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10 Essential SF Titles of the 1900s

By / May 8, 2017 / no comments

The death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 marked the end of an age just as surely as it marked the beginning of a new century. The restrictions and moralising of the high Victorian age was already being undermined during the latter years of the 19th century, but without the small, black-clad, increasingly distant figure of Victoria presiding over the world, things began to feel looser and lighter. What would, in retrospect, be seen as the long Edwardian summer, began. The world was at peace (except for persistent troubles in places like the Balkans that weren’t really regarded as part of the civilised world), the western nations such as Britain, America, France and Germany, were enjoying a period of wealth and stability. It was an optimistic time, even if that didn’t always come out in the fiction. But it was also a time of social pressures, fears about poverty and the plight of the less fortunate, increasingly dramatic advocacy of women’s rights and suffrage, uncertainty about the effects of new technology, and an ongoing dread of future war that had been fuelled by the popular press ever since the 1870s, all of which comes into the science fiction of the period.

Meanwhile, changes in publishing and the economics of bookselling, coupled with the spread of literacy that followed educational improvements towards the end of the 19th century, all meant that there was a new and ready market for fiction. There was a plethora of cheap popular magazines and newspapers, all of which included short stories and serialised novels, so there was a ready market for anyone who could turn out highly coloured adventurous fiction to satisfy this new readership. Much of this was science fiction. So the decade saw a mixture of garish fiction that would eventually turn into the familiar fare of the pulp magazines, along with the high water mark of scientific romance. H.G. Wells had written his genre-defining works in the last half of the 1890s and in the new decade he turned primarily to social novels such as Kipps and Ann Veronica, but he still dominated the science fiction of the period. But it was also a period when writers who had made their name in what we would now call the mainstream felt free to produce science fiction as well, as Joseph Conrad, E.M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling and Jack London all did. So although science fiction hadn’t yet taken on the familiar forms it would adapt in the next decade or so, it was still a very interesting period in the history of science fiction.


The Lost Continent by C.J. Cutliffe-Hyne

The Lost ContinentAt the dawn of the century there was really no strict division between what we would call fantasy and what we would call science fiction, so Cutliffe-Hyne’s seminal novel about the destruction of Atlantis has both the colour of fantasy and sense of social realism of science fiction. A document is discovered that proves to be testimony of a warrior-priest, Deucalian, recording the final days of Atlantis. It is a place of wealth and beauty, of shining temples and great power; but it is also a place of corruption, decadence and discontent. With a greedy and selfish empress in power, the stage is set for an epic battle that will decide the fate of the continent.

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The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells

The First Men in the MoonIn a succession of novels, beginning with his first in 1895, H.G. Wells had not only established himself as perhaps the pre-eminent author of science fiction, he had also effectively defined modern sf. This was the last of those early, brilliant works. Though he would continue to write science fiction throughout his career, it was no longer the focus of his attention and never again quite achieved the heights of those early novels. This is one of the more lighthearted of his scientific romances: a failed businessman and an eccentric inventor travel to the Moon, where they discover a curious society of Selenites. These are beings from whom there is a lot to learn, but their rigidly structured society also makes them a terrifying threat.

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The Inheritors by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Hueffer

The InheritorsAt the turn of the century, H.G. Wells, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Hueffer and several other writers were all living around Romney Marsh. They were friends, met frequently, read and commented on each other’s work, and were inspired by each other. One of the most interesting results of those friendships is Conrad’s only excursion into science fiction, a novel that clearly owes a lot to Wells. A successful writer meets a woman who claims to be a traveller from the Fourth Dimension. Using the writer’s contacts, the woman and her fellow visitors from the future infiltrate the corridors of power in order to extend their corrupt control across the world.

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The World Masters by George Griffith

The World MastersAfter Wells, the most prolific and popular author of scientific romance in Britain was probably George Griffith. Like Wells he was a utopian socialist, and his work often featured a radical new world order. Unlike Wells, his work tended to concentrate on future wars, particularly aerial warfare, and since he had no scientific training his visionary technology tended to be spectacular but unconvincing. The World Masters was one of three future war novels that appeared in the same year, the others being A Woman Against the World and The Lake of Gold: A Narrative of the Anglo-American Conquest of Europe. All three pursue the same theme. In The World Masters it is the International Electric Power and Storage Trust that lies behind the Anglo-American takeover of the world.

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The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton

The Napoleon of Notting HillAlthough probably best known today as the creator of the Father Brown detective stories, Chesterton at the time was renowned as a wit, a Christian apologist, an essayist, a poet, and an illustrator among many other accomplishments. His two best novels both have satirical and fantastic elements. The Man Who Was Thursday is the tale of an anarchist cell every one of whose members turns out to be a police informer. While The Napoleon of Notting Hill is set in 1984, a year in which the king is chosen at random. When the newly chosen king is an imbecile who only cares about a good joke, the nature of society, patriotism and politics is deftly turned inside out.

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Other significant works: The Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells


Gullivar of Mars by Edwin Lester Arnold

Gullivar of Mars (Bison Frontiers of Imagination)The Science Fiction Encyclopedia claims that this novel may be the first genuine planetary romance, it clearly does seem to be cast in the same extravagant, colourful mould as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s later Barsoom novels. Originally published as Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, it tells of a disgruntled American naval officer who suddenly finds himself transported to Mars. There he rescues a princess, then they fight their way across a world of dying cities and lost races to the River of Death, before he is just as abruptly returned to a happy life on earth.

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Other significant works: A Modern Utopia by H.G. Wells


Before Adam by Jack London

Before Adam: By Jack London - IllustratedOur conception of the history of the world changed radically during the 19th century. At the beginning of the century, new discoveries in geology pushed the existence of the planet eons earlier than anyone had previously imagined; in mid-century Darwin’s theory of evolution changed our conception of life on Earth; and late in the century the discovery of hundreds of Neanderthal bones confirmed ideas of prehumans. As a result of all of this, prehistoric fiction became popular around the turn of the century, imagining the lives of our caveman ancestors. One of the best of these was Jack London’s account of a modern man who suddenly develops a psychic link with an ancestor living in Pleistocene Africa. It was a startling portrait of a ferocious younger world where early humans have to struggle for existence against their protohuman predecessors.

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Other significant works: In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells


The Iron Heel by Jack London

The Iron HeelLike his contemporaries, H.G. Wells and George Griffith, Jack London was a socialist. Nowhere in his work do his political views come across so clearly as they do in this startling dystopia. It is set in a near-future America where ruthless business leaders have taken over the government and established an oligarchy popularly known as the Iron Heel. Their dictatorial government keeps the vast majority of the population in poverty and near serfdom. The story takes the form of the autobiography of a woman who works for the underground resistance as they recover from one failed revolution and start planning for another. The manuscript is discovered centuries later by a scholar in a more utopian society who provides a different perspective on the events that the autobiography describes.

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The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

The House on the BorderlandThis is an hallucinatory mixture of science fiction, fantasy and horror that is one of the novels that inspired the Lovecraftian weird fiction that would emerge over the coming decades. It starts with two friends on a fishing trip to a remote part of Ireland, but in the ruins of a house they discover the remains of a journal which suggests that the house exists on the borders with another world, a world of strange landscapes and swine-things and bestial horrors. Through the journal the two fishermen share a spiritual odyssey in which the passage of night and day goes ever faster until locked in a perpetual twilight, and after millennia the author of the journal witnesses the destruction of the solar system and finds himself floating through space amid angels and demons.

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Other significant works: The War in the Air by H.G. Wells, The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton


With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling

With the Night Mail: Two Yarns About the Aerial Board of Control (The Radium Age Science Fiction Series)Though best known for his stories and poems about colonial India, Rudyard Kipling also wrote some excellent science fiction, of which by far the most interesting are the two linked novellas he wrote about the Aerial Board of Control. The first of the stories, “With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 AD”, introduces the Pax Aeronautica, by which the Aerial Board of Control, ABC, effectively rules the world. The first story concerns one intercontinental dirigible journey delivering mail from London to Quebec, battling storms and heading through skies crowded with zeppelins along the way. The story concludes with a selection of newspaper clippings and advertisements that together present a vivid portrait of life in this new world. The second story, “As Easy as ABC: A Tale of 2150 AD”, first published in 1912, paints a darker portrait of this future world as agents of the Aerial Board of Control rush to Chicago to put down a revolt demanding a return to democracy.

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