Olaf Stapledon and the Idea of Science Fiction
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Olaf Stapledon and the Idea of Science Fiction

Unlike his great predecessor H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon never wrote an essay on the genre of the scientific romance or about the influences on his own imagination. Wells's career endured long enough for him to see a collected edition of his works and numerous reissues of separate texts. Sometimes he contributed Forewords to such later editions, but one of them—a 1933 omnibus of his best-known scientific romances—prompted a retrospective Preface surveying his entire achievement in what he called "my fantastic stories" (240). Although there is some self-disparaging revisionism as Wells, approaching seventy, looks back over his shoulder at books written mostly in his thirties, the Preface to The Scientific Romances is important as a record of his thoughts about his literary genealogy, as an account of intentions and aspirations, and as a compact Wells's Rules of Order designed to help the reader of fantastic fiction "to play the game properly" (241).1

If Wells downplayed the artistic and social value of the "playful parables" of his younger days, he was still careful to outfit himself with a distinguished and selective pedigree. He claimed descent from Apuleius, [End Page 21] Lucian, Swift, and Mary Shelley, but he disavowed kinship with his one rival for the title of the originator of modern science fiction. Contesting the reviewers who used to call him "the English Jules Verne," Wells insisted that "there is no literary resemblance whatever" between their two kinds of fiction (240).2 Verne, he said, was an ingenious forecaster interested in "practical" applications of science, but the typical Wellsian fantasy had a human rather than a mechanical center, and it aspired to exercise the reader's moral imagination. In addition to locating himself within a tradition of ethically based fantasy, Wells emphasized three principles governing his scientific romancing: the author's need "to domesticate the impossible hypothesis" by yoking the beautiful lies of fiction to current scientific theory, or at least to enough scientific jargon to cover the tale decently; the critical and satirical function of exotic or extraterrestrial locales used "in order to look at mankind from a distance"; and Arnoldian and antiescapist commitments to be "critical of life" and "to make the stories reflect upon contemporary political and social discussions" (241-243). Despite Wells's disinclination to wrap himself in the mantle of "Art," the Preface to The Scientific Romances offers a strikingly serious defense of what he called "fantasy" and is one of the first coherent statements toward a definition of the aesthetic of science fiction.

It would be natural to expect Olaf Stapledon to continue Wells's effort to define and legitimize the form. Next to Wells, he was the most original practitioner of the scientific romance in the first half of this century. Professionally trained as a philosopher, much more patient with—and drawn to—abstraction than Wells, he ought to have been better equipped to formulate a theory of science fiction. Besides, he had a personal motive for stating a distinctive aesthetic of the literary forms he was pioneering. From the day Stapledon's first novel, Last and First Men, appeared in 1930, reviewers noticed, and overstated, his work's resemblance to Wells's. Just as Wells was irritated by being known as an English Verne, so Stapledon labored under the burden of having all his most innovative books tagged as "Wellsian romances" by critics unable to find a more accommodating pigeonhole for his disturbing visions of far futures and present oddities.3

But what did Stapledon think he was up to when at the age of forty-four he started publishing speculative fictions on a scale vaster and more inhuman than anything of Wells's? Scholars looking for wider frames of reference for naming Stapledon's literary ambitions and assessing their [End Page 22] products have been confounded by his apparent reticence on the whole subject of the scientific romance. There are scattered clues to his sources of inspiration to be found in references tucked away in odd pockets of his books: the acknowledgement to Gerald Heard in the prefatory note to Last Men in London...


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