The 1950s boom in British SF publishing explored in new videocast from author Philip Harbottle

Episode 36 of mini-documentary series 1950s British Science Fiction on YouTube sees author Philip Harbottle further explore the boom in SF publishing, as companies such as Hodder & Stoughton join the battle for readers.

Hodder & Stoughton were more conservative in their approach to SF, describing their novels as “stories of the near future”, publishing work by TV engineer David McIlwain (21st January 1921 – 30th November 1981), writing as Charles Eric Maine.

McIlwain wrote several science fiction serials published in the 1950s and 1960s, and his first radio play, Spaceways, sold to the BBC, became a novel, and as a film directed by Hammer Films Terence Fisher, starring Howard Duff and Eva Bartok, released in 1953.

The poster for the Spaceways film

He also wrote detective thrillers, under the pen names Richard Rayner and Robert Wade, and Philip notes how he incorporated crime themes into his SF, cannily reaching wider audiences. Hodder and Stoughton continued to publish his novels through to the 1960s.

Philip also talks about the SF novels published by Rich & Cowan, a London publisher who’d had success with the Doctor Syn novels of Russell Thorndike before World War Two. As ever, he gives some of the worst novels short shrift!

As libraries across the UK began to close in the mid 1950s, who were principal buyers of hardback books, Philip notes that publishers chose to scale back their SF novel lines, but numerous quality stories were still released – and you can find out what by watching his videocast.

Of particular note, however, you’ll be pleased to hear that one recommendation, Stories of Tomorrow, an anthology edited by William Sloane, featuring stories by Arthur Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Eric Frank Russell, John Christopher, Murray Leinster and Clifford Simak, was originally published with such a high cover price it didn’t sell well – despite the quality of the stories featured. Unlike some of the books Philip highlights, you can pick a copy up today, published by Eyre & Spottiswoode, for a reasonable price!

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.

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)


Wikipedia – Charles Eric Maine

Wikipedia – Charles Eric Maine

Books by Charles Eric Maine on AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

Bloody Murder – a review of the Spaceways film (1953)

Buy Spaceways (1953), the film on DVD, from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

Stories for Tomorrow: An Anthology of Modern Science Fiction – edited by William Sloane (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

“All the stories human beings tell are about ourselves.” The strangest and most distant corners of the universe throng into this book but it still remains true-all the stories are, at heart, about ourselves, about human beings with human needs and emotions. The places and situations they find themselves in are another matter.

The writers have given free rein to the kind of imagination that H. G. Wells showed in his stories and this book shows the direction in which that tradition is now leading. The range of the stories is immense. “First Contact”, for example, tells how a space-ship from earth encountered for the first time a ship from another, unknown world and how, hanging there in the deeps of space, both were trapped in a terrible dilemma.

In total contrast is a story by Ray Bradbury telling, quite simply, how two girls say goodbye to the earth-town they love, the night before they leave to join their fiancées on Mars. Then there is the child, lost in the world because she belongs to another, greater race, who finds her home among humans in the end.

Some of the stories are tense with excitement, some are sad, some are outright funny; but in all of them there are vivid reality and characters one cares about. There is nothing here of the old, hackneyed “space opera”-stories that are classed as fiction only because they could not possibly be true and as science because no normal reader can make sense of them. Each of the pieces in this book is an original and excellent example of story-telling.

Most of them are taken from very recent sources, but already some of them have become classics. Of the authors, some are famous-Arthur Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Eric Frank Russell, John Christopher, Murray Leinster, and Clifford Simak, for example-and there are also some brilliant newcomers who will certainly be heard of again.

Categories: Books, Digital Media, downthetubes News, Other Worlds

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