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Scientific Romance

Entry updated 23 August 2021. Tagged: Theme.


A generic term applied to UK sf for the years before the end of World War Two, at which time the "science fiction" label became sufficiently commonplace to displace it, and American sf itself became the dominant model for UK sf writers to emulate; for several decades thereafter, the styles and concerns of US Genre SF dominated, though a number of more recent novels are tagged in this encyclopedia as being Scientific Romances. 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, however, 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 (it might be noted that in America, where the term was not familiar, this omnibus was retitled Seven Famous Novels). It may be that the only use of the term in contexts where "science fiction" might normally be expected was in the version of Ben Abramson's bibliography appended to J O Bailey's Pilgrims Through Space and Time: A History and Analysis of Scientific Fictions (1947), where authors from Jonathan Swift to Mary Shelley to E E Smith to Clifford D Simak are listed as authors of "Scientific Romances".

In his Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (1985), Brian M Stableford convincingly advocated further use of the term in order to compare and contrast the distinct UK and US traditions of speculative fiction, his text focusing on UK Fantastika's history before the triumph of genre sf. He enormously expanded this study as The New Atlantis: A Narrative History of the Scientific Romance (2016 4vols); see the "Incoming Links Report" via Incoming/Citation above, which identifies more than 150 authors with entries in this encyclopedia as authors of Scientific Romances, most of them discussed in The New Atlantis.

Ultimately, "Scientific Romance" may be understood through a range of descriptors, none of which in isolation defines the form; Stableford himself nowhere provides, nor do we suggest in this encyclopedia, any single necessary condition a text must meet to be described as an example of the form. Here, and in Stableford's volumes, the term can be seen as tending to describe works characterized by long evolutionary perspectives (see Decadence; Devolution; Evolution); by a focus on long vistas brooded upon by meditative protagonists (see New Zealander; Religion; Ruins and Futurity); by tales told by reactive narrators whose relationship with much more active protagonists is subaltern, though sometimes a melancholy dissent is offered; by conversations with mentor figures (who are often Alien sages from other planets and/or Secret Masters, or, alternately, dictators); by an absence of much sense of a penetrable frontier and a scarcity of the kind of Pulp-magazine-derived Hero designed to conquer the territory beyond the wall and to return with gifts; by narratives in which the Invention of a Scientist (or Mad Scientist) tends to be used as a blackmail Weapon to create universal peace (se also Pax Aeronautica), or simply to take over the world; by a sense, particularly acute among the large cohort of Scientific-Romance authors who had been in active service during World War One, that the nostrums of Religion and Politics had been discredited for good in the aftermath of that planetary trauma, and that anything remotely and speciously resembling "progress" was fated to end in Dystopia; by a sense of podium, a theatrical sense that the tale's significance is being passed on to us by an almost visible narrator, whose performance usually falls short of the charismatic, though this cannot be said of an author like Brian W Aldiss; and in general by a tone seriously less hopeful about the fitness of Homo sapiens to take part in the future than that typical of genre sf until recent decades (see Optimism and Pessimism). The nonfiction works of authors like J D Bernal and J B S Haldane were directly influential on the form during the 1920s. (It might also be suggested that the greatest author of the nonfiction Scientific Romance was Arnold J Toynbee.)

Exact figures are a matter of judgment, but of the 100 or so sf/fantasy writers who survived the Great War, a large number came to publish scientific romances in the years before World War Two, many of them explicitly Dystopian, including Owen Gregory's Meccania, the Super State (1918), Edward Shanks's The People of the Ruins: A Story of the English Revolution and After (1920), Cicely Hamilton's Theodore Savage: A Story of the Past or the Future (1922), P Anderson Graham's The Collapse of Homo Sapiens (1923), Shaw Desmond's Ragnarok (1926), Bernard Newman's The Cavalry Came Through (1930), which is set in the Great War and is couched, unusually for a scientific romance, as an Alternate History; Aelfrida Tillyard's Concrete: A Story of Two Hundred Years Hence (1930); Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932); Alan Llewellyn's The Strange Invaders (1934); T H White's Gone to Ground (coll of linked stories 1935); and others. Various works – several not dystopian – by David Lindsay, S Fowler Wright, Olaf Stapledon, George Orwell, Arthur C Clarke, Brian W Aldiss and Ian Watson may also plausibly be 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 off-piste works; examples include Christopher Priest for The Space Machine (1976) and Kim Stanley Robinson for The Memory of Whiteness (1985), Red Moon (2018), and The Ministry for the Future (2020). Ronald Wright explicitly links his novel A Scientific Romance (1997) to Richard Jefferies's After London; Or, Wild England (1885) and H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895), along with several other cites. 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; in Joanna Kavenna's The Birth of Love (2010) and A Field Guide to Reality (2016), discourse governs storyline; and Steven Erikson's first non-fantasy novel, Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart: A Novel of First Contact (2018), clearly amalgamates topoi from both sf and the Scientific Romance. [BS/DRL/JC]

see also: Forgotten Futures.

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