Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Essay #2...first British science fiction magazine

Pears Christmas Annual


The following is the second installment of nine selected informative, thoughtful, and well-written essays regarding science, science fiction, technology, and literature from Science Fiction Studies .


The special 1919 issue of a British periodical, Pears Christmas Annual, is offered as the world's first English-language magazine devoted to sf, twenty-seven years before the founding of Amazing Stories by Hugo Gernsback. It consisted of 6 works of fiction, a speculative essay, cartoons, and illustrations in color by some of the leading artists of the day--and all dealing with the world of the future 50 years hence in the year 1969. The story-tellers were G.K. Chesterton, A.A. Milne, F. Britten Austin, Mary Cholmondeley, Dion Clayton Calthorp and Twells Brex, and W.L. George contributed the essay. In these imaginative conjectures of the future, hard science remained largely in the background; most concentrated on social speculations. But as an early specimen in the history of the sf genre, this previously unknown British magazine is noteworthy and warrants the attention of all sf historians.

"An English Science-Fiction Magazine, 1919"


George Locke

November 1979

Science Fiction Studies

The world's first English-language SF magazine had as its front cover a cameo of two suitors flanking a demure maiden under a twig of mistletoe. The back cover bore a soap ad showing a little girl in front of a coal fire; the caption read: "After the bath — warming her tootsie wootsies."

It would have made Hugo Gernsback curl in his grave.

The magazine was published in England in the year 1919. It was a special number of a periodical of some 29 years' standing, and it is not surprising, in view of its camouflage, that it has remained undiscovered — or at least unpublicized — until now. It had fiction by some noteworthy literary figures, illustrations in color by some of the leading artists of the day, and it is worthy of the attention of the SF historian.

Before I describe it, however, I would like to try to put it into perspective. It has always saddened my patriotic British soul that the United States was responsible for producing the first English-language SF magazine. The year 1926 heralded Amazing Stories, and there was not a thing we could produce in opposition until 1934 — and Scoops was a poor thing indeed! By stretching a few points, the States could claim an earlier year — 1923. In that year, Weird Tales, the first specialist fantasy magazine, was born, while Science & Invention produced a special SF number which contained, as I recall, five stories. For many years, an even earlier magazine claimed the honor for being the first fantasy magazine, but Thrill Book's credentials were dubious; and it seems now to be generally accepted that this 1919 Street & Smith pulp was an adventure story magazine which happened to carry a higher percentage of SF and weird stories than most. Therefore, if we perfidious Albionites were to seek a magazine to topple the SF of Science & Invention from its place of honor, we would have to aim at 1922 or earlier.

Were there any indications that one might have existed? And how would we go about locating it?

It is obvious that a long-run (or even a short-run) SF magazine could be eliminated. The chances are that one of the small but very active number of pre-war British SF fans would have unearthed it. On the other hand, it was quite feasible that a general magazine could have produced a special issue devoted to our field (without necessarily labeling it "science fiction"), which has since remained buried in the files of an otherwise mundane publication. It was unlikely, however, that an all-purpose or even an all-fiction magazine (such as The Strand, Pearson's, Grand, or Red) would have produced such a special issue. After all, the magazine devoted to one genre was a phenomenon which only gained impetus in the American pulps of the 1920s, and Britain's home-grown pulp industry never reached the sophisticated level of its rivals across the Atlantic. And the SF issue of Science & Invention emerged from a non-fiction magazine, not a fiction pulp.

There was one type of British periodical, however, which was potentially a "natural" for a special SF issue: the "Christmas Annual." A good many British magazines from the 1870s onwards produced special Christmas numbers, usually "out-of-series." In addition, a number of publications were issued annually and therefore qualified as magazines in their own right. Many of those magazines arranged their contents around a specific theme, usually a narrative device with which to present a set of thematically disparate tales.

About 20 years ago, I found the first hint that a special SF number of one might have been produced: Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1880. That featured, as the narrative device, a long satirical story about an idyllic, utopian island. Impacted within its text was a miscellany of short stories, several of which were SF or fantasy. Several, but by no means all, and I would regard that publication, therefore, as a near-miss.

At least one other of those annual anthologies of short fiction had an S-F template, although only a peripheral one. The Christmas issue of Bow Bells for 1875 carried the title of Seven Frozen Sailors. Seven long-frozen sailors were thawed one by one and persuaded to narrate their stories which were, unfortunately, mundane. (The same theme was used some 12 years later by W. Clark Russell in The Frozen Pirate. A book by-lined George Manville Fenn and titled Seven Frozen Sailors was issued in the United States in 1896 and has been given publicity as an imitation of the Russell novel. Although I have not seen that book, one of the contributors to the Bow Bells publication was Fenn, and it seems fairly certain that the US book was a reprinting, possibly unauthorized, of the earlier British Annual.)

It should also be noted that some of the annuals, notably Arrowsmith's series, published a single novel as each issue. Several of the Arrowsmith annuals, such as Walter Besant's The Inner House (1888) and The Doubts of Dives (1889), were undeniably SF or fantasy. However, I would exclude these on the grounds that they contained a single novel each rather than being magazine-style issues deliberately devoted to the SF genre.

The tootsie-warming (and subsequently heart-warming) publication described at the beginning of this article very clearly complies with the above requirement of a deliberate policy. It is Pears Christmas Annual for 1919, and it consists of 6 works of fiction, a speculative essay, and a group of cartoons, all dealing with a world 50 years hence — i.e., 1969. The story-tellers were G. K. Chesterton, A. A. Milne, F. Britten Austin, Mary Cholmondeley, Dion Clayton Calthorp and TwelIs Brex, while W. L. George contributed the essay; a far from modest line-up! (There were, incidentally, two or three fillers, of no relevance to the theme, and a centre-page painting which, although illustrating the celebrations of Christmas through the ages, did not touch upon the future.)

It was the 29th annual number of a very scarce magazine. When some issues do turn up, they are almost invariably the nicely illustrated but otherwise boring 1890s ones devoted to reprinting Dickens. Its policy changed early in the 20th century, when it printed a general range of original fiction, but as far as I know did not go in for theme issues and other gimmicks, although I have not had the opportunity to research a complete file.

The magazine itself measures 11 x 15 1/2"; if the Astounding of 1942 was given the nickname of "bed-sheet," then this was surely a "counter-pane" job! It had 24 pages of editorial and 28 pages of advertising matter; and the artwork, by H. M. Brock, Graham Simmons, W. Heath Robinson, H. R. Millar, W. Hatherell, and Lewis Baumer, was in two or three colors (subsidized, of course, by the colored ads).

An editorial note, headed "Our 29th annual message to our readers," reads:

The shadow of war has lifted, and we can face the coming Christmastide with hopeful thoughts, in spite of the long aftermath we may have to travel through, entering into the spirit of the Christmas season with plenty of the old-time zest, lightened and animated by new ideas. In a new world that the Christmas Bells will ring us into, and in adapting our Annual to the fresh conditions, allowing contributors and artists to exercise their thoughts and fancies upon a Christmas period of 50 years hence, we trust we have given our readers a Christmas catering that they will heartily enjoy.

There, then, was the necessary declaration of intent.

W. L. George led off with an essay entitled "Christmas 1969 — the kind of world on which I would like it to dawn." His suggestions include a United States of the World developing from the League of Nations. In Britain, he suggested extensive nationalization of the major industries, free medical services and a £50 million annual budget for medical research (!), machinery to do as much of the manual labor (such as mining) as possible, traditional housing scrapped and replaced by 30-story blocks of flats with all amenities (including nursery services), divorces made more readily obtainable, etc., etc. The essay repays reading in order to judge the extent to which Britain (and the world) has moved along the lines he indicated. City transport congestion was among the problems he anticipated would become increasingly important, and he proposed as a relief the abolition of horse-drawn transportation. Air transport was also mentioned; indeed, most of the fictional pieces cited aviation as one of the major areas of technological advancement, although none came anywhere near to imagining the sophistication that would take place in reality.

The fictional pieces themselves fall into two groups. Two contributors wrote straightforward stories, while the others chose a variety of formats in which to clothe their ideas: a school report, a chapter from a school history, a diary by a modern Pepys, and a short play.

The longest story is F. Britten Austin's "Through the Gate of Horn," a dream fantasy of the future. A young man, jilted, is knocked down by his rival's car in 1919. While unconscious, he dreams scenes from his future as though he had actually married the girl. It is a well-written romance with episodes set in 1929, 1939, 1959, and 1969, but it is concerned only with the protagonist and his associates. The external world and its changes are given only passing mention. No SF elements of any kind are introduced, and the story qualifies only because it is a dream-vision of the future. It was reprinted in book form in the author's collection On the Borderland (Hurst & Blackett, 1922); the text is the same except that the dates have been changed to 1932, 1942, 1962, and 1972 respectively.

The other straight story is far more satisfactory, and is called "The Dark Cottage." Written by Mary Cholmondeley, a popular but now almost forgotten writer of romances at the turn of the century, it is the moving story of a young, wealthy factory and land owner who goes off to war in 1915. He is knocked unconscious and only reawakens 50 years later when a final piece of brain surgery is successful. The difficulties of his adjustment to the new world (smokeless factories, workers commuting there by personal aircraft instead of being crammed into slums hard up against the factory walls, women playing an equal if not a leading role in government, etc.) are well delineated. Some of the background is intriguing and whetted my appetite for the novel that could have been written. A period of revolution called "The Black Winter" is hinted at, and could well have been associated with a piece of propaganda in the story in which the author suggests that to unleash a Labour Government before the working classes had had the opportunity to become educated would be disastrous. An incident in which the protagonist discovers that the estate's rookery no longer existed was particularly imaginative: the radiation from a newly erected power station, while not harming the adult birds, destroyed their young.

A story for children was almost mandatory for Christmas numbers, and Dion Clayton Calthorp obliged with "The Secret Playmates," with eight three-color pictures by H. R. Millar. Although given the format of a play, the text mainly comprises background and description, and tells the story of an eight-year-old boy who lives in a sterile environment (wearing a "standard suit of germ-proof linen"). Nearly all the world's population is vegetarian and everything is neat and cultivated ("electrically grown giant roses"), with no room for wild flowers and the disorder of woods and heaths. Kissing is no longer practiced (unhygienic), flying is the main form of transport (the boy's parents fly off to Jamaica to buy the bananas for dinner, for example), and education is carried out by machine and cinematograph pictures in the home. The boy visits, in dream, scenes where the world is as it was in the past and in fairy tale. A slight piece with some interesting ideas mentioned but not developed.

Twells Brex (who published a futuristic novel, The Civil War of 1915, in 1912) contributed "A Christmas House-Party in 1969 (being extracts from the diary of Samuel Pepys the Second)". It has 9 two-colored illustrations by Lewis Baunier, and is a pleasantly readable little account of Christmas-celebration incidents in a format ideal for presenting the author's own ideas of developments over the next 50 years. The world of 1969 included weather-control (with the rider that the less privileged would always get the bad weather); taxiplanes (from which one alighted by parachute onto the roof); food brought from all parts of the world by air, but invariably unappetizing and tasteless (a forecast which seems to me to have become not inaccurate); laborers earning more than surgeons (a Bolshevik revolution was supposed to have taken place in Britain in 1921), self-making beds; personal aircraft for everybody, and women's lib to the extent of the wife's having legal control of the cash in the family. A very pleasant piece packed with ideas, and superior to the Calthorp story.

If the Brex contribution was good, that of A. A. Milne was a sheer delight. Entitled "Tommy's Christmas Report, 1969," it was complemented by four excellent three-color drawings by H. M. Brock. Milne captured brilliantly the style of the schoolmasters writing the 15-year-old schoolboy's end of term report, and used the format to write a charmingly amusing and at times satirical sketch. Packed into the text was a wealth of throw-away information which combined to draw a picture of a world state run on communist (or at least socialist) lines in which things like Jazz, cricket, the infantry, and beer have ceased to exist and in which education takes place until one is 35 years of age.

Last but not least, G. K. Chesterton contributed "England in 1919, being an extract from a school history of the period published in 1969." This is a satirical tour de force in which Chesterton reconstructs a history of the year 1919, choosing to look back from a future after which a 1943 "Futurist Government" had destroyed virtually all records of the past (oral tradition being regarded as a safer authority than the written word!), and from which all scientific machinery had been banned by an earlier "Simple Life Government" of 1929. The author's identification (because of the lack of records) of King George with Lloyd George and Lloyd's the shipping insurers is delightful and ingenious, as is his conclusion that Napoleon met his Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton school rather than among the rusted iron tracks of Waterloo, a railway station in South London. The bulk of the piece, however, has Chesterton swinging out vigorously at such institutions as Lord Northcliffe, Plutocracy, and the purchases of peerages. An excellent story which repays study.

W. Heath Robinson rounded off the publication's speculations by contributing four cartoons depicting Christmas in 1969 in his usual, inimitable style.

In conclusion, I feel that Pears Christmas Annual for 1919 qualifies as a genuine and deliberately produced SF magazine, yet poles apart from Amazing Stories and the other pulps. Hard science remained largely in the background and most of the contributors concentrated on social speculations.

Many of the forecasts were inevitable in view of the events that had occurred about the time they were conceived (women receiving the vote in 1918, the Russian revolution, and the advance of aviation accelerated by World War One), and therein lies the importance of that fugitive magazine. It was clearly an expression of its time — and it expressed that time and its future (at times our actual present) in better English than did Science & Invention, Weird Tales, and the original material of Amazing Stories.

Essay #1...nuclear energy as a metaphor for power in science fiction

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