Scientific Romance

Tagged: Theme

The most common generic term applied to UK sf in the years before the end of World War Two, at which time the "science fiction" label became sufficiently commonplace to displace it; for several decades thereafter, the styles and concerns of US Genre SF dominated. Early appearances of the term in a sense related to its eventual definition include Charles Dickens's description (24 March 1866 All the Year Round) of Henri de Parville's Un habitant de la planète Mars: roman d'anticipation (1865); the anonymously written "Some of our Social Philosophers" (15 June 1866 The New York Nation), which applies the phrase to Oliver Wendell Holmes's Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny (January 1860-April 1861 The Atlantic Monthly as "The Professor's Story"; 1861 2vols); and James de Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (7 January-12 May 1888 Harper's Weekly; 1888), where a character in the Club-Story frame describes the manuscript's tale as scientific romance. C H Hinton issued two series of Scientific Romances (colls 1886 and 1898) mixing speculative essays and stories, and the term was widely applied by reviewers and essayists to the early novels of H G Wells, which became the key exemplars of the genre. When listing his titles Wells usually lumped his sf and fantasy novels together as "fantastic and imaginative romances", but he eventually chose to label the collection of his best-known sf novels The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells (omni 1933), thus securing the term's definitive status. Brian M Stableford later revived the term in order to facilitate the comparison and contrast of the distinct UK and US traditions of speculative fiction; his study of the UK genre's separate evolution before the triumph of genre sf is Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (1985), which was enormously expanded as The New Atlantis: A Narrative History of the Scientific Romance (2016 4vols); see Incoming for circa 150 authors identified in this encyclopedia with the form; also see in particular Evolution, Religion. In these entries, and in Stableford's volumes, the term can be seen as tending to describe works characterized by long evolutionary perspectives; by a focus on long vistas brooded upon by meditative protagonists (see New Zealander; Ruins and Futurity); by an absence of much sense of the frontier and a scarcity of the kind of Pulp-magazine-derived Hero who is designed to penetrate any frontier available; by narratives in which the Invention of a Scientist (or Mad Scientist) is a Weapon which he uses to create world peace by blackmail; and in general by a tone moderately less hopeful about the future than that typical of genre sf until recent decades (see Optimism and Pessimism).

The works of Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C Clarke are frequently instanced as examples of the use of Scientific Romance idioms in the twentieth century. A few more recent writers have found the term a convenient rubric for offbeat works; examples include Christopher Priest for The Space Machine (1976) and Kim Stanley Robinson for The Memory of Whiteness (1985). Though he does not specifically use the term, much of Stephen Baxter's work – especially novels like Evolution (2002) – is clearly written in the tradition. [BS/DRL/JC]

see also: Forgotten Futures.

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