Friday, February 09, 2007

Lovecraft's Legacy: 1945

This rare item was seen on ebay. It marks a parallel effort (apart from Arkham House) to market HPL's work during the WWII era.

The seller states:

THE PORTABLE NOVELS OF SCIENCE, Edited by Donald A. Wollheim, 1945.
THE VIKING PRESS New York 17, New York

The preface states:

The four works of fiction here reprinted in full represent a branch of literature curi­ously neglected by anthologists and other students of world literature, and yet sci­ence fiction is as old as Gulliver's Travels. In fact, this volume is the first comprehen­sive collection of the science-fiction novel.

The editor has made a most interesting analysis of this type of fiction in his Intro­duction, and has included the books in the field which manage "to combine a sound imagination and believable prognostica­tion with a sincere desire to set the reader thinking along concepts vaster than his petty life, concepts as large at least as the movement of earth's inhabitants as a whole." Included, with an excellent Pref­ace to each, are: The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells; Before the Dawn, by John Taine; The Shadow Out of Time, by H. P. Lovecraft; and Odd John, by Olaf Stapledon.




By H. G. Wells

BEFORE THE DAWN By John Taine 231

By H. P. Lovecraft

By Olaf Stapledon

INTRODUCING a collection such as the four novels contained in this volume presents a problem greater than the usual opening lines for a book of ghost stories or supernatural lore. For that is exactly what these novels, fantastic though they are, are not. These lines must also serve to introduce a branch of literature which has been curiously neglected by anthologists and other students of world literature.

It must not be supposed from this neglect that it is some small, obscure, esoteric, or ultra-modern style of writing of which this is written. Science-fiction is a branch of literature that is as old as Gulliver's Travels, that all people are familiar with, in one or another form, and that has many representatives among all eras of English prose. Yet up to a couple of decades ago, it lacked even a name for itself. The fact that it has now come to the fore is a product of our times, for we live in an era of constantly accelerating change, when the margin between what is and what will be has drawn so close as to force speculation and prognostication upon even ordinarily unimaginative persons.

When one remembers that a few years before World War II, children might be seen playing with toy weapons described as "rocket guns," when advertise­ments depicting the daily use of helicopters and televi­sion sets could be seen in conservative periodicals, it was evidence of the hold that this science-fiction had ob­tained on the minds of this generation. For it is directly to the immense multiplication of that type of writing, forecasting future scientific discoveries, guessing at what might lie just around the corner of history, that these toys and advertising features may be traced. For the prototypes of these things had yet to be invented!

Now into what class of fantasy shall a story featuring such an invention fall? When the literator thinks of fan­tasy in the novel, the classifications Gothic, ghost, su­pernatural come to mind. But how can any of these suit such as Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Thomas More's Utopia, or The Purple Cloud of M. P. Shiel? The More classic could be weakly and redundantly called a Utopian novel.

Now the term Utopian novel is' not sufficient for the entire field, for it is but a sub-classification of the larger field with which this book deals. A Utopia.n novel is a prognostication in sociology, a science, however contro­versial. It is here that lies the bond between most Uto­pian novels and such scientific romances as Verne and Wells penned. It brings all these books together that base their fantasy upon any extrapolation of science. Hence, the generic term of science-fiction.
When Shakespeare said that there were more things in heaven and earth than we dream of in our philos­ophy, he was setting forth what could be the dividing line between science-fictional fantasies and fantasies that are not (assuming that by heaven, Shakespeare meant only the universe of natural, measurable things). Science-fiction covers many types and overlaps on others. Frankenstein, that classic of the Gothic period, is science-fiction. The Castle of Otranto is not. More re­cently, C. S. Lewis's excellent interplanetary tale, Out of the Silent Planet, is science-fiction, whereas its occultish sequel, Perelandra, slides into the realm of su­pernatural novels.

For the measuring point of a fantastic romance is exactly this: if it does not transgress beyond the bounds of heaven and earth as we know it, then it is science ­fiction. But if it does, if it relies upon the immeasurable, the imponderable, the presumably forever Beyond, then it is not science-fiction. If the theme of the fantastic transgression from what is accepted knowledge today is presented as something science deems possible, how­ever improbable, then no matter how seeming wild the romancing, it is science-fiction. If the book crosses the scientifically claimed impossible (or in any case the forever immeasurable), it cannot be science-fiction no matter how otherwise prosaic the tale.

Within this field can thus be found such divergent themes as depiction of the end of the earth, of the pre­historic past, voyages to the planets and stars, political prophecy such as Looking Backward, future satires of the Brave New World type, and even such slight and satirical advancements as Hilaire Belloc's The Man Who Made Gold. Such is the width of this branch of fantasy which literature has somehow failed to notice in its midst.

For in all the myriads of critical books that students of letters have published, in all the endless rows of an­thologies, including a horde of ghost-story collections, there is only one slim book, prior to this Viking Port­able, that dealt directly and exclusively with this field. That was my Pocket Book of Science-Fiction, which appeared in 1943, and dealt only with the short story. This present volume is therefore the first comprehensive selection of the science-fiction story in its most power­ful sphere, the novel.

It should not be supposed that the compilation of this book is something that might have happened any time and that this year was chosen arbitrarily. The field of science-fiction is rapidly maturing, taking an accepted and challenging place in the writings of this troubled period. The very days in which we live seem fantastic. The newspapers carry items that seem incredibly fu­turian, not to be expected. Rocket planes that were first conceived in fiction within only the past ten or twenty years are reality, and thousands of men already have been trained in their construction and navigation. Ra­dar, television, electronic microscopy, synthesis of or­ganic products, and mass methods of production were all products of some vivid pen originally and in our time.

To predict a future requires some knowledge of at least the fundamentals of the world. That knowledge we have had only recently. The acceleration of human progress since 1900 has been unlike anything in all his­tory. Never have so many changes occurred in so short a time. The racing minds of writers can barely keep ahead of them. Inevitably there has arisen a feeling, subconscious perhaps, that we are living in a world of science-fiction. A world in which somehow the science­ fiction writers have seized hold of the pen of history and are scribbling furiously away with it. So that, to­day, science-fiction is something that has penetrated finally to the man in the street, the man for whom liter­ature has been merely entertainment not to strain the mind.

It will be noted that two of the four writers repre­sented in this collection are British, and their novels the longest and most profound. It may be felt that this is curious in so far as it is America that has been the most science-fictional both in actual works and that branch of writing. This is true and it is a strange aspect. For dealing with literature of depth and meaning, we have always to deal first with mankind itself, rather than with machinery. In that field the British writer has, possibly because his island is not the center of the mechanical hurly-burly, been able to penetrate beneath the surface more deeply than Americans.

There is another reason, too. It has been both the greatest impetus to science-fiction and its greatest detri­ment that the first mass development should have come through the medium of action-slanted American news­stand magazines of the genus described, by the quality of their paper, as pulps. An impetus by virtue of the fact that these periodicals offered a market to imagina­tive writers who, though bursting with visions of fu­turity, had lacked previously both a market and an audi­ence. From 1926 onward, these magazines have cap­tured the imagination of a considerable sector of the American newsstand-reading public. Consequently, dozens of fine writers have found themselves warping their concepts and fantastic constructions into the chan­nels laid down by the laws that govern pulp-thrillers.

There is nothing wrong with the adventure novel. It fills a proper place in entertainment. It may have great values as reading. It may portray, in its own manner, problems as deep as any. The interstellar novels of Ed­ward E. Smith, for instance, are pleasurable reading, though packed with scientific prophecy. The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Tarzan and Mars novels are known all over the world, cannot be denied their power to excite the imagination. But somehow they are not what is sought for a serious consideration, a worth while, study. For the thriller is, at best, an ephemeral pleasure. Something to be read and conveniently for­gotten. When it stirs the mind, as in the cases of such lively imaginings as those of Robert Heinlein, A. E. VanVogt, and John W. Campbell, it is only to entertain, to amuse with a clever thought-picture as with a bon mot, and then to be laid aside.

No literature has any lasting value unless its main theme is man. Science, mechanics, futurian perspec­tives, all have no value in themselves. Their value is only in what they mean to men, to humanity as a whole. Therein lies the great handicap of pulp science-fiction. For it lays stress on the amazing, the astounding, the startling, and not on the significant and guiding. Barely can the pulp astounder get his newest imaginary gadget into print than history overtakes and surpasses him. His writing becomes, in a few short years, merely a curi­osity, a milepost left behind. But the writer who under­takes to weigh the meaning on humanity itself of the impact of these things, that writer's work remains, re­tains its value. Startlingly little of the mass of thriller fiction has had this inner stability.

The meaning of the world to man is the testing gauge on which all science-fiction must be measured. Gadgets we can overtake. Social predictions time will prove or disprove. But where mankind is going and the mean­ing to us all thereof is the only problem we cannot easily toss aside. It is with that in mind that the material in this book has been mainly chosen.
Length of story was a factor, as it had to be. But allowing for all that, the story's depth is what counted. Doubtless there have been greater compendiums of new inventions. But the ideal science-fiction novel is not the one which displays the most gimcracks, or the most astounding adventure, or the most grotesque in­terplanetarian. It is the book which manages to com­bine a sound imagination and believable prognostica­tion with a sincere desire to set the reader thinking along concepts vaster than his own petty life, concepts as large at least as the movement of Earth's inhabitants as a whole. I have tried to present a few novels which seem to come up to these ideal requirements.

I wish to acknowledge the kind and valuable advice and assistance of John B. Michel, Robert W. Lowndes, and Elsie Balter W ollheim.

Forest Hills, N. Y. May 7,1945

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