Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Engineering Fiction: Literature and Science in Interwar Britain

‘Engineering Fiction: Literature and Science in Interwar Britain’ is the title of a talk that was given by Dr Charlotte Sleigh (University of Kent) on 20 March 2015, as part of the University of Oxford’s Literature and Science Research Seminar Series (available to watch here and below). Her topic chimes with several previous SF Forward posts, including Futures Past, Part 2 and Part 4.

In the video, Sleigh describes the development of SF fandom between 1930 and 1950, covering the founding of fanzines such as Novae Terrae in 1936 (later to become New Worlds), the world’s first SF convention in Leeds and the founding of the London Branch of the Science Fiction Association with the involvement of writers such as Arthur C. Clarke.

Her particular area of interest is in the culture of the fans themselves, with an emphasis on the circulation of stories and reviews in their fanzines. Described unfavourably by C.S. Lewis as the fiction of engineers, Sleigh modifies this title for her talk (also the subject of a forthcoming book), to explore how the SF fan’s identity was created and performed on the page. She explains that many of these fans shared a fascination with science and engineering (although few worked professionally in scientific fields) but their identification with science was bolstered through writing. As Clarke himself once wrote in an early essay for Novae Terrae, ‘science-fiction authors have actually influenced future development to no small extent, and when space is eventually crossed […] science-fiction will have played an enormous part in the final accomplishment’. Sleigh’s theory is that by participating in the writing cultures of fanzines, fans believed they were participating in the work of science.

She ends with a reading of Star Begotten by H.G. Wells, which along with Sugar in the Air by E.C. Large and Star-Maker by Olaf Stapledon, was one of the most exciting books for SF fans in 1936-7. The story, she suggests, mirrors the way in which SF fans constructed themselves as a social group; the idea of martian rays altering human evolution is both a reflection and a fictional cause of why they felt like outsiders but also superior to those around them.

Thanks to Dominic Berry for drawing my attention to this talk.