Arthur C Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Charles Chilton, Charles Eric Maine, Christopher Priest, Frank Hampson, John Christopher, John Lymington, John Wyndham, Katherine Burdekin, Mary Shelley, Richard Cowper, Ronald Wright, S Fowler Wright, Sarban
On the morning of 6th February 1952, George VI was found dead in his bed at Sandringham. Elizabeth, his eldest daughter, was crowned Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on 2nd June 1953. Those sixteen months saw newspaper columnists frenziedly proclaiming a ‘new Elizabethan Age’.
It’s easy to see why the new queen was being seen as the harbinger of an exciting recapitulation of the artistic glamour associated with the reign of the first Elizabeth, and it wasn’t just the coincidence of the name. The Second World War had scarred the country, both physically (the sort of bomb crater seen in the 1949 film Passport to Pimlico was replicated across just about every major city; many would not be built over until the 1960s) and spiritually. It was a poverty-stricken country; austerity was the order of the day. Britain had reaped few material rewards for being on the winning side in the war: wartime loans were called in, leaving little money spare for rehousing the homeless or importing food or clothing. Food rationing actually increased after the end of the war, and would finally end only in 1954. There was nearly full employment for the troops returning from war, though at the expense of women being forced out of the positions they had filled during the war. The post-war Labour government had introduced many highly popular policies, expanding the welfare state, nationalising mining and the railways, and above all creating the National Health Service. Yet poverty and poor diet meant that the resources of the NHS were stretched from the very start.These were years in which the country suffered a high incidence of chronic diseases such as tuberculosis.
NHS maternity services were also stretched: this was the height of the post-war baby boom. It was a young country and getting younger. The Second World War had not decimated a generation in the way that the First World War had done, and the explosive growth in the birth rate immediately after the war had long-term social consequences. Indeed there is a strong argument to be made that the new Elizabethan Age actually came about only when these post-war babies began to reach maturity in the mid-1960s.
One other achievement of the Labour Government had been the launch of the Festival of Britain in the summer of 1951, which countered the drabness and limitations of life in Austerity Britain with visions of a colourful technological future that seemed to be just within reach. The incoming Conservative Government, which returned to power later in 1951, quickly demolished the Festival site. Nevertheless, images of the Festival, particularly the strange, cigar-shaped Skylon which seemed to hover over London’s South Bank, lingered in the popular imagination, and clearly fed into the expectations of the new Elizabethan Age. Indeed, it is easy to imagine the ship at the heart of Charles Chilton’s Journey Into Space, the first episode of which was broadcast in September of Coronation year, being shaped rather like the Skylon.
Over the next decade or so, many of the promises of the Festival of Britain – labour-saving domestic appliances, televisions, mass car ownership – started to become a reality. It was the coronation in 1953 that actually led to a massive increase in television ownership; though a large proportion of the sets were probably rented, this was the age of hire purchase, which allowed many people to enjoy the material benefits of the ’50s without ignoring the economic reality of austerity.
In many ways, the re-election of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister in 1951 seems to be at odds with the mood of the country at the beginning of the ’50s. He was generally revered as the great wartime leader who had kept the country going through the dark days of 1940 and on to victory. It is likely that many people hoped he would lead them out of the dark days of austerity. It quickly became clear, however, that age was taking its toll; by now he had little interest in or engagement with domestic politics. Aged 78, he had a stroke (which was kept from the public) shortly after the coronation and withdrew even more from active politics, eventually standing down as Prime Minister in 1955. Politically, therefore, there was a sense of drift during the early ’50s, so it is hardly surprising that the accession of a young and vivacious queen should become the focus of aspirations for a way out of austerity and into the new world that everyone believed they had been fighting for in the war.
The very idea of a new Elizabethan Age, therefore, carried a lot of baggage right from the start. It needed to bring colour into a world that had grown increasingly drab; it needed to advocate an aspirant material culture to replace the backward-looking make-do-and-mend reality. For the next decade or more, however, the work of the new Elizabethans barely matched the template. In 1951, Leslie Paul, founder of the Woodcraft Folk, published an autobiography called Angry Young Man, and the title caught the mood of the times better than anything else. The phrase was used to publicise John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger (1956), and became something of a literary movement among young, left-leaning writers who produced grim social realism protesting against the complacency of the Conservative establishment. Opposed to the angry young men, though no less drab in their social perceptions were the right-leaning writers of the Movement (Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin); while even the absurdist comedy of the day, from The Goon Show (first broadcast, May 1951), to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953, first English production 1955), presented an underlying picture of deprivation and restricted aspirations. To judge by its leading literary figures, therefore, the dawn of the New Elizabethan Age would see austerity, in one form or another, continue for another decade.
But what of science fiction at this time? If the Festival of Britain and the brouhaha surrounding the new monarch represented hope for the future, how did the literature of the future give expression to that hope?
The short answer is that it didn’t. Science fiction, like any other literature, reflects the context in which it is written, and the dominant form of British science fiction throughout the early ’50s suggested there was little future to look forward to. In 1951, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham was published. For a time, readers were allowed to assume that it was a first novel by a new writer, since the publicity surrounding the book made no mention of the fact that Wyndham, using different pseudonyms drawn from his extraordinarily multiform name (John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris), had published three novels before the war. But in many ways, The Day of the Triffids was a first novel from a new writer. Those early books had been fairly crude sf adventures written with an eye on the American market (Wyndham had been selling stories to the American pulps since the beginning of the 1930s); the new book had a completely different tone, quality and affect. And it was a novel very much about Britain now, in the midst of austerity, with the depredations of war still all too clear in the memory, and reflecting the fears and uncertainties that resulted. It was, in other words, a science-fiction novel that was much more about the past than the future.
Food shortages, rationing, inadequate housing and clothing, the incredibly harsh winters of the late ’40s had left people in poor mental and physical health. The people of Britain had come through the war, taken whatever Hitler might throw at them, so there was a cocky confidence that they would always win through; but underlying that was a sense that they might not still be up to the task. This sense of physical impairment is vividly dramatized by Wyndham in the epidemic of blindness that has swept the country even before the novel opens. Into these literally dark days come the triffids. This was an invasion, of course; what we had feared through six years of war was made actual. But more than that, it represented nature rising up against us, as indeed it had done through the winter of 1947. So there we were, stumbling blindly about while our very gardens, that epitome of English life, might rise up and attack us. It was a novel that told us what we already knew, that the pre-war certainties were gone and we were now struggling to make sense of a new world, and as such it struck a chord with its audience.
Many years later, Brian Aldiss coined the term ‘cosy catastrophe’ to describe The Day of the Triffids and the novels in the same vein that followed over the next decade from writers such as John Christopher, John Lymington, Charles Eric Maine and others. It seemed apposite: these were predominantly middle-class characters whose comfortable lifestyle had been disrupted and who spent the novel trying to re-establish some familiar order. But the dismissive tone of that coinage is unfair. The catastrophe has a long history in British science fiction, going at least as far back as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885); novels from the inter-war period, such as S. Fowler Wright’s Deluge (1928), in many ways provided a model for the middle-class characters and concerns of Wyndham’s work. Indeed, the catastrophe would continue to be a regular and distinctive feature of British science fiction up until at least Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance (1998). So Wyndham and his contemporaries were working in a tradition. But they were also working on the material around them, and one of the abiding things that comes across in Wyndham’s work, especially The Day of the Triffids, was how damaged British society saw itself. And despite the radical innovations of the post-war Labour Government, the main social desire was not for renewal but for restoration (the new Elizabethan Age would not be a new glory but a restoration of old glory). There was nothing cosy in that, because at the start of the 1950s the people of Britain were not exactly living a cosy life, though they might well have desired cosiness had it been available.
Wyndham’s next novel, The Kraken Wakes (1953), published coincidentally just months after the North Sea flood of January-February 1953, is another novel that emphasises the sense of national vulnerability and uncertainty. The threat from the sea does seem to echo the nature in revolt scenario of The Day of the Triffids, and indeed the flooded landscape at the end of the novel does place it firmly in the drowned-world tradition of British science fiction that stretches from Fowler Wright’s Deluge to Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex (1977, Richard Cowper’s The Road to Corlay (1978) and beyond. But the submarine aliens have a different metaphorical role than the triffids, for this is unmistakeably a cold-war novel.
The cold war had begun in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and had engendered a number of border disputes and diplomatic incidents, mostly in and around Eastern Europe. One of the most notable of these, the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49 and the Airlift that was the Western response to the siege, had already inspired the climactic scenes in A Passport to Pimlico. But as the 1950s began, the cold war erupted into genuine and bloody war in Korea; British troops would be involved in the conflict, though a more pertinent worry was whether the conflict would escalate to the point where nuclear weapons were used. In The Kraken Wakes, Wyndham uses the cold war overtly as the reason why humanity is unable to unite against a common enemy. More generally, the unseen aliens lurking beneath the implacable surface of the sea who might at any moment rise up to wipe out life on Earth, stand as a metaphor for the cold war enemy, the Eastern Bloc. The two central characters in the novel are reporters unable to see beneath the waves, to penetrate the mysteries of the aliens; just as western observers were unable to see below the surface of the Soviet Union. It is not the fact of the alien menace but rather its unknowability that engenders the sense of helplessness and vulnerability that is the trademark affect of Wyndham’s work.
Wyndham’s work around the time of the coronation, therefore, and (to a slightly lesser extent) the so-called ‘cosy catastrophes’ by himself and others that would follow later in the decade, were works thoroughly informed by the recent past. Or rather, they reflected the sense of uncertainty and weakness that the people of austerity-wracked Britain felt as a result of the various turmoils of the past decade. They were not science fictions that looked forward, because there was a sense that there was little to look forward to. One of the other major science fictions of that period looks back also, if in a more direct way.
The Sound of His Horn (1952) by Sarban, the pseudonym of British diplomat John William Wall, was the highlight of his short literary career (two volumes of short stories and this novel, all published between 1951 and 1953, were the only works of his that came out during his lifetime). This was not the first novel to deal with a Nazi victory – Swastika Night by Murray Constantine (Katherine Burdekin) had appeared as early as 1937 – but it was one of the earliest post-war examples of the form. As such, it spoke directly to the fears of a generation that had lived through the war. And in presenting the Nazi rulers of 100 years hence hunting down ‘sub-humans’ for sport, it evoked the images of German concentration camps that had had a devastating effect on the British public when newsreel film of the liberation of the camps was shown in British cinemas at the end of the war.
Sarban’s novel was crude and simplistic, but it encapsulated the hold that the Second World War had on the British imagination at this time. A hold it would continue to exert for many years to come. It is worth remembering that, in 1945, Mervyn Peake was among the first civilians to visit Bergen-Belsen, an experience that had a profound effect on him and which fed directly into the dark and imprisoning world of Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950). There were many reasons why the recent past still cast a powerful spell over the imaginative writing coming out of Britain in the early 1950s.
Of course, even in the straitened, war-harried circumstances of Britain in this coronation year, not all science fictions looked backwards. These years, for instance, saw the publication of the first novels from Arthur C. Clarke, one of the most relentlessly forward-looking of all the science fiction writers this country has produced, and the novels, The Sands of Mars (1951), Prelude to Space (Galaxy 1951) and Childhood’s End (1953), are full of the paraphernalia of the future. Prelude to Space is less a novel than a work of propaganda from someone who had just, for the second time, become Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, explaining how we might actually get into space while The Sands of Mars is essentially a guided tour of a recently colonised Mars, explaining how such colonisation might proceed. A juvenile from this period, Islands in the Sky (1952), follows much the same pattern, with a guided tour of a space station. They are works filled with the idea of the future; like the catalogue of technological wonders that the visitor to the Festival of Britain might have been guided around, they present the notion that science, or perhaps more generally human ingenuity, can produce the answer to every problem and lead us out into a brave new world beyond this planet.
Yet Clarke clothed these early fictions with as much a sense of the past as of the future. These were imperial fictions, in which, as in children’s stories from the Victorian era, British heroes went out into the least known corners of the globe and took with them the virtues of British knowledge and enterprise. He also imbued the organisations at the heart of these novels with the class structures and military hierarchies that he had experienced in the RAF during the war, which would have been equally familiar to the vast majority of his audience.
This sense of the RAF in space is even more explicit in the work of two of Clarke’s contemporaries. Charles Chilton had also served in the RAF during the war, and brought the same structures into the crew at the centre of Journey into Space. Lemmy, the working-class radio operator (played in the original production by David Kossoff), was based on Chilton himself. Most of the heroics, however, were reserved for the officer class, particularly ‘Jet’ Morgan, the pilot. At least in publicity shots Morgan and his crew were shown in astronauts’ gear; Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, in the comic strip drawn and written by Frank Hampson which first appeared in The Eagle in 1950, is typically shown wearing a cap and uniform modelled on Hampson’s own World War II army uniform. First introduced as the pilot of the first successful flight to Venus (in a story on which Arthur C. Clarke acted as advisor), Dan Dare was the embodiment of a notion that the future would be just like the past. He even had a batman, Digby, the working-class comic foil to Dare’s noble upper-class adventures. We might journey into space, we might encounter implacable alien enemies (am I alone in wondering whether there is something of the Japanese in the Mekon?), but something that is essentially British will not change.
The one work from this period that actually challenges this essentially comfortable view of an unchanging future is Clarke’s Childhood’s End, which may be why it doesn’t feel as dated as some of the other books I’ve discussed. It is a problematic novel, since it marks the point of transition in Clarke’s work from his rather mechanistic view of the future into the transcendental view that typified much of his later work. The revelation, part way through, that the mysterious aliens actually resemble the traditional medieval view of demons has a partially rationalistic explanation: the aliens have been here before. But, more importantly, it sets us up for a quasi-religious tone, for this is a novel about salvation. In part we are being told: abandon your irrational fears of the devil, and you will be saved. In part we are being told: religious iconography contains the truth that will save us.
It is the one work of British science fiction to emerge in this brief period at the dawn of the ‘new Elizabethan’ age that is not essentially about the recent past. Which is not to say that its view of the future is as colourful and aspirational as the much trumpeted new Elizabethan age seemed to augur. In some ways, it echoes The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes: there is no future. Or at least, the way we are now cannot continue. In Childhood’s End the only future for humanity is to embrace the transformation offered by the aliens, that is to say, we can continue only by being something else entirely. And even this limited salvation is not for everybody, in a process that seems to prefigure millennial notions of the rapture, only the few will become the new humanity in space. There is always something about the idea of a future in space that seems class bound: sf tells us about the worthy few who go onward and upward, but not about the many who are left behind. Although not specifically class based – these are rationalist times, there are measures of technical ability and knowledge that determine the chosen – nevertheless there is a division of society inherent in the novel.
Yet it still approaches the future with conviction than just about any other work of science fiction being produced in Britain at the time. It is curious that in a new Elizabethan age in which the future was presented as a restoration of former glories, the one work that seemed to truly embrace the future could only present it as a complete and final break with any and all former glories, a total transformation into the other.
This essay was originally commissioned by the BSFA for a publication that, through circumstances, was eventually abandoned. Nevertheless, the idea stayed with me. I found myself starting to jot down ideas. It became something very different from what was originally envisaged, and yet it still remains essentially the same piece. I offer it here to mark the Royal Jubilee.