Notes on “A Brief Introduction to Science Fiction and Its History,” from Heather Masri’s textbook Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts.
Science Fiction's roots run all the way down to our earliest myths and stories, but it doesn't emerge as a genre in literature until the 19th century, and it didn't flourish as a genre until the 20th century.
Think about it. You cannot have science fiction until you have something recognizable as modern science. So when did the intellectual era of modern science begin? Science is an outgrowth of the renaissance, which was expanding the reach of human inquiry and challenging Medieval assumptions about nature and reality that had held for hundreds of years. Think of people like Galileo and Francis Bacon. As you move into the 17th century, you see an epistemological shift happening. Instead of a faith-based reasoning (taking God and the bible and church doctrine as the starting point for knowledge), European thinkers founded their knowledge base on Observation (Perception) and Reason. This leads to new ways to explain reality, ways that can be confirmed through experimentation and acted upon through engineering and new technologies. Examples of early technologies would include the use of gun powder to make better instruments of destruction (rifles, cannons), moveable type and printing press (which ushered in a new era of mass media -- book printing and later the periodical press). Later would come innovations such as the steam engine, power looms, the harnessing of electricity, the telegraph, the light bulb, and all the rest.
The point is that scientific thinkers jettisoned the old ways and used their new knowledge methods to make amazing discoveries, and it was these discoveries that helped propel us into the modern age of industry and technology, with all its conveniences and radical transformations of daily life, for better or worse.
Science fiction is the fiction (imaginative storytelling in prose) that responds to these developments and speculates about them. A nice substitute term is speculative fiction.
Science fiction is very much a literature of ideas. It is concerned with where we are at and where we are headed. It sometimes predicts the future or imagines alternative histories. It sometimes reflects anxieties about the modern condition, sometimes celebrates the power of science and its hold on our imagination.
Science fiction used to be considered pulp fiction -- popular, escapist and fun, but not all that serious. Nowadays it has achieved mainstream status. Yes, it's still fun, but it is front and center in our culture.
Science fiction, along with postmodern fiction and magical realism and slipstream fiction, are all genres that veer away from traditional realistic storytelling, which was the dominant paradigm from the mid 19th through the present day.
Science fiction is literature that responds to change. The scientific revolution and the industrial revolution it fueled have brought about momentous changes to nature, society, and our sense of self. We might here indicate the range of those responses, or at least some lines of thought:
The prophetic vector: fiction that speculates on where science and technology are taking us into the future. What will that future be like? Where is all this human progress taking us? Some stories concern themselves with apocalyptic, disastrous futures. These reveal an anxiety about the uncontrollable consequences of science and engineering.
The values vector: SciFi often questions the values of its culture. What do we consider to be important as a society? Are we asking the right questions? Do we have all the right answers?
The utopian spectrum: SciFi sometimes entertains notions of what the ideal planned society would look like (utopia) and warns us of how utopias can turn into their opposite: dystopia (a nightmarish inversion of the ideal state).
The imaginary journeys: SciFi sometimes takes you to strange otherworldly places, where aliens are encountered. Invariably, these voyages teach us something about ourselves, our biases, prejudices, and potential for change.
The Gothic element: Gothic fiction is a subgenre that arose in the late 18th / early 19th century as part of the Romantic movement. It involves dark and creepy tales of haunted houses, ghosts, vampires, mystical and mysterious experiences, and the like. The Gothic can be seen as a repudiation of Scientific Reason, and our modern horror stories are the consequence. Often SciFi will borrow themes from Gothic and Horror fiction but it puts them within the context of a scientific setting. Frankenstein is probably the best case in point.
Major figures in early Science Fiction:
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (gothic, dark romanticism)
- Jules Verne (adventure stories, imaginary voyages)
- H.G. Wells (socially oriented, speculative fiction)
The Golden Age of SciFi (late 1930's through 1950's)
Astounding Science-Fiction magazine (John Campell was an influential editor)
Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and many other major authors fluourished in this period. (often these stories speculate on the virtues of science and technology)
The New Wave (1960's)
These writers were more critical and suspicious of the impact of science and technology on society and self. The writing style was more self-conscious and literary and sometimes satirical. It is as much if not more so concerned with society and politics than technology itself.
Women's Voices and Gender
In response to the Women's movement of the 60's and 70's, SciFi gets more interested in questions of gender, identity, sexuality, family, and the body.
These are near-future, high-tech, dystopic stories with a film-noirish flavor, hard-boiled, punky, and darkly disturbed and edgy style. Cyberpunk is responding to the rise of information society and the computer age.
Hard SciFi vs. Soft SciFi
Hard SciFi puts much more emphasis on the science and technology and revels in the mechanics and plausibility of its scenarios. SoftSciFi is more concerned with social, political and identity issues.
I think the point to finish with here is this: Science Fiction can certainly be escapist and adventuresome and fantastic in its speculations on the range of subjects it covers, but when you read it, you should always be aware that Science Fiction is really a reflection (or refraction) of the culture it comes from. So ask yourself, what is this telling us about who we are, where we came from, and where we are headed.