As broad in scope as our series on the fantasy genre was, exploring all that is encompassed by the name Science Fiction is an undertaking of epic proportions! Like daring explorers setting out to discover uncharted worlds, we are taking the first steps into realms of both the unknown and the unknowable!
Like any good scientist setting out to disperse the mists of oblivion to discover what truths lie within, we must first define what it is that we seek. The genre of science fiction is difficult to define, and many have proposed different theories on how to do so. In the most basic sense, science fiction can be said to be any form of literature that speculates upon the future of our own reality, or upon an alternate reality which is more advanced than our own. As we are standing upon the shoulders of giants, however, we will allow one of them to lend his own words to this task:
“Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” — Isaac Asimov
This may seem simplistic considering the scope of the topic, but was not one of Asimov’s greatest strengths his ability in simplifying the mystifying? With this as our benchmark, let us set out upon this great journey through the history of science fiction and the possible futures of our own reality.
The Pre-History of the Future
How far into our own history must we travel to find speculation about the future? One hundred years? Two hundred? What if I said almost two thousand years!? In the 2nd century c.e., a Syrian satirist living in Hellenistic Greece by the name of Lucien wrote A True Story. This work contained elements common to modern science fiction such as interplanetary travel, alien life, and artificial life. This is considered by some to be the first science fiction novel. This is surprisingly not the only work of fiction during the classical or medieval eras to contain elements of science fiction.
Travelling forward almost a millennium and a half, Somnium was written by Johannes Kepler in 1608. In this tale a boy and his mother are told of the moon by a demon, and what the movement of the Earth would look like from the moon is speculated upon. This has been cited by both Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov as one of the first Science Fiction books.
The Mother of a Monster
It is appropriate—and remarkable—to consider that the modern form of science fiction is considered to have been born of the mind of a woman. In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Many are familiar with this classic tale of man creating life from what once was dead using science! Considered by many literary scholars to be the first true science fiction novel, this was not her last. In 1826 Shelley also wrote The Last Man, which speculated upon a post-apocalyptic world that had been ravaged by a plague.
Literary Realism and the Unreal
In the 19th century, an artistic and literary movement called Realism was a powerful trend that changed both the literary arts and the written word in dramatic ways. As opposed to the classical methods of telling stories through artistic flourishes and a sense of dramatic style, authors of this movement described reality as it is, down to the minutiae of daily life.
By the end of the 1800’s, this movement had become the standard. Almost all writers around the turn of the century were taking care to describe the details of their tales in plain language, rather than resorting to florid verbosity and Olympian feats of metaphoric diatribe.
See what I did there?
Around this time, two very prominent authors helped to define science fiction as a genre, and to legitimize it as a lasting form instead of a passing fad. The first of these was Jules Verne. The influences of the Literary Realism movement are evident in his writing, as his attention to scientific detail has been lauded. Among his most notable works are Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873).
Second of these influential authors is H.G. Wells, who in addition to writing fiction also wrote non-fiction works predicting the invention of such things as the airplane, military tanks, nuclear weapons, and a concept similar to the internet. His more notable works include The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898).
From Amazing to Astounding
The early 20th century saw a boom in the fledgling genre. In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs published A Princess of Mars, the first book in his long-running Barsoom series set on Mars. This author went on to write many tales for the pulp magazines over the next several decades.
The pulps were a way for the masses to enjoy the pass-time of reading in an age before radio and television. Books were expensive, as were traditional magazines. The advent of making cheap paper from tree pulp provided a platform for many established and undiscovered authors to submit pieces of short fiction for publication. Newsstands and corner stores all carried these magazines, and soon the general public were enjoying tales of weird fiction in the comfort of their own homes and offices.
While the subject of the pulp magazines deserves much more discussion, the scope of this article is too broad to accommodate it. This is a subject that I definitely plan to explore more in the near future. For now, I would mention that Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and Argosy were among the more influential magazines for the science fiction genre.
Among the more influential science fiction authors who contributed to these publications were E.E. “Doc” Smith, Lee Hawkins Garby, Philip Francis Nowlan, John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, and the aforementioned Edgar Rice Burroughs.
From Post-War to Post-Modernism
After World War II, the pulps retained their popularity and found a new audience in the form of the troops returning home. The expanded readership also lead to an expanded audience and demand for novels in the science fiction genre (among other genres made popular by the pulps.) During the 1950’s, bookshelves saw authors creating groundbreaking works of science fiction novels, such as Theodore Sturgeon’s More Human Than Human (1953) and Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959). Many consider the 1950s to be the “Golden Age” of science fiction, as the genre not only gained in popularity, but evolved during this decade. While the pure escapism and action adventure of the old “space ship and ray gun” science fiction still dotted the shelves, more and more works—such as those mentioned above—began to dive into tackling deeper themes and exploring the human condition through the lens of science fiction.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a revolution of more refined literary sensibilities and a tendency to experiment more during what is called the New Wave movement of science fiction. Many of the works written during this time expanded on the Golden Age trend of exploring social values and the human condition. Notable works during this time include: Solaris (1961) by Stanisław Lem, which dealt with the concept of human limitations. Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert, one of the first science fiction works to create a complexly detailed and unique future society. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Phillip K. Dick asked questions about what makes us human. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin was a seminal work of social science fiction which studied the roles that gender plays in society.
These works might be considered early adopters of the post-modernist movement, which gained traction in the 1980s. This movement—which crossed lines from literature to art, film, and even philosophy—established a way of thought that promoted skepticism, criticism, and a rejection of established norms and values upon subjective and objective analysis. One of the most famous examples of science fiction during this time is Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson, which also birthed the cyberpunk sub-genre. Consequently, this lead to a range of Something-Punk sub-genres that permeate the culture to this day. At the core of cyberpunk and its many offspring is resisting the powers that maintain a status quo that serves to empower the empowered and disenfranchise the downtrodden. While post-modernism was skeptical of established norms, cyberpunk sought to burn them down.
Since the late 20th century until now, science fiction as a literary genre has remained a strong player in the literary world. Though still chided by the Literati, the genre remains a popular source of diversion entertainment and a potentially powerful tool for examining our own society. Themes of environmental awareness, future technological impacts, and social awareness prevail in many such works today. Boosted by the surge in popularity of science fiction films over the last twenty years, science fiction literature may arguably be at one of the strongest points in its history right now.