Size / / /
Fire in the Stone cover

In his Theatres of Memory (1994), the late Raphael Samuel argued that The Flintstones is in its own way as important a work of historical interpretation as the most meticulous volume penned by the most learned of professional historians. "It is the genius of television," he wrote, "[. . . ] that it can reinvent historical characters to make them speak in the authentic accent of the here-and-now" (p. 35). Professional historians, too, he says, "fabricate contexts" (p. 433); fiction—televisual or otherwise—can speak to us of our past with a voice that is as valid, perhaps more effective, and certainly more demotic.

The Flintstones, of course, doesn't just take place in our past; it takes place in that period before our past, in pre-history. Nicholas Ruddick, in his recently published The Fire in the Stone, a masterly study of prehistoric fiction "from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel" says of The Flintstones: "the characters depicted are modern people dressed in prehistoric outfits [. . . and the show aims at] mild satire of modern masculinity for the purpose of comic relief" (p. 78). For the most part, Ruddick's book concerns itself with works which consider far more rigorously the truth of prehistoric man (no Barney Rubble for J. H. Rosny, no Pebbles or Bamm-Bamm for William Golding); but central to his book is Samuel's perspective that, to one extent or another, our recreation of the past—however distant it may be—cannot be separated from our contemporary concerns.

The Fire in the Stone is the first comprehensive study, in English, of its subject (though see Angenot and Kouri's bibliography of the genre). Nevertheless, on the relatively minor planet of his topic, Ruddick places himself between two poles: between on the one hand Charles DePaolo's position that prehistoric fiction should be judged on the extent to which it properly adheres to the paleoanthropology of its time, and on the other Joseph Carroll's that emphasises quality of characterisation and the rigorous attainment of empathy. Ruddick is by his own admission closer to Carroll in this debate, but he neither holds that scientific accuracy, or a thorough simulation of consciousness, is necessary if prehistoric fiction (or "pf" as he calls it) is to succeed. Ruddick simply holds that pf must use the basic concepts of paleoanthropology to enlighten the reader: "Good pf [. . . ] tells us about ourselves today [. . . ] by reminding us of the great journey in time that we have travelled to get here" (p. 3). It is a simple enough rubric but one upon which he elaborates with erudition, learning and not a little humour.

The book has a plain but robust structure: its introduction is followed by three chapters which chart the history of pf, and then four which explore in more depth its principle thematic concerns, essentially human nature, gender, race, and culture. Within this modest framework, Ruddick conjures a genre. The idea that pf is not just a type of science fiction story is nothing new (Ruddick cites Brian Stableford's entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction [1993] on the Origin of Man, for instance, whilst in Trillion Year Spree [2001] Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove discussed much of early pf as part of their "flight from urban culture" period), but The Fire in the Stone states the case with a new force. It is nothing less than a history of a corpus of literature in dialogue with itself.

Participation in this dialogue is very much the criterion Ruddick comes to use when deciding if a work is not just one his book should consider, but whether it is a work worthy of consideration. So, for instance, William Golding's masterpiece The Inheritors "is a great pf novel [. . . ] because its author has built upon a solid foundation laid by his literary predecessors" (p. 77); similarly, Ruddick sees in S. Fowler Wright's Dream; or, the Simian Maid (1931), and J. Leslie Mitchell's Three Go Back (1932) the sort of push-me-pull-you "deliberate attempt to revise" which is symptomatic of a living genre (p. 64). At times, Ruddick is guilty of taking this generic focus to the point of hermeticism—for instance, in discussing pf's early tendency to promote "the fallacious ideas deriving from the confusion between biological species and ethnological group" (p. 154)—that is, the depiction of supreme and subordinate groups defined by superficial external characteristics—he does not point out the clear similarities in treatment and thesis in such non-pf works as Disraeli's Sybil (1845) or Jack London's The People of the Abyss (1903; this latter is particularly odd, given Ruddick's recurring interest in London's pf). Likewise, he pays little attention to the idea that pf may be related to historical fiction—his point that pf "is a speculative literary genre dependent on extrapolations from scientific or quasi-scientific discourse" (p. 2), and is therefore related to SF, is well made, but by the same token its strategies have overlap elsewhere, too.

This is a minor quibble, however. The book does not pretend to examine pf's intersections with other genres; it aims merely to claim pf for itself, which is of course a necessary action before further lineages may be traced. In this laudable effort he is wholly successful and must be commended. Those first three chapters, in which he charts the history of pf over 150 years, are impressive. They begin with the French progenitors of the genre—for whom Ruddick retains a fondness throughout—and follow through to the earlier British and American adopters. Ruddick does a wonderful job of sketching the reasons for pf flowering where it did, when it did. Following his identification, after Glyn Daniel's The Idea of Prehistory (1962), of 1859 as "the annus mirabilis that saw the acceptance by educated people in Britain and France of human antiquity beyond the 6,000 years or so traditionally allowed by the biblical chronology" (p. 5), he tells us that France adopted pf earlier due to the preponderance of evidence discovered in their country during paleoanthropology's infancy, and a need to educate a nation falling behind others in an identifiable national science. In America, meanwhile, "a greater reluctance [. . . ] to adopt a purely materialistic or monistic view of human origins" (p. 38) led to a pf concerned with mixing scripture and science which might simultaneously speak to the conquest of the West, America's own primordial sphere. And in Britain, pf often involved "the 'unearthing' of a Paleolithic stratum under the familiar terrain of modernity" (p. 32), for instance in the work of Andrew Lang and H. G. Wells.

The Fire in the Stone is neither prescriptive nor pompous, and makes its conclusions only after careful weighing of the evidence. It is, admirably, a book most of all about other books rather than its own agenda. When Ruddick begins to argue that, following the Second World War, pf began truly to find its feet and explore "the still savage heart of man" (p. 70), the reader does not feel that his schema is being forced onto an unwilling canon; he includes enough dissenting voices, and enough inconvenient truths (for instance, 2001's "neo-progessionism" which "flatters our sense of exceptionalism" [pp. 81-82]) to convince the reader that his general trends are not his personal hobbyhorses. By the close of his review of the genre's history, the reader can be left in no doubt that a genre is just what pf is—a community of literature in and of itself, related to but at one remove from even its closest relative, science fiction. (Though, as an aside, the fact that Henry Curwen's Zit and Xoe, published in 1886, can be read as a "comic pastiche of the genre" despite the fact that it "actually precedes the crystallization of generic clichés" [pg. 34] perhaps does not fill the reader with the sense that pf is the most changeable or inventive of literatures.)

It is a testament to the strength and unity of Ruddick's overview that by the close of his history I was beginning to feel frustrated that my more conceptual questions were going unanswered. The history makes much of the combat between atavism and innovation, which is present in a vast swathe of pf, and of both the importance of race and gender to the genre. These are often conflated: so the atavist will in early pf often be a 'backward' Neanderthal, whilst regularly the atavist and the innovator will focus their struggle on a woman. Indeed, the female seems in many of the earlier texts to have a stronger connection than the male with the modern—that is, even where the woman in question lives in a cave, her ability to bear children gives her some access to the future, and the battle over her, or the battles she fights for herself, are a sort of fight to pass on either the brutish or the cultured gene. For instance, in H. G. Wells's A Story of the Stone Age (1897), the "advanced young hero" Ugh-Lomi must overcome his tribe's "atavistic leader," Uya, to win the affections of "the fleet-footed maiden" Eudena (p. 34), whilst in Rosny's Le Guerre du feu (1911) (and Charles Roberts imitative In The Morning of Time [1912]), the early hominid protagonist masters fire and gets the girl.

The female's place in the genre continues to be connected, in a variety of complex ways, with the passage to modernity. In Three Go Back, for instance, "a strong female protagonist" (p. 64) is the centre of a prehistoric love triangle—though this time, as a time traveller to pre-history, she explicitly rejects the modern world (though upon her pre-historical death is reborn into it). In Rosny's Les Hommes Sangliers (which Ruddick fingers as one of the master of pf's few late successes), the female protagonist Suzanne ultimately takes her own life when she finds herself unable to live either in a modern world she finds lifeless, or with primordial men she finds magnetic but brutish (in Alan Sullivan's 1927 In The Beginning, the writer suggests that "modern woman has an atavistic tendency to revert to a submissive, even masochistic role" [p. 137]); likewise, in Jean M. Auel's bestselling Earth's Children series of novels, her heroine Ayla is too advanced—too explicitly modern—to remain with her Neanderthal tribe, and must leave or die. As Ruddick suggests (though he rather contradicts himself earlier in his book, when he calls the "courtship with a club" motif an "enduring pop-cultural fantasy" [pg. 92]), "men would [. . . ] have been more likely to demand, and enforce, subordination or even slavery in their domestic relations" (p. 124); pf set itself the task early on of accounting for "the universal fact of women's social subordination to men" (p. 126). Ruddick points out that pf is rather hamstrung in this by the fact that almost all its writers have been male. Despite (perhaps because of) this generic blind spot, Ruddick's chapter on gender is one of the strongest in the book, taking into full account the benefits prehistoric romance have given to the otherwise male-dominated genre, providing a perspective that "female autonomy, independence, and creativity would have been compatible with strongly male-dominated prehistoric social structures" (p. 151).

He paints race, too, as an issue which pf has wrestled with as wider society has. Where male pf writers tripped themselves up with 'ancient matriarchy' theories and idealised women, they also clung for too long to the notion of "a prehistoric master race (typically the Aryans) destined to prevail at the expense of lesser races" (p. 154). It is part of Ruddick's project that, "Our disagreements with the past should not prevent us from trying to understand it on its own terms" (p. xii). To this end, he attempts to rehabilitate H. G. Wells on race: "Wells was not personally responsible for expelling the Neanderthals from humanity. He merely collaborated in a process long under way" (p. 162). The phrase "he merely collaborated" is rarely a means of moral exculpation, and Ruddick only protects Wells so far; the rest of his chapter is a fierce condemnation, through the prism of the horrors of the Second World War, of the blindess of early pf writers to the ironically Darwinian contention that, "the truth that humanity is one species is more likely to conduce to our survival" (p. 155). Post-1945, pf writers spent considerable intellectual energy on rehumanising the Neanderthal and questioning the virtues of Cro-Magnon man and homo sapiens (The Inheritors is the most obvious example of this process, but What We Did To Father [1960], a satire not unlike The Flintstones from which Ruddick pulls many epigraphs, includes a moment in which the swarthy and priggish proto-middle class Father poo-poos the idea of black skin as impractical . . . and then laughs even harder at the notion of white.)

Ruddick's chapter on human nature is similarly perceptive and encompassing, charting the manner in which pf depicted the uneasy way that human nature was defined by our slow mastery of Mother Nature through domestication and technological innovation. His passages on our relationship with fire, in particular, are extremely effective in showing the strengths pf has as a literature which can dramatise the process of "hominization." For example, in Harracourt's Daâh (1914), a preferred text of Ruddick's, a tribe which has mastered fire is shocked and unprepared when an earthquake occurs, in contrast to the animals that live around them. As Ruddick puts it, mastery of nature in pf renders human nature solipsistic: "Self-absorbed, Man loses his apprehension of Nature" (p. 112). It is a shame that the chapter on culture is Ruddick's weakest, since naturally such conclusions make it, as he admits, "almost impossible to separate nature from culture" (p. 104). But he allows himself too few pages truly to examine "culture" properly. In such a convincing encapsulation of the genre this is forgivable—readers must continue in the directions he has indicated—but it does mean that he does not decide whether to focus on language, writing, painting, or sculpture and instead whistlestops through everything.

The Fire in the Stone closes with a coda focussing on Stephen Baxter's 2002 novel, Evolution, which takes the reader from prehistory to the extinction of our species. In this breathtaking sweep, Ruddick sees the "unquenchable primate curiosity" (p. 205) which defines and powers prehistoric fiction. He has provided an entertaining, rigorous, and most of all convincing study of that genre, and the means it has used—and continues to use—to sate that curiosity. Where his book leaves questions, it has still provided so solid, accessible and complete a foundation for further study that it cannot reasonably be faulted. It leaves one with a fresh awareness, and a new enthusiasm, for pf in all its forms, and will hopefully inspire future work in the area. Here is that rarest of things, a supple academic text free of cant. Professor Ruddick should be congratulated.

Dan Hartland blogs at

Dan Hartland’s reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at
Current Issue
10 Jun 2024

In summer, the crack on the windowpane would align perfectly with the horizon, right around 2 p.m.
airstrikes littering the litanies of my existence
I turn to where they are not, / and I nod to them, and they to me.
Issue 9 Jun 2024
Wildlife and Rainforests Inside My Father 
Phonetics of Draconic Languages 
A Tour of the Blue Palace 
A Tale of Moths and Home (of bones and breathing) (of extrinsic restrictive lung disease) 
By Salt, By Sea, By Light of Stars 
Friday: Utopia Beyond Capitalism in Contemporary Literature: A Commons Poetics by Raphael Kabo 
Issue 3 Jun 2024
Issue 27 May 2024
Issue 20 May 2024
Issue 13 May 2024
Issue 6 May 2024
Issue 29 Apr 2024
Issue 15 Apr 2024
By: Ana Hurtado
Art by: delila
Issue 8 Apr 2024
Issue 1 Apr 2024
Load More