“1950s British Science Fiction” video series draws to a close, celebrating the rise of SF in paperback

Author and editor Philip Harbottle has been treating us to a splendid run of videocasts, 1950s British Science Fiction, charting the rise and fall of hardback SF publishing during that decade – but the series is now coming to an end.

1950s British Science Fiction Episode 39 - Hardback SF

In Episode 39, “The Great Science Fiction Blight” Philip shares more glimpses of his incredible collection of rare SF books, celebrating the work of authors such as John Wyndham, John Christopher, Wilson Tucker, and more.

Throughout this series, you always get the impression that despite the commercial success of much SF, publishers felt uncomfortable publishing it, despite the quality of the writing of some authors.

Certainly, that’s one theory suggested by Philip, the genre not helped by some of the appalling titles released by “mushroom publishers”, covered in early videos. But he also points to the decline of “circulating libraries”, operations based in many high street stores that lent books to subscribers. Their intention was to profit from lending books to the public for a fee, unlike public libraries, which proved their competition.

In the UK, the retail chain WHSmith ran a library scheme from 1860, which lasted until 1961, when the library was taken over by Boots the Chemist. This, founded in 1898 and at one time to be found in 450 branches, continued until the last 121 disappeared in 1966.

The rise of paperback publishing, as paper rationing eased, and the debut of commercial television, Philip notes, meant people simply ceased to use these libraries, but other costs may also have been a factor, including editorial publishing costs.

Paperback books supplanted hardbacks as a preferred reading option as paper rationing eased, including the adult novels of CS Lewis
Paperback books supplanted hardbacks as a preferred reading option as paper rationing eased, including the adult novels of CS Lewis

Despite the decline of hardback publishing, SF didn’t go away, of course. “While it seemed to end in failure, it actually sowed the seeds form which a vigorous British science fiction publishing industry was to spring up,” Philip enthuses, “out of the dung hill of the mushroom publishers,” pointing to the hugely successful re-issue of many hardback titles in paperback, “as part of a steady presentation of science fiction by all the major publishers that have continued ever since”.

Even damaged, this paperback edition of Forbidden Planet by WJ Stuart, published by Corgi Books in 1956, fetched a tidy sum. This was the first publishing of the novel in the UK
Even damaged, this paperback edition of Forbidden Planet by WJ Stuart, published by Corgi Books in 1956, fetched a tidy sum. This was the first publishing of the novel in the UK. Image via eBay

This videocast touches on the successful breakthrough of SF thanks to paperback releases of Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, in 1954, and The Kraken Wakes, tales that helped assure the genre a place in bookshops and fans’ bookshelves, as did the success of publishers such as Pan and Corgi Books.

My thanks to Philip for this series, filmed by Eleanor King, which has often sent me scurrying off to find copies of some of the more widely-available titles mentioned. Among them, now, will be Vultures of the Void: The Legacy, published in 2010, in which Philip himself told the story of British SF publishing from the 1930s to 2010, through the prism of his own life story.

The whole series has proven a fascinating foray into the early days of British SF publishing, and if you want to see more in a similar vein, then do let him know, through comments on YouTube!

Philip Harbottle is a life-long science fiction fan, regarded as a world authority on the works of John Russell Fearn, whose credits encompass writing “Garth” for the Daily Mirror, and the “Golden Amazon” for Spaceship Away (adapting Fearn’s stories). 

He’s also very kindly contributed a number of synopses of early “Garth” stories to downthetubes, which we are adding as time permits.

John Russell Fearn’s Across the Ages, adapted into comics by Philip Harbottle

Back in the 1950s, he adapted some of the Radio Luxembourg Dan Dare radio shows into comics at a young age – the only record of some of these tales known to exist, since very few recordings survive.

• Subscribe to 1950s British Science Fiction YouTube Channel here

• Books edited or published by Phil Harbottle on AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

• Buy Across the Ages by John Russell Fearn, adapted into comics by Philip Harbottle here from Lulu

A vintage comic strip by Philip Harbottle, adapting John Russell Fearn’s much admired SF novel Across the Ages, has finally been published – some sixty years after the now renowned author and publisher drew it (Read our news item about this here)

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.



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