The Novel in the 20th Century
THERE WAS OVERLAP BETWEEN CENTURIES
The 20th Century began on an optimistic note. It started with the hope that the weapons being developed throughout Europe and also in the USA would never be used. They were considered to be so horrific that a full out war involving much if not all of Europe if not the world seemed to be an impossibility.
Even so, there were short stories and even novels warning the British people to be ever vigilant against a homeland attack.
The 20th Century ended with less optimism. Two or more super powers developing horrific weapons side by side against one another no longer guaranteed no major conflict
There had been both a First and a Second World War. It was followed by a Cold War in which some sanity reigned. Still the missiles that would lead to atomic warfare were guarded by both men and computers. What if the comp[uters went wrong? What if the men went wrong?
Here in the 21st Century we are still chewing over such possibilities. The Cold War has gone but there remain enough atomic weapons to cause some angst among both readers and writers.
Spy thrillers such as John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and the early James Bond novels by Ian Fleming made much out of the Cold War uncertainty.
Mad magazine in the USA came to send up the spy vs spy mania with their own comic strip spies.
When it comes to the novel, there wasn't a smooth transition from the 19th Century to the 20th Century. There was some overlap.
Toward the end of the 19th Century, there was the feeling among readers that science had reached a state of such importance in everyone's life that it required its own style of fiction. This was hard to dispute.
There were manned balloons capable of travelling great distances.
The Gatling gun, an early form of machine gun, had been invented and there was even a superior type of machine gun to it being tested by the British military.
The bicycle was a wonder proving to be cheaper to operate than the horse and allowing more people to travel further. The train was also a wonder. By the end of the 19th Century it was possible to travel by rail vertually anywhere in the USA.
Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson did something extraordinary with the old werewolf tale of man into monster. In The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) you have chemistry replacing the curse as a catalyst. It was very much in keeping with the times.
Even though very few people at the time could really believe in the possibility that a potion could retard one's moral sense and bring out the evil in one, it was still possible to suspend disbelief. There have been various retellings on stage and at the cinema of this work.
Possibly the strangest interpretation was British Hammer film's 1971 film Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde.
In the 20th Century there have been various stories dealing with man into monster througth science gone wrong. In 1962 Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Hulk for Marvel comics. In the 1960s, scientist Robert Bruce Banner was subjected to an overdose of gamma rays from a nearby atomic gamma bomb explosion.
In the television series (1977 to 1982), starring Bill Bixby as Doctor David Banner, it is a lab experiment gone wrong. In recent years there have been numerous movies involving the Hulk - some good, some bad.
The two major players in the new science fiction of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century were Frenchman Jules Verne and Englishman H. G. Wells.
Jules Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863) and his Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) catered to the public's interest in what was then modern forms of travel. Then there were his more extravagant and extraordinary works such as A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and From the Earth to the Moon (1865).
H. G. Wells was more interested in the fantastic tale that might be achieved through fiction based on a science. He is perhaps best known for The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1898). There was also The Shape of Things to Come (1933).
At the beginning of the 20th Century, American pulp magazines began to re-print stories, including full length novels in parts, that were written by Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and other overseas writers. These stories proved to be so popular that American magazine publishers and editors decided there might be a profit in encouraging Americans to try their hand at science fiction.
Out of the American pulps as well as other magazine types of the first fist full of decades of the Twentieth Century, emerged novelists such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Isaac Asimov.
Burroughs, best known nowadays for his Tarzan stories, also wrote adventures set on other planets.
There was A Princess of Mars (1917), The Gods of Mars (1918), Swords of Mars (1936) and John Carter of Mars (1964). There was also Pirates of Venus (1934) and The Wizard of Venus (1970). This is only naming a few. These novels, and more liked them by Burroughs, combined heroism and combat with the exploration of strange new places.
Isaac Asimov is quite possibly the best known hard science fiction writer of the 20th Century even though he did, on occasion, write space opera style stories. He was well educated and knew a lot about science which made all the difference to his writing of science fiction. The novels he is most famous for include: Pebble in the Sky (1950), David Starr, Space Ranger (1952), The Naked Sun (1957) and The Gods Themselves (1972).
Arthur C. Clarke, a British novelist, also wrote hard science fiction though with a somewhat flamboyant style. He is best known for his 1968 novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also wrote Prelude to Space (1951), The Songs of Distant Earth (1986) and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997).
SCIENCE FICTION THAT COMES WITH A WARNING
SOCIAL SCIENCE FICTION
Writers such as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell came forward to take science fiction to new heights and also in new directions.
Aldous Huxley, the American, is best known for his 1932 masterpiece, Brave New World. In it we experience a very controlled future where people are generally organized even before birth into their future career paths. As much as possible individuality is stripped away and there are drugs to keep them happy. To best understand how Brave New World came about a study of Huxley's 1921 novel, Crome Yellow, would be in order. In a conversation in this book the kind of world of the future that is Brave New World is succinctly outlined.
George Orwell, the Britisher, was writing at a time when the British Empire had seen better days. He had had communist aspirations for a short period of time but what Stalin did to his own people in Russia in the 1930s tended to knock that on the head. There could definitely be a huge difference between an cherished ideal and the execution of that ideal. This was made clear in his 1945 novella, Animal Farm. Orwell did, however, remain a believer in socialism. His most famous work was 1984 which was written in 1948 and first published in 1949. It dealt with the concept of Big Brother and the mind control of the populace through, among other things, the manipulation of the spoken and written language.
In 1901 Mary Moore-Bently, a novelist born in England but who spent most of her life in Australia, published A Woman of Mars. In it she made known her fears concerning human overpopulation. She tended to blame men only for this future happenstance. In 1966 Harry Harrison's novel, Make Room, Make Room!, about human population spiralling out of control, came out.
There has been much talk over the last few decades about how the new bioengineered plants that have taken over as sources of food may prove a future health hazard. This subject was, in part, actually dealt with as early as 1951 in John Wyndham's novel, The Day of the Triffids. Mind you, in the novel the plants are intelligent and aggressive.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962) is a possible future in where vicious youth gangs roam the streets looking for kicks because parents have lost touch with their young. It is Western society gone very wrong where teenagers no longer respect their elders and reform has to do with mind manipulation. In the end, it is also about a form of political correctness gone mad.
An historic rather than science fiction novel that nevertheless touches upon the hardship and chaos that can be caused by too many people dumped into a locale too quickly is
Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow (1974). It is about the USA going from the 19th Century and into the more turbulent 20th Century. As described by Doctorow, there is great wealth at one end of the scale and, at the other end, even greater poverty.Thanks to numbers, there is a population of workers with few rights and industrialists who can move forward without much regard for their workforce. Is New York, USA in the early years of the 20th Century somewhat similar to Sydney, Australia in the early years of the 21st Century? This is a question one has to ask after reading Ragtime.
DEDUCTIVE REASONING ON ONE SIDE AND KNOWLEDGE OF THE MEAN STREETS ON THE OTHER
THE 20TH CENTURY DETECTIVE
There were detective novels in Victorian times before Arthur Conan Doyle sat down to first write about his now famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.
One of Doyle's influences was Edgar Allan Poe and his fictional detective, Auguste Dupin. Auguste first appeared in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). Then in The Mystery of Marie Roget (1841) and also in The Purloined Letter (1844). Dupin combined intellect with imagination to solve crime.
So what did make Sherlock Holmes debute in A Study in Scarlet (1887) stand out? Well, with the Holmes character there has always been the sense that he could actually be a real detective mainly plying his trade in late Victorian England. Doyle admitted that Holmes was based at least in part on a lecturer in medicine he knew who treasured deductive reasoning in both his work and his students.
Perhaps there was also the partnering of the somewhat cold, analytical Holmes with Doctor Watson who is this famous fictional detective's biographer. Doctor Watson is often there to ask the questions of the great man the reader wishes to know the answers to. Here also in Doyle's detective novels and short stories we have science coming to the fore to help catch the criminal and, in some instances, save an innocent life.
There were times in Doyle's life that he was called upon to help solve a crime and prevent an innocent man from either hanging or languishing in prison for a crime he had not committed. Doyle had some small success in this role but never saw himself as a Sherlock Holmes come to life. Meanwhile, well into the first two decades of the 20th Century, there were people who did believe that Holmes really did exist and either wrote to him at his Baker Street address or sent a letter to Doyle requesting help in contacting him.
The Valley of Fear (1915) was the final novel by Doyle to feature Holmes. This novel has Professor Moriaty, Holmes' intellectual nemesis, as the main villain.
In the 1920s, Australian novelist Arthur Upfield created Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, better known simply as Bony. This fictional detective differed from others of the day by being half Australian Aborigine with tracking skills as well as a keen mind. Novels featuring Bony include: The Barrakee Mystery (1929), Death of a Swagman (1945), Death of a Lake (1954) and Bony and the Kelly Gang (1960).
Agatha Christie, a popular 20th Century detective fiction author, had a style similar to that of Doyle only more in keeping with her time. She was, in fact, a fan of the sherelock Holmes stories in her formative years. Her most popular detectives were Hercule Poirot, a finicky little man who haled from Belgium, and Miss Jane Marple, a busy body of an old woman who manages to help out the pplice and other officials often despite their protestations.Poiot's reference to the little grey cells of the brain and how they are to be work has become legendary to readers of detective fiction. Agatha Christie's best novels would have to include: Murder on the Links (1925), The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Murder on the Orient Express (1934), They Do It with Mirrors (1952), and Nemesis (1971).
The hard-boiled detective that walks the mean streets was and is something very American. These weree the gumshoes. There were pulp magazines dedicated to him and to his oft times sleezy world. Black Mask was one magazine that kicked started a number of writers careers who wrote in this genre.
One of the better writers of this sort of fiction was Dashiell Hammet. Among the characters he created, there's Sam Spade out of his novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930) and Nick and Nora Charles from his 1934 novel, The Thin Man.
Another popular writer of hard boiled detective fiction was Raymond Chandler. His novels include The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The long Goodbye (1953). His most popular character was Philip Marlowe.
A fictional detective that emerged in the 1980s was British writer R. D. Wingfield's Detective Inspector Jack Frost. He was a hard boiled character with a sense of cool humour and also a touch of humanity either not seen before or not seen that often. The novels about Frost include: Frost at Christmas (1984), A Touch of Frost (1987) and Winter Frost (1999).
NOVELS ABOUT WAR AND ALSO ANTI-WAR NOVELS WERE POPULAR
NOVELS ABOUT WAR
The 20th Century was a time of much conflict throughout the world and it was thought to be one of the novelist's jobs to try to make sense of at least some of it. The century began on an optimistic note with at least one British writer coming to the conclusion that there would not be a major conflict between the major powers in Europe because the new weapons then coming on line were just too horrific to ever be used. Meanwhile there was a war going on in South Africa and the British had set up the first modern concentration camps for Boer men, women and children.
The horrors of the first and then the 2nd World Wars gave writers plenty to think about. Also there was the growth of communism after the 2nd World War. The atom bomb produced some doom and gloom when it became apparent that the communists as well as the democratic countries had it. There was a Cold War in which fighting took place in small, out of the way locales and direct conflict between the super powers was thus avoided.
Fighter aircraft and fighter aces became the stuff of legend both during the First and 2nd World Wars. British novelist Captain W. E. Johns became best known for his stories about fictional flying ace James Bigglesworth, better known as Biggles. Captain Johns' famous character fought during both the First and 2nd World Wars and went on to help keen the British Empire from falling apart with his prowess as a pilot and adventurer. Biggles novels include: The Camels are Coming (1932), Biggles of the Camel Squadron (1934), Biggles - Secret Agent (1940), Biggles Sees it Through (1941), Spitfire Parade (1941), Biggles Air Detective (1952), Biggles in Australia (1955), and Biggles at the World's End (1959).
Johns was able to not only inject excitement into his writing but also a sense of reality from his knowledge of having once been a fighter pilot. There is an amusing scene in The Camels are Coming when Biggles gets the white feather of cowardice from a pretty young girl while on leave in England. The girl thinks that Biggles is not doing his bit for King and country. Of course she can't be more wrong and he was, at the time, in dire need of rest from the front. One then has to wonder how many other young men in real life were given white feathers while on leave. There is a touch of romance in this novel. Unfortunately, the girl biggles falls in love with turns out to be in league with the Germans.
Another great novel about air combat during the First World War is Jack D. Hunter's The Blue Max (1964). It is about a German who strives for the greatest honour that can be given to a fighter pilot. In the book the main character, Bruno Stachel, takes up drinking hard to keep his nerve. There is some indication that at the end of the war he will fade away from public sight and be just another alcoholic produced by the war. The movie very loosly based on this novel had an entirely different ending.
Of the anti-war novels written in the 20th Century, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque (1929) , Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961), and MASH by Richard Hooker (1968) stand out.
THE HORROR OF THE 20th CENTURY
WITCHES AND OTHER STRANGE CREATURES!
20th CENTURY HORROR PLUS SWORD AND SORCERY
Throughout the 20th Century, the Horror novel did well. In some instances, it was spurred on by the threat of nuclear anhilation. This was the first century, in fact, where humans had the means by which to totally wipe humanity off the face of the earth. Possibly the most profound of these novels is I am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954) which can also be classified as grim science fiction.
One of the best writers of the pulp age was H. P. Lovecraft. He wrote mostly in the vein of supernatural horror but there were stories by him that had a more scientific base such as Herbert West: Reanimator (1922) which is an update on Mary shelley's Frankenstein. Two novels that still inspire writers that have what has come to be known as a Lovecraftian feel are: At the Mountains of Madness (1936) and The Lurker at the Threshold (1945). Cuthulu, Lovecraft's famous sea horror being, is featured in The Lurker at the Threshold. Here it should be noted that much of the writing of Lurker at the Threshold was acually done by horror short story great August Derleth.
Another writer of the pulp age was Robert E. Howard who is best known for his sword and sorcery fiction. His best remembered characters are Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja.
J. R. R. Tolkein is best known for his epic The Lord of the Rings (it first came out in three volumes between 1954 and 1954). Among other things it is about corruption and how even the innocent may be eventually lurered into doing evil. There is a television episode of The Big Bang Theory that has fun exploring this notion. J. R. Tolkein also wrote The Hobbit (1937) where the legend of the rings first appears.
Stephen King would have to be one the best known horror writers around today. He gave the vampire a new twist in Salem's Lot (1975) and played around with the notion of madness in fandom in Misery (1987). Stephen King has written on the history of horror in the 20th Century and also upon the art of writing horror.
Terry Pratchett has made much of the image of the witch in Discworld novels such as Equal Rites (1987) and Witches Abroad (1991).
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900) was first published on the cusp of the 20th Century. In many ways it was a then modern fairy tale set in the heartland of the USA. Other works by Baum include: The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), The Road to Oz (1909), Tik-Tok of Oz (1914), and The Scarecrow of Oz (1915).
The best loved Australian children's novel of all time would by artist and writer Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding (1918).It is a fantasy adventure where Austalian animals take on human qualities such as greed and friendship. There are also humans involved acting rather, well, human. Norman Linsay's home is in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia and is open to visitors. The art to be found there remains spectacular.
Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter (1913) was popular after publication and got a new lease of life when Disney made a film version of it in 1960. Pollyanna's optimism and how she kept it going was the main feature of the story.
One of the most prolific children's writers of the 20th Century was Enid Blyton. Unfortunately, nowadays her material is hard to take as it reflects too strongly the attitudes of an England and of a British Empire that no longer exist. Her books include: Adventures of the Wishing-Chair (1937), The Secret Seven (1949), Well Done Secret Seven (1951), Five Go Down to the Sea (1953), Five Have a Mystery to Solve (1962), and Fun for the Secret Seven (1963). I remember getting Fun for the Secret Seven as a prize at Primary school. It was an okay introduction to the spy/detective genre even if the children involved appeared to me to be incredibly polite. I remember bits of Adventures of the Wishing-Chair (also in Primary) being read out in class. The Wishing-Chair material struck me as being better because it was more fantasy based.
Strangely enough, Ian Fleming, the British writer who gave the world James Bond, super spy also provided the world with Chitty-Chitty- Bang-Bang - The Magical Car (1964). Whereas there is something British in a dull sort of way about some of Blyton's work, there is something enchantingly British about this Ian Fleming effort.
British satirist Terry Pratchett's set of children's books are a definite treasure as is much of his other work. These include: Johnny and the Dead (1993) and Johnny and the Bomb (1996).
A British small press author by the name of the name of J. K. Rowling created a sensation with her first Harry Potter novel about a boy wizard. She went from poverty stricken to quite wealthy in a rather short period of time. This was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone which came out in 1997. Other works by J. K. Rowling include: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000). There has been some controversy over these novels in the USA. There are some strange groups there who have a problem with the word fiction and think these books have something to do with so-called real magic.
New Zealand writer, Lyn McConchie, had put out a number of childrens books including: The Lonely Troll (1997), The Troll's New Jersey (1997), and The Troll and the Taniwha (1998). She ives in a part of New Zealand where many of the people have Nordic roots.
JAZZ, DANGEROUS DAMES, AND SAINTS WITH GUNS
OTHER NOVELS OF SOME IMPORTANCE
It has been said that F. Scott Fitzgerald heralded in the jazz age with his novels. His most famous work is The Great Gatsby (1925). It is about a man who persues his dream girl, Daisy, only to find that he was better off having her as a dream. There is a touch of racism in this novel but, since it comes from the character Tom. a thug made less common because of his wealth, it is no doubt Fitzgerald simply informing the reader that its around. If we could sympathise with Tom at all it might be a different matter. Other novels by Fitzgerald include: This Side of Paradise (1920), The beautiful and Damned (1922), and Tender is the Night (1934).
One of the better novels about growing up in country Austrtalia is The Mango Tree by Ronald McKie (1974). And then there's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally (1972) about an exploited Aborigine who seeks revenge. On the New Zealand scene, there's the powerful Once Were Warriors by New Zelander Allan Duff (1990).
Not to be forgotten are the James Bond spy novels by Ian Fleming starting with Casino Royale (1953).
Also there's Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise, career criminal turned action junky on the side of justice. Modesty began her career as a comic strip character who graduated into 11 top, action packed novels. The novels include: Modesty Blaise (1965), A Taste of Death (1969), and Dragon's Claw (1978). Note that the name Modesty Blaise is a bit of a clever oxymoron. The two words forming her name clash brilliantly. You can almost see the sparks.
Tthen there's the Mack Bolan/ Executioner series by Don Pendeleton starting with War Against the Mafia (1969). Marvel's action hero, The Punisher, is roughly based on The Executioner.
Of the heroes that don't always play by the rules, possibly the most famous and best remembered is the swarvely British Simon Templar, better known as The Saint. He may at times be a thief but he does have a tendency to bag the bad guys and get the girl in the end. What more do you want? Saint novels by Leslie Charteris include: Meet - the Tiger! (1928), Knight Templar (1930), The Saint in New York (1935),and The Saint Sees it Through (1946).
There have been quite successful novelizations of television characters and shows such as Star Trek and Doctor Who. There have also been popular novelizations of comic book heroes such as Superman, Daredevil, and Ironman.
It would be impossible to cover every novel put out in the 20th Century. My best hope is that you will find at least a couple of novels that you are familiar with and that you feel deserve to be a Cook's tour of the 20th Century. Also, I hope you have enjoyed the read.
More by this Author
The Great Gatsby, The Red Badge of Courage, A Stainless Steel Rat is Born, Brave New World, 1984, Story of O, Tender is the Night, Wasp, Dune, Twilight Healer, A Study in Scarlet, Dracula, Jazz.
Australian Propaganda from convict origins, to outlaws, to World War One, to populate or perish. Racism, Reverse Racism, sexism, loose lips sink ships, Muslims, Christians, bikinis, The Simpsons, USA
Standing tall and one person making a difference has long been part of the American identity. In propaganda terms it has been useful. Can one person really make a difference? John Wayne and Vietnam.