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Wylie, Philip

Entry updated 2 January 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1902-1971) US author who began publishing work of genre interest with "Seeing New York by Kiddie Car" (1926 Zest). By World War Two he had become notorious for his flamboyant but penetrating surveys of American mores and behaviour; he coined the term "Momism" to describe a tendency among Americans to sacralize motherhood, thus making family dynamics and morality impenetrable to reflection (see Feminism). Of his non-sf works, he probably remains best remembered for Generation of Vipers (1942; rev 1955), where the coinage appeared.

In the sf field he perhaps is most significant – though not initially best known – for his first novel of genre interest. Gladiator (1930; rev 1949), filmed as The Gladiator (1938), tells in inflatedly Nietzschean terms the story of a young man endowed in the womb with superhuman strength and near-invulnerability by his borderline-Mad Scientist Biologist father, as he soon tells him: "I can do things, Dad ... I can jump higher'n a house. I can run faster'n a train. I'm like a man made out of iron ..." Wylie's moderately inexplicit responsiveness to the claims of early twentieth-century Eugenics are more directly expressed in the cover for the American first edition of the book, where the Superhero is seen in a conspicuously eugenical pose, with the genitals foregrounded (though in shadow). Jerry Siegel, co-creator of the Comic-book hero Superman, reviewed Wylie's novel in the second issue of his fanzine, Science-Fiction (1932); and Gladiator clearly influenced the creation of the comic Superhero, though in the later context Wylie's traditional scepticism about the exposure of a morally superior being to the savagery of normal humanity – clearly adumbrated in J D Beresford's The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911; exp vt The Wonder 1917) – is safely avoided by the presence of the morose Clark Kent. Gladiator is as close to the Scientific Romance as an American writer of genre fiction was likely to reach. The protagonist, scarified (though only psychologically) by gory exploits in World War One and by later instances of man's inhumanity to man, wonders whether to create more of his kind by use of his father's discoveries: during a violent rainstorm he challenges God aloud and for his pains is destroyed by lightning.

Three screenplays and two novels of interest soon followed. Wylie did screenplays for The Island of Lost Souls (1932), adapted from Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The King of the Jungle (1933) and Murders in the Zoo (1933). The two novels are The Murderer Invisible (1931), a tale inspired by H G Wells's The Invisible Man (1897), which served as the basis for Universal Studio's first attempts to create a shooting script for the Wells novel (the filmed version of The Invisible Man was based on the original tale from a screenplay by R C Sherriff); and The Savage Gentleman (1932), in which a child is brought up isolated from humanity on an Island bearing traces of a Lost World (perhaps Atlantis), and excoriates the social world when finally exposed to it (some similarities between the hero of this novel and Doc Savage have been noted). Of greater sf interest than these two novels was the short Bronson Beta sequence, comprising When Worlds Collide (September 1932-February 1933 Blue Book; 1933) and its sequel, After Worlds Collide (November 1933-April 1934 Blue Book; 1934), both with Edwin Balmer, and both assembled as When Worlds Collide (omni 1999), a retelling of the Noah's Ark legend involving the destruction of New York, leading to the End of the World; the book's protagonists escape through in a great Spaceship. The first volume was adapted into an sf Comic strip and a successful film, When Worlds Collide (1951). During this early period Wylie also produced his most highly regarded single work, Finnley Wren [see Checklist for subtitle] (1934), a baroque anatomy in fictional terms of the young century, into which were embedded two tales of sf interest, "An Epistle to the Thessalonians" and "Epistle to the Galatians". Night unto Night (1944) is a Posthumous Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] set in a dark version of Florida as the personal consequences of World War Two haunt various lives; it was filmed as Night unto Night (1949) directed by Don Siegel.

In the early 1940s Wylie's attention became fixed upon the apocalyptic implications of Nuclear Energy in the Near Future, and in "The Paradise Crater" (October 1945 Blue Book) – upon whose earlier submission to American Magazine he was put under house arrest for undue prescience – he described a high-tech post-World War Two 1965 threatened by an underground Nazi attempt to rule the world through the use of atomic bombs; fortunately the hero blows up the Villains' Los Angeles (see California) HQ, causing a tsunami which takes care of Japan as well. In Blunder: A Story of the End of the World (26 January 1946 Collier's Weekly; 1946 chap), after the end of World War Three, atomic experiments blow up the entire planet. Several later works continue to address the new vulnerability of the world. Titles include The Smuggled Atom Bomb (4 August-1 September 1951 Saturday Evening Post; 1956); "Philadelphia Phase" (27 October 1951 Collier's), a love story set in the ruined City; The Disappearance (1951), which ingeniously addresses Gender issues and other anxieties through a tale in which the men and women of Earth disappear from one another, having been suddenly segregated into two Parallel Worlds; The Answer (7 May 1955 Saturday Evening Post; 1955 chap), a pacifist fantasy in which the Americans and the Russians kill an angel; Tomorrow! (1954), dramatized for Radio as "Tomorrow" (17 October 1956), narrated and/or written by Orson Welles, which again depicts the effects of nuclear war; "Jungle Journey" (December 1958 Jack London's Adventure Magazine), in which the discovery of an ancient Spaceship makes it clear that its owners will soon return to Earth to see if we have learned how to keep the peace: if not, it will be the end of us; and Triumph (1963), where some Americans, after much well-justified Sex in a deep shelter, are rescued by Australians.The Spy Who Spoke Porpoise (1969) is a Near Future political thriller.

Towards the end of his life Wylie turned from atomic Disaster to Ecological disaster in The Name of the Game television Tie, Los Angeles: A.D. 2017 (1971), directed by Steven Spielberg, in which the CEOs responsible for terminal planetary Pollution hide out in Keeps deep Underground beneath the ruins of Los Angeles (see California); and The End of the Dream (1972), set in a 2023 multiply devastated by Ecological catastrophes, several of which are unspecifically but clearly linked to Climate Change. He also wrote an essay on sf, "Science Fiction and Sanity in an Age of Crisis", which appeared in Modern Science Fiction (anth 1953) edited by Reginald Bretnor.

Wylie was a highly successful commercial writer, much of whose work pretended to no more than entertainment value. In his sf, however, though he never abandoned a commercial idiom, he gave something like full rein to the anatomizing and apocalyptic impulses which made him, during his life, a figure of controversy to his large readership. [JC]

see also: Dystopias; Holocaust; Invisibility; Marvel Preview; Post-Holocaust; Sociology.

Philip Gordon Wylie

born Beverly, Massachusetts: 12 May 1902

died Miami, Florida: 25 October 1971



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