Foreword written by Brian Stableford
for S. Fowler Wright's Short Stories
The first collection of Sydney Fowler Wright's short fiction, The New Gods Lead, was published by Jarrolds in 1932. It contained ten stories, of which the first seven were grouped together under the subtitle 'Where the New Gods Lead'. All the stories were fantastic, all of them save for one allegory belonging to the genre of 'scientific romance' whose principal exemplars were to be found among the early works of H. G. Wells.
Although scientific romance had flourished in the popular magazines of the 1890s it had suffered a long decline in the first quarter of the 20th century. Its revival in the 1930s was largely due to the exploits of a handful of writers who began to write extravagant alarmist fantasies about the possibility that a new world war might bring about the utter destruction of civilisation.
Fowler Wright's work played a considerable part in this revivification of the genre but was not typical of it; although he was eventually to write a trilogy of future wars novels in the late 1930s his first two novels, The Amphibians (1924) and Deluge (1927), had offered rather different accounts of the fate of civilisation. Such were the depths of unfashionability to which scientific romance had sunk in the 1920s that both novels were self-published but the latter became a best-seller and was filmed in Hollywood, opening the doors of opportunity for Fowler Wright to become a full-time writer.
The magazine marketplace of the day remained implacably inhospitable to scientific romance, but Fowler Wright found enough publishing opportunities to get at least half the stories in The New Gods Lead into print, and he used the book as a reservoir for the rest. Although several other writers involved in the revival of scientific romance were able to incorporate occasional stories of that kind in more various collections, The New Gods Lead was the only significant story collection by a British writer published in the UK between the world wars which was entirely devoted to contemplation of the possible futures with which the present was pregnant.
The stories in The New Gods Lead were reprinted, along with two other scientific romances taken from the more general collection The Witchfinder (1946), in The Throne of Saturn, which was published in 1949 by Arkham House. Arkham House was an American small press initially established to reprint the work of H. P. Lovecraft and other writers associated with the pulp magazine Weird Tales, which had expanded to become a major publisher of offbeat imaginative fiction. The Throne of Saturn was reissued in the UK by Heinemann in 1951. The present edition includes one extra story which was first published in an anthology edited by Groff Conklin entitled Science Fiction Adventures in Mutation (1955).
Sydney Fowler Wright was born on 6 January 1874. He was little more than seven years younger than H. G. Wells but while Wells was laying down the boundaries of the nascent genre of scientific romance in the years before the Great War Fowler Wright was working as an accountant. He was successful in this profession, and although he wrote a good deal of lyric poetry before 1918 - in which year his first wife (pictured) died - it was not until after that date that he became more intimately involved with literary endeavours.
Fowler Wright came from a family of devout Baptists - his father (Stephen Wright) was a lay preacher (who together with his sons Herbert Victor Wright and Walter Coleman Wright became Holywood 'pioneers') and one of his sisters became a missionary - but he became a freethinker, abandoning the dogmatic apparatus of his father's faith in favour of a religious and moral philosophy which he worked out for himself. This independence of mind began early in life, when he left King Edward's School in Birmingham, at eleven (January 1885), to take charge of his own education. He was very fond of animals and passionately devoted to all things natural. He did not eat meat, did not smoke and was very moderate in his use of alcohol.
This asceticism was coupled with firm moral convictions; Fowler Wright was passionately committed to the ideal individual freedom and responsibility, and disliked intensely what he saw as the progressive erosion of freedom and responsibility by legislation and bureaucracy. His love of nature had as its counterpart a determined antipathy towards technology in general and the motor car in particular. His attitude to contemporary social changes was thus unusually hostile, and he found it easy to conjure up nightmarish images of a future where the trends he deplored had been carried to extremes. He loaded his longer works of imaginative fiction with unprettified but carefully glorified visions of primitive and pastoral settings.
Fowler Wright's involvement with the literary world began in 1917 when he became one of the founding fathers of the Empire Poetry League, whose function was to promote cultural endeavour through the English-speaking world. Other prominent members of the League were G. K. Chesterton, L. A. G. Strong, H. E. Bates and Humbert Wolfe. Fowler Wright took a leading part in the League's affairs, becoming the administrator of its publishing imprint, the Merton Press, and the editor of its journal, Poetry (later Poetry and the Play) - 1917-1932. He compiled numerous anthologies for the Merton Press.
Fowler Wright's own first published work, issued under the name Alan Seymour, was a small volume of poems, Scenes from the Morte d'Arthur (1919). This was part of the grand project (Song of Arthur) which was to be the core of his life's work in the literary field: a rendering of the whole body of Arthurian legend in blank verse. He worked on this constantly, occasionally publishing small sections of it. It was just completed when a bomb destroyed the manuscript (12.5.41) along with many others in his Fetter Lane offices, and he had to do it all over again. It has not yet been published in full but will shortly be made available on a CD-ROM collection of his most significant works. Fowler Wright wrote Deluge shortly after publication of the Scenes, but having failed to find a publisher for it he let it lie until the second edition of The Amphibians had achieved a positive response in a Merton Press edition.
The Amphibians is a remarkable scientific romance, comparable in its scope to only two prior works: H. G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895) and William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land. It is set in a future so remote that man has disappeared from the earth, to be replaced by other intelligent species, including the gentle, telepathic Amphibians and the giant troglodytic Dwellers. The story's narrator is projected into the future by a scientist in order to search for two other men who have previously been dispatched and have failed to return.
In this remote future the narrator finds himself in a bizarre artificial environment, where his emergence from hiding so startles an Amphibian that 'she' (the Amphibians are actually hermaphrodite, but seem feminine to the narrator) is seized by a carnivorous plant. This accident triggers a sequence of events which causes trouble between the Amphibians and the Dwellers. Hoping to repair the damage, the narrator joins forces with a troop of Amphibians in the quest to release one of their number who has been captured and imprisoned by the ferocious, semi-intelligent Killers. A key element in the story is the narrator's attempts to see himself as the Amphibians see him, and to explain his world to them. At one point he is allowed to 'see' into the mind of one of the beautiful, gentle and high-minded creatures, and is appalled by the repulsion which he senses there. Later, she comments on his account of his own world as follows:
"I think there are two ways of life which are good. There is the higher way, which is ours, in which all are united; and there is the lower way, of the shark or the shell-fish, of freedom and violence, which only greater violence can destroy, and which nothing can bring into slavery. But the vision which you give me is of a state which is lower than either of these, of blind servitudes and oppressions, to which you yield without willingness."
This reproduces a common image in scientific romance of this period, by which the human world is seen as an unfortunate intermediate state, neither wholly natural nor wholly civilised, with man himself half ape and half angel. Fowler Wright was, however, more outspoken than anyone else in his scathing account of the unique degradation of such a state.
Another project on which Fowler Wright was working while he was writing The Amphibians was a new translation of Dante's Divina Commedia, and some imagery from the Inferno spills over into it. In the climax of the story judgement must be passed on a group of batwinged creatures (resembling Gustave Doré's illustrations of Dante's devils) who have been delivered to the Killers by the Dwellers for execution. The description of these beings is a parody of human nature and conduct, and the narrator concurs with the judgement that they are too vile to be allowed to live.
Fowler Wright was not the only writer of scientific romance to imagine a kind of 'higher man' whose nature would be superior to our own, although the Amphibians are more distant from us than most versions and their environment is very different from the settings in which other writers placed our improved descendants. The Amphibians do not live in a comfortable Utopia, but in an environment closer to Hell than to Heaven. Fowler Wright was horrified by the 'Utopia of comforts' favoured by Wells, and by conventional images of Heaven. His reverence for nature was in no way based upon the misapprehension that nature is harmonious; he accepted its redness in tooth and claw, believing that struggle and strife were necessary features of a healthy way of life. He felt that his contemporaries had embraced undesirable social goals, raising secular idols whose worship was bound to lead them to ruin. This idea had already been developed, albeit in more muted form, in Deluge.
Deluge is a disaster story, in which a series of earth tremors alters the contours of the planet's surface. Almost all of the civilised world is inundated, but part of England is elevated so that the Cotswolds become a tiny chain of islands. The story has much to say about the fragility of civilised mores and the ways in which civilised life makes people incompetent to keep themselves alive once the supportive apparatus of social institutions is swept away. This is not unusual in disaster stories, but Fowler Wright is exceptional in the extent to which he blames the defects of human nature on Civilisation. His philosophy is rather Rousseauesque in that he believes the state of savagery to be (potentially, at least) a noble rather than a brutal one.
Fowler Wright's third novel, The Island Of Captain Sparrow (1928), is the story of a man cast away on an island whose inhabitants include the last survivors of an antediluvian civilisation, a race of nonsentient satyrs, and the descendants of a pirate crew. Another recent castaway is Marcelle, a young woman who has been forced to live wild in the forest, avoiding both the satyrs and the pirates. At the end of the story the two castaways inherit the island, along with a baby donated by the last of the antediluvians. Cut off from any means of escape, both must accept the way of life which Marcelle has already adopted - the implication being that this symbolic reentry into the garden of Eden is the only possible happy ending. Marcelle became the prototype for a whole series of Fowler Wright heroines, including Marguerite Leinster in Dream; or, The Simian Maid (1931).
When he became successful Fowler Wright also became frenetically active, new works of various kinds flowed from his pen. By 1931 he had produced a sequel to The Amphibians, a sequel to Deluge, a historical novel, a crime story (issued, as were many subsequent exercises in the same vein, under the pseudonym Sydney Fowler) and a novel of contemporary life, as well as the short stories which were to be reprinted in The New Gods Lead.
The World Below (1929) reprinted The Amphibians along with a continuation of the time traveller's adventure. He and an Amphibian companion enter the subterranean territory of the Dwellers, where much more is revealed about this strange future world by artificial organisms impressed with telepathic recordings. The Dwellers are beginning a war against the insectile Antipodeans, whose progress is mapped in images projected on corridor walls. The protagonist is captured and offers the Dwellers' 'Seekers of Wisdom' an account of his own world. The story becomes progressively more synoptic as it nears its conclusion; Fowler Wright had originally intended to write three volumes and it is unclear whether the compressed text of The World Below covers the ground allotted to the third or not.
Fowler Wright's sequel to Deluge, Dawn (1929), is more substantial than The World Below, but likewise succeeds in adding little to its predecessor. The greater part of its story runs parallel to the one told in the earlier book, and its climax recapitulates a crisis already faced by the community of survivors. Dawn is, however, the novel which encapsulates more neatly than any other the precise range and tenor of Fowler Wright's anxieties. It has a good deal to say about the unpromising nature of human beings, even when those most perverted by civilisation have been weeded out. It asks not only whether a man of intelligence, resolve and goodwill could possibly organise a sane and happy society, but whether he has any moral right even to try.
Dawn makes it clear that Fowler Wright, as a Libertarian of an unusually thorough and consistent stripe, felt obliged to concede that people must be free even to be foolish, indolent or wicked. He recognised the need for working communities to establish some form of social contract to limit or contain foolishness, indolence and wickedness but he had little confidence in the probability that people could actually be trusted to honour such a contract. Dawn ends with a sober meditation which brings its hero to the very brink of despair; the symbolic sunrise of the last line of the text is, significantly, 'the indifferent dawn'.
The heroine of Dream; or, The Simian Maid begins her story deep in the slough of despond. She is a depressed socialite who seeks release from her condition in dreams conjured up for her by a 'magician' who sends her consciousness back through time to experience other lives. She has already visited Babylon and Atlantis, and now desires something even more remote and primitive. She finds herself incarnated as a tree-dwelling furry primate; two others who follow her into the dream are incarnated as members of another species which has left the trees to live in caves. Although the cave-people are technologically more advanced, Marguerite's new self considers them a lower species - but not as low as the Ogpurs, a brutal and vile race which includes the ancestors of modern man.
Dream is not an attempt to re-create the actual circumstances of man's pre-human ancestors. It presents an argument about the principles on which the natural world operates, regardless of the presence or efforts of man. Like the other full-length scientific romances which preceded it, it deals with a world remote from our own in which the laws of nature (as Fowler Wright saw them) hold more obvious dominion. The shorter stories in The New Gods Lead, by way of contrast, follow the opposite tack; they deal with worlds where culture has overwhelmed nature and obliterated its rule.
Viewed as a kaleidoscopic collage of images, Fowler Wright's shorter scientific romances constitute a savagely vitriolic vision of the future which was unprecedented in the 1930s and still remains almost without parallel today. (The qualifying 'almost' is required by virtue of the similarly striking vision of the future contained in David R. Bunch's storycollection Moderan, 1971).
'Justice' focuses on one of Fowler Wright's key symptoms of the advent of the New Gods: the widespread use of birth-control. It looks forward to a day when this has profoundly affected the demographic structure of society, with a large number of aged dependants requiring support from an ever-dwindling population of active workers - thus anticipating anxieties which have resurfaced in earnest as the post-war Welfare State begins to show a similar strain.
'Brain', which tells the story of an attempt to seize power in a technocratic future by a scientist armed with various brain-controlling drugs, similarly anticipates - albeit in lurid fashion - modern concerns regarding the advancement of psychotropic chemistry.
'P. N. 40' - which had earlier appeared in the slick women's magazine Eve & Britannia as 'P. N. 40 and Love' - is set in the 93rd year of the Eugenic Era, and tells of an attempt by a love-struck couple to defy the laws of their orderly and rational society. This was a motif which Fowler Wright was to extrapolate much further in The Adventure of Wyndham Smith (1938), which was in turn collapsed into the much shorter and bleaker 'Original Sin'. The image of a revitalising escape from sterile civilisation to wilderness was hardly new, but it was one which was to retain its fascination throughout the century.
The final story of the 'New Gods' sequence in The New Gods Lead was 'Automata', which is an uncommonly neat and precise philosophical commentary on man's use of machines, displaying the slow but inexorable usurpation of all human endeavour by mechanical devices in a series of effective vignettes.
'The Rat' - the most widely reprinted of Fowler Wright's stories - is a fabular meditation in which an inconspicuous country doctor considers the consequences of releasing an elixir of life into the human world, weighing the pros and cons according to Fowler Wright's idiosyncratic system of ideological accountancy.
'Choice' - which was entitled 'The Choice: an Allegory of Blood and Tears' when it appeared in Eve (before that magazine's merger with Britannia in 1929 - contains the most compact and explicit expression of Fowler Wright's philosophy to be found anywhere in his work. A man and a woman who have suffered a great deal in life are reunited after death in the Christian Heaven. They settle down to enjoy the rewards of virtue, courtesy of the mercy of God - but they find the peacefulness of Heaven literally soul-destroying and are determined to look beyond it. God's account of what they are demanding, and their response to his summation, are the perfect encapsulation of the author's attitude to life and its challenges.
Like The Adventure of Wyndham Smith, if not quite so explicitly, most of the scientific romances which Fowler Wright wrote after The New Gods Lead can be regarded as more extended meditations on themes he had already raised. Despite their greater length, few add much in the way of real ideative substance - as perhaps was only to be expected in a writer moving into his sixties. Although they were not such elementary hackwork as his hastily-written crime novels, his later scientific romances were a minor thread in his work; he did not regard them as having the same importance as his long historical novel about Cortés' conquest of Mexico or his completion of Sir Walter Scott's unfinished novel The Siege of Malta, let alone any significance remotely comparable to his Arthurian epic (Song of Arthur). Of which Scenes From Morte d'Arthur and The Riding of Lancelot are less than half.
In Beyond the Rim (1932) a small group of adventurers discover a warm valley in the Antarctic, inhabited by religious fundamentalists whose ancestors left England hoping to reach the New World some three centuries before. He was to write two more 'lost race' stories - The Screaming Lake (1937) and The Hidden Tribe (1938) - but they are relatively trivial.
Power (1933) - Fowler Wright's first novel of the near future - belongs to a rich tradition of stories extending in which enlightened individuals armed with powerful new inventions try to force peace and social reform upon a reluctant world. It would have been a more interesting work had the plot not been drawn back into the mould of a conventional thriller, but it does feature an unusually strident indictment of the normality which is eventually restored:
'We are looking at a civilisation without control, and without the freedom that control gives. We are a nation of slaves, and slaves to a tyrant that we cannot kill, being beyond our reach. Our new rulers are the aggregate folly and the aggregate weakness of mankind. Comfort and cowardice are the new gods.'
Vengeance of Gwa (1934) was written as a sequel to Dream but was shorn of its linking frame-narrative before appearing from a different publisher under the pseudonym Anthony Wingrave. Although the setting is prehistoric its heroine is a refugee from a great city inhabited by a highly civilised people - a juxtaposition which emphasises the fact that Fowler Wright thought of the distant past and the distant future in much the same terms. This became even clearer when the third volume of the 'trilogy', Spiders' War, appeared in 1954, set in a nightmarish future where primitivism has reclaimed human society.
The futuristic thriller '1938' was serialised in the Sunday Despatch - after the Daily Mail had made much of William le Queux's future war story The Invasion (1906) in its early days - before being reprinted in book form as Prelude in Prague; A Story of the War of 1938 (1935). It begins, prophetically, with the proposition that Germany would embark on the road to war by manufacturing an excuse to invade Czechoslovakia in order to reclaim part of her 'traditional territory' but rapidly develops into a horror story whose final chapters present a clinical catalogue of atrocities. Its sequel, Four Days War (1936), describes the devastation of Britain by bombers which distribute chemical and biological weapons as well as high explosives. The third volume of the trilogy, Megiddo's Ridge (1937) arranges the rival armies and air fleets for their final apocalyptic confrontation.
Although Fowler Wright's scientific romances are among the most extreme images produced in the period between the wars, they are not out of tune with works produced by many other writers. They reflect, albeit in a particularly striking fashion, an attitude not uncommon in their day. They are expressions of what Wells elected to call the Age of Frustration - an era when a great many people were seized by the idea that civilisation had somehow gone wrong.
This sensation of wrongness was felt all the more keenly because of the hopes that had been entertained before the Great War, and the promises which had been made during that war. Before 1914, many people had thought of the coming war as a war to end war, a war to save civilisation. After 1918, looking back on four years of appalling slaughter and remembering scenes of horror that they had never glimpsed even in the wildest of nightmares, those same people found war unended and civilisation unsaved. Many thought things were worse than before and getting worse still. It was small wonder that their frustration threatened to dissolve in to despair, or at least to desperation.
Where Fowler Wright stands virtually alone among writers of scientific romance, however is in his way of allocating blame for the threatened disaster. The sickness of civilisation was symbolised for him by the motor car, the idea of birth-control and the pursuit of comforts. The motor car stood for the march of science and the mechanisation of the human world, birth-control for an attitude of mind by which men set themselves in opposition to nature, and the pursuit of comforts for a smokescreen which blinded men to the futility of idleness.
Although he worked in the same genre as H. G. Wells, Fowler Wright was the most determined of his ideological opponents. He argued that scientific progress was bad, not because it would deliver more power into the hands of the evil or misguided men who run the modern world, but because the whole idea of 'progress' was rotten at the core. He attacked the Wellsian Utopia of Comforts on more radical grounds than E. M. Forster or Aldous Huxley, and he lent his support to a much more radical alternative. His philosophy of life may have been a harsh one, celebrating the struggle of existence (rather than the struggle for existence) in a remarkably uncompromising manner, but it is readily understandable as a product of its time and it remains one of the most intriguing and challenging products of that time.
S. Fowler Wright's Short Stories - Published by FWB - July 1996 - ISBN 1 900 848 00 7
A cover photo of S.FW & Nellie (1st. wife). Circa 1910.
1) His Throne of Saturn- intriguing short Sci-Fi story collection. (Arkham House 1949)
2) The Better Choice - written for Groff Conklin's 1955 Science Fiction Adventures In Mutation.
3) Foreword by Brian Stableford about the author, his works and the stories.
4) Examples of his poetry.
5) J.E.C. Mcfarlane's speech about the importance of S.FW. & the Empire Poetry League.
6) Our Reader's List of his works.
FWB, P.O. Box 3, Ludlow, Salop SY8 4ZZ. U.K.
or e-mail to Marrak.