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Prehistoric SF

Entry updated 14 November 2022. Tagged: Theme.


The late nineteenth-century growth of interest in primal humanity and its forebears (see Anthropology; Apes as Human; Evolution; Origin of Man) led to a broad category of imaginative fiction that might be termed Prehistoric Romance – colourful tales of primitives, freed even from the contemporary Lost-Race story's modest narrative requirement of a plausibly long-lost location which (before the story can properly begin) must be plausibly found. Prehistoric fiction became yoked to sf partly owing to this common ground and partly because – as observed by Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960) – H G Wells effectively annexed the territory with "A Story of the Stone Age" (May-November 1897 Idler). Another notable prehistoric work by Wells, part essay and part narrative, is "The Grisly Folk" (April 1921 The Storyteller). These short pieces embody two recurring themes of prehistoric sf: the discovery and development of Weapons or other tools in the first, and the assumed clash between modern humans and their Neanderthal predecessors in the second.

Wells's first prehistoric venture was preceded by such fictions as Edward Bulwer Lytton's treatment of early humanity in "The Fallen Star, or the History of a False Religion" (in The Pilgrims of the Rhine, coll 1834); Andrew Lang's "The Romance of the First Radical" (September 1880 Fraser's Magazine as "The Romance of the First Radical: A Prehistoric Apologue"), whose aptly named protagonist Why-Why is uncomfortably in advance of his time; and Henry Curwen's Zit and Xoe: Their Early Experience (April-May 1885 Blackwood's Magazine; 1887). A later nineteenth-century example is E S Curry's The No-Din: Romance, History and Science of Pre-Historic Races of America and Other Lands (1899). Anona of the Moundbuilders: A Story of Many Thousands of Years Ago (1920), by Albert Nelson Dennis and J Clarence Marple, is set in the prehistory of North America.

The first discovery of Weapons is famously dramatized in the opening segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Many older prehistoric-sf stories deal with early Inventions, from clubs (as in "A Story of the Stone Age" and 2001) to the domestication of fire and forging of blades. Lord Dunsany imagines the accidental discovery of iron-smelting, the end of the Stone Age and the rise of Religion in "The Sword and the Idol" (13 February 1909 Saturday Review). Further tales of early Conceptual Breakthrough include Ashton Hilliers's The Master-Girl (1910), with a female inventor-protagonist; George Langford's Pic the Weapon-Maker (1920); Howard R Garis's Tam of the Fire Cave (1927); Jim Kjelgaard's Fire-Hunter (1951); and Reginald Maddock's The Great Bow (1964), whose hero invents the first bow and arrow. Such Promethean inventors may be too innovative for their own good: the ingenious title characters of Oliver Marble Gale's Carnack – The Life-Bringer: The Story of a Dawn Man Told by Himself (1928) and Roy Lewis's darkly comic What We Did to Father (1960; vt The Evolution Man 1963; vt Once Upon an Ice Age 1979; vt The Evolution Man; or, How I Ate my Father 1992) end up, respectively, exiled and murdered. Jim Crace's The Gift of Stones (1988) portrays the end of an era as Stone Age craftsmen are superseded by workers in metal.

Another notable female innovator – though even she pushes too hard and is banished by the Neanderthal tribe that adopted her – is Ayla, the Cro-Magnon protagonist of Jean M Auel's best-selling Earth's Children series, beginning with The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980): this became the benchmark or paradigm of prehistoric sf in the later twentieth century. Further Feminist treatments of note include Joan Dahr Lambert's Circles of Stone (1997) and Doris Lessing's The Cleft (2007). Other prehistoric sf sagas which like Auel's run to multiple volumes include Robin Hobb's Reindeer People diptych opening with The Reindeer People (1988) as by Megan Lindholm, and the lengthy People of the Wolf sequence by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W Michael Gear, opening with People of the Wolf (1990).

The theme of Neanderthal man versus the more familiarly human Cro-Magnons also appears in J-H Rosny aîné's La guerre du feu (1909; cut trans as The Quest for Fire: A Novel of Prehistoric Times 1967; vt Quest for Fire 1982), and in the Timeslip romance Three Go Back (1932; cut and bowdlerized 1953) by J Leslie Mitchell, where the conflict takes place in Atlantis. Such a clash becomes the first key Jonbar Point of human history in Flight into Yesterday (May 1949 Startling; exp 1953; vt The Paradox Men 1955 dos) by Charles L Harness, leading to repeating cycles of distrust, hatred and War until at last history is rewritten to make the ancient encounter a peaceful First Contact. The gulf between old and new cultures is developed with considerable, even hallucinatory, force from the Neanderthal viewpoint in William Golding's The Inheritors (1955). Despite the bleakness of their original "grisly" portrayal by Wells, Neanderthals were cast as heroes by several other writers, an early example being Irving Crump's anachronistic Og sequence opening with Og – Son of Fire (1922). Indeed Neanderthals are now almost routinely credited with special empathy or other ESP/Psi Powers, as in Mark Canter's Ember from the Sun (1995). The traditional clash gives way to passionate though necessarily unfruitful Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon cross-species love matches in Björn Kurtén's Den svarta tigern (1978 Sweden; trans as Dance of the Tiger: A Novel of the Ice Age 1980) and Mammutens raddare (1984 Sweden; trans as Singletusk: A Novel of the Ice Age 1986). Prehistoric sequences in Piers Anthony's Isle of Woman (1993) – opening his Geodyssey sequence – also feature sympathetic Neanderthals.

The above-cited 2001: A Space Odyssey and Flight into Yesterday both inject the Genre SF theme of Uplift into their prehistoric scenes. Similarly, Alien influence and intervention in the early days of humanity was a favourite theme of Erich von Däniken's supposed nonfiction. Other prehistoric tamperings in sf may inflict the anti-Uplift of Arrested Development, as in Blindfold from the Stars (1979) by Philip E High and The Margarets (2007) by Sheri S Tepper.

In narratives concerned with the grand sweep of Evolution, prehistoric sf sequences become part of a larger whole. Christine Brooke-Rose's Subscript (1999) begins the human story at the cell level and ceases before the development of agriculture; Stephen Baxter's Evolution (2002) follows the thread from pre-sentient mammals of the Dinosaur era to humanity's prime and then beyond to ultimate Far-Future Devolution. Echoing Wells's use of cave-bear and other animal viewpoints in "A Story of the Stone Age", Baxter has also written prehistoric sf from the nonhuman viewpoint of mammoths in his Mammoth trilogy, opening with Mammoth: Silverhair (1999; vt Silverhair 1999), and human-centred prehistoric Alternate History in the Northland sequence opening with Northland: Book One: Stone Spring (2010), where a Conceptual Breakthrough in primitive civil engineering changes the course of prehistory. Also notable is Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman (2013).

Prehistoric sf generally loses its characteristic flavour when modern protagonists intrude via Time Travel: the very numerous examples include the first storyline of Doctor Who in 1963; much of It's About Time (1966-1967), again featuring friendly Neanderthals; and Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile, opening with The Many-Colored Land (1981). There can be interesting exceptions when a modern consciousness merely observes through a Time Viewer (which see), as in The Amulet of Tarv: A Romance of the South Downs, 1,000 BC (1925) by Percy F Kensett; or enters the deep past unobtrusively via some form of psychic projection. The latter trope appears in Francis Leslie Ashton's The Breaking of the Seals (1946) and the Pleistocene episodes of Michael Bishop's No Enemy But Time (1982; rev 2022). The anachronistic running joke of the animated television series The Flintstones (1960-1966) is that prehistoric life is almost exactly like contemporary American suburbia, with domesticated Dinosaurs and other animals – plus assorted devices improbably built from Stone Age materials – providing all the comforts of 1960s Technology. Long before The Flintstones, V T Hamlin's comic-strip Neanderthal caveman Alley Oop (created 1932) enjoyed many more or less anachronistic adventures even before let loose on history at large via the device of Time Travel.

Besides the opening of 2001 and productions cited in the previous paragraph, further media treatments of the prehistory theme include One Million B.C. (1940; vt Man and his Mate) and its remake One Million Years B.C. (1966), Prehistoric Women (1950 and 1967), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1969), Korg: 70,000 BC (1974), Quest for Fire (1981) and The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), the last two being based on above-cited works by J-H Rosny and Jean M Auel.

A relevant anthology is Dawn of Time: Prehistory Through Science Fiction (anth 1979) edited by Robert Silverberg, Martin H Greenberg and Joseph D Olander. The attraction of Stone Age simplicities, with so much that the reader already knows still waiting to be discovered, is mirrored by sf's more sophisticated and sometimes ironic tales of re-discovery in Post-Holocaust and Ruined Earth settings. [DRL]

see also: Steven Barnes; Max Bégouën; H J Campbell; Dulcie Deamer; Vardis Fisher; Ottilie A Liljencrancz; Edison Marshall.

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