The five stages of British science fiction and fantasy

The horror of scientific invention

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is a remarkable gothic novel and science fiction and fantasy story. Frankenstein poses one of the biggest questions — what if a person becomes ‘god’ and creates life? What happens then?

The answer is that nothing really changes. That new life has a will of its own, it has its own motivations and emotions. Things get more complicated. Once we create life, we no-longer control that life.

Why was Mary Shelley, of all people, writing science fiction? She came up with the idea when she was 18, at a fireside storytelling in the presence of Byron. She was brought up surrounded by Bohemian artists and poets and she had a close relationship with death and loss during her life. Published anonymously, Frankenstein provided an outlet for her dark vision, and it popularised the idea of technology running out of control.

The uncertain promise

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) the society of the future is refined and made more efficient, much like a factory production line. But in its attainment of the shiny new arena, humanity will lose something of itself. In Brave New World the culture of this future society is more shocking than the technology it posesses. The whole of society has turned into Frankenstein’s monster.

A retreat from the abyss

J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), and The Lord of the Rings (1968) is an escape from industrialisation and mass destruction of the two world wars. It’s a return to a simpler world, the eternal fight of good against evil. It evokes the English shires that featured so heavily in English Second World War propaganda (the perception of the countryside as the heart of all things English).

The Gormenghast trilogy, by Mervyn Peake, includes Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959). It’s a series about the pomposity of rites and rituals, much of it takes place in a isolated and decaying society, followed by a visit to a futureopolis where the protagonist wonders if Gormenghast might have been the byproduct of his imagination (a lost world, much like the pre-War England might have seemed to many English people after the Second World War).

A new fear

In the post-War world the only certainty is uncertainty. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) the good intentions of English socialism have been hijacked by hate politics, turning a rational-based movement for social improvement and enlightenment into a quasi-religious hate cult. There is no ideological right or wrong. The only truth is the party exercising its power.

It’s not just the overzealous implementation of bad ideas or manipulations of language that are causing the problems... In John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951) nature itself has conspired against humanity. Lights in the sky are blinding the population and walking plants are unleashing their own retribution. This is the eco-disaster science fiction and fantasy story. Harking back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, our inventiveness has a sting in its tail.

The magician

In a world of depressing problems, and an encroaching new millennium, we need an escape from reality, to go back to that magical place where heroes possess special powers. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is not quite a full-on return to the shires of The Hobbit, but nonetheless, Harry Potter takes place in an old-fashioned and ‘reassuringly’ wood-panelled environment, a private school for magicians. The hero is a kind of child Hobbit, an ordinary person, who isn’t actually ordinary. This echoes our own notions and hopes about ourselves, that although we are ordinary there might be something special, magical even, about us.

(Note: I considered adding Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) as the first item on this list but, for various reasons, I decided against it. C S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia (1950 – 1956) could also be added to ‘A retreat from the abyss’.)