Science fiction

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Science fiction

Science fiction: A type of fiction that is grounded in scientific or pseudo-scientific concepts and that, whether set on Earth or in an alternate or parallel world, employs both realistic and fantastic elements in exploring the question “What if?” As British novelist Kingsley Amis explained in New Maps of Hell (1964), science fiction deals with a situation that “could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology, whether human or extraterrestrial in origin.” While the term science fiction, which was coined in 1851 by British author William Wilson and popularized in the late 1920s by science-fiction novelist and publisher Hugo Gernsback, encompasses a wide variety of works, topics and themes typical of the genre include utopian or dystopian societies, fantastic journeys to unknown worlds, time travel, alien invasions and encounters, wars involving mass destruction, the destruction or assimilation of cultures, questions of identity, and the (d)evolution of humanity.

Forerunners of science fiction typically recount tales of adventurers who have travelled to unknown worlds. For instance, Vera historia (True History), written around A.D. 150 by Lucian of Samosata, included a journey to the sun and the moon. Dream visions of the Medieval Period were religious in nature, describing journeys to heaven, hell, and the limbo called purgatory. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, several authors had imaginatively written about flights into space, where utopian societies were sometimes discovered. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), in which a sailor speaks of an idyllic land beyond the sea, is an early example of utopian literature said to anticipate science fiction. Other early works about fantastic journeys include Bishop Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638), John Wilkins’s Discovery of a New World in the Moone (1638), Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’autre monde (Voyages to the Moon and the Sun) (c. 1640—50), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and Ludvig Holberg’s Nicolai Klimii iter Subterraneum (A Journey to the World Underground) (1741).

Most scholars view the novel Frankenstein (1818), by English writer Mary Shelley, as the first major work in the development of the genre; some have even called it the first science-fiction novel. Frankenstein, which involves an experiment gone horrifically awry — the creation of a monstrous creature from parts of human corpses — has inspired countless stories about the possible misuse of science and has been spun off into numerous novels, movies, and comic books. Subsequently, Edgar Allan Poe incorporated science into short stories such as “The Balloon-Hoax” (1850) and “Mellonta Tauta” (1850). Jules Verne contributed to the development of the genre with novels such as Voyage au centre de la terre (Journey to the Center of the Earth) (1864) and Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) (1869). Common themes included space travel, as evidenced by Gustavus Pope’s Journey to Mars (1894) and Journey to Venus (1895); utopias, as exemplified by Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward: 2000—1887 (1888), which inspired political movements in both England and America through its tale of a man who falls asleep in capitalist Boston in 1887 and awakens in 2000 in a society free from injustice; and the death of civilizations, as in Shelley’s The Last Man (1829) and Richard Jefferies’s After London (1885). Other notable nineteenth-century authors who mixed science and fiction include Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Although a number of influential science-fiction narratives were published throughout the nineteenth century, it is English writer H. G. Wells who is generally credited with having engendered the recognition of science fiction as a literary genre. Wells not only wrote about fantastic journeys, utopian and dystopian societies, and scientific discoveries but also introduced new topics, such as the concept of intentional time travel popularized by his novella The Time Machine (1895). In addition, he created the prototype for alien invasion stories in The War of the Worlds (1898), which, when performed on a live radio broadcast by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater Company in 1938, caused panic among thousands of listeners who believed that aliens had actually invaded New Jersey.

Following the mass destruction of World War I, science fiction addressing the interrelated topics of war and the end of civilization as we know it became particularly popular in Britain. Examples of works reflecting these themes include Edward Shanks’s People of the Ruins (1920) and S. Fowler Wright’s trilogy about a possible second world war (Beyond the Rim [1932], Power [1933], and Prelude in Prague [1935]). Works describing dystopian societies, perhaps the best known of which is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), also came into vogue, as did works incorporating the idea of a new human race, such as Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930).

Notable science fiction was also produced in the first few decades of the twentieth century in both continental Europe and Japan. Examples include the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovski’s novel Beyond the Planet Earth (1920); the German science-fiction magazine Kapitän Mors (Captain Mors), launched in 1909; the works of German author Hans Joachim Dominik, one of the most popular and prolific practitioners of the genre; the Frenchman André Maurois’s stories, including The Weigher of Souls (1931); and the works of Japanese authors such as Komatsu Kitamura, Juza Uno, and Masami Fukushima.

It was the United States, though, that became the center of the science-fiction universe, thanks to the emergence of the “dime novel” and pulp fiction, both of which featured invention themes and could be inexpensively produced. At the end of the nineteenth century, a fifteen-year-old American named Luis Philip Senarens inaugurated “invention stories” — which were published as dime novels and widely imitated — with his tales of a character named Frank Reade Jr., whose worldwide adventures involved submarines, helicopters, and armored cars and trucks. While the popularity of dime novels gradually faded, given that most were poorly written, the invention theme remained popular, and publishers turned to magazines printed on cheap paper made from wood pulp as a new medium for publishing science fiction featuring technological innovations.

During the two decades following 1926 — the year in which Gernsback founded Amazing Stories, America’s first science-fiction magazine — science fiction became a predominantly American genre. Some established British authors — including Wells, Stapledon, and Huxley, as well as John Beynon Harris (who wrote as John Wyndham), George Orwell (1984 [1949]), and Arthur C. Clarke (best known for his Space Odyssey series [1968—97]) — continued to write in the traditional style. But other British science-fiction writers began adapting their efforts to an identifiably American style: hard science fiction, based on real scientific theories. Hard science fiction may explore “hot topics” on which scientists disagree, but it is grounded in actual science and engineering and generally offers a scientific explanation for any technology introduced in the story. In her introduction to The Norton Book of Science Fiction (1993), Ursula Le Guin described hard science fiction more valuatively, both as denoting “a fiction using hi-tech iconology with strong scientific content, solidly thought out, well researched, tough minded” and as connoting “fiction whose values are male-centered, usually essentialist, often politically rightist or militaristic, placing positive ethical value on violence.”

The person most responsible for shaping and defining hard science fiction was John W. Campbell Jr., an American who in 1937 became the editor of the science-fiction magazine Astounding Stories (now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) (1930— ). Campbell, who argued that science-fiction stories should involve predictions based solely on scientific facts and principles and provide inspiration for future scientific discoveries, published an influential tale in Astounding Stories entitled “Who Goes There?” (1938) that was adapted to film as The Thing (1951, 1982). He also recruited authors for the magazine including Canadian A. E. Van Vogt, whose Slan (serialized in 1940) inspired science-fiction readers to call themselves “slans”; Isaac Asimov, perhaps best known for his Foundation series (1951—53, 1982), who contended that “modern science fiction is the only form of literature that consistently considers the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences, and the possible solutions”; and Robert Heinlein, an influential and prolific writer who set forth five principles for science-fiction writing. In “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction” (1947), Heinlein argued that science fiction should: (1) be set in a world with “new conditions,” somehow “different from the here and now”; (2) make this environment an integral part of the story; (3) feature a human problem or dilemma that is the focus of the plot; (4) show that the developing problem relates to and results from the new situation; and, most importantly, (5) rely on accurate scientific facts. Other authors who wrote for Campbell include Ray Bradbury (who later authored the novel Fahrenheit 451 [1953]); Lester Del Rey; L. Ron Hubbard (whose book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health [1950] is the basis of Scientology); Henry Kuttner; Catherine L. Moore (who wrote as C. L. Moore); Clifford D. Simak; and E. E. Smith, Ph.D. (known as “Doc” Smith).

Another influential and independent group of American science-fiction writers and fans known as the Futurians emerged in the 1930s. The group, which was based in New York and active from 1938 to 1945, held that science-fiction fans “should be forward-looking (’futurian’) and constructive.” Members included James Blish, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Robert A. W. Lowndes, Frederik Pohl, and Donald Wollheim (who was considered the group’s leader in the 1930s). Asimov was also associated with the group.

In 1949 and 1950, respectively, two important new science-fiction magazines appeared: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1949— ) and Galaxy (1950—80). Galaxy, edited by Pohl and H. L. Gold, published a number of works in serial form that became particularly influential, including Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951), Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1952), and Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (1953; adapted to film 1984).

Hollywood’s embrace of several recurring themes in science fiction further contributed to the popularity of the genre. Notable films include The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), a movie about the fear of the end of civilization; Forbidden Planet (1956), which adapted Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1611) into a cautionary tale about the power of scientists; and the cult favorite Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which, through its depictions of “pod creatures” taking over human beings, has been said by some to reflect fears of communism and attacks on individual freedom.

Other science-fiction authors who wrote during the 1950s and beyond include American authors Hal Clement, Philip José Farmer, Frank Herbert (best known for his Dune series [1965—85]), Walter M. Miller, and Robert Silverberg. Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known for his Tarzan series (1912—65) but who had long written space stories — including works in his Mars (1912—43) and Venus (1934—64) series — also continued to publish science fiction. In addition, several authors otherwise unassociated with the genre produced notable science-fiction works, as exemplified by British novelist Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957; adapted to film 1959), and American novelist Daniel Keys’s Flowers for Algernon (1959), later adapted to film as Charly (1968).

In the 1960s, a new type of science fiction called New Wave writing appeared on the scene. The phrase “New Wave” — from nouvelle vague, a French phrase used in criticism — was adopted in 1963 by Michael Moorcock, a respected British science-fiction author, in an editorial published by the British science-fiction magazine New Worlds (1946—71). Moorcock, who drew on the unconventional science-fiction works of William Burroughs in formulating his ideas and who later became the editor of New Worlds, encouraged science-fiction writers to break away from traditional science fiction and to experiment. Among other things, Moorcock recommended avoiding the themes of space travel and interplanetary warfare and concentrating instead on the mysteries of mind and body. In essence, “inner space,” rather than outer space, became the focus, and this “soft” science fiction, with its emphasis on human psychology and emotion, challenged the “hard,” which “soft” practitioners viewed as out of step with the turbulent times.

Moorcock handpicked several authors to advance his ideas, including J. G. Ballard, who wrote The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (1963) and The Terminal Beach (1964); John Brunner, author of Stand on Zanzibar (1968); and E. C. Tubb, who in 2008 published Child of Earth, the last novel in his “Dumarest Saga” (1967—2008). Brian Aldiss also wrote in the New Wave style, though he expressed reservations about the tendency of the movement to de-emphasize plot. American authors who wrote British-style New Wave stories included Samuel R. Delaney, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Harlan Ellison, John Sladek, Norman Spinrad, and Theodore Sturgeon. The film Minority Report (2002), which is set in Washington, D.C., in the year 2054 and which involves a “precrime” department that relies on three humans called “precogs” to predict murders before they happen, is based on Dick’s short story “Minority Report,” first published in 1956 in the magazine Fantastic Universe (1953—60).

While Moorcock was promoting his ideas, Americans were developing their own version of New Wave writing under the influence of Judith Merrill, a science-fiction author, reviewer, and anthropologist who from 1955 until 1966 published an annual collection of science-fiction stories entitled Year’s Best SF. Merrill, like Moorcock, sought to improve science fiction by encouraging writers to incorporate contemporary literary techniques into their works. The American authors she most influenced tended to be already established writers such as Roger Zelazny, perhaps best known for He Who Shapes (1966); Kurt Vonnegut, whose Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) boosted science fiction’s standing in the academic world; and Silverberg, the author of Dying Inside (1972).

The 1970s marked a turning point for science fiction in terms of multiple influences on the genre. Many authors began to mix fantasy fiction — which generally differs from science fiction in featuring magic and the supernatural — and science fiction. Also, new themes such as the evolution of gender relations and gender roles emerged when female authors such as Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, Alice Sheldon, and Kate Wilhelm began contributing to a genre that had previously been dominated by men.

In addition, two new types of science fiction began to emerge — cyberpunk and steampunk — both of which reflected the ideas and attitudes of the rebellious, counterculture “punk” movement. Cyberpunk, a mix of hard and soft science fiction that gained popularity in the 1980s with William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), features future worlds populated by “cyborgs” (human/machine hybrids) who live in societies dependent upon technology for their daily existence. Steampunk, which was popularized by Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), combines a Victorian aesthetic with science fiction (and often also fantasy) and features anachronistic or retrofuturistic technology such as gear-driven automatons and steam-powered computers. Such new developments notwithstanding, more traditional science fiction, now a blend of various influences of the past century, is still written and published in magazines like Asimov’s Science Fiction (1977— ).

Authors who are not typically classified as science-fiction writers but who have made significant contributions to the genre include Stephen King, author of The Dead Zone (1979); Doris Lessing, whose four-novel Canopus in Argos series (1979—83) considers the possibilities presented by a feminist utopia; Carl Sagan, whose novel Contact (1985) was adapted into a 1997 film starring Jodie Foster; and Michael Crichton, whose Jurassic Park (1990) became a blockbuster movie in 1993.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985; adapted to film 2013), which began as an eponymously titled short story published in 1977 in Analog Science Fiction and Fact; Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987—89); Kim Stanley Robinson’s utopian Mars trilogy (1993—96); China Miéville’s steampunk Perdido Street Station (2000); Audrey Niffenegger’s sci-fi romance The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003; adapted to film 2009); David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004; adapted to film 2012); Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian Never Let Me Go (2005; adapted to film 2010); Suzanne Collins’s trilogy The Hunger Games (2008—10; adapted to film 2012—15); Veronica Roth’s young-adult Divergent trilogy (2011—13; adapted to film 2014—16); Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (2013), the first novel in her Imperial Radch trilogy (2013—15).

Noted science-fiction films include Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982); Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian Children of Men (2006), based on P. D. James’s 1992 novel of the same name; Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romance Her (2013); Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), based on Andy Weir’s 2011 eponymous novel; and the epic Star Wars movies (1977— ), including Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).