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I didn’t intend to write this. Hell, I didn’t intend to start thinking along these lines. It’s just the pernicious effect of coincidence.

The trigger was reading a review of a Vandana Singh collection in Niall Harrison’s All These Worlds. But that just seemed to connect odd thoughts that had accumulated from very disparate sources over the last couple of weeks. For a start there was The Morbid Age by Richard Overy, a social history of Britain between the wars. In those 20 years, hundreds of thousands of people across Britain would regularly attend lecture series, summer schools, Workers’ Education Authority events, conferences, and more. There was a seemingly inexhaustible hunger for knowledge on everything from eugenics to the origins of the Spanish Civil War. You get the impression that people needed to learn because they were desperately trying to make sense of a world that increasingly seemed senseless, terrifyingly senseless in fact.

What also feeds into this picture is something that is not mentioned in Overy’s book, but which is the focus of the very next book I started reading after the Overy: Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli. This is the story of the development of quantum mechanics, a direct result of ideas formulated by Werner Heisenberg on the remote island of Helgoland in 1925. Quantum physics grows out of a whole string of scientific and philosophical ideas that were being formulated during the early years of the century. Most of these ideas would not filter through to the general population, at least not in detail, but broad notions would seep through (think of all those educational organisations, along with regular lectures on the BBC and popular books on science by people like J.D. Bernal which were reliable best sellers). What was known about these mysterious scientific developments was identified by the broad terms that were being applied to them: Relativity, Indeterminacy, Uncertainty. Contemporary philosophy didn’t help either. Even if most people knew no more about Ludwig Wittgenstein than they did about Niels Bohr, the ideas were filtering through in accessible and best selling books by Bertrand Russell, in A.J. Ayer’s (mis)interpretations of the Vienna Circle, in Karl Popper’s notions of Falsifiability. And while most people had probably never read Freud or Jung, their ideas were constantly being expounded in talks on the BBC, and were known to be behind the works of well known writers like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, with their unreliable narrators and their sense of the unknowability of the world. Everywhere you turned, therefore, from fiction to philosophy, from science to psychology, the general impression was the same: the more you knew about the world the more unknowable it was. And that tied in with the sense that the social and economic and political world in which people found
themselves was similarly unknowable and unreliable and mad. There was a frightening uncertainty where people were desperate to find a reassuring certainty.

The other part of this equation came while I was on Bute. During my holiday there I had long, fascinating conversations with Chris Priest, Nina Allan and Anne and Garry Charnock, and briefer but still enjoyable encounters with Lisa Tuttle, Colin Murray and Ken MacLeod. With Chris and Nina in particular the conversation often came around to Chris’s forthcoming novel, Airside, Nina’s forthcoming novel, Conquest, and Mike Harrison’s anti-memoir, Wish I Was Here. (For the record, I haven’t read any of these books. Conquest is on my desk waiting for me to review it after the Niall Harrison; Airside and Wish I Was Here are both on order but haven’t arrived yet.) Without using the words, these discussions tended to turn on questions of generic identity: could the novels actually be considered science fiction; is an anti-memoir also a memoir? Niall’s review reminded me of this because throughout his book he uses the novels and stories he considers as a springboard to discuss broader questions of identity in relation to science fiction. What it is? What it does? Why?

These questions of genre identity resonated with my readings of Overy and Rovelli. It suddenly occurred to me that although what we now term science fiction has a history that stretches back centuries, its generic identity was actually forged in the inter-war years. This, I suspect, lies behind Gary Westfahl’s otherwise lunatic argument that science fiction began in 1926. Between the launch of Amazing in 1926 and John W. Campbell’s assumption of the editorship of Astounding in 1937, what we think of
as the inherent characteristics of science fiction, from space opera to hard sf, were established. They became further set in stone during the 1940s and 1950s, and it was only with the emergence of what became known as the New Wave in the early 1960s that these assumptions began to be challenged. Since then there have been intermittent attempts to re-establish the centrality of those
characteristics – the new Space Opera, the new Hard SF, the puppies – but on the whole the hold of those generic characteristics on our imaginations has been steadily weakened. Looking at science fiction today, and at the spread of what, in Clutean terms, we might call fantastika across what were once seen as genre boundaries, I think questions of generic identity are now largely irrelevant.

But what occurred to me, as I started putting these disparate bits and pieces together, is that I don’t think it is a coincidence that the generic identity of science fiction was fixed during those interwar years. In some ways, the establishment of the familiar tricks and tropes of science fiction in those years was a response to the doubts and hesitations and uncertainties of that unstable time.

In saying this I am not trying to make any great claims for science fiction, and particularly not for the generic sf of the 1920s and 30s. The people who wrote these sf stories, in the main, knew no more about the outer reaches of contemporary science than the average person in the street. They weren’t in a position to explain the workings of quantum leaps or logical positivism to their readers any more than they could explain those things to themselves. That wasn’t what science fiction was for, or at least it wasn’t what they were doing with science fiction. But they bandied about scientific terms with a confidence that suggested these terms weren’t frighteningly uncertain but rather straightforwardly explicable. They sketched futures in a way that suggested that all the terrors of the moment would come to naught and there might actually be a future. Campbell’s insistence on the figure of the “competent man” suggested that the complex issues facing the world might be dealt with by any handyman with basic technical skills. Moreover, the competent man was, of course, a reliable narrator, saving the world was a task for a no-nonsense type with none of that Freudian nonsense. Everything that science fiction was doing in these genre-shaping years ran counter to the hesitations and uncertainties that contemporary science and politics and literature implied.

I’m not sure how conscious any of this was, probably not at all. But somehow science fiction was touching on all those things encountered in the real world, in newspaper reports from Germany and Spain, in BBC talks by Bertrand Russell or Arnold Toynbee or Beatrice Webb, in best-selling books from Gollancz’s Left Book Club, and in weekend schools with the Workers’ Educational Association, and defusing them. Relativity wasn’t some disturbing vision of the unreality of the real world, it was just a strange effect you might encounter if you were to travel in a spaceship.

The generic identity thus forged was made concrete in the post-war years. After all, the mysteries of quantum mechanics had been replaced by the devastating horrors of the atomic bomb, and the headlong rush to war that everyone remembered from the 1930s had been replaced by the Cold War, a conflict that never quite went away and kept flaring up in unexpected places like Korea and Cuba and Vietnam. None of the terrors of the interwar years had gone away, they had just become actual. And science fiction responded much the way it had before. There might be a little bit more literary sophistication about it, but it was still the same old story about competence and confidence. The readership was still relatively small and relatively specialised, but they were still reaching for the same reassurances and certainties, the same story that the world, however far away in space or time, is still knowable.

And I suspect, by the same token, that it is also no coincidence that the first challenges to the generic identity of science fiction came in the wake of the Cuba Missile Crisis. After all, the old reassurances were no longer reassuring.