The History of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books by Mike Ashley – Locus Online
Tomorrow of Yesterday: The History of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Pounds, Mike Ashley (British Library published 978-0712353717, £ 15.00, 320pp, paperback) October 2020 (American edition entitled Tomorrow of Yesterday: The History of Science Fiction in 100 Books, May 2021).
The British Library wants to share their wealth. Realizing that many of their 25 million books have unfairly faded from current memory and attention, the BL embarked on three rounds of reprints from its extensive collections. There is the British Library Crime Classics series; the British Library Science Fiction Classics series; and the British Library Tales of the strange series. Organized by experts, these volumes offer both pure reading pleasure and a fascinating window into past eras. They are also a good deal, being reasonably priced paperbacks of a certain elegance.
In addition, the BL sponsors new scholarships allied to these three literary currents. The latest volume in this vein comes from expert anthologist, historian and literary critic, Mike Ashley. To appreciate his anthologist chops, read my review of his Fighters of fear, at this link. Meanwhile, wearing his other hat, his The history of science fiction magazines– currently in four volumes, with a fifth being compiled – is essential reading for any sci-fi fan who wants to know how the field developed, and how we got to where we are today.
This new book serves much the same function, but for the subset of Anglo SF. Lucid, playful, enlightening, it provides a brilliant track record of its subject, and can also serve as a guide for its own future book consumption. If you had a year with nothing else to do, you might read two of these suggested headlines a week and feel after twelve months that you have improved your time on the planet. More concretely, you can let this encyclopedic range of milestone books serve as a reliable source of inspiration for a steady dip into the past.
Not to mention that Ashley’s in-depth knowledge of the usefulness, achievements and idiosyncrasies of each title will simply leave you with a better understanding of the fantastika in general.
We begin our investigation with a clear statement of the book’s purpose and mission, and a solid attempt to define what we mean by “science fiction.” We will then start with Wells’s The time machine from 1895 (Wells the Essential Forefather being one of the only authors to have obtained multiple selections) and finish with Charles Platt’s Garbage world from 1966, this final year marking the launch of the New Wave and a radical transformation of UK SF.
Now the first thing to notice about everything between Wells and Platt is that Ashley didn’t just choose famous books like Lost horizon (1933) and 1984 (1949) – in fact, many if not the majority of these titles are delightfully obscure, true hidden gems – but books that had an influence or accomplished something unprecedented or reflected socio-political or cultural conditions at the time of publication. These criteria make for a more compelling list than a simple call to fame, validated by Ashley’s in-depth and in-depth reading. And in fact, he constantly mentions other books he could have chosen, as well as the entire canon of each selected writer, so that we get a sense of the literary network of which those choices are the essential nodes.
Each individual entry is richly structured, consisting of an interpretation of the plot; a capsule biography of the author and his career; style comments and rigorous speculation; and historical contextualization. The bulk of each entry, often 50% or more, is the plot summary, and it’s here that Ashley’s narrative brilliance meets and matches her critical acuteness. He has the flair to extract the marrow of the action from each book and deliver it in an entertaining way. A real sense of fun permeates these accounts. Ashley transmits her pleasure in contagious ways and makes the reader understand why these books are still important. When I read his version of a book, I know – say, End of childhood– and I see the accuracy of his account, so I’m sure he summed up all the other titles with the same sympathy and understanding.
Ashley does not hesitate to devote more space to certain titles than to others. For example, his treatment of The last of my run (1923), by J. Lionel Tayler, is about a page long, while S. Fowler Wright Amphibians (1925) evaluates four pages. Ashley is also able to see the merits of a book worth including despite its flaws. (I call this the Van Vogt metric.) Crisis – 1992 (1936) by Benson Herbert, he says, “This quirky novel… has very original ideas unfortunately tarnished by absurd characters. A blunt but generous deductible also applies to other titles. Ashley also vividly points out crucial milestones, such as when he notes that the beginning of using a hollowed-out planet as a spaceship can be traced in this same volume by Benson Herbert! It also integrates each book into the general landscape of British publishing of its time.
Not content with simple chronological progress, Ashley groups several books at a time into thematic groups. World Wars I and II, dystopias, cosmological perspectives, atomic apocalypses, genre sophistications of the 1950s, individual titles benefit by being linked to their thematic cousins.
Ashley proves he is not a print media snob by including four mass media broadcasts in his investigation –The Quatermass experience (1953); Space travel (1954); A for Andromeda (1961); and of course Doctor Who (1964). He is also sensitive to changing cultural norms, such as when he mentions that John Christopher’s The world in winter (1962) uses “words and phrases which we now avoid as disrespectful”. When it comes to representation by female authors, there are a good number of selected female authors, all treated the same as men for works of equal genius, although the real-world constraints of different eras mean that there is no 50-50 split.
Never indulging in easy choices, always keen to represent his chosen icons in a fair, insightful and cheerful way, Mike Ashley, with this book, has built a temple of British science fiction that should be a monument, a sustainable museum and cathedral. field.
Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his partner of an even greater number, Deborah Newton.
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