Life-paths: biographical cultures of science

Comparing the biographies of H G Wells and Olaf Stapledon can help to elucidate the ways in which their respective life-paths instilled in each writer the capacity to make sense of the Universe in particular ways. This approach draws on scholarship that has recognised ‘the intersection of the geographical and biographical’ in researching aspects of self, place and identity in a variety of historical contexts.15 Similarly, others have commented on how, in order to make sense of the different spaces people occupy throughout their professional and personal lives, an approach focussed on ‘geographical biography’ would yield insightful accounts of scientific knowledge creation, an approach that could just as effectively be applied to understanding literary narratives.16

Accordingly, while looking to make sense of Wells and Stapledon’s lifelong fascination with extra-terrestrial space, biographers of both writers have attributed significance to childhood experiences of astronomical observation, episodes that emphasise the importance of place and landscape. The young Wells, while spending his holidays at Uppark estate in West Sussex, where his mother worked as a housekeeper, discovered and assembled a telescope in an attic room that had belonged to the estate’s former owner Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, staying up into the early hours ‘inspecting the craters of the moon’.17 When looking through the telescope across the landscape by day, he noticed that ‘it showed everything upside down’ - a common quirk of astronomical observation when using certain types of telescope - but when turned to the sky at night, the inversion made no appreciable difference due to the lack of a conventional sense of‘up and down’ in space.18 This acts as an effective metaphor for Wells’ outlook on the speculative potential of outer space. Furthermore, this vision is said to have ‘lifted [Wells] out of himself and placed him within a cosmic order’, allowing an imaginative escape from the social, cultural and political restrictions of late Victorian society.19 Similarly, Stapledon is accorded his own formative moment at the end of a telescope as a child in Port Said. Egypt, where his father was working for an international shipping company. From a balcony at home, ‘the clear, wide-horizoned desert sky’ gave way to a sense of ‘star-struck wonder’ at the immensity of the cosmic realm.20 In ‘one divine hour never forgotten’, Stapledon is said to have observed the contours and mountains of the Moon, considering for the first time the presence of other worlds.21 In these accounts, the twinned technological cultures of amateur aristocratic astronomy and maritime telescopic observation helped to evoke a common sense of the astronomical sublime, incorporating themes of cosmic ascent and the contemplation of other worlds. Together they point towards not only the creative significance of place - the attic room and the desert balcony - but also the wider cultural and political circumstances of place, in terms of social class, empire and technology.

Both writers benefited from extended educational opportunities that became pivotal to their literary perspectives on outer space. Following some initial experience as a school science instructor. Wells secured an undergraduate scholarship for a degree in biology at the Normal School of Science (later Imperial College London), graduating in 1890. Here he studied for one year under ‘Darwin’s Bulldog' T H Huxley, where scientific cultures of evolutionism, including emerging theories of eugenics, left a lasting impression.

As a student, Wells saw the potential of science to change society fundamentally, even on a global scale, a realisation that formed a welcome alternative to the fixed view of the world that was engrained in the conservative religiosity and traditions of his upbringing.22 Stapledon, having graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, with a degree in modern history, completed a PhD in philosophy and ethics at Liverpool University in 1929. Here, ‘he drew from a rich brew of ideas and provocative questions’, reading philosophers of science and epistemologists, such as Henri Bergson, William James and William Winwood Reade.23 At Liverpool, Stapledon embedded himself in the discourse of modern science, particularly the dynamic fields of evolutionary and eugenical theory, where Darwin’s insights were spreading into areas of social and political significance. In subscribing to the journal Nature, Stapledon also kept himself informed on developments in other sciences such as astrophysics, where researchers such as James Jeanes and Arthur Eddington were beginning to understand aspects of the true complexity of the Universe. Steeped in this intellectual environment, Stapledon developed a philosophical stance that has been seen as central to understanding his science fiction. In this, he maintained that older convictions of morality in society had been ‘eroded’ by modern developments in cosmology, psychology and the life sciences, and needed to be replaced by a ‘modern theory of ethics’.24 For both writers, combining educational influences in the fields of culture, morality and science with the imaginative possibilities of extra-terrestrial spaces would help to engender rich literary geographies of other worlds.

An emerging sense of the potential of science to change society not only in Britain, but also around the world, led both Wells and Stapledon to become committed socialists and advocates of a world-state. Wells was ‘acutely aware of social class in British society’, his upbringing exposing him to the precarity of life in late Victorian England for those not born into wealth.25 As a student, he attended Fabian Society meetings at the home of William Morris in Hammersmith. London, uncommonly perceiving a connection between science and socialism, in working towards what he called ‘a planned inter-co-ordinated society’.26 At the same time, it has been noted that the British Empire ‘would shape Wells’s vision of a unified world’, his adult life centred on the imperial metropole of London.27 Comparably, Stapledon's early life occurred in the shadow of the British Empire at its broadest extent, as he witnessed the coming and going of all manner of people and goods in and out of Port Said, at the northern terminal of the Suez Canal, and Liverpool, where he had returned with his parents in 1901. Although more secure in his middleclass mercantile roots, Stapledon immersed himself in the working-class cultures of north-west England, exemplified by his long-standing voluntary role teaching history, philosophy and politics for the Liverpool branch of the Workers’ Educational Association. Stapledon’s role in the First World War is also significant, and as a life-long pacifist, he served as a driver for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, a Quaker organisation operating near the front lines in France and Belgium. Hence, the two writers became committed to socialism through different routes: Wells by a sense of unfairness in witnessing the bourgeois elements of Victorian society in comparison to his own upbringing, and Stapledon in recognising the plight of the working classes from a more secure social perspective, provoking a sense of guilt that stayed with him throughout his life that fed his desire to make change.

With Wells’ career as a writer taking off roughly three decades ahead of Stapledon’s, his work became part of the wider cultures of popular fiction from which Stapledon naturally drew considerable influence. In 1931, Stapledon initiated a correspondence with Wells that was to last over a decade, following the release of his first major work of fiction Last and First Men (1930). In this, he commented on reviewers’ comparisons with Wells, acknowledging his influence with striking candour:

Your later works I greatly admire [...] Then why, I wonder, did I not acknowledge my huge debt? Probably because it was so huge and obvious that I was not properly aware of it. A man does not record his debt to the air he breathes in common with everyone else.28

This correspondence led to a meeting in 1936, for lunch at Wells’ house in London, during which the two writers aimed to ‘settle the Whole Damn Silly Universe’.29 Although clearly, they shared much common ground. Stapledon afterwards began to question Wells’ ideas, ‘both privately and in print’, criticising his conceptions of economics and spirituality and their role in a socialist world system.30 Both commented on the state of world affairs with opposing degrees of despair and hope, with Wells questioning the very role of the writer during the tribulations of the Second World War and Stapledon frequently speaking out in local and international forums, in later years being described as ‘the Cold War’s peace pilgrim’.31 One letter in their correspondence stands out, in which Stapledon counters Wells’ claim that he is caught up in proletarian and spiritual matters, in the form of a cartoon. Wells is caricatured causally walking his own path between these two caged vices, while a bird watches on. Stapledon comments, ‘I am not really in either of the cages, believe me! I am the jackdaw, free but uncertain.’32 The relationship between the two writers has been summed up by science-fiction critic Robert Crossley, who characterises Stapledon as an errant disciple of Wells, growing apart from his mentor towards the end of their lives. These contrasts between the two writers’ life-paths, as well as aspects of their lives that they had in common, particularly their political and social perspectives, provide essential context for understanding their imaginative projections of outer space.

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