Yesterday’s Tomorrows by Mike Ashley

The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Yesterday's TomorrowsMike Ashley has been editing the British Library’s Science Fiction Classics series for the last few years, for which he has selected some excellent novels and brought together several enjoyable themed anthologies. He and the BL are in the process of doing for “forgotten” science fiction what Martin Edwards and the BL have done so successfully in the field of vintage British crime fiction. So it seems natural that he should also follow Edwards by producing what can be seen as a guide book to his chosen genre, and this book closely follows the format of Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

Ashley begins with an introduction in which he explains why he has chosen the period from the mid-1890s to the mid-1960s. Although there had been several books which can be classed as science fiction before his start date, such as Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde, Ashley argues that it was the arrival of HG Wells on the scene that marked the beginning of science fiction as a distinct genre. At the other end of his time period, Ashley points to the “new wave” of science fiction authors, such as Ballard, Aldiss and Moorcock, who set out to drag the genre out of the pulpy reputation it had acquired by the late 1950s.

the war of the worlds-minSpielberg’s version of The War of the Worlds

Between those dates, the genre had had to react to two world wars and the nuclear threat of the Cold War, not to mention the leaps in scientific knowledge of which authors had to take account if their fiction was to maintain a level of believability. Ashley points to the difficulty of defining science fiction, and gives his own definition: “The science must seem feasible and possible, even if it stretches credulity. If it is impossible, then it is not science fiction but fantasy.” He qualifies this by pointing out that the feasibility factor is relative to the time of writing – what seemed possible in the 1890s may seem impossible to modern readers versed in later advances in science.

The books Ashley has selected for inclusion are not, he tells us, his pick of the 100 “best” novels of the period. Rather he has chosen ones which he feels “reflected the times in which they were written, but which were also innovative, original, sometimes idiosyncratic, and … a pleasure to read.” They are divided into sub-headings but follow a generally chronological order so that we can see how the genre developed over time and reacted to events in the world. Apart from Wells and Wyndham, each author gets only one entry on the main list, although in his introductions to each section Ashley ranges widely over other authors and books which don’t make the 100, so despite the title there are probably at least another hundred or so titles mentioned overall. Some examples of the sub-headings are: Wells, Wells and Wells Again; Brave New Worlds; Super, Sub or Non-Human?; Post-Atomic Doom, etc.

The Day of the Triffids-min

There are a few very well known titles here, such as The Day of the Triffids or Nineteen Eighty-Four, and also a few that I’ve come across as a result of the BL’s series, like Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses or James White’s Hospital Station. There are also some delightful surprise appearances from authors only known to me in other genres, such as LP Hartley, J Jefferson Farjeon, and H Rider Haggard. However, as a mere dabbler in science fiction the bulk of the books and authors are new to me, though I assume many will be more familiar to real devotees.

As I went through the book, I checked the availability of each of the 100 listed titles. Around eighty of them are either still in print at reasonable prices or available on one of the online sites such as Project Gutenberg or fadedpage.com, or from second-hand sites like Abe Books. A few rarer ones are a little too expensive for a dabbler like me, and there were around sixteen for which I couldn’t track down available copies at all. However with the interest in all things vintage at the moment, I hope the BL or other publishers might bring some of the missing ones back into print over the next few years.

Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley

I love this kind of book – when you don’t really know a genre very well it can be hard to know where to start, and I have a tendency to read the very well known ones and then give up. This has given me not just the basic 100 books to explore, but also the context to understand what was happening in the genre and how the later writers built on the work of the earlier ones. Ashley gives plot summaries of the 100 (occasionally straying a little too far into spoiler territory, perhaps, but fortunately my terrible memory means by the time I read the books I’ll have forgotten the summaries) which lets potential readers know which ones they’d like to seek out. In my case, of course the answer is – all of them! Highly recommended to relative newcomers to the genre, but I’d think there would be plenty here to interest even established classic science fiction fans.

20 books 2019Book 5 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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30 thoughts on “Yesterday’s Tomorrows by Mike Ashley

  1. This sounds like a great guide to the genre, FictionFan. That’s an interesting approach, too, to choose books that really reflect their times and cultures, etc. Books like that can add (…and add…and add…) to the TBR, but it sounds like a well-researched collection. And if that gets attention for some excellent (but possibly forgotten) science fiction, so much the better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, and even easier to add when so many of them are available to download! Yes, these books are a great help in finding a starting point in an unfamiliar genre and going a bit beyond the best known books. I’d like him to do a similar books for American SF too – it seems the two sides of the Atlantic went off in rather different directions, mainly because so much of the century over here was pre-war, war and post-war dominated.

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  2. I hardly ever read SF, even then it tends to be the very early stuff. So I wouldn’t think I was the target audience for this book, but your review has me really interested! It sounds fascinating – maybe it will even tempt me towards more SF!

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    • I prefer earlier SF since it tend to be more about humanity and less about science and gadgetry. I thought lots of the books he lists sounded very interesting, and I was surprised at some of the authors who’d ventured into the genre. I feel a challenge coming on… 😉

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  3. I sense a new challenge coming along when you’re done with MMM. I loved the Martin Edwards Classic Crime book, so would most likely enjey this too, as it is fascinating to read about the development of a particular genre, even though I am not especially into Science Fiction.

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    • Haha, you know me too well! I’ve already got the spreadsheet prepared, and I’m desperately trying to persuade myself I can’t possibly add another challenge till I finish some of the current ones! I always think these books are a great way to find a starting point in an unfamiliar genre, and having the plot summaries means you can see which ones appeal most if you only want to try a few. Fatal to the TBR, of course… 😉

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  4. This sounds like a worthy addition for those wanting a smattering of information before committing to an entire work. And with renewed interest in UFOs, etc., these days, it could be very handy in luring new readers to the genre.

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    • It’s the kind of book that is fatal to the TBR! I’ve really enjoyed some of the novels the BL has published so far, all books and authors I’d never heard of. So it looks like there’s plenty of room for a science fiction revival…

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    • I’m hoping so, but they really haven’t in the vintage crime equivalent which I’ve been a bit disappointed about. Maybe it’s copyright issues or something, although most of the books in the crime one are pretty ancient. Quite a few of the science fiction ones are late enough to still be in copyright, I think.

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        • I don’t really understand why, to be honest. Surely it would be better for authors’ estates to see the books back in print, and presumably make a small royalty from them, than have second-hand copies exchanging for hundreds of pounds? It’s one of the aspects of the publishing world that baffles me…?

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  5. My SF readers are definitely in the gadget/spaceship silo (at least my son). My husband enjoys the more complex human relationship SF, too. Will let him know of this book’s existence, although I think he’s currently overwhelmed by his TBR pile as it is, LOL. That hasn’t stopped him/us from acquiring more….

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    • From this, it seems as if British SF at that period was very much earth-bound. I guess the wars led to a lot of dystopian fiction and also lots of alternative warfare stuff. Then of course, there was the Cold War and post nuclear apocalypse. I reckon I’d have booked a one-way ticket to Mars if I could…

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  6. *sigh* Do I even need to say anything?? I think his distinction between SF and Fantasy is very good.

    I refuse to let myself get this until I whittle down my TBR a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This sounds to be an intelligent guide. I have the ‘Waterstone’s Guide to Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror’ (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-quirky) still for quick reference, published in the dying years of the 20th century, but this may well supercede it in usefulness. I shall have to investigate further, so thanks for drawing attention to it!

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    • This one sounds more limited is cope since it concentrates exclusively on British SF, but I found that gave him room to draw links between the authors and their subjects. I wonder if I could persuade the BL to do a horror one, since they’d done SF and crime… 🤔

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  8. What a great starting point for those of us who don’t read much SF. It would also be interesting for someone to do an introduction like this for Russian/East European SF which has some marvelous stories that were often used as a vehicle for the authors to make political points without seeming to make political points.

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    • That would be fantastic! I was actually wishing they might do a companion on American SF of the same period – I get the impression they went off in a different, more optimistic direction. The British stuff definitely seems to be responding to the wars and the Cold War quite often. I’ve only read one Russian one – We – and I thought it was very good. I could see how it had influenced the likes of Brave New World and 1984. Have you other recommendations? Must be translated sadly – my O-level Russian from nearly half a century ago probably wouldn’t be up to the task… 😉

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      • My knowledge is superficial but a few that you might find interesting are: Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog and The Fatal Eggs, Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch (first in a series), Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx, the Czech writer Karel Čapek, Stanislaw Lem from Poland, and the Russian brothers Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, all of whom have had a fair amount translated into English.

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        • Thanks for these – they look interesting! Especially the Bulgakovs – I loved the one book of his I’ve read, The White Guard, and have been meaning to read more of his stuff. I can see I’m going to need to add a few more books to my wishlist…. 😀

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  9. It sounds an interesting one, maybe the books included will be more familiar to me as I like classic sci-fi (actually it’s almost the only sci fi I read!) – do you think there was enough diversity of female authors, non-Western authors, and authors of colour, represented in the selection? As that has historically been an issue.

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    • No, it’s exclusively British science fiction from pre-1970. Mostly men, which I think is accurate in terms of who was writing SF back then, but a sprinkling of women when relevant. And I assume all white since it was before mass immigration, but I never really check an author’s colour. If they write a good book, then I’ll read it even if they’re green… 😉

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  10. I love the idea of having a systematic way of introducing people to a genre of writing, I think it’s incredibly useful. I’m the type of reader than can enjoy any genre if given the right context, and it sounds like this list is the perfect way to dip one’s toes in. Explanations of how certain books were reactions to specific historical events is also really fascinating to me.

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    • I love this type of book, especially in a genre I don’t know well but am interested in. It can be quite hard to know where to start, especially if it’s not a genre that gets a lot of coverage in the book blogosphere – or maybe I just don’t read those blogs! And these BL ones don’t get too lit-crit about it – they make the books sound fun to read rather than educational, if you know what I mean.

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