Centenaries and Things

Suddenly it's 2005. Where does all the time go? Ten years since the launch of SFX and, come to think of it, ten years of this column. 1995 also saw the World SF Convention coming to Glasgow for the first time, and John Brunner's shockingly unexpected death at the convention itself. In August this year we'll be flocking to the second Glasgow Worldcon (www.interaction.worldcon.org.uk), where many fans will keep an eye on older SF authors with their fingers nervously crossed ...

Thinking of anniversaries led me to the SF scene of a hundred years ago, decades before science fiction or fantasy even existed as recognized publishing categories. The big event of 1905 was the death of Jules Verne, who still needs no introduction. Fantasy novelist George Macdonald (Phantastes, Lilith, The Princess and the Goblin) also died; later, C.S. Lewis would find his work inspirational. Another author consigned to the great remainder shop in the sky was Guy Boothby, creator of the sinisterly psychic Dr Nikola, now forgotten by the reading public and by most SF fans.

H.G. Wells was going strong, publishing memorable stories like "The Empire of the Ants" (whose intelligent ants are much more worrying than giant ones in later movies) and the not-so-memorable novel A Modern Utopia. Rudyard Kipling produced one of his best SF pieces, "With the Night Mail", a ripping yarn of adventure and airmail. From H. Rider Haggard came Ayesha, a sequel to She – which, as not everyone remembers, gave us the phrase "She-who-must-be-obeyed". One satirical versifier longed for a time when "The Rudyards cease from Kipling / And the Haggards ride no more."

One major fantasy debut of 1905 was Lord Dunsany's The Gods of Pegana – invented mythology rather than fiction (think The Silmarillion), and beautifully written but so quirky and Biblical that Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks hid it at the very end of their Dunsany omnibus Time and the Gods. Another career began with the first episode of Winsor McCay's classic newspaper comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, eventually filmed in 1993 and homaged in Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

What else? There was G.K. Chesterton's semi-fantastic collection The Club of Queer Trades, with deeply silly incidents like Major Brown finding DEATH TO MAJOR BROWN blazoned across a flower-bed, in pansies. Edwin Lester Arnold's Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation took its hero to Mars by flying carpet; both he and his carpet reappear in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume II. Lord Bulwer-Lytton (of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame) published his best supernatural story, "The Haunters and the Haunted", also known as "The House and the Brain".

Then, of course, 1905 saw the births of several authors-to-be. The vastly prolific pulp writer Lester Dent created Doc Savage, "Man of Bronze", who from 1933 to 1943 had his own magazine. Lee Falk invented The Phantom ("The Ghost Who Walks"), masked avenger of countless newspaper comics. Charles G. Finney's grotesque fantasy The Circus of Dr Lao was travestied out of recognition in the film The Seven Faces of Dr Lao. Edna Mayne Hull married and collaborated with SF author A.E. Van Vogt; her best, or best-titled, book is Planets for Sale. Ayn Rand preached a far-right politics of total selfishness in Atlas Shrugged, still influential in the USA. Mary Renault is remembered for fantasticated historical novels like The King Must Die. Rex Warner's political allegory The Aerodrome was sufficiently offbeat to earn him an Encyclopedia of SF entry.

My favourite of the class of 1905 is British SF author Eric Frank Russell, who adopted a wisecracking American style to sell to US magazines. He specialized in shrewd, fast-talking Earthmen who nimbly outwit hordes of heavily armed but not too bright aliens. Wasp (1957) is probably the best of these, but there are passages of splendid daftness in the 1950s romp variously published as "Plus X", The Space Willies and Next of Kin. Here our space-pilot hero eavesdrops on alien communications and finds himself interpreting the uncouth syllables as English:

"Mayor Snorkum will lay the cake."
"What for the cake be laid by Snorkum?"
"He will starch his mustache."
"That is night-gab. How can he starch a tepid moose?"

There follows "what sounded like an acrimonious argument about what one repeatedly called a tepid mouse while the other insisted that it was a torpid moose" ... until our maddened protagonist breaks radio silence with "Mouse or moose, make up your goddam minds!" Too many fans know this entire dialogue by heart.

Perhaps the most prophetic SF of 1905 was Elliott E. Mills's anonymously published future history, supposedly a textbook used in the National Schools of Japan in 2005: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.

But for cult status and recognition factor, 1905 fantasy publications are dominated by a children's author and illustrator who's shown more staying power than J.K. Rowling: Beatrix Potter, who 100 years ago rocked the foundations of the literary establishment with The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. Look on her works, ye mighty, and despair.

David Langford forgot to mention the 75th anniversary of the first known SF fanzine: Ray Palmer's THE COMET, May 1930.