Formerly Future: The Lost World of the Scientific Romance

Time Machine crop full

Giants still walk among us. In an era when literary scholarship has grown increasingly specialized, jargon-ridden, and generally dispiriting, there is Brian Stableford. With the possible exception of critic John Clute, he has almost certainly read more fantasy and science fiction than anyone else alive. Stableford has contributed essays and articles to virtually all the field’s major reference books and encyclopedias. More recently, he has emerged as a one-man champion of early French science fiction, translating the key examples of the so-called roman scientifique. What’s more, Stableford has also written his own SF novels, dozens of them.

Yet what he hasn’t done is promote himself. In an age when popularity on social media often determines, or undermines, a writer’s sales, Stableford just gets on with his reading, writing, and translating. Many of his books are consequently issued by small or specialized publishers such as Wildside, Dedalus, and Black Coat Press. That’s certainly no reflection on their quality or importance, especially in the case of the four recently published paperbacks that make up New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance. Forty years in preparation, it is a supersized expansion of Stableford’s early, groundbreaking study, Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890−1950.

In the loosest sense, “scientific romance” could be termed the distinctive British form of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century science fiction. To distinguish it from American SF, Stableford uses the following example: In U.S. pulp magazines, time machines tend to be regarded as gadgets, useful for generating stories of temporal paradox or introducing alternative histories. In the British tradition, however, time machines are more usually treated as “purely literary devices for launching examinations of the remote past or the eventual destiny of humankind.” In effect, the British form leans toward the ideological and philosophical, chiefly by reinterpreting contemporary scientific and social trends. As Stableford stresses, the scientific romance — though inherently playful — “is never without at least a hint of seriousness.” Its writers have regularly used the form to take up arms “against false beliefs handed down by tradition, and popular follies of the day.” H. G. Wells, the genre’s key figure, can enchant, appall, or frighten with his fantasies, but he also compels his reader to think about the moral, socioeconomic, and political issues of both the present and the future.

Volume 1 of New Atlantis essentially traces the history of what might be called proto-science fiction from antiquity to the Victorian era. Stableford touches on Lucian’s True History — a series of tall tales, including a trip to the moon — and Plato’s myth of Atlantis, the legends surrounding the Elizabethan magus Dr. John Dee, the utopian thought of Francis Bacon, such contes philosophiques as Voltaire’s “Micromegas” and Johnson’s Rasselas, and the breakthrough scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century. He closes this background survey with a glance at Marie Corelli, author of The Sorrows of Satan, in which the Devil falls in love. While numerous writers of full-fledged scientific romances were the rebellious children of clergymen and devout believers, Corelli was just the opposite: She gained astonishing popularity and wealth with her saccharine occult romances, though she was almost certainly the illegitimate daughter of Charles Mackay, the highly skeptical author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

The middle volumes of New Atlantis cover the heyday of the scientific romance. Volume 2 focuses on the major writers who flourished before World War I; Volume 3 looks at their later work in the 1920s and ’30s, then examines a crop of newer, younger authors, most of whom reveal a darker, less optimistic view of things to come. All in all, the best known today of this wide-ranging group are H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, and C. S. Lewis. A few others will be familiar to fans of genre fiction, notably M. P. Shiel, William Hope Hodgson, and Olaf Stapledon. But many more are now, alas, just names. Yet any adventurous reader will soon want to search for J. D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911), among the first fictional portraits of a superman; Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a 1937 novel that describes a Nazi-dominated world of the far future; and Robert William Cole’s The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236, the pioneering account of intergalactic war, first published in 1900.

But, some might ask, are these books really still worth bothering about? For example, Stableford regards S. Fowler Wright as one of the most important masters of the scientific romance. Indeed, he virtually seconds the view of the immensely learned E. F. Bleiler that Fowler Wright’s The World Below (1929) is “the outstanding science fiction book written between H. G. Wells’s earlier imaginative romances and Olaf Stapledon’s future histories.” To test such claims I decided to read this novel.

In its opening section, titled “The Amphibians” — initially published on its own in 1925 — we learn that an unnamed “Professor” has invented a time machine and sent two men into the distant future. The second eventually returned, loaded himself up with every form of weaponry, and then went back. Neither he nor his predecessor has been heard of since. Our narrator — also unnamed — agrees to go looking for them in return for a substantial check made out to Clara, presumably his wife. He recognizes that this could easily be a suicide mission.

The time traveler emerges in a future where the days and nights are substantially longer than they are now. Initially confused and uncertain about how to proceed, he is studying a bizarre opalescent roadway when a svelte, vaguely feminine creature comes racing by, accidentally steps off the pavement, and is immediately seized by the sucker of a giant carnivorous plant. The narrator quickly goes to the rescue, hacking away at the strangling tendrils of the predatory vegetable. Alas, he is too late, though the dying creature does communicate with him telepathically and makes him promise to carry a message to its people.

From this point on, The World Below settles into that most ancient of story types: the fantastic journey. As our hero treks through a perilous landscape, he encounters one marvel after another. He crosses an invisible bridge (à la Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), observes that birds are unable to fly in certain parts of the sky and so crash to the ground, and is nearly overcome by hideous pink worms that attach themselves to his legs. Early on, too, he is pursued by the huge slavering “Frog-Mouths,” which hop toward him in great springing bounds: “I saw a hairless, dead-white, ape-like frog-mouthed form, a width of jaws in a flat skull, and small malignant eyes . . . Its hind-limbs ended in large round pads of flesh which splayed out as it hit the ground.” Worse still, he is captured by one of the Brobdingnagian beings called Dwellers but manages to escape and eventually make his way to the seashore, where he meets the amphibious people he has promised to seek out.

These Amphibians normally keep to the sea but can live and survive without food for several months on land. They desperately want to retrieve the corpse of their dead companion — one of their six Leaders — before it is seized by the Dwellers. Forced to take along the human visitor, whom they regard as violent, unclean, and bestial, they entrust his safety to one particular Amphibian of a playful and somewhat unconventional nature. As the novel progresses, this odd couple undergo many trials and adventures, first as they try to rescue yet another Amphibian Leader from the pens of the grotesque Killers and later in a search, deep underground, for the two missing time travelers.

S. Fowler Wright’s prose tends to be laconic; he writes in short paragraphs and the action never flags, except when our hero and his seal-like companion debate their differing ideas about life, ethics, and the world. From most viewpoints, the Amphibians represent a higher moral order — largely vegetarian, nonviolent, ecologically sensitive, exceptionally logical, unafraid of death, gender neutral (though depicted as feminine), and long-lived. Above all, they preserve in all circumstances an unflappable mental serenity, while our hero’s companion additionally exhibits her own particular inner gaiety, an organic gladness in simply being alive. That said, the Amphibians merely inhabit their bodies and can exist, in some sense, without them, at least for a while.

As Stableford points out, The World Below can be a little too telegraphic in its exposition, and the second half is something of a hodgepodge, ending with the promise of further, never-written adventures. Still, as an example of world building and speculative zoology, the novel remains immensely impressive, in multiple ways. Sometimes, for example, it recalls Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian tales or Robert E. Howard’s heroic fantasies. At one point, the narrator and his alien friend are barricaded inside a weapons depot belonging to the Killers. The Amphibian could escape with one of her Leaders but elects to stay. As that Leader dashes off alone, “she threw a thought to my companion, ‘You should watch the floor.’ ” I won’t say what happens next.

On a more sophisticated level, Fowler Wright’s book critiques human institutions and psychology, repeatedly reminding us that much of our personal unhappiness stems from our unruly, self-defeating thoughts. When our human protagonist begins to panic during a moment of grave danger, the Amphibian quickly thrusts her Yoda-like mind into his: “I shall be first . . . Listen. You are safe if you hear me. You must stop thinking. Give your mind to mine, and I can save you. Do not think at all, but believe it. It is everything that you do this.”

Throughout the two central volumes of New Atlantis, Stableford proffers brief summaries of scores of novels and stories. In just one paragraph he mentions a dozen pieces of fiction that chronicle the destruction of London by various esoteric means. He notes that William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 — written in 1906 — and Kipling’s With the Night Mail (1905) increase their verisimilitude by being presented as dossiers: The main text is supplemented with “actual” ads, posters, maps, and newspaper reports. Again and again, Stableford excites the reader, describing one book after another that deserves rediscovery. In the works covered in Volume 3, however, he detects a recurrent thread of pessimism and anxiety:

The history of scientific romance between the wars is, in the main, eloquent testimony to a dramatic loss of morale, which spread like an epidemic through the British intelligentsia . . . It was not simply that the image of the future contained within scientific romance grew more pessimistic between the wars, but that writers came to take it for granted that the future would not be and could not be a gradual and measured linear extrapolation of the present, assuming instead that it would have to involve some kind of crucial break or essential qualitative change in the human condition, hopefully, but not necessarily, progressive.

Volume 4 of New Atlantis is subtitled The Decadence of Scientific Romance and looks at writing in the aftermath of World War II. In these pages, Stableford surveys the last works of Wells, Fowler Wright, Stapledon, and Huxley but also examines new figures such as George Orwell. By the advent of the Space Age and certainly by the 1960s, the traditional scientific romance was essentially finished, overwhelmed by American-style science fiction, heroic fantasy, and supernatural horror.

Brian Stableford’s magnum opus truly is a magnum opus, though not without some minor faults. Sentences occasionally run on too long (as in the passage quoted above), and some passages may seem overly abstract. Moreover, the Wildside text is scarred with misprints, typos, and even a repeated paragraph. Certainly such an important book deserves more careful proofreading before any subsequent reprintings. Still, none of these current blemishes detract seriously from the grandeur of Stableford’s achievement. One reads New Atlantis with awe and gratitude.