The History of Science Fiction

There are a couple of problems with coming up with a short history of science fiction. The first is that the subject is quite diverse in terms of media. Should we look at science fiction books, science fiction television shows, or science fiction movies? How about science fiction radio series, or even podcasts?

The second problem is that we need to agree on what should be included within the definition of what science fiction actually is. When discussing the history of science fiction, this last point is really important, because if we are going to include fantastical works then we might go back as far as 4000 years ago, to early Sumerian versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh. On the other hand, if we latch on to the science part of the term science fiction then we can only really go back as far as the 17th century as this is the period in history when major scientific advances were made in areas such as astronomy, mathematics and physics. As a fan of science, it is this latter definition on the whole that I am going to go with. Suffice it to say though, I am only going to be able to scratch the surface of the subject.

As scientific innovations find their way into our everyday lives, we find that literature inevitably includes references to them, and of course to those future innovations that are potentially just around the corner. As we take advantage of future innovations, we can perhaps see ourselves reaching what Thomas More, in 1516 called Utopia, although in most utopian stories we tend to find that the perfect world is always just a little too difficult to grasp – something or someone always throws a spanner in the works.

As humanity reached the 17th and 18th centuries it entered into what has been referred to as the “Age of Reason”. The idea of using science to venture beyond the Earth became more prevalent and found its way into such stories as Somnium by Johannes Kepler, which both Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, both scientific visionaries themselves, described as the first true work of science fiction. In the story, which was published by Kepler’s son in 1634, Kepler provides a vivid insight into how he believes the Earth would look, if viewed from the moon. Other works from this period include Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels which was published in 1726.

Things really started to accelerate though in the 19th century. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published in 1818, which takes the idea of the ‘mad scientist’ from The Tempest to the next level. To be fair though, Prospero was probably more a rational magician than a scientist. Some may think that Frankenstein is more gothic horror than science fiction, but we only have to look at how the good doctor uses technology to achieve things beyond what was scientifically possible at the time in order to think of the story as true science fiction.

It is worth noting that Mary Shelley’s interest in science fiction did not end with Frankenstein. She took on the subject of a post-apocalyptic future, one of the tropes of modern science fiction, in The Last Man which was published in 1826. And in 1863 a short story of hers was published posthumously entitled Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman, which was based upon a hoax perpetuated by a man who claimed to have been buried in an avalanche in the French Alps in 1660. He claimed that he was then thawed out and brought back to life in 1826. Today, we call this idea Cryonics.

As well as the post-apocalyptic future, another trope of science fiction is time travel. The first example of time travel used in a fictional work is in a Russian novel called Predki Kalimerosa: Aleksandr Filippovich Makedonskii which was published by Alexander Veltman in 1836. In the story, we take a ride back in time on a hippogriff which was half eagle and half horse, in order to go on a voyage with Alexander the Great whilst also taking some time out to meet with Aristotle. Other notable works from the early 19th century include the reanimation of Cheops in 1827’s The Mummy by Jane C. Loudon, and 1836’s Napoleon et la Conquete du Monde by Louis Geoffroy in which we see an alternate history presented after Napoleon has conquered the world.

As we move into the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries we encounter such science fiction heavyweights as Jules Verne with stories such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and of course H.G. Wells with his Time Machine. Verne and Wells were not without competition though as other authors started to use science within their works of fiction including Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even Mark Twain used science when he used it instead of magic in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. You might think as well that the wireless hand-held communications device first appeared in Star Trek, but you would be wrong as Frank L. Baum introduced the idea in Tik-Tok of Oz in 1914, which along with Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz is one of 14 books to feature his fictional land.

As many more authors started to turn their attention towards the genre a new way to consume science fiction sprang up when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories magazine in 1926 which was dedicated to the publication of science fiction stories. Although he encouraged the use of science-fact in order to educate, his pulp magazine also published stories that were little to do with reality. Other pulp magazines came along soon afterwards including Weird Tales, Astounding Stories and Wonder Stories.

In the 1930s a new group of writers started to get their work published in the pulp magazines and included those that were known as futurians. Many of these would go on to become hugely successful authors and include the likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. These authors with their celebrations of scientific progress ushered in what is considered to be The Golden Age of science fiction which would last until after the second world war.

The futility of war may be what triggered the idea of a dystopian future as opposed to the perfect world of the utopian future. The authors that would experiment with both of these ideas included Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut and of course George Orwell in his hard to ignore 1984.

Of course, as we are now well into the 20th century, we have to also take into consideration how the cinema used science within its works of fiction. For example, the first humanoid robot was seen in 1927’s Metropolis by director Fritz Lang.

The golden age for science fiction cinema produced such classics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day of the Triffids and The Quatermass Experiment. And of course, there had also been serial cinema in the form of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

As the 50s gave way to the 1960s, a new wave in science fiction storytelling from the likes of Frank Herbert with his Dune series inspired those who wrote for cinema, resulting in a huge number of science fiction movies including Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and American dystopian thriller Soylent Green starring Charlton Heston.

Science fiction was also now becoming big business with a number of movies raking in huge profits at the box office and giving rise to the idea of the movie franchise where we see the likes of Star Wars not only bringing in huge crowds for a series of movies but also spin-off profits from the merchandising rights.

But its not only at the cinema where we can get our visual science fiction fix, as we enjoy serialised science fiction from the comfort of our own homes with the likes of several different series set in the Star Trek universe and comic books adaptations featuring our favourite superheroes from the likes of Marvel and DC.

So what does the future hold?

Who knows, but we can expect no let-up in the number of different subjects to be covered where science-fact such as the advent of a global and expanding information universe, biotechnology and nanotechnology are taken to the next level in near future extrapolations of what is yet to come.

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