The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Mike 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.
Spielberg’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.
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.
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.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.