Brian Stableford tries to achieve three things in Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950: to distinguish scientific romance as a separate narrative mode, to survey the history of this subgenre, and to examine its themes and methods. Scientific romance, he says, is characteristically British, being concerned with intellectual speculation through the fanciful projection of scientific possibilities. By contrast, science fiction is characteristically American, being concerned with adventure and technological marvels. Stableford avoids a clear-cut definition of scientific romance but describes it as "a story which is built around something glimpsed through a window of possibility from which scientific discovery has drawn back the curtain." The product of a period when faith in progress was being questioned, it is nonetheless both playful and serious. Some of its major subjects are those generally associated with science fiction—utopian (or dystopian), evolutionary, and eschatological fantasies; imaginary voyages; and future wars, a subject to which Stableford devotes particular attention.
The book consists of three major parts: the first treats writers and themes before the great War, the second writers and themes between the Wars, the third the twilight of scientific romance after World War Two. Because Stableford has confined himself to a limited group of writers over a limited time span, he can afford to be more detailed than historians of the more broadly defined science [End Page 373] fiction. His summaries of works by George Griffith, H. G. Wells, M. P. Shiel, Arthur Conan Doyle, S. Fowler Wright, and Olaf Stapledon are generous, as are his accounts of less prominent writers. This expansiveness allows Stableford to point out innovative manipulations of common themes, indicate some outright borrowings between writers, and call attention to interesting minor writers, though, as Brian Aldiss wrote in his Times Literary Supplement review of this book, "we are rarely persuaded" of the merits of these obscure writers.
Stableford reviews some interesting subjects—the development of the Sargasso Sea story following William Hope Hodgson's "From the Tideless Sea," the mutation of Wellsian themes in a writer like John Gloag, and so forth; but his delivery of them and his summaries of writers' careers are so flat that much of their inherent excitement is lost. The book is a splendid source of information, generally very trustworthy as far as I can judge (though Stableford mistakenly refers to the Eloi of Wells's The Time Machine as "fearless"), but it lacks the zest that makes the writings it studies so attractive. This is all the more strange in that Stableford himself is quite a capable author of science fiction.
Some of the most intriguing passages of this book deal with the sociology of literature rather than with literary history or criticism. For example, Stableford points out the importance of publishers' decisions to encourage speculative fiction; C. Arthur Pearson, whose Pearson's Magazine was the outlet for some of the important early stories by Griffith, Wells, and others, is a major example. Again, Stableford notes that Penguin, which captured most of the British paperback market through its ability to acquire scarce paper during World War Two, helped to discourage publication of scientific romance in England at a time when science fiction was blossoming in the States, thanks to the increasingly commonplace pulps and the incipient paperback outlets. He calls attention to the large number of authors writing scientific romances whose fathers were clergymen, an apparently surprising fact until one realizes how many fathers of educated sons were clergymen in the later years of the nineteenth century in England.
Stableford succeeds in establishing the subcategory of scientific romance, but by his own admission the works included in it are not always easy to separate from what others have been content to call science fiction. He also succeeds in providing a clear account of the numerous writers whose works fall into his category, and he traces extensively some of their familiar themes. The book, then, is a useful and welcome addition to criticism in its field. It is a pity, therefore, that it is so dull. [End Page 374]