The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
John Clute and Peter Nicholls
St. Martin's Griffin edition: November, 1995

Theme article:


Brian Stableford

An abundant literature dealing with the remote ancestry of the human species inevitably sprang up in the wake of the theory of evolution, as propounded by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). T.H. Huxley (1825-1895),. the principal champion of Darwinism, published a classic essay on "Man's Place in Nature" (1863), and Darwin himself wrote The Descent of Man (1871) soon after. The main point at issue was, as Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) put it, "the question of whether Man is an ape or an angel". Disraeli was on the side of the angels, but science and serious speculative fiction were not; their main interest was in how Man had ceased to be a brute beast and become human.

Huxley took a rather harsh view of the process of natural selection, and so did his one-time pupil, H.G. Wells, whose "A Story of the Stone Age" (1897) envisages the crucial moment in human evolution as the invention of a "new club" — a better means to cut and kill. This view recurs constantly, being memorably envisaged in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which the dawn of intelligence occurs as an ape realizes that the bone he uses to smash other bones can also be used as, among other things, a weapon. Darwin presented a rather different account, stressing the positive value of cooperation and mutual protection in the struggle for existence. This stress on cooperative emotions as well as physical inventions is found in such works as Jack London's Before Adam (1906), although previous, more religiously inclined authors had represented the origins of humanity in purely spiritual terms; Gouverneur Morris's The Pagan's Progress (1904) is an example. The domestication of fire was also widely seen as the crucial invention, notably in Stanley Waterloo's The Story of Ab (1897), in Charles Henry Robinson's Longhead: The Story of the First Fire (1913), and in the most famous novel by the most prolific author of prehistoric fantasies, J.H. Rosny aîné's La guerre du feu (1909; cut translated as The Quest for Fire 1967). Rosny's prehistoric stories — which include Vamireh (1892), Eyrimah (1893), Le felin geant (1918; translated 1924 as The Giant Cat 1924 US; variant title Quest of the Dawn Man 1964) and Helgvor de Fleuve Bleu ["Helgvor of the Blue River"] (1930) — inspired numerous works by other French writers, including Marcel Schwob's "The Death of Odjigh" (1892; translated 1982), Claude Anet's La fin d'un monde (1925; translated as The End of a World 1927) and Max Begouen's Les bisons d'argile (1925; translated as Bison of Clay 1926).

The Huxleyan account of human nature was comprehensively rejected by two UK writers in scientific romances that glorified the innocent state of Nature and blamed civilization for all human ills: S. Fowler Wright in Dream, or The Simian Maid (1929) and its intended sequel The Vengeance of Gwa (1935) (as by Anthony Wingrave) and J. Leslie Mitchell in the polemical Three Go Back (1932) and the lyrical "The Woman of Leadenhall Street" (1936) as by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Similar nostalgia for. a prehistoric Golden Age is displayed in William Golding's The Inheritors (1955), though Golding follows Wright rather than Mitchell in refusing to grant innocence to Man's direct ancestors, and presents a more brutal view of prehistoric life in "Clonk Clonk" (1971). All these works are, in part, admonitory fables, and by natural exaggeration prehistoric fantasies have also been employed for satire, as in Andrew Lang's "The Romance of the First Radical" (1886), Henry Curwen's Zit and Xoe (1887), W.D. Locke's "The Story of Oo-oo" (1926) and Roy Lewis's What We Did to Father (1960: variant title The Evolution Man 1963; variant title Once upon an Ice Age 1979).

There have been several attempts to write novels on a vast scale which link prehistory and history to provide a "whole" account of the "spirit of Man". The most impressive is Den Lange Rejse (1908-22 Denmark; translated as The Long Journey 1922-4; omnibus 1933) by the Danish Nobel prizewinner Johannes V. Jensen, the first two parts of which are prehistoric fantasies. A work on an even greater scale is the Testament of Man series by Vardis Fisher, a 12-novel series of which the first 4 volumes are prehistoric fantasies. Also in this tradition is Les enchaînements (1925; translated as Chains 1925) by Henri Barbusse, while more trivial examples include The Invincible Adam (1932) by George S. Viereck and Paul Eldridge and Tomorrow (collection of linked stories 1930) by F. Britten Austin, who also wrote a volume of prehistoric short stories, When Mankind was Young (coll 1927). The attempt to find in the evolutionary history of Man some sequence of events for which the Genesis myth might be considered a metaphor — a key theme of Fisher's novels — is such an attractive notion that it has infected anthropological theory as well as speculative fantasy. Austin Bierbower's From Monkey to Man (1894) offers a simpler account of a metaphorical expulsion from Eden. A fierce reaction against such superstitions can be found in The Sons of the Mammoth (translated 1929) by the Russian anthropologist V.G. Bogoraz.

In the US pulp magazines there grew up a romantic school of prehistoric fiction glorifying the life of the savage. Its most prolific proponent was Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Pellucidar series, The Eternal Lover (1914; 1925; variant title The Eternal Savage) and The Cave Girl (1913-17; 1925. Novels from outside the pulps, however, often show a similar if more muted romanticism. Examples include most of Jack London's stories in this vein, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts's In the Morning of Time (1919), H. Rider Haggard's Allan and the Ice-Gods (1927) and Richard Tooker's The Day of the Brown Horde (1929). Prehistoric romances in the cinema, which are notorious for their anachronisms, are perhaps the extreme examples of the romantic school, from D.W. Griffith's Man's Genesis (1911) onwards. Although Hugo Gernsback reprinted Wells's "A Story of the Stone Age", genre sf did not really take prehistoric fantasy aboard, with notable exceptions including Lester Del Rey's "When Day is Done" (1939), Jack Williamson's "The Greatest Invention" (1951), Chad Oliver's juvenile Mists of Dawn (1952) and Theodore L. Thomas's "The Doctor" (1967). Progress in physical anthropology has encouraged a sophistication of fictional images of prehistoric life, reflected in such works as Cook (1981) by Tom Case and No Enemy but Time (1982) by Michael Bishop. The most remarkable modern manifestation of prehistoric fantasy is, however, the series of bestselling novels by Jean Auel, collectively entitled Earth's Children, which begins with The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980). Auel ingeniously combines a realism based in modern scientific understanding with robust literary romanticism. Also worthy of special note is a series of surreal prehistoric fantasies included in Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics (collection 1965; translated 1968) and t zero (collection 1967; translated 1969; variant title Time and the Hunter). Significant scientific speculations on the topic are contained in two novels by the palaeontologist Björn Kurtén, Dance of the Tiger (1978; translated 1980) and Singletusk (1984; translated 1986).

There have, of course, been several unorthodox accounts of the origin of Man, including various hypothetical extraterrestrial origins. Some, like that propounded by Erich Von Daniken, have been presented as fact. Such notions recur throughout the history of sf, usually developed as silly plot gimmicks (cf. Adam and Eve). Among the more interesting examples are Eric Frank Russell's Dreadful Sanctuary (1948; 1951; revised 1963), which plays with the Fortean hypothesis (cf. Charles Fort) that Earth is an asylum for the lunatics of other worlds, and James Blish's "The Writing of the Rat" (1956), one of many stories which makes us the descendants of a "lost colony" within a galactic civilization.