So, I’ve been watching Agent Carter recently (which is excellent, by the way) and started wondering why it is that I like the 1940s setting so much for genre (i.e. sci-fi, sci-fantasy and horror). And I do – there’s simply a style and texture to the era that I find compelling.
I don’t have an explanation. Normally, I’d point an accusing finger back at things I used to watch as a kid, but all I’ve got there is the Indiana Jones films, and they’re 1930s. Hair splitting, I know. Even if I expand the period back to the end of World War One – and I should, because the design of Bioshock Infinite pressed all the same buttons – I’m none the wiser.
I normally get to blame Doctor Who, but there’s honestly not a lot of inter-war period Who stories. In fact, I’m struggling to think of any. There are some set in the World Wars: The War Games, Curse of Fenric, The Empty Child (See? I’m occasionally prepared to accept modern Who stories into my private continuity). Inter-war? I’m coming up dry, other than – you guessed it – The Abominable Snowmen. Let me know if I missed something.
So if I can’t point to what, can I at least point to why? I think so.
In terms of style and narrative, the inter-war period (let’s call it 1920 to 1940, for the sake of rounding) brings a wealth of storytelling opportunity. This was the first bloom of air travel in the western world, opening up the globe as never before, and bringing distant lands into contact with weeks of ocean-steaming. And just as they always have, this era of exploration generated strange tales and mysteries, rumours of hidden kingdoms and unbelievable creatures.
Of course, many of these stories were old news in the lands of their birth, and many more have since been disproven. But for Europeans and Americans convinced they’d explored all the hidden places of their own lands, it must have been an incredible time to live. A canny writer can drag his reader straight back into that time, experience the same wonder as the characters. For someone who still likes to believe there are things in this world we haven’t fully explained, I find this intoxicating when done well.
It’s often been said (and proven) that war accelerates technological advancement. Indeed, it’s doubtful that the aeroplane would have come up in such leaps and bounds but for its applications in the First World War. Generally speaking, this era accelerates out of the First World War, taking the breakthroughs of the late Victorian era and makes them practical for mass use, bringing them to the public eye.
The first radio news program was broadcast in 1920. The first transatlantic telephone call between London and New York happened in 1926, and commercial use started the following year. Self-winding watches, the radio telescope, magnetic recording, photocopiers, voice recognition, the jet engine – they all came into being (although not mass use) during the inter-war period. They’re all old hat now, but then? In context of the time, it’s easy to imagine almost anything arising from the hothouses of experimentation.
With hindsight (and with the knowledge of how quickly technology advanced during and after World War 2) it’s easy to imagine a setting in which developments of the 50s and 60s might have seen prototypes during the 20s, 30s and 40s. Presented well, you can justify almost anything.
Conversely, it’s also a time period without all those little modern annoyances that gum up a plot by making things too easy or too hard for characters. Google. Wi-fi. Surveillance cameras. Mobile phones. Gah. So much modern fiction ends up being techno-thriller lite, simply because you have to explain why these quick fixes can’t be used. Not a problem in the 1940s (unless you want it to be).
Magic’s Last Hurrah
For me, the inter-war period is the last time magic honestly, truly works in-setting. It’s the presence of imported (and distorted) eastern mysticism, the Egyptology boom of the 20s… These and more create a heady, impossible brew for otherwise rational minds. In short, it’s the romantic idea that industrialisation had driven myth and magic out of the western world, and could be found elsewhere if you looked hard enough. And carefully enough, of course. Look at what happened to Howard Carter after he breached Tutankhamen’s tomb…
It helps, of course, that period has plenty of occult and mystical societies to offer up. Spiritualism was on the rise in America, as was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (whose most famous pupil was Aleister Crowley). Most famous of all is probably the Thule Society – largely due to their (exaggerated) connections with the Nazi Party. Whether or not you consider magic to be real, there were certainly plenty of folk who did…
By now, this should be starting to sound a little familiar. Switch out some of the nouns, and I could be describing an earlier historical era: Victorian Britain. Think about it, the elements are the same. The Victorian era was another time of a huge technological sea-change. Of uncovering previous unexplored regions (in this case Africa and coastal Asia). And of archaeological discoveries provoking legend and magic. Both settings are replete with overtones of Gothic Horror; that in the shadows beyond the light of civilisation, there are dark, mysterious forces working to destroy our hopes, our values – even our society itself.
There are scores of writers mining the wealth of weird Victoriana. Indeed, it’s even spawned a subgenre of its own, Steampunk (yes, it can be argued that Steampunk has since evolved into a different space, but this is definitely where it began). So, why not the 1940s, or the inter-war period as a whole? Sure, there are works set in these time periods, and writers doing great work in these time periods, but they’re a drop in the ocean compared to Victoriana.
I think it’s partly a generational thing. For a great many of the writers who shaped modern genre fiction, the inter-war years weren’t part of history. They were the times in which they grew up, or at least the times in which their parents grew up – either of which does a great deal to rob the wonder from a setting.
There’s also an element of snobbery at work, too. The 1800s brought us a wealth of genre fiction, much of which is hailed as classical today. Dracula, Frankenstein, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Lost World, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and so on. It’s fair to say that the genre fiction of the 20s-40s doesn’t have the same reputation – in part because the era is more typified by pulp novellas and the emergence of superheroes. Even someone like H P Lovecraft, who was writing (then) contemporary work, only saw posthumous success – unthinkable given the prevalence of his works in pop culture now.
(I’ll go into more detail about Lovecraft another time. Safe to say, I have… conflicted views on his works and popularity).
And those elements from that era which permeate the popular psyche? Almost entirely set in America. Is it coincidence that it matches the precise time that global dominance shifted from the dying Empire to the emerging capitalist superpower? I don’t think so.
But do I think that the inter-war years are fertile ground for genre stories? Hell yes. In the coming years, I reckon we’ll see the setting utilised more and more. And not just in America, either. London isn’t inherently less interesting a setting because Victoria’s not on the throne, or mythic icons like Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper are no longer contiguous, and there’s a whole world out there, busting with secrets waiting to be explored by gallant, doomed heroes. I’ll be sure to play my part.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I feel the need to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark again.