Damien Broderick and John Boston
“I can dream, can’t I?”
Or so sang the Andrews sisters in 1949, all the way to the top of Billboard’s charts. It was a yearning lyric penned by Irving Kahal with melody by Sammy Fain, in 1938, just as the second world war was about to erupt, and modified decades later by the Carpenters in 1975 and jazz artist Susannah McCorkle in 2000. Maybe you’ve never heard it—well, I hadn’t, until I clicked just now on YouTube—but it catches something of the wistful impulse in the classic British magazine Science Fantasy, which took a half turn away from science fiction’s eye upon the blue horizon’s bend, where “Earth and sky appear to meet and end,” to the illusions dreamed by the pensive singers, “for dreams are just like wine.”
Well, there are dreams suffusing science fantasy, and there are nightmares—dreams of glory and love and wonderful new knowledge, and night terrors that gaze down upon us, with intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic. Only fiction can take us into those places while we remain awake. And only science fantasy has the range to go everywhere, from the future and past to the otherworlds of imagination and the fearsome lands where all of these fade into each other.
Science Fantasy (born with a hyphen, as Science-Fantasy, which it soon shed) first appeared in 1950 from Nova Publications. That was the small company started by a group of science fiction fans and professionals to save from collapse the now better-known New Worlds, begun in 1946. 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.
The early issues 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.
And if its fantasies seemed rather . . . fanciful . . . we readers just had to remind ourselves: “I can dream, can’t I?”
A story is a machine for leading you astray, using words that trigger dreams while you are awake. It can be argued that science fantasy is what emerges when a writer embraces the airy delights of free imagination while attempting to stiffen its spine with some of the constraints of scientific investigation.
Call that a theory of science fantasy, if you like, or at least a hypothesis.
All writers are both theorists and practitioners at the same time, and so too, in a slightly different way, are all readers. Granted, not everyone brings that theorizing to awareness. In fact, most of our theorizing is necessarily unconscious, and some of it seems to comprise models of the world and other people that we inherit in our genome. As infants we learn to crawl and totter and walk by imitating others, prompted by urgings within our muscles and brains that really do amount to theories about how this world of buzzing, blooming confusion operates. And as cognitive science shows, we social critters function via a shared “theory of mind,” an implicit and almost invisible model of other people’s reactions and surmised motives that are in part projections of our own, as well as rules and explanations we learn from parents, other adults, other kids.
All of this forms a vast tangled network of theories within which we “read” the “text” of the world and ourselves. The stories we tell ourselves, and those we read, are therefore theorized from the outset, just as our first understanding of physics is embedded in the way we walk, pick things up, throw them, judge distances by what we see and hear, the heat of the stove, the vulnerability of the flesh. Science happens when we start to investigate those unarticulated or unchallenged folk theories, replacing them with more coherent and powerful models. You could say that science rewrites the world as it reads the regularities all about us.
Samuel R. Delany, a master of both science fiction (Nova, Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand) and exemplary science fantasy (the Nevèrÿon series), brought much of this to the surface of his novels, as well as in numerous essays and interviews. He embodied his critical thinking in the very structure of his characters and their worlds. But of course once you see that happening, and how it works, you notice that all writers do the same thing, although often without their being sharply aware of it.
You start to unpick the surfaces and see how the toy universe and its toy inhabitants operate. And that feeds back into your own creative process as reader and perhaps writer. Not as a dull set of ideological instructions and prohibitions, but as a lively and, yes, proto-scientific exploration of the fictional and semiotic spaces and forces moving your science fantasy characters and their fantastical worlds, so unlike ours in some ways, so utterly like ours in most of the dimensions we don’t even see because they and we are wrapped up and enfolded around each other.
And just as scientists hope to advance their understanding of reality with the most stringent models they can think up after looking as closely as possible at the evidence, science fantasy writers do the same—if they’re doing anything more elaborate and artistic, that is, than tossing burgers into buns for undemanding consumers of McSci-fi.
An important question remains when one approaches a gathering of imaginative stories from a lost era half a century gone: has the fizz necessarily left the bottle, its charm and relevance evaporated? Worse still, are the prejudices of earlier generations, suffusing all the fiction of their era without deliberate intention or malice aforethought, sufficiently off-putting that today’s readers must turn away in embarrassment or disgust? We explored this question briefly in the Introduction to our earlier Science Fantasy anthology, The Daymakers, and reached the following conclusion.
The fiction of the 1950s and early 1960s often remained sunk in a sort of contented acceptance of the quotidian, a pretense that only big technological changes could be expected in the future. Somehow, the writers mistakenly or lazily figured men would always wear hats and rule the roost. Women would always be called “girls” and (supposedly) giggle a lot. People would contact each from public telephone boxes operated by coins. 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, then, we should post a fashionably cautious “trigger warning” for the sensitive: 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 comfortable certainties will seem horrific or laughable another half a century from now.
Must this eau d’ cultural staleness deter us from reading these 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 World War II-shaded 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.
Science Fantasy’s trajectory of development is visible in this gathering of stories, from Jonathan Burke’s witty tale of a world where events—and lives—can be retroactively obliterated or restored by hardworking bureaucrats, to Martin Jordan’s rollicking stage-Irish hijinks of one of the last humans on Earth falling hard for a luscious Martian. From the enigmatic and masterful panopticon of J.G. Ballard’s watch-towers, we move dreamily to Thomas Burnett Swann’s auto-mythology of a magic world remembered only hazily in legends.
Along the way, we visit John Brunner’s visceral heroic world of the City of the Tiger, a tale that was later stripped to the bone as part of his near-mainstream novel Telepathist, retitled for the American market as The Whole Man. Under the latter title, it was a Hugo award finalist in 1965. Here we revive the entire inaugural story, never before anthologized.
One of the mainstays of John Carnell’s three Nova magazines, Kenneth Bulmer, takes us into a fantastical world adjacent to ours, while John Kippax questions the very solidity and stability of reality. That haunting trope, the basis of many of Philip K. Dick’s ontologically restless tales and novels, was explored rather differently in our previous Science Fantasy anthology, in its title story, “The Daymakers.” Kippax takes the notion for an entertaining spin in “Destiny Incorporated.”
And we end, suitably enough, with Philip E. High’s “Dead End,” a surreal venture, leap by immense leap, into one allegorical future after another, to the end of time.
 This history, and much more, is recounted in Boston and Broderick’s book Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy, 1950-67 (Wildside/Borgo Press, 2012).