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The Northern Roots of Modernist Sci-Fi

In the dying days of industry, northern England supplied the crucial animating backdrop to classic sci-fi in its formative stages.

Dazzle-Ships in Drydock at Liverpool by Edward Wadsworth, 1919, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Synthetic winds have blown away

Material dust, but this one room

Rebukes the constant violet ray

And dustless sheds a dusty doom.

— Eileen Blair, ‘End of the Century, 1984’, Sunderland Church High School magazine, 1934

It may have been the Mancunian pop-philosopher Anthony H. Wilson — or perhaps just his alter-ego in the 2001 film 24 Hour Party People — who said that the history of popular music is like a double helix. When one movement is in the descendant, so the theory goes, another is in the ascendant. When the two trajectories collide, there is ‘a kind of criss-cross — a hiatus’, in which all manner of strange, unlikely, and disorienting things can happen.

This simple idea, which draws on the thinking of Boethius, Antonio Gramsci, and W. B. Yeats, has purchase far beyond the Situationist pop tradition Wilson propagated via his music label Factory Records and its offshoots. In fact, the notion of a productive clash of progress and decline also acts as a perfect summary of another strand of twentieth-century popular modernism, which like Wilson’s Factory tried to take flight from the ruins of northern England’s industrial past.

More than anything else, modern science fiction in Britain — and indeed Europe as a whole — was an imaginative record of the passage from industrial to post-industrial phases of capitalist development. And perhaps inevitably, given the roots of the Industrial Revolution, it was northern England in the dying days of industry that supplied the crucial animating backdrop to classic sci-fi in its formative stages.

The narrative of how the English North helped to give birth to sci-fi futurism has important things to tell us about the relationship between capitalist decline on a global level. But it is also a more local story, which breaks apart conservative myths of Englishness by pointing to a remarkable vernacular futurist tradition — one that often unfolded as a direct rebuke to the traditionalism of the English establishment (and sometimes succeeded in transcending it completely).

Several decades after the final triumph of de-industrialisation in Britain — from which the English North has still not even nearly recovered — are there any lasting lessons to be gleaned from looking at how a series of cosmic modernist dreams flourished and then faded-out in England’s upper half?

BLAST From the Future

Beginning in the 1910s, a series of major literary endeavours would look determinedly northward to try to imagine what England might be like once freed from the mind-forged manacles of its ancient traditions.

In 1914, as he translated Italian futurism into English with the first issue of his magazine BLAST and its ‘Vorticist’ rallying cry, the modernist artist-writer Wyndham Lewis was at pains to emphasise that it was Britain’s industrial landscape that would offer an escape route from the ‘bourgeois Victorian vistas’ of the nineteenth century. In place of the ‘wild nature cranks’ and ‘raptures and roses’ of the romantic Victorian era, Lewis celebrated an England reimagined as an ‘industrial island machine’.

Like many of the modernist sorties of the 1910s, BLAST and Vorticism were both based in London, where the vast majority of the island’s museums, publishing houses, and media outlets were located. Yet there was no doubt that, in common with much English modernist art, Lewis’s project was driven by a fierce desire to move British culture away from the hidebound institutions of its geographic centre.

In opposition to the aristocratic fantasies of the Victorian establishment, BLAST advised its readers to ‘ONCE MORE WEAR THE ERMINE OF THE NORTH’, stating yet more boldly: ‘We assert that the art for these climates … must be a northern flower.’ In saying such things, Lewis was gesturing vaguely at a more general northern European sensibility, to stand in counterpoint with the ‘southern’ aesthetic of the Italian futurism he was plagiarising. Yet there was no doubt that the radical northward re-orientation Lewis yearned for also applied to England itself.

In BLAST, evocatively, the London-centric bias of Britain was inverted, so that it became a ‘pyramidal workshop’ with ‘its apex in Shetland, discharging itself on the sea’. In the affirmative ‘BLESS’ sections of the magazine, the ‘great ports’ of Liverpool, Hull, and Newcastle were loudly praised in bold capital letters (alongside, in an equalising gesture, London, Bristol, and Glasgow).

Away from Lewis’s manifestos, notably, the magazine’s first illustration — a woodcut by the West Yorkshire artist Edward Wadsworth — was a powerful depiction of the Newcastle Quayside, its bridges, docks, and dredgers caught in a monochromatic freezing of livid motion. If BLAST was the first really vigorous announcement of modernism in the British Isles, it said much about England’s cultural geography that the new style was heavily dependent on a lyric celebration of northern modernity.

Industrial Roots

If the futurist strand of high modernism had firm northern roots, the same might be said for some of the most influential texts in European science fiction, though here it was the dystopian aspect of industry — now beginning its slow, century-long downslide — that would be pushed to the fore.

Shortly after Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST was published, a Russian naval engineer called Yevgeny Zamyatin was sent to Newcastle to supervise the manufacture of Polar ‘icebreaker’ ships in the docks of Wallsend and Walker. During his eighteen-month spell in the North East, Zamyatin would find time to visit local landmarks like Hadrian’s Wall, assist with the design of ships that would later achieve Soviet glory under the monikers Krassin and Lenin, and write a satirical novella about English bourgeois life (The Islanders) based on his experience of living in suburban Jesmond.

But while he was in Newcastle Zamyatin would also store up material for later use in the seminal sci-fi text for which he is best known. Written in 1920–21, and often viewed as a veiled critique of the new Soviet Union by a disillusioned Bolshevik, Zamyatin’s We is really best viewed as an attempt to render the capitalist, industrial landscape of 1910s Newcastle in imaginative, allegorical prose. Indeed, Zamyatin’s descriptions of a global landscape dominated by a despotic ‘One State’ are far more redolent of the modernist critiques of British imperialism found in Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST than they are of much later texts like George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian 1984, with which they are usually bracketed.

As in BLAST, which celebrated the aesthetic of industrial capitalism while attacking its central political institutions (partly because Victorian English culture had done precisely the opposite), We derives great energy and excitement from descriptions of a machine-dominated dystopia:

For instance, this morning I was at the hangar, where the Integral is being built, and suddenly: I noticed the machines. Eyes shut, oblivious, the spheres of the regulators were spinning; the cranks were twinkling, dipping to the right and to the left; the shoulders 0f the balance wheel were rocking proudly, and the cutting head of the perforating machine curtsied, keeping time with some inaudible music. Instantly I saw the greater beauty of this grand mechanised ballet, suffused with nimble pale-blue sunbeams.

It seems fairly clear that Zamyatin did not have Bolshevik Russia in mind when writing such passages. In fact, these visions of a ‘grand mechanised ballet’ seem to have largely been derived from first-hand experience of the alien, automated sublime of urban northern England in the last really confident days of its industrial heyday.

Distinctly Northern

One of the first attempts to create an English counterpart to Zamyatin’s seminal dystopian novel, though with a much more explicitly consumer-capitalist emphasis, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was directly inspired by its author’s visit in the late 1920s to the recently built Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) factory in Billingham, in the Teesside portion of County Durham.

On encountering this sprawling industrial complex, which Huxley rhapsodised as an ‘ordered universe … in the midst of the larger world of planless incoherence’, the imaginative world of Brave New World suddenly fell into place. In tribute to the role played by industrial Teesside in offering up a contemporary model for his great novel, Huxley duly named his paternalistic World Controller character ‘Mustapha Mond’ after ICI’s Lancastrian chairman Sir Alfred Mond.

In Huxley’s case, as in Zamyatin’s, the industrial North seems to have provided inspiration for sci-fi fantasy because it resembled something like another planet. It is clear that witnessing the alien landscape of Billingham liberated Huxley’s creativity in some profound way (a little like mescaline would do in the 1950s). In an important sense, it was the ultra-modern version of England Huxley found in Billingham which opened the doors of his perception and allowed him to become one of the strangest, most prophetic novelists of the mid-twentieth century.

As the century wore on, and as the spread of democracy (especially post-war social democracy) allowed for greater social mobility in Britain, seminal modernist and sci-fi narratives produced by people who had actually grown up within earshot of the industrial North began to appear.

Published in 1962, as Britain teetered on the brink of a transformative white-heat modernity, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange condensed an array of disparate influences into a caustic sci-fi novella which argued for the importance of theological free will in an increasingly rationalistic epoch. Enormously influential on the counterculture of the seventies and eighties (especially in the wake of Stanley Kubrick’s brutal 1971 film adaptation), A Clockwork Orange was also, as well as being embedded in its post-war context, very much influenced by Burgess’s chaotic upbringing in interwar south Manchester.

As lyrically described in the first volume of Burgess’s autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God, this was an environment in which Manchester’s amorphous sprawl of brick terraces, factories, and textile mills was beginning to buckle under the weight of the first really severe onslaught of deindustrialisation.

Passed between a series of surrogate parents after his mother died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, Burgess grew up in a landscape where economic conditions meant that ‘ragged boys in gangs’ would pounce on grammar school boys like him, and where a new, consumerist world of cinema matinees, phonograph records, and jazz dances was asserting itself with a kind of abrupt violence. This shifting, ominous cityscape would later reappear in his imaginative life — to spectacular effect — in the nightmarish urban reverie that was A Clockwork Orange.

Neo-Noir North

By the early 1980s, modernism was largely on the retreat in England, as throughout the world. But there would be one final flourish for sci-fi futurism in these years, as US president Ronald Reagan talked of a ‘Star Wars’ nuclear warfare programme, and as the counterculture enabled by the welfare state enjoyed a late moment of avant-garde audacity.

It was in this context that the director Ridley Scott, who grew up in Stockton in County Durham, would launch Blade Runner into the world. Released in 1982, as the final, most aggressive phase of northern deindustrialisation was kicking into gear, this visionary film was the swansong of a specific tradition in twentieth-century art, which used northern industrial landscapes as a prompt for hallucinating evocative near futures.

An early beneficiary of the British state education system of the post-war years, Scott studied at the West Hartlepool College of Art between 1954 and 1958. In this nurturing environment, Scott would absorb certain key high modernist influences while giving them a distinctively northern twist. His first film, Boy and Bicycle (1962), featured stream-of-consciousness voiceovers indebted to James Joyce’s Ulysses, underlain with footage of his brother Tony cycling around the landscape of cooling towers and blast furnaces that was the north-eastern edge of industrial Teesside.

In this weirdly generative space, which had also inspired Huxley’s Brave New World, Scott would be one of the last in a long line of twentieth-century writers and artists to uncover a sublime other England — one rooted in the urban North rather than the bourgeois heartland of the Home Counties, and which looked forward to a technological future, not backwards to a rustic past. As Scott commented in a 2007 interview:

There’s a walk from Redcar into Hartlepool … I’d cross a bridge at night, and walk above the steel works. So that’s probably where the opening of Blade Runner comes from. It always seemed to be rather gloomy and raining, and I’d just think ‘God, this is beautiful.’ You can find beauty in everything. And so I think I found the beauty in that darkness.

Facing the Future

Forty years after Scott’s Blade Runner was released, the hinterland of once-industrial Teesside has become an archetype of northern decline. In May 2021, the Hartlepool constituency which supplied the backdrop to Scott’s artistic education returned a substantial Conservative majority, after a campaign in which the town was repeatedly travestied as a ‘left behind’ backwater which embodied the collapse of the formerly-Labour ‘Red Wall’.

Depressingly, there is little sign that either of the two main parties has the ambition and imagination to venture beyond such dismal caricatures of the northern post-industrial present. And indeed, given the limited political parameters laid down by both Conservative and Labour tendencies in the early 2020s, it is difficult to see where the radical change needed to reverse and repudiate such self-fulfilling prophecies is going to come from.

But learning from the futurist narratives of the twentieth-century North should at least underline a crucial point: that places like Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, West Yorkshire, Hull, and Teesside have not been backwaters forever. Their recent cultural heritage suggests the outline of different social forms which — for all their sometimes nightmarish subtexts — are at least imaginatively distinct from the imprisoning cul-de-sac of English tradition. With the helix-like trajectory of this sci-fi tradition in mind, we must dare to hope that our current, dark, and disorienting hiatus will be the prelude to another, sudden and unexpected revival.