Ultimate Island: On the Nature of British Science Fiction

Nicholas Ruddick



Ultimate Island: On the Nature of British Science Fiction. [Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Number 55.] Westport, CT & London: Greenwood Press, 1993. xi + 202 pp. ISBN 0-313-27373-1.

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This study confronts current influential theories that science fiction is either an American phenomenon or an international one. The study rejects the idea that British science fiction is distinguishable only by its pessimistic outlook – while also rejecting the idea that other designations, such as scientific romance or speculative fiction, better fit the British product. Instead, the study traces the evolution of British science fiction, showing how H.G. Wells synthesized various strains in English literature, and how later writers, conscious of this Wellsian tradition, built upon Wells’s literary achievement.

An introduction defines what might reasonably be placed under the heading British science fiction, and why. Chapter 1 examines previous critical ideas about the nature of British science fiction, revealing that most of them are based on untested assumptions. Chapter 2 explores the significance of the dominant motif of the island in British SF – a motif that suggests that British SF and mainstream English literature have been long and fruitfully intertwined. Chapters 3 and 4 deal respectively with British disaster fiction before and after the Second World War. They focus on why British science fiction has so frequently seemed obsessed with catastrophe. Chapter 5, a polemical conclusion, deals with the future of British science fiction based on its current predicament. Ultimate Island forms a theoretical counterpart to the author’s British Science Fiction: A Chronology 1478-1990 (Greenwood 1992), which defines the historical scope of the field.



Introduction: UK SF, OK? Or, Is There Any British Science Fiction?
Chapter 1: Critical Assumptions: The Idea of British Science Fiction
Chapter 2: The Island of Mr. Wells
Chapter 3: Peopling the Ruins: Disaster Fiction before World War II
Chapter 4: The Nature of the Catastrophe: Disaster Fiction after World War II
Chapter 5: British Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow: A Polemical Conclusion
Works Cited




“Although there are backward glances at Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and George T. Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking and mentions or brief discussions of a number of other authors, Ruddick finds the specificity of British SF chiefly in the work of 13 authors, beginning with Wells, moving on (in topical rather than chronological order) to S. Fowler Wright, William Golding, Jacquetta Hawkes, M.P. Shiel, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edward Shanks, J.J. Connington, John Collier, Alun Llewellyn, R.C. Sherriff, John Wyndham, and John Christopher, and concluding with J.G. Ballard, whose stature in Ruddick’s view should be as great as Wells’s. I find the discussion persuasive and the evaluations solid (Ruddick is especially good on Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript). The value of this brilliant critical essay is not that Ruddick has demonstrated the importance of a tradition of disaster/catastophe in British SF or that the British have handled the concepts involved both more frequently and more effectively that Americans, for these are familiar propositions that no one has ever denied, but that he has analyzed the traditions and the fictions involved more fully and cogently than other critics.” – R.D. Mullen, Science Fiction Studies

“So it is with a shaky feeling that one returns to the actual positive substance of Ultimate Island and records, once again, how admirably Ruddick accomplishes the close readings he allows himself to make. The ringfencing of the field of British sf from the genre of American sf is accomplished with sharpness but also with decorum. The Island model or motif is ferried with aplomb from Wells through S. Fowler Wright and William Golding, with a layby on Jacquetta Hawkes’s Providence Island (1959), down to Ballard’s terminal beaches and Concrete Island. The conjoint theme of Catastrophe is similarly well handled. Minor figures like Edward Shanks, and rather more significant ones like Alun Llewellyn, are concisely spoken for; and the appalling J.J. Connington is slammed. There is a very sharp reading of John Wyndham, who deserves what he gets, and a neatly argued recuperation of John Christopher.” – John Clute, Foundation

“A very complete, informative chronological and psychological study of the specific British SF, concentrating on two leitmotifs which are traced through history. The author twists some commentaries to fit his ideas, but generally delivers an intelligent and sound study.” – Cerberus [Antwerp]

“For Ruddick, the British emphasis upon catastrophe fiction signals a cultural reaction to a series of catastrophes that have engulfed the world during our century and serve as an externalization of the inner shock we have suffered. This is certainly a plausible thesis, and it works out well with the other, that the complacent idea of steady progress has been thoroughly defeated in our time. … So Ruddick does prove, to his satisfaction, and surely to ours as well, that there is, or at least has been, such an entity as British science fiction.” – Douglas Robillard, Extrapolation