Science Fiction Studies

#41 = Volume 14, Part 1 = March 1987

David Y. Hughes

British "Scientific Romance"

Brian Stableford. Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950. NY: St Martin's Press, 1985. viii + 372pp. $29.95.

Stableford's idea is that in Britain speculative fiction developed up until about 1950 essentially independently of its American counterpart, and to mark the British species decisively off from SF he labels it "scientific romance" and traces its descent down through its chief and many lesser practitioners--all British and all proceeding finally from the persistent "inspiration and example of H.G. Wells" (p. 4). In this sense, the book is organized around Wells. Moreover, Stableford argues, when market forces fused the British and American genres following World War II, even then the British writers who bridged the gap--Clarke, Aldiss, and Ballard-- retained some of the metaphysical and surreal marks peculiar to the (Wellsian) tradition they worked in. Modern SF owes a substantial but late debt to Britain, a debt incurred when it was already well developed from its American origins. This is an appealing corrective to the usual notion that SF was born when Wells was "pulped" by the Gernsback process, which mysteriously "fathered" the infant called "scientifiction," which matured with Campbell and grew up at last to hardback-and-bestsellerdom. Readers of Jack Williamson will recall how Wells burst upon him in Amazing Stories (in each of the first 27 issues!--H.G. Wells: Critic of Progress [Baltimore, 1973], p. 7). True enough. But as a historical process, Stableford's idea of Wells working in his own tradition that later fused with the American carries more logic if less romance.

For a number of reasons, however, Stableford is unsatisfying. The title of the book accurately reflects its scope as a survey limited to Britain. Yet the conceptual scheme described above implies a comparative study of British, American, and perhaps Continental speculative fiction, reaching towards a set of distinctions among them. Instead, the book first labels as "scientific romance" whatever (merely British) literature it then elects to survey--a circular, arbitrary, and ghettoizing procedure. To give a negative example, Stableford never mentions Stevenson. But he states that many commentators see in the separation between Wells's Morlocks and Eloi "an ironic reflection of social class divisions in Victorian Britain--Disraeli's 'two nations'--but it can better be seen as a reflection of opinions about basic human nature--Disraeli's 'apes and angels'" (p. 58). The judgment here that the Eloi are somehow "angelic" is especially remarkable because Stableford rather seldom ventures into literary interpretation. Speaking of apes and angels, though, whatever happened to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? When "scientific romance" is not defined, or defined only as a British form of speculative fiction that employs a "rhetoric" of science, then the inclusions and exclusions, both, will strike readers as inconclusive.

In spirit, Stableford is a collector; that is, he labels rather than defines. He treats scientific romance as a kinship-set made up of imaginary voyages, utopian fantasies, evolutionary fantasies, future-war fictions, eschatological fantasies, and metaphysical fantasies. All of these, taken separately, are the precursors of scientific romance; considered together, they merge into the genre itself, subject to whatever recombinations its practitioners and their times would later evolve. But this descriptive and thematic genealogy is, of course, no real substitute for definition.

A related problem is over-compartmentalization. Besides the above six subgenres, Stableford treats 12 authors--George C. Griffith, Wells, M.P. Shiel, Doyle, William Hope Hodgson, J.D. Beresford, S. Fowler Wright, Stapledon, Neil Bell, John Gloag, C.S. Lewis, and Gerald Heard--and discusses historical trends and patterns of three periods: pre-World War I, the years between the wars, and post-World War II up to about 1960. Moreover, each of these 18 units is handled discretely (with lamentable lack of cross-reference) and in effect the 12 authors are multiplied into 19 by means of splitting their outputs into pre- and post-war segments, physically disjoined in each case by one or more intervening chapters. Throughout all this, too, the common denominator is the plot outline, the plots rehearsed in order of publication and labeled sometimes by kinship to subgenres, sometimes by relation to the prevailing hopes and fears of the three historical periods, and most frequently not labeled explicitly at all. In short, the note cards get in the way of the view.

These negative responses of mine, though, are in part simply the conditioned reflex of a humanities teacher to the methods of the social sciences. One reason Stableford keys the book to Wells is that Wells often viewed himself as Stableford would have him: sociologically. Here let me borrow an item from computer science. Wells in a sense can be perceived as a reliable "cursor" of his times--that is, as a moving locus to which the "text" of genre "scientific romance" can be traced and from which it was generated. Of course, the cursor metaphor sloppily implies that Wells is both the cursor and its operator or else that "history" is the true operator. These ambiguities, though, accurately correspond to Wells's self-conception as at once an "ordinary brain" (cursor) and a brain gifted with perspective on itself and its times (operator) and a spokesman of the age (history as operator). Likewise, Stableford views Wells as bellwether not simply because other speculative writers borrowed from him (the lendings were often reciprocal) "but because they [and Wells too] were in similar situations, drawing upon similar ideative resources" (p. 337) to which in practice Wells happened generally to be the first to give literary currency and direction.

The course of Wells's lifework is therefore outlined in broad, fairly orthodox strokes as exemplary of others'. From the far-fetched playfulness and pessimism of his early scientific romances, Wells proceeded to the optimistic sense of mission of the middle works (e.g., The Food of the Gods), then to a period of "enervation" of imagination in the '20s (which he later called "The Age of Frustration"), and afterwards in the '30s to a phase of "muscularity" (The Shape of Things to Come) and of reascendant playfulness (Star Begotten), and finally to the "perversely self-indulgent acceptance of Frustration" of Mind at the End of its Tether, which in 1946 closed out his life (pp. 171, 175). With variations, Stableford traces a similar intellectual sequence in the genre and its authors, and in the mood of the public at large, over the years before and after the turn of the century and between and during the two wars.

Wells moved with the times. Throughout, too, he retained a fascination with the metaphysic that science had displaced ("writing his stories about ghosts as well as tanks, angels as well as aliens, mermaids as well as Morlocks, and debating with God in his fiction" [p. 39]), so that the opposition of physical and metaphysical world-views was no more crystallized into hard science for Wells (Stableford suggests) than for more plainly occult authors (Shier, Hodgson, the later Doyle), and the strand of the occult connects Wells even to Lewis and Heard. In addition, Wells experimented in, and set the standard for, each main sub-type of the genre as a whole: utopian, evolutionary, eschatological, or metaphysical romance, future war, imaginary voyage. Thus, to sum up, Wells exemplifies British scientific romance, which in turn is treated as a window on the times--a focus that governs Stableford's discussion alike of the chief authors, the lesser literature (including interesting rediscoveries like Muriel Jaeger's The Question Mark and E.V. Odle's The Clockwork Man), and the so-called mainstream incursions of Brave New World and 1984.

Aside from Wells, the sociological approach in any case is the norm. To account for the proliferation of story-vogues (e.g., detective, occult, scientific romance) in the British periodicals of the '90s, Stableford invokes the force of Darwinism in the marketplace selecting and creating new species, new readerships; and he invokes it again to explain the rise of specialist dime novels and later of specialist pulps (e.g., detective, western, SF) in America in the 1910s and '20s. In fact, returning several times to a continuing market analysis, including America at each stage, he attributes both the splitting of SF from scientific romance and their later fusion to the operation of differing market influences on the two sides of the Atlantic (involving the economics of three-deckers and magazines, dime novels and pulps, paperbacks and hardbacks, and paperbacks and pulps at different stages on either side of the ocean).

Likewise, for each of his 12 authors he provides statistics--noting, for example, that the fathers of about half of them were clergymen. In their writings he searches exhaustively for explicit statements of their beliefs, preferring non-fiction sources where possible. Non-fiction, he points out, was frequently interspersed with fiction in collections of scientific romance, and non-fiction had a central role in the Britain of the '20s, when speculative fiction diminished and gave way to seminal essays by J.D. Bernal, J.B.S. Haldane, Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell, and others (largely in the "Today and Tomorrow" series). Moreover, he views the '20s romances of Wells, Doyle, Shiel, and Beresford, and the complete speculative fictions of Gloag, Bell, and Wright, as testaments to postwar malaise; and he finds even Stapledon's faith in a transcendent tomorrow to be dubiously upheld in the aftermath of the war and the atom bomb (in The Flames [1947]).

Stableford has another side, though. As the author of more than 20 SF novels, he has a love of the eccentric and the far-out for their own sakes. Though scientific romance brought some of its writers money and fame, others such as Hodgson and Wright managed a bare subsistence, and never did this "rather esoteric genre" (p. 339) reach the widest of audiences (not even with Wells). Therefore, its makers one and all present an amalgam of more or less hard-boiled professional and more or less dreaming amateur. Stableford himself has the dreaming side. It is clear that he cherishes the uniqueness of each work--its private value for author and a limited readership--in contrast to his prevailing pursuit of the demographics of a genre born-in-1890 died-in-1950. Up until the final pages, the pop-cult analysis only occasionally phases into a more literary-thematic interest, still rather bloodless. Where, for example, Aldiss's Billion Year Spree fleshes out the cosmic ending by means of generous samplings of The Time Machine, The House on the Borderland, The Night Land, and Last and First Men, Stableford's much fuller account of the theme (especially by the inclusion of Wright) conveys little feeling for the poetry of it. In the end, though, Stableford asks himself of what use scientific romance could have been (continues to be to a later age?), and with this he seizes the initiative. The last eight pages of the book are a reasoned, eloquent argument that imaginative fictions not only "widen the horizons of thought" but "help in the exploration of the possibilities of potential action" because "the private world is no less real than the other," nor "any less vital to the business of being human" (p. 334). Works of pure imagination enlarge and school imagination.

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