Damien Broderick and John Boston
You’re holding a time machine in your hands—this paper book or perhaps an iPod or smartphone. Or it is just sitting there on the desk, unfurling blocks of text on the large monitor. Or maybe it’s flashing in one corner of your eyewear. This time machine is a portal—not to the future, nor the past, but into strange, warped futures from 50 or 60 years in the past: futures and worlds that never happened.
It’s not exactly fantasy, and it’s not quite science fiction. It’s that other thing, that hybrid from imagination’s lab. It’s science fantasy.
The British magazine Science Fantasy (born with a hyphen, which it soon shed) first appeared in 1950 from Nova Publications, the company started by a group of science fiction fans and professionals to save the now better-known New Worlds, begun in 1946, from collapse. Initially Science-Fantasy was edited by Walter H. Gillings, but after two issues Gillings was out and the editor of New Worlds, E.J. Carnell (John, or Ted to his friends), was in charge of both magazines. (This history, and more, is recounted in Boston and Broderick’s book Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy, 1950-67 [Borgo Press, 2012].)
The early issues of Science Fantasy often seemed like afterthoughts to New Worlds, which was favored with a more frequent and regular schedule, as well as with editorials, a letter column, and other accoutrements of community. Clearly, editor Carnell meant for New Worlds to be a sort of institutional center for British SF as well as a magazine with stories in it; Science Fantasy had no such larger mission. The contents of Science Fantasy at first often seemed indistinguishable from those of New Worlds and the rationale for the separate magazine was obscure.
But shortly, Science Fantasy began to develop its own personality and flavor, and to exemplify its title. Editor Carnell did not invent this oddly appealing form of genre engineering. That went back at least to American John W. Campbell, Jr.’s, fabled Unknown in 1939, shut down in 1943 by the pressures of war’s demand for paper. Earlier still there had been mythology and ghost stories and finally horror magazines such as Weird Tales from 1923, but Campbell introduced a science fiction sensibility to fantasy, a demand for a thread of hard-headed reason and even wryness or frank hilarity in the midst of the billowing unreason that made the flesh creep. Carnell followed along the path beaten by Campbell, but added a certain distinctive charm to the imagination’s itinerary.
Some of this piquant flavor came unsolicited with the young men (almost never women) who had suffered bombing and seen their small ancient island at the edge of annihilation, but distracted themselves from the war’s horrors with a peculiarly British whimsy combined with down to earth, lower middle class practicality. A decade after the end of a global conflict that saw Japan brought to its knees by nuclear attack, London and other cities were still piled with the brutal rubble of German bombardment. Some of Carnell’s growing stable of writers had passed through war in Europe, Africa, and Asia (Kenneth Bulmer in Africa, Italy, Sicily; Brian W. Aldiss in Burma; E.C. Tubb served in Paris with the American Red Cross); others were children during the Blitz and its aftermath—John Brunner; Michael Moorcock; James Ballard was famously interned in Shanghai as a young teenager. For all of them, the experience shook the complacency of class and security already disrupted in their parents’ generation by the “Great War.” Little wonder that they told stories that looked behind the veil, or outside the safety of the cave with its flickering, deceitful shadows. As Ballard wrote:
I don't think you can go through the experience of war without one's perceptions of the world being forever changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you see the ragged scaffolding, and then you see the truth beyond that, and it can be a frightening experience.
That questioning of comfortable realism imbued the fiction of Science Fantasy. These days we regard it as the hallmark of the brilliant American, Philip K. Dick, and Carnell was quick to buy the rights to his novel Time Out of Joint, where ordinary objects in the secure world turned out to be nothing more solid than slips of paper: SOFT-DRINK STAND, say. But Carnell serialized it in his companion magazine, New Worlds; it was a startling idea in the context of science fiction, but reality as construct, delusion, Maya, had been the unsettling revelation of many earlier Science Fantasy tales. Some of the stories in this anthology play nimble games with solipsism, world-as-contrivance, reality as a trap or prison.
Not that the magazine was narrowly parochial. Carnell acquired fiction from the United States (Katherine MacLean and Harry Harrison, the youthful Robert Silverberg, the remarkably lyrical Thomas Burnett Swann), South Africa (Clifford Reed), even distant Australia (Norma K. Hemming, fated to die young before her promise was realized, Lee Harding, and British immigrants David Boutland, writing as “David Rome,” and ship’s captain A. Bertram Chandler—although Chandler’s story in this volume, published under the pseudonym “George Whitley,” dates from before his relocation). Some of these stories were closer to raw adventure than to the nuanced strangeness of Ballard and Swann, some were frankly filler for a bi-monthly magazine without much in its coffers. But the best satisfied an appetite not to be found in other modes and genres, not even classic science fiction. John Brunner’s plainly told yet somehow heraldic stories came in many forms yet had one nature, and that was intelligent, ceaselessly variant readability.
Slowly, Science Fantasy became generally recognized as one of the better magazines in the science fiction/fantasy genre, with a steady trickle of its stories appearing in Judith Merril’s “year’s best” anthologies, and others surfacing in book form in the early story collections of Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, and others. The magazine’s growing recognition was underscored by the appearance in 1963 of Thomas Burnett Swann’s Science Fantasy story “Where Is the Bird of Fire?” on the short-list for the field’s Hugo Award, usually completely dominated by American publications.
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Science Fantasy did evolve with its times. The magazine changed hands in 1964, its publication continued in a new pocket-size format from a new publisher, Roberts & Vinter, with a new editor, Kyril Bonfiglioli, and ultimately a new title, SF Impulse. With those changes in form came changes in content and attitude as well. But this anthology focuses on the original Science Fantasy under the Carnell editorship. And this cross-current time machine, this celebratory trove of mostly forgotten tales from a magazine that perished half a century ago and (as we write) was born 64 years ago, is as peculiar in its future-casting as ours today will appear when read in the years 2078 or even as soon as 2064. Unimaginably distant prospects! In the middle of the 20th century, anyone with a dash of wonderment took it for granted that by 2014 we’d have small colonies on the Moon and maybe Mars, or under the oceans, and would fly household helicopters. People would routinely purchase goods with “credits” rather than pounds or dollars—and look, here we are with credit cards supplanting cash. Cars would drive themselves, perhaps—and yes, there’s Google on the road, pilotless.
But the fiction of those days often remained sunk in a sort of domestic amnesia, a pretense that only big technological changes could be expected. Decades before these writers banged out visions of the future on their typewriters, the Victorian age had ended—a world where women wore heavy garments to their ankles, where gentlemen never cursed in front of them, where everyone attended church or other sacred assembly as a matter of course. All that was being broken down and swept away by the 1950s and early 1960s. Yet somehow the writers figured men would always wear hats, women would always be called “girls” and (supposedly) giggle a lot, and people would call each from public phone boxes. Objecting to nicotine smoking would be as bizarre and impossibly futuristic—and hence off-putting to the sensible, grounded male reader—as, say, officially authorized same sex marriages.
Perhaps for the sensitive we should post a fashionably cautious “trigger warning”: Beware, people do things differently here, sometimes exactly as differently as they did things in the middle of the 20th century. But an intelligent and cluey response to the literature of the past, especially a literature that reaches into imagined fantastic realms, is to approach it in a spirit of forgiveness for its unintended faults and openness to its pleasures, aware that some of our own certainties will seem horrific or laughable half a century from now.
Must this eau d’ cultural staleness deter us from reading their stories with enjoyment? Not at all. Perhaps it tends to spoil some science fiction, to find the 1940s and 1950s still everywhere in the 21st or 30th centuries. But like the persistent appeal of that lovely and exciting British television marvel Doctor Who, the beauty of science fantasy and its British flagship Science Fantasy is that its worlds stand at an angle to every linear alternative, past, present and future. We can glimpse the hinge, but the door is open, and the world inside is larger than the world outside. Step through!