It has been a while since the last chapter of this peripatetic journey through the history of science fiction, so it is well past time to take us back to that most schizophrenic of decades, the 1910s.
The first half of the decade marked the long golden summer of Edwardian England, the second half was one of the bloodiest and cruelest periods of the century: the First World War tore apart the certainties of the Victorian Age, and destroyed the old order that had kept Europe mostly at peace for a century.
In science fiction terms the first half of the decade is largely dominated by the British writers still working in the tradition of the scientific romance that H.G. Wells had made his own nearly 20 years before. But also, in the continuing popularity of invasion stories such as Saki’s When William Came we get a sense of approaching war. After the start of the First World War, in August 1914, however, British writers tended to have more immediate concerns in their fiction and utopian and science fiction ideas found more of a home in America, where the weird and colourful planetary adventures were just beginning to emerge.
[A final brief note: not all of the science fiction from this period has survived, so there are books here that are not regularly available through Amazon, or are available only in old and ridiculously expensive editions. However, some of them do surface occasionally in print-on-demand services, then disappear again, so do keep your eyes open.]
The Unknown Tomorrow by William Le Queux
William Le Queux is little-known today, but between the 1890s and the 1920s he was a prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction, producing a huge stream of mystery stories, invasion stories, science fiction, military tales and so on. Much of his work was serialised in the Daily Mail and consisted of warnings about the rise of Germany, rambling conspiracy tales (he once claimed to have seen a manuscript by Rasputin which stated that Jack the Ripper was a Russian agent), and stories about the dreadful consequences of social change. This novel, with the full title The Unknown Tomorrow: How the Rich Fared at the Hands of the Poor, Together with a Full Account of the Social Revolution in England, was typical not just of his work but of the general mood of the age, when the idea of a red revolution when the downtrodden working class would rise up against the British aristocracy was one of the great fears of the right wing press. The novel places the socialist revolution in 1935, and the dystopian future imagined includes mobs sacking the British Museum.
The Hampdenshire Wonder by J.D. Beresford
Scientific romance in the early years of the twentieth century had an interest in the outcast, the person who was exceptional in some way but is consequently alienated from their society. It’s a theme that crops up in Another World by J-H. Rosny aine, and would re-appear in Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, but The Hampdenshire Wonder is perhaps the finest expression of the idea. Beresford himself had suffered infantile paralysis and had a slight deformity as a result, so there was an implication of personal experience in the story of an unnaturally brilliant child whose head is deformed to allow for the extra large brain. The immense power of his intellect means he has difficulty empathising with the ordinary people around him, and generates the enmity of a local clergyman.
The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle
Lost worlds were a staple of scientific romances throughout the nineteenth century, and still turn up today, but the story that became the archetype and that gave its name to the sub-genre, was this one by Arthur Conan Doyle. By this time he had created (and attempted to kill off) his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, but in The Lost World he introduced his second most famous creation, Professor Challenger, a brilliant but irascible scientist. In this story he leads an expedition deep into the heart of South America to discover a plateau where dinosaurs and apemen still survive. It was a story that captured the popular imagination, forming the basis for multiple films and television series.
Other key works: The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson
The Yellow Peril by M.P. Shiel
This is a work that went through many titles. When it was first serialised in 1913 it was called “The Dragon”, when it came out as a book later that year the title was changed to To Arms!, and it was only a subsequent revised edition in the 1920s that had the title that became synonymous with Western fear of the East. Like his contemporary, William Le Queux, M.P. Shiel was a prolific author of wildly colourful adventure stories that often played on current fears, and this was the final volume in a loose trilogy of works, The Yellow Danger and The Yellow Wave, that exploited worries raised by a series of conflicts in China. In The Yellow Peril, inspired by the Chinese Revolution, Chinese hordes take over the world by the sheer weight of numbers, and the West must rely on their superiority in other ways in order to fight back.
Other key works: The Poison Belt by Arthur Conan Doyle
When William Came by Saki
“Saki” was the pen name of H.H. Munro, a prolific author mostly known for his witty and satirical perceptions of Edwardian society, but he would occasionally turn to more macabre or darker fare. This novel, which appeared right at the end of 1913, is the last and one of the best of a string of invasion stories that began with “The Battle of Dorking” by George T. Chesney. These stories, inspired by the unification of Germany following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the consequent change in the European balance of power, had blatantly advocated for greater military preparation and had been a significant undercurrent to the arms race that led up to the First World War. In this novel, Saki imagines Britain capitulating to German military power, and the forces of Kaiser Wilhelm consequently occupying London. The dystopian vision of life under German occupation makes this an interesting precursor of the Hitler Wins stories that followed World War II.
Other key works: The World Set Free by H.G. Wells
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
There are books on this list that have remained popular ever since they were first published, and other that have faded almost entirely from public consciousness, but there are still other that have had to wait until long after their author’s death to receive the recognition they deserve, and Herland is one of them. It first appeared in Gilman’s own magazine, The Forerunner, but it wouldn’t be published in volume form until 1979, and it would only be when it was rescued by a later generation of feminist critics that it would be recognised as one of the great works of feminist science fiction. The suffragist movements in Europe and America produced a great many feminist visions in the decades on either side of 1900, most of which deservedly attracted little notice. But this is a novel that stands out from the crowd. Three young men happen upon a community composed entirely of women, with the women contradicting the standard Edwardian view of their sex. The novel explores how difficult it is for the men to come to terms with intelligent, independent women.
The Conquest of America by Cleveland Moffett
Better known as a journalist and mystery writer, Cleveland Moffett also produced this curious novel. In one sense it is a version of the popular invasion story such as When William Came (variations on the invasion story appeared in America, France and Germany as well as Britain), but it is also a prime example of the form that was popular in American adventure writing at the time and that John Clute has christened the Edisonade. In these stories, hymns of praise to the get-up-and-go attitude common in American society at the time, a young inventor saves the day by his great ingenuity. In this case, the inventor is Thomas Alva Edison himself, who creates the device that will save America from a German invasion while at the same time seeing off the threat of socialism.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
This is one of the most important novels in the early history of American science fiction, and despite the fact that it is appallingly written it remains very popular to this day. First serialised in 1912, this was the first volume publication of the first book in the long-running Barsoom series, a series that not only paved the way for Burroughs’s long and colourful career, but that also set the pattern for the highly coloured planetary romances that were a staple of American science fiction for most of the next few decades. In the early years of the century the American astronomer, Percival Lowell, had announced that there were canals on Mars, which gave Burroughs the cue he needed to translate Mars into a version of the American West, where fast-moving romantic adventures could be staged in a dramatic but not especially inhospitable landscape. Complete with six-limbed warriors, a beautiful princess, and a human hero given super powers in this reduced gravity, it was a story of non-stop action and intrigue that proved immensely popular from the moment of its first appearance.
What Not by Rose Macaulay
A convinced pacifist, Rose Macaulay spent much of the First World War working for Britain’s Propaganda Department, and it was her experience there that prompted this savage satire about the sort of society that was to be built after the end of the war. What she presents is a new autocratic government in which the Ministry of Brains dictates a new classification of intelligence that is impossible to achieve in reality, and marriage is forbidden. It’s a sour but comic view of British government that inevitably ran into legal problems the moment it was published. The book was charged with libel and had to be withdrawn, only for a revised edition to appear the next year in which scenes of a newspaper proprietor engaged in political blackmail had been removed.
The Moon Pool by A. Merritt
If A Princess of Mars suggested one line of development for American pulp science fiction, A. Merritt’s first novel, The Moon Pool, suggested another. This was where science fiction merged with fantasy, with a particular interest in the weird and the florid, paving the way for the sort of lost world stories and grotesqueries that would emerge with writers like H.P. Lovecraft and his ilk. The story concerns a monstrous creature, the Shining One, that is tracked down to its underground lair where the novel’s heroes encounter beautiful, evil handmaids and a race of dwarves. The result is a fairly straightforward battle between good and evil, but told with relish in an extravagant prose style that itself became a touchstone for future science fiction.
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.