Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
History of science fiction
Forerunners of science fiction
Before science fiction (SF) there existed travellers' tales. Somewhere, out there, around the partially explored world, existed strange cultures, exotic fauna and flora, perhaps even sea monsters.
Science fiction was made possible only by the rise of modern science itself, notably the revolutions in astronomy and physics. Aside from the age-old genre of fantasy literature, which does not qualify, there were notable precursors: imaginary voyages to the moon in the 17th century, first shown in Johannes Kepler's Somnium (The Dream, 1634), then in Cyrano de Bergerac's Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1656), space travel in Voltaire's Micromégas (1752), alien cultures in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and in Ludvig Holberg's Niels Klim's Underground Travels , and science fiction elements in the 19th century stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Fitz-James O'Brien. In Romantic Poetry, too, the writers' imaginations leapt to visions of other worlds and distant futures as in Alfred Lord Tennyson's Locksley Hall, which makes reference to "the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time". Voltaire, on the other hand, calls Micromegas not a fairy tale but a "philosophical story".
Most notable of all is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published in 1818. In his book Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss claims that Frankenstein represents "the first seminal work to which the label SF can be logically attached". It is also the first of the "mad scientist" subgenre. Another futuristic Shelley novel, The Last Man, is also often cited as the first true science fiction novel.
Early science fiction
The European brand of science fiction proper began, however, toward the end of the 19th century with the scientific romances of Jules Verne, whose science was rather on the level of invention, as well as the science-oriented novels of social criticism by H.G. Wells.
Wells and Verne had quite a few rivals in early science fiction. Short stories and novelettes with themes of fantastic imagining appeared in journals throughout the late 19th century and many of these employed scientific ideas as the springboard to the imagination. Erewhon is a novel by Samuel Butler published in 1872 and dealing with the concept that machines could one day become sentient and supplant the human race. Although better known for other works, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote early science fiction. The only book in which Charles Dickens ventured into the territory of science speculation and strange mysteries of this nature (as opposed to the clearly supernatural ghosts of Christmas) was in his novel Bleak House (1852) wherein Dickens had one of his characters die by Spontaneous Human Combustion. Dickens carefully researched recorded cases of SHC before writing about the subject and was able to answer the skeptics who were outraged by his novel.
Wells and Verne both had an international readership and influenced writers in America, especially. Soon a home-grown American science fiction was thriving. European writers found more readers by selling to the American market and writing in an Americanised style.
The next great British science fiction writer after H. G. Wells was Olaf Stapledon (1886 to 1950), whose four major works Last and First Men (1930), Odd John (1935),Star Maker (1937), and Sirius (1940), introduced a myriad of ideas that writers have since adopted.
Later, the works of John Wyndham (real name: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris) (1903 to 1969) gained a great deal of popular and critical acclaim. Wyndham, who also wrote under the pen-names of John Beynon, John Beynon Harris, Johnson Harris, Lucas Parkes and Wyndham Parkes. John Wyndham also liked to refer to science fiction by the name logical fantasy.
Before the Second World War John Wyndham wrote almost exclusively for American pulp magazines but after the war he became famous, under the name John Wyndham, to the general public beyond the narrow audience of science fiction fans. This fame came initially from his novels The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955), and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957).
In America Mark Twain wrote one novel which explores themes of science in a fictionalised form, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. By means of "transmigration of souls" "transposition of epochs -- and bodies" Twain's yankee is transported back in time and all his knowledge of 19th century technology with him. The results are catastrophic as the chivalry of King Arthur's aristocracy is subverted by the increased killing power afforded by such things as Gatling Guns, barbed wire and explosives. Written in 1889 A Connecticut Yankee seems to predict events which would take place 25 years later in 1914 when Europe's old ideas of chivalry in warfare would be shattered beyond repair by the weapons and tactics of World War I.
Jack London wrote several science fiction stories including The Red One (a story involving extraterrestrials), The Iron Heel (set in the future from London's point of view) and The Unparalleled Invasion (a story involving future germ warfare and ethnic cleansing). He also wrote a story about invisibility and a story about an irresistible energy weapon.
Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 to 1950) began writing science fiction for the pulp magazines just before World War I, getting his first story Under the Moons of Mars published in 1912. He continued to publish adventure stories, many of them science fiction, throughout the rest of his life. The pulps published adventure stories of all kinds. Science fiction stories had to fit in alongside of murder mysteries, horror, fantasy and Edgar Rice Burroughs' own Tarzan.
The development of American science fiction as a self-conscious genre dates (in part) from 1926, when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories magazine, which was devoted exclusively to science fiction stories. Since he is notable for having chosen the variant term scientifiction to describe this incipient genre, the stage in the genre's development, his name and the term "scientifiction" are often thought to be inextricably linked. Published in this and other pulp magazines with great and growing success, such scientifiction stories were not viewed as serious literature but as sensationalism. Nevertheless, a magazine devoted entirely to science fiction was a great boost to the public awareness of the scientific speculation story.
The Golden Age
The spirit of the machines
Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis (1927) in which the first cinematic humanoid robot was seen and the Italian Futurists' love of machines are indicative of both the hopes and fears of the world between the big European wars.
In 1913 the philosophy of language had been taken to pieces and re-interpreted in a revolutionary way by Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and in the years from the First World War to the 1920s the scientific world was rocked by Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity. The war inself, the mass deaths and the new technologies of ironclad ships and fighting tanks, submarines and zeppelins, the new severe militaristic fashions of shorter hairstyles for men and new social roles for women, modern art and new styles in music all taken together added up to a massive traumatic shock and convulsion to western civilisation. The phenomenon would eventually be labelled Future Shock in a controversial book of the same name written by the sociologist and futurologist Alvin Toffler in 1970.
There was a great desire to rebuild after the war. To find a new paradigm of peace-time man. The buzzwords were "modern", "automation" and "automatic". People were optimistic about technology and the downside of it, such as pollution or shoddy mass-produced plastic items, hadn't arrived in the public perception to a great degree yet. Machines offered a way forward and science fiction was the gospel of that way.
Writers attempted to respond to the new world. In the 1920s and 30s writers entirely unconnected with science fiction were exploring new ways of telling a story and new ways of treating time, space and experience in the narrative form. The posthumously published works of Franz Kafka (who died in 1924) and the works of modernist and magic realist writers redefined decription. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf and other modernist writers created stories where time and individual identity could be expanded, contracted, looped etc. and all of this was unconnected to science fiction, except that it was within the continuum of modern writing and was dealing with the impact of modernity (technology, science and change) upon people's lives.
A strong theme in modernistic writing was alienation, the making strange of familiar surroundings so that settings and behaviour usually regarded as "normal" are seen as though they were the seemingly bizarre practices of an alien culture. The audience of modernist plays or the readership of modern novels is often led to question everything. The supposed "normal" person or comfortable middle-class reader who is projected as the potential audience is encouraged to a more autistic experiential perception characterised by "oops, I must be on the wrong planet".
For a time science fiction and modernist fiction remained in parallel but unconnected. That connection would come later, in the 1950s. First the genre of science fiction would have to develop a bit to be ready to intersect with modernism.
Main Article : Astounding Magazine
With the emergence in 1937 of a demanding editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., of Astounding Science Fiction (founded in 1930), and with the publication of stories and novels by such writers as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, science fiction began to gain status as serious fiction. Ventures into the genre by writers who were not devoted exclusively to science fiction also added respectability; early such writers included Karel Capek, Aldous Huxley, and C. S. Lewis, and later writers included Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Magazine covers of bug-eyed monsters and scantily-clad women, however, preserved the image of a sensational genre appealing only to adolescents. There was naturally a public desire for sensation, a desire of people to be taken out of their dull lives to the worlds of space travel and adventure.
Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre produced a radio version of The War of the Worlds which, famously, panicked large numbers of people who believed the programme to be a real newscast. The idea of visitors or invaders from outer space became firmly part of the public mythology.
During World War II pilots speculated on the possible origins of the Foo fighters they saw around them in the air. The German flying bombs, VIs and VIIs added to the growing wonder about the future of space travel. Jet planes were developed and the atom bomb. When a story of a flying saucer crash was circulated from Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 science fiction had become folklore.
The post-war era
A great boom in the popularity of science fiction followed World War II. Some science fiction works became paperback best-sellers. The postwar American power and prosperity helped to spread the works of American writers around the world. In Japan translations by Tetsu Yano introduced hundreds of US works to a Japanese readership. Science fiction was already international though, thriving in the then Soviet Union and other eastern European nations, where it was frequently used as a vehicle for political commentary that could not be safely published in other forms. The Polish author Stanislaw Lem is one of the non-English science fiction writers who has become widely known outside his native country.
Throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s newspapers, radio and then television media were abuzz with talk of the atom bomb, atomic energy, rockets, flying saucers and sputnik. Speculation and paranoia were rife. Radio dramas like Dimension X and X Minus One in America delivered science fiction stories to eager listeners and on the BBC in Britain audiences didn't want to miss an episode of Journey Into Space featuring Jet Morgan, Lemmy and Doc.
Comic books were full of stories based on sci-fi and these type of stories were also on Saturday morning movie serials, main feature films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Man With X-Ray Eyes , television programmes (such as Quatermass in Britain) and science fiction magazines like Galaxy.
In 1950, a year after the death of the mystical philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff, his admirers published an English translation of his allegorical novel Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson - An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man In which a space traveller gives his point of view on humans and the planet Earth in the cosmic scheme of things.
The Beat Generation
Samuel Beckett's modernistic writings The Unnamable and Waiting for Godot were influential upon writing in the 1950s. In the former all sense of place and time are dispensed with and all that remains is a voice poised between the urge to continue existing and the urge to find silence and oblivion. In the latter, time and the meaning of cause and effect are played with to great effect. Beckett's work from this period deals with elements of despair and the will to survive in the face of an uncomprehended and uncomprehending world.
William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) was the writer who finally brought science fiction together with the modernist trend in literature. With the help of Jack Kerouac Burroughs published The Naked Lunch, the first of a series of novels employing a semi-dadaistic technique called the Cut-up and modernistic deconstructions of conventional society, pulling away the mask of normality to reveal horrors beneath. Burroughs showed visions of society as a conspiracy of aliens, monsters, police states, drug dealers and alternate levels of reality. The linguistics of science fiction merged with the experiments of modernism in a beat generation nightmare. The Naked Lunch was prosecuted by the State of Massachusetts and the case still stands as the last obscenity trial against a work of literature in the United States.
The modern era and the New Wave
"The modern era" is a fairly elastic term but perhaps began in the mid 1960s with the popularisation of the genre of soft science fiction. There were developments leading in this direction for a long time before, however. Isaac Asimov's Foundation which began his long-running series appeared in the May 1942 edition of Astounding Science Fiction and contained the concept of one foundation based on a library of hard scientific knowledge and another foundation based on knowing the power of the mind. By the 1960s, though, this softer concept of mind power, rather than machines, was broadening the entire genre.
In 1960 British novelist Kingsley Amis published New Maps of Hell a literary history and examination of the field of science fiction. This serious attention from a mainstream, acceptable writer did a great deal of good, eventually, for the reputation of science fiction but, at the time, high school teachers were still trying to steer students away from the genre, describing it as "rubbish".
A major milestone was the publication, in 1965, of Frank Herbert's Dune a dense, complex, and detailed work of fiction featuring political intrigue in a future galaxy, strange and mystical religious beliefs, and the eco-system of the desert planet Arrakis.
In Britain the 1960s generation of writers, dubbed "The New Wave" were experimenting with different forms of science fiction, stretching the genre towards surrealism, psychological drama and mainstream currents. The 60s New Wave was centred around the writing in the magazine New Worlds after the change in editorial direction from 1963 onward. William Burroughs was the big influence.
The field saw an increase in:
- the number of writers and readers
- the breadth of subject matter
- the depth of treatment
- the sophistication of language and technique
- the political and literary consciousness of the writing.
- the exploration of Sexuality
Also, technological fixes to a problem became a far rarer plot device.
Television and Films
- See also: Science fiction on television
In 1966 Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek brought such science fiction to a mass television audience. The original Star Trek was, for its time, at the forefront of liberalism, preaching the universality and equality of humanity. It had an attractive black officer, the first interracial kiss on American TV, a Russian officer (this was at the height of the Cold War), an Asian officer, and even an alien officer.
A second generation of original and popular science fiction films begin to appear, among the most significant of which were Doctor Strangelove (1963), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), THX 1138 (1969), The Andromeda Strain (1971), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Star Wars (1977), and Battlestar Galactica (1978). (See the list of science fiction films article for a more detailed list of notable science fiction films).
The success of Star Wars was especially influential since it caused an explosive increase in interest for several years after its release in all forms of science fiction, though this has since somewhat abated. Science fiction literature strongly benefitted from this heightened interest and science fiction or fantasy titles frequently filled the bestseller lists well into the 1980s. Eventually, cultural interest in science fiction literature declined somewhat with consumer fatigue, flooded markets, and competition from other entertainment venues. Also, science fictional or fantasy "elements" began to be usurped by traditional authors and other types of media, though they were not significant enough to be classified as purely science fiction or fantasy. Today, pure science fiction or fantasy books only occasionally make the bestseller lists, although, in overall numbers there are more science fiction or fantasy books published now than in the past. Science fiction literature magazines, on the other hand, have seen a progressive and steady decline over the last 50 years.
The influence of fantasy on the genre resulted in what is now called science fantasy. Contributions of these works to the literature of the fantastic include an awareness of irrationality and the inexplicable, the transformative force of language, and the power of myth to organise experience. Star Wars is the most powerful example of this trend.
Onward and upward
Science fiction has continued to be popular in radio, comic books, television, and movies; it is notable that about three-quarters of the top twenty highest grossing films (source: IMDb June 2002) are based around science-fiction or fantasy themes.
The increasing intellectual sophistication of the genre and the emphasis on wider societal and psychological issues significantly broadened the appeal of science fiction to the reading public. Serious criticism of the genre is now common, and science fiction is studied in colleges and universities, both as literature and in how it relates to science and society.
There have been many crossover writings between science fiction and the mainstream of literature. There are writers who are generally known for mainstream literature who branch-out into writing science fiction. Examples are: Brave New World Aldous Huxley, The Ransom Trilogy C. S. Lewis, 1984 George Orwell, On the Beach Nevil Shute, The Alteration Kingsley Amis, Shikasta Doris Lessing and The Andromeda Strain Michael Crichton. Then there are writers first known for science fiction and fantasy who crossover into mainstream literature. Examples would be J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock.
Philip K. Dick wrote several novels which were mainstream studies of people, situations and relationships (with no science fiction element at all) but they didn't sell very well until after his death and, consequently, he is remembered by most people as an author of science fiction alone.
There are also novels which combine science, fiction, fact, fantasy and allegory in ways which make categorisation difficult. For example, The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. In this autobiographical novel Primo Levi combines the true story of his life as a student chemist and victim of Nazi anti-semitism with allegorical fables and the structure of scientific classification of the chemical elements. He makes it clear that the science and the fables both have important roles in his development as a young man.
As we progress, further into the 21st century, technology and planned obsolescence have become so much a part of our lives that, these days, to write a contemporary novel means write a story in which people's lives are continually impacted by the presence of satellite technology, broadband internet, IPods, genetically modified organisms, environmental problems, robot assembly lines, cloning, designer babies, etc. etc. There is a very blurry line between the themes focused on by the work of William Gibson (who gets clearly labelled as a cyberpunk science fiction writer) and those of Jeff Noon (who gets labelled as a writer of contemporary fiction and only sometimes described as science fiction) for instance. Even factual writing like Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is covering areas previously the stuff of science fiction. The world has caught-up with many of science fiction's favorite themes and literature can only reflect this. As a result, the dividing line between science fiction and the rest of literature is getting thinner.
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