Our peripatetic journey through the history of science fiction takes us back to that curious decade, the 1920s, back by some reckonings, to the very beginning of science fiction itself.
In retrospect, the 1920s was a transitional age. It emerged from the end of the First World War, whose horrors and with them the decimation of an entire generation of men hung like a pall over the decade. It ended with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. But between these two terrible markers was an age of desperate fun, the Roaring Twenties, speakeasies and flappers, the Bright Young Things and the first Talkies. The puritanical imposition of Prohibition in the States or the red scare of the General Strike in Britain could do little to stifle the urge for frivolity that dominated the decade, as if short skirts and jazz, Charlie Chaplin and alcohol were the only way to drown out the memories of the trenches. And yet those same memories emerged time and again in the films and fiction of the age.
Yet amid all this decadence was a great fascination with emergent technologies. Radio and cinema both became massively popular during the decade, and television was developed at this time. Among the mass of popular magazines were several devoted to these technologies, and it was out of these that Amazing Stories emerged in 1926, the very first “scientifiction” magazine. Suddenly there was a name to attach to the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe type stories that had been popular for years. There are those who claim that it was only with the publication of Amazing and the coining of a name that would quickly transmute into science fiction that the history of sf truly began. And with the establishment of the first sf magazine came the appearance of the first and still most recognisable form of sf, space opera, when E.E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space began to be serialised at the end of the decade.
A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
One of the things that marks the science fiction that was written before the appearance of the sf pulps was that, although they were wildly popular, they didn’t have the familiar structures and devices that became regularised within the pulp magazines. As a result, to modern readers, they can often seem eccentric, illogical or even formless; at the same time they can appear ahead of their time or provide a vivid freshness. A Voyage to Arcturus is a prime example of both the eccentricity and the freshness. A novel that inspired both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, it is the story of Maskull who is transported to the planet Tormance where his journeys take the form of philosophical speculations about death and the nature of the universe. You’d probably not get a book like this published these days, but it was formative in the history of science fiction.
Other key works: RUR by Karel Capek
The Blind Spot by Austin Hall & Homer Eon Flint
Another example of the eccentricity of these early sf stories is this curiosity, which combines innovative ideas (the “blind spot” of the title is actually a portal into a parallel universe, an idea way ahead of its time in sf) with a melodramatic story and the sort of clumsy writing that had Damon Knight frothing at the mouth. For an entertaining critical take-down of the book, it’s worth seeking out the chapter Knight devotes to the work in In Search of Wonder. Nevertheless, if you can accept these infelicities, it’s actually a fascinating book (though the later sequel that Hall wrote on his own, The Spot of Life, is nowhere near as interesting.
Aelita by Alexei Tolstoi
The Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed it resulted in two broad types of Russian fiction: those that supported the regime and those that, covertly, criticised it. This is an example of the former. In the aftermath of the Civil War, a Russian engineer develops a new type of engine, and uses it to transport himself and a comrade to Mars. There they find a civilisation in decline, largely because society resembles an extreme form of capitalism, with an aristocratic elite widely separated from the workers who are confined to an underground existence. At the same time, an environmental catastrophe is approaching, so the two travellers foment a revolution. But this is crushed and the two are forced to flee back to Earth.
Other key works: Theodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton
The Girl in the Golden Atom by Ray Cummings
Cummings had once worked for Thomas Alva Edison, and the interest in science and technology is something that comes across in his work. Atom was one of the buzzwords in science at the time, with the idea of splitting the atom suggesting ever smaller things. In this story, therefore, a chemist examines his mother’s wedding ring under a powerful microscope, and sees a whole world there at the atomic level. In particular, he sees a beautiful girl, and ends up shrinking himself down to microscopic size in order to enter her world. Later science fiction would make great play of such variations of scale, but this novel was a groundbreaker in exploring that idea.
We by Yevgeny Zamiatin
If Tolstoi’s Aelita was a work that went along with the Soviet regime, We was the opposite, a work written in secret and smuggled out of the country before it could be published. (The English edition was reviewed by George Orwell, and the influence of this book on Nineteen Eighty-Four is immense.) The setting is a future totalitarian state, where every aspect of life is scrutinised and controlled; people all live in glass-walled apartments so that everything they do can be observed, even sex partners are selected by the state. Then an engineer working on a new spaceship meets a woman who refuses to conform, and slowly he is introduced to the idea of rebellion and freedom. But at the end the state proves too powerful for him. We remains to this day one of the great classics of science fiction.
Ralph 124C41+ by Hugo Gernsback
From a classic to … well, Ralph 124C41+ is hardly a classic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important in the history of science fiction. It was originally serialised in 1911, but was expanded for this first appearance in book form, coming out just the year before Gernsback launched his “scientifiction” magazine. It’s crudely written and poorly constructed, indeed it has been called the worst sf book ever written. But it was a bold, colourful adventure with lots of technological innovations (among the devices predicted in the novel were television, solar energy and radar) and as such it was the model for the sort of work Gernsback wanted to encourage in his new magazine, which made it in turn the model for much of the pulp sf that appeared over the next 20 or 30 years.
Metropolis by Thea von Harbou
Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, was one of the greatest and most influential of early science fiction films, and that film was based on this novel by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou. The film is better than the novel (every science fiction buff should have seen the film, many fewer will have read the novel), but the novel does deserve attention as representing the social and political concerns of the day. Germany was suffering runaway inflation at the time, successive governments were ineffective, most people felt things were out of control, paving the way for massive popular support for communists on the one hand and Nazis on the other. The novel captures that loss of control perfectly in its story of a dehumanised and regimented workforce living and working underground (echoing Aelita and also H.G. Wells’s “A Story of the Days to Come”) while a capitalist elite lives a pampered existence above ground.
Deluge by S. Fowler Wright
A drowned landscape, Britain fragmented into a scatter of islands, had been a staple image of British scientific romance at least since After London by Richard Jeffries, and would continue as a theme in such relatively recent works as A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest and A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright. But this is probably the archetypal example of the form. Earth tremors break the land into small, isolated islets where survivors create fragile communities. One such community is established by a former lawyer and the athletic woman he has met up with, but as they develop communications with other communities he discovers his wife and children are still alive. At the same time, a brutal gang tries to take control of his community. This was the novel that established Wright as one of the most important British sf writers of the inter-war years.
Other key works: The Short Stories of H.G. Wells
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
This was an extraordinary year in science fiction. In Armageddon 2419 AD, Philip Francis Nowlan introduced the world to Buck Rogers, whose subsequent adventures newspaper comic strips and in films would make him one of the most instantly recognisable characters in science fiction. At the same time, the serialisation of E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space in Gernsback’s Amazing effectively invented space opera. Even so, for the book of the year we have to turn to a non-genre novel by a non-genre writer. It is a story of immortality, of Orlando who starts out as a young nobleman at the court of Elizabeth I, and ends up as the wife of a sea captain in 1928. Along the way, Woolf provides a satirical history of English literature as Orlando, a would-be poet, meets many of the great literary figures of the time. But the fact that Orlando inexplicably changes sex during the reign of Charles II allows Woolf to dissect English social attitudes while also writing what is acknowledged to be one of the great classics of feminist literature.
The World Below by S. Fowler Wright
By the late 1920s, American science fiction was largely confined to the magazines, in serials and short stories that often wouldn’t see book publication for years if at all. For this short period, therefore, most book-length science fiction was coming out of Britain, and S. Fowler Wright’s dominance of British science fiction at this time is shown by his second appearance on this list. In 1925 he had published The Amphibians, which was intended to be the first part of a trilogy; but the third part was never written, and The World Below contains both The Amphibians and its continuation. It’s a time travel story in which a man travels 500,000 years into the future to discover an Earth in which new intelligent species, the Amphibians and the Dwellers, are locked in their own evolutionary battle. It’s a novel that owes as much to Dante as it does to H.G. Wells, which is one of the reasons it is such an extraordinary work.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.