9 February 2009

The Work of Lionel Britton: Chapter 6: Past and Future Perfect?

In this chapter, following a few necessary definitions, I examine some representations of utopias and dystopias. I first analyse Britton’s science fiction plays Brain and Spacetime Inn, and then illustrate other examples of utopia in an attempt to show how some utopias and dystopias, notably in science fiction, are particularly suited to express the hopes and fears of political minorities.
In his Introduction to Ralph Bates’s The Olive Field, Valentine Cunningham states that ‘Thirties’ writing is obsessed by utopia’; novels representing these utopias are something that Andy Croft notes in the ‘Experimental Novels’ chapter of his thesis, adding an important point which can be used as a qualification to Cunningham’s remark: ‘The bulk of this fiction was negative in tone, imagining their author’s worst fears’ (1). The terms ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’ require definition: merely to state that they clearly represent hopes and fears is evidently inadequate. Raymond Williams attempts a definition which is both succinct and all-embracing, dividing both utopias and dystopias into four not necessarily discrete categories. He calls the first utopia ‘the paradise’, with its vision of a ‘happier kind of life […] elsewhere’; the second is ‘the externally altered world’, where ‘an unlooked-for natural event’ changes things; the third is a ‘willed transformation’, where the changes come from social endeavour; and the fourth is the self-explanatory ‘technological transformation’. With the exception of Williams’s first type of dystopia, ‘the hell’, the other categories bear the same titles as his utopias, although they of course have a negative meaning; and the two groups of categories are obviously frequently interchangeable because of their strong subjective element: one person’s utopia is very often another’s dystopia.

'Utopias and dystopias are strongly represented in the literature of science fiction, although a definition of this term must be tentative because critics have not reached an agreement on one. Sarah Lefanu believes that there never will be a clear definition, and adds to Clute and Nicholls’s wide-ranging survey of definitions by agreeing that the application of the label ‘science fiction’ is relative to the interests of those involved, but includes readers and writers as well as editors and publishers: ‘science or society? Satire or speculation? Credibility or critique? It depends on what your priorities are"' (2).

Definitions of science fiction are often very similar, and almost invariably rather vague. Darko Suvin is a major critic of the genre, and gives an important and influential definition of it:

'[A] literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment (Suvin’s italics)' (3).

Patrick Parrinder compares Suvin’s word ‘estrangement’, as to some extent Suvin does himself, with the Russian Formalists’s ‘defamiliarization’, causing the reader ‘to see men in their present state as the unconscious prisoners of an ideology’ (4). And defining ‘fabulation’ — a term closely related to science fiction — Robert Scholes calls it ‘fiction that offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront that known world in some cognitive way’ (5). Many books which would not immediately appear to belong to the science fiction genre could be included in the above definitions, and there seems to be a scientific or technological element missing (6). But by putting these three quotations together I can, without adding too much to them, attempt a definition to suit the particular preoccupations of this chapter: science fiction is a literary genre whose narratives depict imaginary situations, usually in the future but occasionally in the present or the past, which are technologically and/or ideologically removed from the reader’s contemporary situation, and which explicitly or implicitly comment on that situation. Such a definition includes relatively common narratives concerning present-day society as seen from the viewpoint of a visitor from another planet, although it probably excludes gothic, fantasy, hybrid genres or science fiction as pure escapism, for instance, but then these areas are not within the remit of the present chapter.

Very little internal working-class literature of the inter-war years can be described as science fiction, and Lionel Britton’s Brain and Spacetime Inn are even more unusual because science fiction plays of any kind are very rare in any period. As an indication of the reason for this, Clute and Nicholls quote science fiction editor Roger Elwood on the physical limitations which the theatre poses for the genre: ‘Writing an sf play is a bit like trying to picture infinity in a cigar box’; they also state that ‘the first significant original plays appeared in the 1920s and 1930s’, claiming that Shaw’s Back to Methuselah (1921) was the first science fiction play to be concerned with evolution (7). Back to Methuselah is thematically and structurally similar to Brain, and certainly to some extent Britton took Shaw’s play as his model: he includes a quotation from Shaw’s Preface on the verso of the half-title page of Brain, and the drama critic Hannen Swaffer — whose review of the play is quoted in one of the advertisement pages at the back of Hunger and Love — notes Shaw’s influence: ‘Fancy a young man starting where Shaw left off!’ (p. [707]) (8).

There are a number of dramatic elements in Brain, such as the light show during the funeral of the Philosopher and the Librarian of the British Museum, the violent change of power at the end of Act II, and the apocalyptic climax of the play, but although some of the dialogue is also dramatic, the general emphasis is on the didactic; there is little character development and most of the characters are types. Of primary importance is the message, which is that without co-operation, as opposed to competition, the world cannot survive.

Brain is the theatrical realization of the ideas outlined or hinted at in Hunger and Love; it is in three acts and is set in several different periods in the future. Act I (c.1950–2100) begins with a conversation between the Philosopher and the Librarian, in which there is an exposition of the ideas in an unpublished manuscript which strongly resembles Hunger and Love, which, following the death of the author, was presented to the British Museum in 1950; both men die in a car accident the same evening and the manuscript remains uncatalogued and unnoticed. The next scene then shifts to 2100, when the earth is still run by the business world and central government; Britton makes use of the animal imagery prominent in Hunger and Love in order to emphasize his points: in the first scene, we are told that ‘private enterprise makes for isolation like wild beasts’, and that ‘the beast type of man is still in control; they occupy all the high places’ (9). The 2100 world of Brain shows Britton’s anti-government ideology in practice; Brookes, a prominent member of the Ideas Club, is preparing to make a proposal after the discovery of the forgotten manuscript, and begins by outlining the problem: ‘Human nature grew by co-operation, private interest is anti-human, it will destroy human nature unless some means can be found by which it can itself be destroyed’ (10). The main point of interest in these lines is the way in which the tenses proceed from the past, to the present, and to the future. ‘Human nature’ is thought to be the product of many years of co-operation and signifies a more enlightened, and more honest, period in history; the private interest now dominating life is divisive and works against human interest; human nature will be destroyed by it unless its advance can be stopped. Brookes is in effect saying the same thing as the narrator of Hunger and Love, namely that the evolution of humanity is now in reverse: the slow movement towards a utopian society is changing into its opposite. Brookes’s proposal leads to the clandestine establishment of the Brain Brotherhood, the purpose of which is to build a giant brain in the Sahara, containing all the knowledge in the world. (11). An idea similar to this is also put forward in Hunger and Love, and incidentally seems in part to anticipate the Internet, or the Internet of the future: ‘Why can’t all the books be stored in one big building, properly classified and indexed and catalogued, so that anybody who wants anything at all can get it at once: write, telephone, call, — get it immediately’ (pp. 295–96).

Act II is set in the twenty-fourth century and mainly concerns the consternation of the business community and the government over the increasingly powerful Brain Brotherhood, which many doctors, scientists, writers, engineers, and the working classes have joined; members of the organization, who receive no money apart from any needed for use in contact with the outside world, are seriously affecting the efficient running of the business community. Any attempts to prevent a company’s shipping orders from reaching the Sahara, for instance, are blocked by Brotherhood infiltrators. The Prime Minister feels increasingly isolated and, ironically, is beginning to feel like an outsider himself. He says, ‘Laugh at me if you like, but it is as if we are becoming outcasts from the world’, and believes that the existence of an Anti-War League means that the ‘good old days are gone’ (12). But the inexorable power of the Brotherhood is such that even members of the government have applied to join it, although without success apart from one exception: the Fourth Minister (one of the few ‘human’ politicians) has been approved for admission largely because he has written a socialist play and is a lover of the arts. He has a vision of the future world: ‘I have the feeling that in […] ten years […] the life of Ministries and Governments will have passed away, and we who now possess power and eminence will have become outcasts in a darkness outside the human sphere’ (13). Predictably, the government decides to dispense with his services, although his expectations of the future are realized: by the end of the act, the world outside the Brain Brotherhood is in chaos before the people take over.

In Act III, all the action is in the far future; money no longer exists and crime too appears to be a thing of the past; there are no more wars, no private property or distinct classes, and unpleasant jobs are shared equally between everyone; each individual is working towards the improvement of society; disease has been eliminated, and even a sneeze causes alarm; sexual inhibitions are a thing of the past and monogamy is not the norm, although the few who choose to live in a permanent relationship usually have ‘side-mates’; applications have to be made to begin a ‘propagating union’, and it is unusual for a couple to be allowed to have custody of their own children (13).

Brain is a centralized computer and has become the new God, as indicated by the capitalization of ‘It(s)’, and It lists tasks from an intricate network of activities more or less freely chosen by the people. Anyone with a strong research project can be chosen by Brain to take a ‘B.C.’, meaning ‘Brain-controlled’ research towards a goal which will benefit society; following that, the highest accolade is to be allowed to work within the Brain itself.

The language used in Brain reflects the changed society; because the emphasis is now on the nature of the activity performed, the play is punctuated by references to ‘Regulars’, ‘Compulsories’ and ‘Playgames’; oaths have changed focus and emotions such as anger, annoyance or surprise are often conveyed by expressions such as ‘Mankind!’, ‘Race!’, ‘Co-operate!’, ‘Humanity!’ or ‘Struggle!’: in a world where the old God has no meaning, blasphemies are replaced by invocations of co-operative activity.

The ageing process, though, has not been arrested, and those unfit for work because too old are painlessly put to death. Wild-Eye is an elderly character in Brain who has to undergo the Death Test (a kind of measurement of people’s readiness for ‘euthanasia’), but he is not in pain and does not want to die: quite simply, he is becoming surplus to the needs of society and although he receives a temporary reprieve, his time to die will soon be ordained by Brain. Towards the end of the play, Brain says that it is imperative to gain ‘spacetime control’ in order for the world to survive and other Brains to continue elsewhere (14). However, ‘the human’ is too late, and as It says just before a star destroys the earth:

A thousand million years life was on earth, there was time for men to come together, the human to have evolved sooner, like beasts they preyed on one another, the human idea was not born. […] all worlds might have worked together, all consciousness grown into a unity, we might have called on other worlds…had we been human sooner…like beasts they preyed on one another, isolated in immensity, one man sapped the strength of another. Where there were two strengths there was less than one. […] Too late, too late! (15).

The speech is written as a list of phrases without conjunctions: the emphasis is on the separateness which has so long divided the beast from ‘the human’. The tragedy of Brain is that the ideology of co-operation has not been applied sufficiently, even after the year 50,000,000, to enable the evacuation of the earth for another world before the star eventually destroys the planet.

All things considered, Brain depicts a harshly sterile world in which any negative thought — that is, any thought against Brain — is a mental aberration, as in the comment ‘Your psychical basis has slipped’ (16). It is sometimes difficult to judge if Britton is being serious or satirical, and utopia seems at times to be distinctly dystopian from an early twenty-first century viewpoint. Caliban may have disappeared, but this is Brave New World rather than a brave new world.

Before taking a brief look at Spacetime Inn, it is illuminating to consider it in relation to J. B. Priestley’s Dangerous Corner (1933) because both plays were — directly on Priestley’s part, although probably indirectly on Britton’s — influenced by the ideas of J. W. Dunne, specifically by his An Experiment with Time (1927). Priestley states that Dangerous Corner, the first of his ‘Time’ plays, was partly written ‘to make use of the device of splitting time into two, thus showing what might have happened, an idea that has always fascinated me’ (17). Priestley’s play concerns a group of people united by marriage and profession, and consists of two acts, the first of which is much longer than the other: in the first, the whole group is slowly and irreparably fractured by an apparently innocuous cigarette box; in the second, events continue a virtually uninterrupted course without any knowledge of the potentially destructive secret of the box. A point here is that the (no doubt coincidental) ‘dangerous corner’ which is avoided in Priestley’s second ending is the same expression used about a car accident in Lionel Britton’s Prologue to Spacetime Inn, after which all the characters are thrown into a time-warp, and all the action then takes place in Spacetime Inn. There are other coincidences between the two plays: almost all of Dangerous Corner is a constantly unfolding nightmare for its characters but shows an alternative future if a crucial event had never happened; in Spacetime Inn hell is also other people, and Britton’s play implicitly warns of the apocalyptic conseqences of allowing present (here political rather than social and commercial) events to continue unchanged.

The characters in Spacetime Inn are intended to be seen as symbolic, as is explained on the front flap of the dust jacket: ‘Spacetime Inn deals with the crisis in civilisation from a symbolical but fundamental point of view.’ All of the characters, apart from the contemporary Bernard Shaw and Bill and Jim, the two interchangeable representatives of the working classes, are notable figures from different periods in the past. Jim and Bill appear to be of very limited intelligence and are harangued by heads of state (the Queen of Sheba, Napoleon, and Queen Victoria) playing war games, and intellectuals (Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Karl Marx and Bernard Shaw) playing mind games, with them. At the end of the play, as a result of a misunderstanding, Jim and Bill deliberately blow up everyone in the inn, as well as themselves. As in Brain, the emphasis is more on the didactic than the dramatic.

If Brain, before its equally apocalyptic climax, depicts many of Britton’s ideas of utopia, Spacetime Inn predominantly represents his dystopia. J. S. Clarke was instrumental in having Britton read the play to M.P.s because he felt that it contained an important warning: unless nothing was done to bridge the rift between the classes, there would be serious consequences. Along with many people, Britton is strongly concerned about the structure the future will take, and looks forward to a more socially equitable society as capitalism was generally thought to be in terminal decline: the idea of the social and spiritual bankruptcy of western civilization was writ large on the cultural landscape. In his Introduction to Christopher Caudwell’s posthumously published Romance and Realism (1970), Samuel Hynes remarks: ‘It was obvious from the beginning of the Thirties that western civilization was undergoing an unprecedented crisis — economic collapse, the rise of fascism, the failure of liberal leadership, the threat of war’ (18). Other serious problems throughout the inter-war can be added to this list: the effect of the previous war on contemporary psychology, the Wall Street crash, the general strike of 1926, increasing migration to urban areas and mass unemployment.

A fictional example of this feeling of a crisis in civilization is particularly prevalent in Rhys Davies’s Rings on her Fingers, such as when the narrator, speaking for Edith, says ‘There was something rotten in modern life, there was something diseased, annihilating, that destroyed all the fine establishments of human love and understanding’ (19). Edith’s friend Raglan speaks the same language: ‘You’ve got the female of the evil germs that are in my blood — and we’ve caught them from the rotten source of our civilization’ (20). It is no coincidence that Edith temporarily escapes from her businessman husband to Zennor, the village in Cornwall where Lawrence spent nearly two years, and where he initially went ‘as if it were in some sort of Promised Land […] of the spirit’ (21). In Lawrence’s search for a new world, his symbol (first drawn in a letter to his friend S. S. Koteliansky in 1915) is a phoenix rising from the flames of the old world, which is very much the image that Raglan conveys: ‘They say the Western World is in its last solstice, that we are being received into decay. If that is so, let it be — but let it come quickly, for I want to rise again in the new world, I want to rise again clean of this horror that’s creeping upon me’ (22).

If society was seen to be in crisis, utopia was frequently seen as an escape from or as an antidote to it. The criticisms of society implicit or explicit in works by internal working-class writers often contain ideas about a much better future or (occasionally) an exemplary society in the past, although only Grassic Gibbon and Britton depict such societies via science fiction. And it is of course relevant that Grassic Gibbon and Britton were both anarchists. Of note when considering Lionel Britton as essentially anarchist is Klaus’s comment: ‘No matter the name, it is in the end the extent of writers’ affinities with anarchist attitudes and projects that is relevant’ (23). The May 1931 issue of Freedom reproduces an article from the Reformers’ Year Book 1902, in which there is a useful explanation of the tenets of anarchism:

[Anarchism] views life and social relations with eyes disillusioned. Making an end to all superstitions, prejudices, and false sentiments, it tries to see things as they really are; and without building castles in the air it finds by the simple correlation of established facts the grandest possibilities of a full and free life can be placed within the reach of all, once that monstrous bulwark of all our social iniquities — the State — has been destroyed, and common property declared (24).

It is difficult to imagine either Britton or Grassic Gibbon being in disagreement with any of the above principles, particularly with the ideology of rigid adherence to ‘the truth’ and the destruction of the state.

Grassic Gibbon’s anarchist credentials are without question: in Beyond the Sunset (1973) Douglas F. Young draws attention to Gibbon’s sympathy with anarchism and to the fact that Gibbon sent his son to A. S. Neill’s radical Summerhill school; in A Blasphemer & Reformer (1984), William K. Malcolm devotes a three-page section to Gibbon and anarchism, reminding the reader that Gibbon spoke of ‘St Bakunin’ in his essay ‘Glasgow’ (25). More recently, in a longer piece on Gibbon and anarchism, Malcolm states that ‘[h]is utopian political ideal portraying a free and just society is anarchist in conception, predicated, very like Kropotkin’s, on a belief in natural human values and instincts.’ (26). But Britton’s anarchism is slightly more difficult to ascertain. For many years he was very sympathetic towards communism, and shortly before his eager departure for Russia, in a letter to Herbert Marshall in Moscow, he optimistically closed with ‘Yours Britski’; however, as mentioned above in the biographical section of the Introduction, after living in the country for three months, Britton returned disillusioned (27). In Hunger and Love, though, there are many indications that Britton hated all forms of government, and his initial enthusiasm for the new Russia seems very similar to Gibbon’s comment that ‘Communism we must have before we can have the No-state’, as he wrote in a letter to Tom Wintringham, a friend from the Writers’ International (28). It seems highly likely that Britton too originally saw communism as a prelude to anarchism; certainly, anarchist publications welcomed his work, and Britton contributed an article about a group of anarchists to a magazine (29). And at least one critic describes him as such: Philip Henderson states that ‘he is ‘an anarchist rather than a socialist’ (30). Brain certainly shows key elements of an anarchist society, although it remains a problem play in that area: the people in it have a great amount of freedom, but in the end Brain remains a kind of dictator, and the people are not free to choose exactly what they want to do.

Grassic Gibbon uses science fiction to express his anarchist ideas in Three Go Back (1932) and Gay Hunter (1934), writing as his ‘English’ self and using his real name ‘J. Leslie Mitchell’; and although the novels are set in the distant past and the far future respectively, Gay Hunter (which also has a reference to J. W. Dunne, which shows his influence on Gibbon too) is post-apocalyptic and shows a ‘primitive’ society very similar to the pre-historic world of Three Go Back (31). All of the characters in the two books are or are forced to become hunter–gatherers; Gibbon’s two novels are largely inspired by the Diffusionist ideas of Grafton Elliot Smith, who believed that the adoption of agriculture was directly responsible for the decline of civilization. Britton appears to have similar ideas: in attempting to illustrate the ideas of the narrator of the manuscript regarding evolution working in reverse, the Philosopher in Brain gives as an example the marine animal the tunicate (which ‘develops’ from a vertebrate to an invertebrate) as an example of this phenomenon in the natural world (32). Douglas F. Young notes that Gibbon sees ‘modern civilization as a cancerous growth which ha[s] taken root deeply within human life and [i]s slowly destroying it (33). The use of the disease imagery is familiar, and in Three Go Back Gibbon uses it in a similar way to Britton, along with similar metonyms showing disgust with modern civilization:

The eager, starved, mind-crippled creatures of the diseased lust of men were twenty thousand generations unborn. The veil, the priest, the wedding ring, the pornographic novel, and all the unclean drama of two beasts enchained by sex and law and custom were things beyond comprehension of the childlike minds in those golden heads or the vivid desires of those golden bodies’ (34).

There are no conventional institutions in Gibbon’s utopian society, and sex is neither bridled by ceremonies nor treated as unclean. In the extract above, utopia is associated with primitive societies, and with them goes the celebration of nakedness. Nakedness is associated with freedom and health, and both of the protagonists in Gay Hunter and Three Go Back delight in their nudity. And Domina Riddoch in Gibbon’s The Thirteenth Disciple — not a work of science fiction — also strongly emphasizes the joys of nudity in former times and associates clothes with an unhealthy mind: ‘The fun to live in a time when a naked body or a naked thought didn’t raise the sniggering of the padded civilized! Poets had sense when they saw Adam and Eve nude in Eden’ (35). She continues, ‘There was a Golden Age. […] Once upon a time there were neither metals nor wars, scandals nor clothes nor kings’ (36). The society without government, law, or technological ‘progress’ obviously represents Grassic Gibbon’s ideal society, and to some extent Riddoch is its mouthpiece. To Gibbon, the pre-agricultural past is utopian, and is the kind of society towards which the world should be evolving. Significantly, Riddoch speaks of the ‘disadvantage of not having lived eight thousand years ago — or five hundred hence’ (37). She takes it as understood that human society is moving towards a more enlightened future, and utopia is thus seen either in the distant past or the far future. Britton also takes nakedness as an accepted feature of a more advanced society: it is associated with truth and openness. Britton boasted that he slept naked, and his characters in Brain are naked too. Even in the dystopian Spacetime Inn, there is a utopian element in the character Eve. Bill says: ‘You’re wonderful! All the nasty fings y’aint never ’eard of! On’y the beautiful fings’ (38). The natural, naked Eve too of course represents for Britton a time before humankind disappeared into an evolutionary cul-de-sac, and it is no accident that representations of Eve are part of Grassic Gibbon’s pre-lapsarian Golden Age. Britton’s idea of regressive evolution is similar to Gibbon’s, although unlike Gibbon, technological improvements are of course a part of his much more organized utopia.

Although there are probably no other internal working-class writers of science fiction, there are many utopian visions in conventional working-class literature, which are sometimes expressed mildly, as in the vastly improved working conditions in the ship where Bill Gorgon works in Dick Beech’s short story ‘A Home from Home’, where the division between the officers and crew’s sleeping quarters have become more democratized, all can listen to the wireless through ear-phones, have access to good washing facilities, and a wardrobe and lockers; the final paragraph reveals the utopia to be a dream sequence (39). The utopias present in other working-class works are far more frequently and far more directly expressed as socialist or communist ideals to work towards in a dystopia in the present or recent past. The following vision of international socialism is from James Welsh’s The Underworld (1920), where a representation of the Miners Federation leader Bob Smillie speaks of the future:

'And then, when we have […] raised the mental vision of our people, and strengthened their moral outlook, we can appeal to the workers of other lands to join us in bringing about the time when we’ll be able to regard each other, not as enemies, but as members of one great Humanity, working for each other’s welfare as we work for our own (40).


Like Britton, Smillie sees education as having a vital role, and many of the above words are recognisable as the same or at least very similar to those of the narrator of Hunger and Love; the emphasis is evidently on co-operation as opposed to competition. And also of note is that the final paragraph of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists looks to ‘the gilded domes and glittering pinnacles of the beautiful cities of the future, when men shall dwell together in true brotherhood and goodwill and joy’ (41).

Some books such as Hunger and Love and Brain, then, see the importance of technology in the movement towards a better future for all. Another such book is Anand’s Untouchable, which expresses the need for a casteless society, and a flushing toilet is seen as the means towards the achievement of this. The poet in the novel says:

‘[T]he first thing we will do when we accept the machine, will be to introduce the machine which clears dung without anyone having to handle it — the flush system. Then the sweepers can be free from the stigma of untouchability and assume the dignity of status that is their right as useful members of a casteless and classless society’ (42).

It is not only in working-class literature, or working-class representatives in literature as in Untouchable, where the urge towards utopia is found, but also in the writings of other political minorities. However, not all utopias are easy to detect in a writer’s work. Rhys Davies’s utopia of homosexual acceptance is necessarily expressed in veiled terms; unconventionally, he devotes a chapter in his autobiography to a person he never knew, the doctor William Price, who practised druidic rituals. This returns us to the familiar theme of the importance of nakedness and its associated qualities to certain utopias, and Tony Brown notes that:

‘The significance of [William Price’s behaviour] for the homosexual Davies is clear […]. Here was a man who not only saw the body and its impulses as wholly natural — he sunbathed in the nude — but ‘treated physical passion as something which was not objectionable and was not to be deplored’ (43).

Like the Silurian on the train mentioned in the previous chapter, Price represents a freer, more natural and more enlightened era: in other words Davies feels that civilization has caused us to lose a certain vitality, and a certain truth. We are not far from the territory of Britton and Grassic Gibbon. The desire for a freer kind of life represented by nudity is also in Davies’s short story, ‘Revelation’. In this, Mrs Montague, having mistaken Gomer Vaughan for her husband, opens the door to him in the nude; but the real revelation is not the nudity itself, even though the married Gomer has never seen a naked woman before: much more revealing to him is that ‘She wasn’t ashamed, not she’ (44). Quite by chance, Montague’s French wife has introduced Gomer to a very different world from that of the constraints of his own wife Blodwen’s Welsh chapel mentality, which is here interpreted as believing that ‘Respectable women […] kept themselves a mystery to men.’ For Davies, Blodwen represents the ‘padded civilized’ that Domina Riddoch rails against, and which Britton detests: clothes represent a negative, repressive mentality, whereas the naked body stands for freedom and truth.

And still veiled, although far more explicit than many of Davis’s indications of difference, are his hints at the persecution of homosexuals in Honey and Bread (1935) as revealed by the exaggerated anger caused by an inseparable pair of ganders which refuse to associate with the geese: ‘They ought to be killed, indeed, straight away’, and ‘It isn’t natural at all, and never ought to be’ (45). But the sensitive protagonist Owen sees things very differently, and his voice is full of understanding and tolerance:

‘Nature is very strange on occasion […] She doesn’t always behave strictly as men expect her to. It seems that she likes to tease us sometimes […] I should just leave the poor ganders to themselves if they were mine. They seem so content with each other’ (46)

It is clear that this is a coded plea for the toleration of homosexuality by Davies. And of relevance to this are the coded words and ‘parables’ of homosexuality that Bozorth analyses in Auden’s poetry, which would only have been understood by a few of the poet’s friends (47).

Non-science fictional utopias are many, but perhaps the representation of utopias (and dystopias), especially those of political minorities, is facilitated through the medium of science fiction. Many science fiction novels by women, and feminist ones in particular, for instance, have been written since the beginning of the twentieth century, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman with her all-female utopia Herland (1915), Winifred Holtby’s bemused visitor from Tristan da Cunha to a dystopian Britain in The Astonishing Island (1933), Katharine Burdekin with Proud Man (1934), about an androgynous visitor to a dystopian England, and Joanna Russ with such works as The Female Man (1975) with its exploration of sexual identity (48). Lefanu sees science fiction as a way of freeing women writers from ‘the constraints of realism’; interestingly, she then continues her argument with the use of Suvin’s word ‘estrangement’:

'The social and sexual hierarchies of the contemporary world can be examined through the process of "estrangement", thus challenging normative ideas of gender roles; and visions of different worlds can be created, made familiar to the reader through the process of narrative. SF narrative can be used to break down, or to build up '(49).

Here, the breaking down referred to is the patriarchal society and the building up is of a feminist utopia.

Taking the cue for his title from the 1968 French revolutionary slogan ‘Soyez raisonnable, demandez l’impossible’, Tom Moylan says:

'[Utopia] is, at heart, rooted in the unfulfilled needs and wants of specific classes, groups, and individuals in their unique historical contexts. Produced through the fantasizing powers of the imagination, utopia opposes the affirmative culture maintained by the dominant ideology. Utopia negates the contradictions in a social system by forging visions of what is not yet realized either in theory or practice. In generating such figures of hope, utopia contributes to the open space of opposition ' (50).

If the working classes, homosexuals, women and other political minorities are included in these groups then science fiction — and its utopias and dystopias in particular — can clearly be seen as an oppositional force against a hegemonic bourgeois, male, heterosexual, white society: it can be a major literary weapon against the status quo.

Lionel Britton, via the highly unusual means of drama, makes use of science fiction to illustrate his particular evolutionary vision of a classless world. Brain is a summation, a dramatic exposition of, the ideas in Hunger and Love. Interestingly, too, and bearing in mind the interpretation possible from Darko Suvin’s broad definition quoted at the beginning of this chapter, even Hunger and Love can be read, at least in part, as a work of science fiction. Hunger and Love has much to say about working-class conditions in the inter-war years, but it also has a great deal to say about the future.


(1) Valentine Cunningham, Introduction, The Olive Field, p. [i]; ‘Socialist Fiction in Britain in the 1930s’, p. 249.

(2) Raymond Williams, ‘Utopia and Science Fiction’, in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. by Patrick Parrinder (London: Longman, 1979), pp. 52–66 (pp. 52–55).

(3) Sarah Lefanu, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (London: The Women’s Press, 1988), p. 21.

(4) Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 7–8.

(5) Patrick Parrinder, ‘Characterization in Science Fiction: Two Approaches: 2. The Alien Encounter; or Ms Brown and Mrs Le Guin’, in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, pp. 148– 61 (p. 149).

(6) Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation: An Essay on Fiction of the Future (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), p. 29.

(7) According to Clute and Nicholls, for example, Kafka has been an ‘enormous’ influence on many science fiction writers, and their book includes an entry on the writer, mentioning ‘The Penal Colony’ and ‘The Metamorphosis’ in particular, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, pp. 2, 655).

(8) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p. 1216; Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch (London: Constable, 1921; repr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939).

(9) Brain, p. [ii].

(10) Brain, pp. 12, 25.

(11) Brain, p. 25.

(12) The decision to build Brain in Africa is because of the potential space for development and because the land is cheap, although no considerations about possible colonial implications of this proposal are explored. At the same time, though, this would make Africa the intellectual centre of the world, as well as the centre of rebellion against the dominant capitalist ethos of the western world.

(13) Brain, pp. 43, 54.

(14) Brain, p. 47.

(15) Brain, p. 112.

(16) Brain, p. 98

(17) Brain, p. 127.

(18) Spacetime Inn, p. 111.

(19) J. B. Priestley, The Plays of J. B. Priestley, 3 vols (London: Heinemann, 1948), i, p. viii.

(20) Romance and Realism: A Study in Bourgeois English Literature by Christopher Caudwell, ed. by Samuel Hynes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 15.

(21)Rings on her Fingers, p. 226.

(22) Rings on her Fingers, p. 231.

(23) The Quest for Rananim: D. H. Lawrence’s Letters to S. S. Koteliansky 1914 to 1930, ed. by George J. Zytaruk (Montreal: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 1970), p. 71.

(24) Rings on her Fingers, p. 231; The Quest for Rananim, p. xxxix.

(25) To Hell with Culture’, p. 9.

(26) Anonymous, ‘Anarchist Communism: Its Aims and Principles’, Freedom, May 1931, p. 6.

(27) Douglas F. Young, Beyond the Sunset: A Study of James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) (Aberdeen: Impulse, 1973), pp. 26–27; William K. Malcolm, A Blasphemer & Reformer: A Study of James Leslie Mitchell/Lewis Grassic Gibbon (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1984), pp. 18–21 (p. 19).

(28) William K. Malcolm, ‘Art for Politics’ Sake: The Sardonic Principle of James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon)’, in ‘Down with Culture’, pp. 35–50 (p. 40).

(29) Lionel Britton, letter to Herbert Marshall, 9 May 1935, LBC, Box 2, Folder 11.

(30) ‘To Hell with Culture’, p. 40.

(31) Lionel Britton, ‘Anarchists at Whiteway’, Contempo: A Review of Books and Personalities, 15 November 1931, [n. pg.], LBC, Box 6, Folder 11.

(32) Literature: And a Changing Civilisation, p. 145.

(33) Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Three Go Back (London: Jarrolds (as ‘J. Leslie Mitchell’), 1932; repr. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1995); Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Gay Hunter (London: Jarrolds (as ‘J. Leslie Mitchell’), 1934; repr. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1989), pp. 12–14.

(34) Brain, p. 11.

(35) Beyond the Sunset, p. 24.

(36) Three Go Back, pp. 99, 105.

(367 Lewis Grassic Gibbon, The Thirteenth Disciple (London: Jarrolds (as ‘J. Leslie Mitchell’), 1931; repr. Edinburgh: B&W, 1995), p. 166.

(38) The Thirteenth Disciple, p. 167.

(39) The Thirteenth Disciple, p. 166.

(40) Spacetime Inn, p. 49.

(41) Dick Beech, ‘A Home from Home’, (Worker, 17 August 1928; repr. in Tramps, Workmates and Revolutionaries), pp. 55–57.

(42) The Underworld, p. 58.

(43) The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, p. 587.

(44)Untouchable, p. 155.

(45) Rhys Davies: Decoding the Hare, p. 77.

(46) Rhys Davies: Collected Stories ed. by Meic Stephens, 2 vols (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1996), i, p. 60.

(47) Rhys Davies, Honey and Bread (London: Putnam, 1935; repr. Bath: Chivers, 1970), p. 80.

(48)Honey and Bread, p. 82.

(49) Richard R. Bozorth, Auden’s Games of Knowledge: Poetry and the Meanings of Homosexuality (Columbia University Press, 2001).

(50) Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (Forerunner, 1915; repr. London: The Women’s Press, 1979); Winifred Holtby, The Astonishing Island: Being a Veracious Record of the Experience Undergone by Robinson Lippingtree Mackintosh from Tristan da Cunha during an Accidental Visit to Unknown Territory in the Year of Grace MCMCC–? (London: Dickson, 1933); Murray Constantine, Proud Man (London: Boriswood, 1934; repr. (as ‘Katharine Burdekin’) New York: Feminist Press, 1989); Joanna Russ, The Female Man (New York: Bantam, 1975; repr. London: Star, 1977).

(51) In the Chinks of the World Machine, pp. 21–22.

(52) Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (New York: Methuen, 1986), pp. 1–2.

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