Messaging Mars and the dead: technology and fiction in Britain, 1900–1939 – Richard Noakes (University of Exeter)

March 4, 2021 @ 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm
Helen Curry

In his 1948 novel _No Highway_, Nevil Shute featured a protagonist Theodore Honey who, like Shute himself, was a British aeronautical engineer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment. When not researching aircraft design, Honey also dabbled in the spiritualist practice of automatic writing which ultimately helped him locate a plane that had crashed owing to a fatal design flaw about which he had been warning his employers. Both Honey and Shute capture aspects of early twentieth British engineering culture overlooked in the historiography, not least engineers’ interest in writing fiction and in other-worldly communication (both planetary and spiritual varieties). We tend to associate this convergence of engineering, other-worldly communication and fiction in the 1920s and ’30s with cheap American magazines or ‘pulps’ that came to define science fiction as literary genre. As John Cheng has argued, these serials encouraged readers to write their own fiction and pursue more speculative lines of scientific and engineering research typically neglected by professionals. Although Britain didn’t have its dedicated science fiction magazines until the late 1930s there were many British authors writing novels and short fiction featuring science and engineering in the three decades after H. G. Wells’s ‘scientific romances’ of the 1890s. This paper analyses the careers of those authors with strong engineering and scientific backgrounds and what insights this yields into questions of the functions of the technological imagination, the relationships between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ engineering, and the foundation, in 1933, of the British Interplanetary Society.

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