Review: New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance: Vol. I: The Origins of Scientific Romance, Brian Stableford, 2016.
This is an expansion of Stableford’s earlier Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 which I’ve already reviewed. It is 968 pages of text compared to the earlier work’s 337. All four volumes are intended as a single work with the index in the fourth volume. (And, no, I don’t why the fourth volume has an earlier copyright.)
A great deal of the expansion is in Vol. I which doesn’t even make it to 1890. Stableford traces the first use of the phrase “scientific romance” to a 1780 essay by English lawyer James Ibbetson. His complaint had nothing to do with what we would think of as “scientific romances” but with the notion that English common law went back to the city of Troy. That notion is what Stableford calls a “scholarly fantasy” – a notion that was taken up as a theme in his The Darkling Wood.
Scholars are inherently far more likely to fall prey to their own patter than inventors of romance; indeed, it is a rare scholar who does not. There is no fantasy that tries harder to pretend to be fact than scholarly fantasy, although it is the case, perhaps sadly, that all scholarship, including scientific scholarship, contains a weighty component of fantasy – which, by virtue of its scholarly nature, tends to be very insistent in its denial of its own fantastic quality.
Stableford offers his own definition for the purpose of his discussion: Scientific romance is essentially the romance of the disenchanted universe: a universe in which new things can and must appear, quite unpredictably, by virtue of the discoveries of scientists and the ingenuity of inventors; and a universe that is already rich in strange phenomena that humans have not yet discovered, the range of which can only be tentatively estimated with the aid of scientific notions of conceivability. It remains a kind of romance, although it is skeptical of received ideas and frequently mischievous in the manner of the challenges that it opposes to them. There is an irreducible element of ‘flim-flam’ in it, but one that aspires to enhance its seriousness rather than detracting from it, however paradoxical that might seem.
Stableford makes a detour to talk about the aesthetic challenges of writing scientific romance. Alexander Baumgarten, an 18th century aesthetic philosopher, spoke of God’s creation as the primary creation and that artists should concern with “secondary creations”, and those creations should concern themselves with imitating God’s creation. To deviate into creating other sorts of worlds, heterocosms, was bad. Other writers disagreed, but how to orient readers in their heterocosmic worlds? There was the rhetoric of fairy tales – “once upon a time”. There were portal fantasies in which some kind of door opens into the world of our perceptions and takes us elsewhere. There was the method of “intrusive fantasy”, introducing one fantastic element into our world. The resulting extrapolation, though, could be a “monstrous inconvenience . . . a long-winded process”. Other methods were lost race stories, fantastic communities hidden from our world or worlds visited in dreams. The history of scientific romance is partly a history of developing narrative strategies more comfortable for readers.
Another aspect of the scientific romance was its constant “melodramatic inflation” whether in the genre or in the work of individual authors.
In Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950, Stableford identified six types of genres that contributed to the DNA of the scientific romance: imaginary voyages, utopian fantasies, evolutionary fantasies, future wars, eschatological fantasies, scientific romance and metaphysical fantasy. Here his list of literary precursors is rather different: philosophical speculation, traveler’s tales, “tainted reputations”, elements of science.
With traveler’s tales, Stableford includes utopian tales. The idea of utopias evolved from stories which placed ideal societies in some remote areas to euchronias – better societies existing in the future – to eupsychias (“psychological and philosophical utopias”).
“Tainted reputations” is a significant addition to the previous work, perhaps reflecting Stableford’s scholarship into weird fiction in the intervening years between the two works. This is a category that includes occult works, mathematical mysticisms, stories suspicious of scientists and alchemists, demonization of scholarship, and skepticism of medical doctors.
Such tainted reputations, and the rationale supporting them, played a very considerable part in forming the ideative backcloth against which writers of generic scientific romance eventually had to work. Many such writers were content to endorse it, and it is not easy to find examples of propagandists who struggled hard against it – the essential point is that anyone who wanted to deny it did, indeed, face a hard struggle.
Elements of science includes work popularizing science in both prose and poetry.
Stableford stakes the beginning of the genre to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. While unfinished at his death, it proved influential. Bacon imagined areas where technology could benefit life and the citizens of his utopian state. In effect, he argued the integration of technological development with the state, “encouraged by the state, and organized in such a way as to maximize its progress”.
While it may have been widely read, it was 99 years before it provoked a full literary – and unsympathetic – response with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, particularly in Gulliver’s voyage to Laputa. Poetry, including works by Percy Shelley, Erasmus Darwin, Humphry Davy, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, developed the themes of the scientific romance in broad strokes while prose filled in the details of plot and melodrama.
The major themes were whether the future would be better or worse, whether the revelations of science were beautiful or if its technological offspring were examples of Edmund Burk’s sublime terror.
Stableford mentions the influence, on the scientific romance, of occult works like Bulwer-Lytton’s novels, and he has little patience with those who seek to define science fiction, as practiced in America, Britain, or France, by opposing its supposed plausibility in science and technology with “literary fantasy”.
Vol. II starts much the same was as Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950. He does add discussions of additional authors in this work: Robert Cromie, Fred T. Jane (founder of the Jane’s Fighting Ships series), C. H. Hinton (mathematical and extradimensional fantasies), and C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne (lost race novels). He also adds to round up sections on “Adventures in Space”, “Adventures in Time”, and “Adventures in Possibility”.
Vol. 3 adds or expands discussion of several authors from the previous work: J. Leslie Mitchell, Katharine Burdekin, Muriel Jaeger, J. Storer Clouston, Aldous Huxley, and Eden Phillpotts. There is an expanded discussion of related “metaphysical fantasies” between the world wars.
Vol. 4 adds significant new material. Stableford discusses how present science fiction has lost ground, commercially and in terms of academic interest, to immersive fantasies in the marketplace. Many more readers can cope with “fantasy narratives than would ever be able to cope with sophisticated science fiction”. Unsophisticated science fiction
always had been, lightly jargonized fantasy – jargonized, in fact, with the aid of a vocabulary built up by scholarly fantasists who wanted to add magical beliefs to the vocabulary of science.
That continues the tradition of scientific romances “not significantly different from contemporary occult fantasies or lost race stories”.
He spends some time sharply criticizing Lin Carter’s history of fantasy.
. . . the chain of causality that led to the establishment of ‘fantasy’ as a category label in the U.S. paperback market seems so bizarre as to be hardly credible, although the success of the result suggests that had it not happened in that way, it would eventually have happened in another.
On the accomplishments of the scientific romance, Stableford says we live in an “Age of Frustration” where we feel we have not learned the “necessary lessons of its recent and distant past”.
That was always the assumed present of scientific romance, rather than a possible future for negotiation therein. . . .
It is worth pointing out that, in these respects, the ‘future’ of scientific romance – which is to say, the image of the future defined by an approximate consensus within the genre – has stood the test of time far better than the equivalent ‘future’ of American science fiction, which invested so heavily in the myth of the Space Age.
Now, with the invention of the internet, print-on-demand books, and electronic publications, more of those works of scientific romances are widely available for the few interested in them. As works of imagination, scientific romances
help us to understand what a discomfiting kind of enlightenment it is to lose religious faith and discover a future shaped by the myriad actions of men.
As such, they have value and enriched, as a tributary, the literary river we now call science fiction.
Highly recommended as the definitive work on its subject. Besides a bibliography, the last volume also features a chronological listing of significant texts in the development of the scientific romance.