to the 2016 history does indicate a newconceptual framework for Stableford’s project. As he puts it near the end of the final volume, Francis Bacon’s incomplete and posthumously printed utopian experiment, New Atlantis (1627), “provided a prospectus of sorts for those ambitions and anticipated achievements” harbored by the authors of scientific romances produced between the 1890s and the years immediately following World War II (IV,151). The premise of Stableford’s history is that the scientific romancers of the early twentieth century brought to fruition the unfinished business of Bacon’s utopian vision of a science-based future.
Stableford is surely right to suggest that the scientific romance in Britain was more inclined to philosophical inquiry and more deeply entwined with scientific investigation and speculation than its gadgety American counterparts in the pre-John W. Campbell era. And it therefore makes a great deal of sense for Stableford to give the nonfictional scientific essay a prominent place in his history, particularly in light of the oeuvres of the two most consequential authors of scientific romances in that history. Wells moved back and forth, especially in the first two decades of his career, between writing speculative nonfiction and romances, and Olaf Stapledon’s didactic narratives often read like equal parts romance and essay. But the period of 1890-1950 that Stableford identifies as the lifespan of scientific romance was also—again, more so in Britain than in the US—a golden age of popular scientific writing. The romancers often worked in symbiosis with the scientists and popularizers of science, with figures such as Camille Flammarion, Arthur Eddington, J.B.S. Haldane, Julian Huxley, J.D. Bernal, and others not discussed by Stableford, including James Jeans, C.H. Waddington, and many of the contributors to the journal Nature. The likelihood is that the “prospectus” for the authors of scientific romance derived more directly from contemporary scientific writing than from Bacon’s New Atlantis.
Although Stableford describes the tradition of scientific romance as “the generic halo that formed around the work of H.G. Wells” (II,168), its aura was fleeting because, by comparison with detective fiction and adventure stories, it remained “unpopular literature” (II,27). In resisting the notion that scientific romance belonged to popular culture Stableford maintains that the genre was essentially middlebrow—too challenging in its concepts for lowbrow appeal but not literary enough to satisfy highbrow tastes. The differences between the literary marketplaces in the US and the UK also had an impact on the ability of scientific romancers to attract a large audience. Inexpensive American pulp magazines proliferated in the early decades of the twentieth century as outlets for sf short stories, but the first pulp magazine in Britain did not appear until the late 1930s. When some of the popular magazines in which Wells published short fiction in the 1890s turned against the kind of fantasies that underpinned his early career, scientific romance in the UK became largely restricted to book-length forms. While American sf tended to focus on “interplanetary fantasy, in an exuberantly playful manner” (III,27), British scientific romance was more analytical and introspective in nature, and especially in the aftermath of World War I, which Europeans experienced far more intimately than Americans, playfulness in the scientific romance was displaced by cultural anxiety and foreboding.
Stableford is at his best, and at his most readable, when he is dealing in large generalizations about the spirit and substance of scientific romance (with its deep roots in earlier forms of fictional romance in Britain) and its divergence from the themes, mood, and expectations of the newly emerging American form of sf in the twentieth century. He is much less satisfying at attempting “a narrative history of the scientific romance, rather than simply offering a catalogue of authors and their works” (II,242; emphasis added). Lacking either a strong sense of proportion or an inclination to apply principles of selectivity, the author lets the story of the evolution of a genre get swamped in verbiage. All too often the reading experience is like a slog through a data dump. Stableford has read an enormous amount of primary material, both inside and outside the tradition of scientific romance, and he feels compelled to tell us about all of it. Volume I, with the subtitle “The Origins of Scientific Romance,” may be the most overstuffed section of New Atlantis. Its aim seems to be to enumerate in the most exhaustive fashion how virtually every form of storytelling and every instance of scientific or pseudoscientific speculation, from the ancient world to the end of the nineteenth century, contributed to the gestation of the six-decade life of the scientific romance. We are led through Platonic dialogues, travel literature, Plotinus, Kepler, Paracelsus, Edmund Burke, the Rosicrucians, and Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1849), to name only a very few, on the road to Wells. It is a wearying and not very illuminating journey. Instead of a history of scientific romance we find ourselves immersed in a chaotic chronicle of everything. The first volume ends up as an outsized, cumbersome foundation for a rather tiny edifice. Sometimes, as the architect Mies van der Rohe liked to say, less is more.
Each of the other three volumes of New Atlantis, charting the scientific romance through its periods of emergence (1890-1914), resurgence (the years between the two world wars), and decline and extinction (post-World War II), has a similar design. Commentaries on individual authors are sandwiched between several opening and closing essays on broad cultural, historical, and philosophical issues that impinge on the period and the genre. Because a number of the writers’ careers span two or three of the periods they are given multiple subchapters. Some of the ratios might be questioned. Sydney Fowler Wright gets as much space as Wells. Katharine Burdekin, the most important and intellectually venturesome feminist author of scientific romances, gets half the coverage of Fred Jayne, whose claim to recognition is primarily as an illustrator rather than a romancer and each of whose novels is, as Stableford acknowledges, “an exercise in blithe absurdity” (II,98). The arguments for including writers in the canon of the scientific romance are sometimes muddy. The case of William Hope Hodgson is illustrative. Stableford gives extensive scrutiny to his short fiction and novels on the grounds that his contributions to the tradition of scientific romance have been neglected, but then appears to undercut that claim by observing Hodgson’s lack of interest in evolution, ignorance of entropy, and aversion to scientific language. Nothing in the discussion of Hodgson’s work militates against seeing him as essentially drawn to the occult, the grotesque, and private (and, frankly, cluttered) visions.
Stableford’s analyses of the many texts he corrals under the umbrella of “scientific romance” are largely thematic. Many of his commentaries conclude with unexciting assertions about the moral of the story. Thematic and philosophical approaches to literature, unleavened by any rich attention to the language and shape of texts, have a flattening effect. To take one instance, the subchapter on M.P. Shiel concludes with an observation that his work has never been as popular as Wells’s and then proceeds to an extensive comparison and contrast between the two writers’ understandings of biological evolution, social progress, religion, literature, and socialism. Ideologically, Shiel becomes “a very interesting writer” because of the “striking pattern of similarities and contrasts” with Wells (II,136). But what one longs for is some assessment of Shiel’s artistry and verbal talents—surely a key to understanding what makes Wells a major figure and Shiel a more marginal one.
The lack of interest in the art of scientific romance, in questions of literary style and tact, leaves the history of the genre feeling not only overextended but hollow. Consider C.S. Lewis. In writing about Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Stableford’s shortcomings as a commentator are manifest. Lewis’s Martian novel is discussed solely in terms of its ideology and its philosophical themes. No room is made for appraising the extraordinary beauty of the imagined world or the lyricism of Lewis’s evocation of the otherness of alternative beings, landscapes, and cultures. One may feel hostile to Lewis’s ideas and to his Christianizing allegory (as I admit I do) and yet be drawn into this romance by the sheer exuberance of Lewis’s imagination. With some justice Haldane attacked Lewis’s scientific romances as unscientific. In truth, their science was already dated when Lewis published them, but both Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra (1943)—though not That Hideous Strength (1945)—radiate an imaginative energy and color that place them among the best romances of the interwar period.
Other readers may be less censorious than this one about the absence of an aesthetic perspective in this history and about the author’s retreat from literary interpretation and judgment. But even readers sympathetic to the sociological and philosophical biases of this history are likely to find Stableford’s own prose style at best lackluster and at worst offputting. New Atlantis does not have the verbal agility and zip of Brian Aldiss’s Trillion Year Spree (1986) or the clarity and elegance of Brooks Landon’s Science Fiction After 1900 (2002) or the precision and fine discriminations of Jane Donawerth’s Frankenstein’s Daughters (1997). Unlike those literary histories, New Atlantis is often repetitive; the same points get hammered home so redundantly that after a while the reader sees them coming around the corner. Stableford gets tied up in thereins, theretos, therefroms, and thereafters. He has a weakness for what linguists call derivational morphemes and what seventeenth-century grammarians derided as inkhorn terms. But whatever you call these words, they do not generate graceful prose: tokenistically, entrepreneurialism, paradoxicality, formularistic, cyborgization, cyclicity, ideatively, fakiristic, fantasization. Neologisms are stock in trade for writers of speculative fiction, but the kinds of awkward coinages found in New Atlantis are just as annoying and unnecessary as the academic jargon that afflicts so much literary criticism.
But there is an even more regrettable deficiency than the author’s prose in these four volumes. It appears that Wildside Press does not employ a copy-editor and that Stableford was not given an opportunity to proofread his text. I spotted no fewer than 271 misprints (almost certainly an undercount), including misspellings, missing punctuation, omitted prepositions and articles, transposed words, words repeated, words left out, citation errors, and mistaken dates. In most instances a reader can figure out what was intended, but there are places where the mechanical errors are consequential enough to reduce sentences to gibberish. For a press to allow a scholarly work to appear so riddled with mistakes is not just a trial to readers’ patience but a great disservice to the author.
Aldiss, Brian, with David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. New York: Atheneum, 1986.
Donawerth, Jane. Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1997.
Hughes, David Y. “British ‘Scientific Romance’.” SFS 14.1 (1987): 78-81.
Landon, Brooks. Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars. 1997. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Stableford, Brian. Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950. London: Fourth Estate, 1985.
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