Sci-Fi Yesterday's Tomorrows: The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books by Mike Ashley

Anthony G Williams

Yesterday's Tomorrows: The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books by Mike Ashley

This is another publication in the British Library's Science Fiction Classics series (for which thanks are due for sending the review copy). Unlike most of the others in the series, this is not an anthology of short stories on a particular topic, nor a reprint of selected, largely forgotten, novels. Instead, the author identifies themes in British SF published between 1895 and 1966 and provides two-page summaries of the plots of 100 selected stories (plus mention given to many more). The fourteen themes are arranged more or less in chronological order, with some overlaps. I have limited myself to mentioning just a couple of stories in each theme with emphasis on authors who are better known (althought not necessarily for SF).

1. Wells, Wells and Wells Again No doubting the father of British SF! The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898) would have to feature on anyone's list of classics.

2. Wars to End All Wars I have discussed some of these on this blog before, a whole sub-genre prompted by anxiety concerning the threat posed by the growing power of the German Empire, and in particular the usually predicted disaster should an invasion take place. Two of the best-known examples mentioned here are The Invasion of 1910 by William Le Queux (1906) and When William Came by Saki (1913).

3. Doom and Disaster This time the disasters are from causes other than warfare; plagues, floods, drought, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other catastrophes. Two of the examples listed here are the prescient The Machine Stops by the famous non-SF novelist E.M. Forster (1909), previously reviewed here, and The Violet Flame by Fred T. Jane (1899). The latter is of particular interest to me as it is the only novel written by this author, who is far better known as the originator of Jane’s Fighting Ships, the annual survey of the world’s navies and warships. This is still published today, along with parallel volumes concerned with aircraft and various categories of military and transport equipment, including Jane’s Infantry Weapons: Ammunition, which was edited by yours truly for about a dozen years.

4. Futures Near and Far Famous non-genre authors imagining the future: The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904), and With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling (1909).

5. The Old and the New One of my favourite childhood novels was The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912), a story which needs no introduction as it has inspired the Jurassic Park series of feature films.

6. Escape or Reality? When the World Shook by H. Rider Haggard (1919), and A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920).

7. Brave New Worlds Ten examples here, but I wasn't familiar with any of the authors except for Marie Corelli, one of the few women to have made an impact in the genre in this period. She is included here for The Secret Power (1921).

8. Super, Sub or Non-Human? Even more to choose from, with thirteen authors listed. One who may be surprising is George Bernard Shaw, for Back to Methuselah (1921), but Aldous Huxley's inclusion, for Brave New World, is much more predictable.

9. Philosophical Speculations Only a couple of stories included here: The World, The Flesh and the Devil by J. D. Bernal (1929) and If it Had Happened Otherwise by J. C. Squire (1931).

10. Into the Cosmic. Now we are beginning to move into more recognisable territory with Olaf Stapledon, (Star Maker - 1937), C. S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet - 1938) and Eric Frank Russell (Sinister Barrier - 1939). I was rather surprised to see A. M. Low's Adrift in the Stratosphere (1937) which I had summed up as folllows when I reviewed it some years ago:

Sadly it was a major disappointment, being a barely readable fantasy in which hardly any of the "science" is correct or even remotely feasible.

Fortunately the editor includes an explanation:

The book is dreadful...I have included it because it is representative of the boys' adventure fiction of the day and unfortunately of how appalling much of that was.

11. Preparing for War. Seven stories listed, imbued with the uneasiness of the increasingly inevitable second major war of the first half of the century. Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1933) and The Peacemaker by C. S. Forester (1934) date from the early years of this period, but Murray Constantine's Swastika Night (1937) is obviously later, and looks centuries ahead to the nature of the world resulting from a Nazi victory (short version - not pretty!).

12. Our Darkest Hours. Into World War 2, and a relatively quiet period for publishing fiction in the UK due to strict paper rationing. That didn't stop people writing, of course, and Arthur C. Clarke was one who was developing his skills at this time.

13. Post-Atomic Doom. This is where things really become grim, with the threat of nuclear devastation generally considered to be a matter of when, not if. As a teenager in the 1960s I can well recall deciding that if war did come, I would much prefer the first bomb to explode directly overhead so I would know nothing about it. People in the UK, at least, had no illusions about surviving such a war for any longer than it would take to die horribly of radiation poisoning and/or starvation as the food supply chain was destroyed. Famous books listed include Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) and The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951).

14. Science Fiction Boom. Despite the spectre of nuclear war haunting the 1960s, this was also a period of cheerful optimism in SF, perhaps in reaction to the threat. This was also a time of expansion in SF readership, assisted by the success of some magazines (it should be noted that British SF mags tended to be aimed at an older audience than the popular US comics). Another factor was the development of broadcast SF series, at first on the radio; my family would sit in front of the wireless to listen to each episode of Charles Chilton's Journey into Space. This was quickly followed by TV series such as The Quatermass Experiment (Nigel Kneale, 1953) and A for Andromeda (Fred Hoyle and John Elliot, 1961). Anyone with an interest in classic SF will be familiar with most of the names of the authors mentioned in this section: Arthur C. Clarke, E. C. Tubb, Kenneth Bulmer, Brian W. Aldiss, Edmund Cooper, James White, and Charles Eric Maine.

15. Old Worlds for New. An interesting development towards the end of this period concerned the appearance of links between SFF and "literature", by which is meant "serious" non-genre mainstream fiction. The mainstream authors dabbling in SF themes have sometimes denied they are writing "SF", whose reputation suffered from the comic-strip era of rocket-ships and scantily-clad young women whose virtue was under threat by hideous monsters. Literary SF tales featured in this book are by Naomi Mitchison and L. P. Hartley. Simultaneously, many established SF writers became more "literary" in their approach, e.g. Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard, and John Brunner: the result was known as "New Wave" SF.

That really marks the end of this period of development of British SF. The result has been a spectrum of approaches to SF writing rather than a series of ghettoes. One further development since that time has been the growth of fantasy at the expense of SF, kick-started by the huge success of Tolkien. But that is a whole 'nother story!

(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)