Happy Leap Year Day!
Why do people write science fiction? What does science fiction bring to the literary table that other genres do not?
Science fiction can find one of its roots in the wondrous journeys sagas of the ancient world – think Jason and the Argonauts. It is there to show things that were not even a rarity in the real world. It gave a kind of sense of wonder to the reader / listener. It also taught children how to face up to the unknown, and at that time they probably had a lot of unknowns to deal with in their lives.
Another root is that of offering arguments for political debate of how we should live and think – think Plato’s The Republic or later on Kepler’s Somnium – the latter being his heliocentric system being written as a dream and hence the title to avoid problems with the Catholic Church of his time.
Then there is satisfying the emotional junkie – the need to have that feeling of supreme satisfaction that could not be attained in the everyday life although occasional glimpses were allowed. Think of Thomas More’s Utopia.
Sense of wonder, political debate and satisfying the emotional junkie all had one thing in common – going beyond the limits of life’s reality.
And then along came science, an instrument that could one day make what people never had experienced or thought they could never experience possible. Mary Shelley’s The Modern Prometheus / Frankenstein published in 1818 was the trail blazer with her use of the newly discovered galvanism to bring Frankenstein’s monster to life.
Of course others followed in her footsteps, slowly at first. But it gathered pace after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 when the Prussian Army demonstrated its superiority through the use of speed and adaptability. The Battle of Dorking was published in 1871 by a British Army engineer, George Chesney, to warn the politicians of the day how inadequate the British Army would become given the way warfare was heading. This started a whole slew of future warfare stories because science fiction suddenly became relevant to the near future as there was an urgent problem that needed fixing.
[To digress from the historical timeline for a moment – this peak of science fictional activity to warn / identify benefits of an up and coming technology would be repeated throughout the history of science fiction. The most recent such peak, which I believe we are coming to the end of, is the impact of the internet etc on human society. A good novel that depicts many internet issues is Heather Child’s Every Thing About You.]
Then along came H G Wells and The Time Machine in 1895. His novel is undoubtedly about the politics of the day, but taking it to the far future meant he could simplify society to bring out the issues he wanted. The important aspect about this novel is that he used a machine to travel through time to give it that feel of it could really happen. Putting it another way, the machine bestowed his ‘discussion theme’ with more urgency and relevance for the reader.
H G Wells went on to write many more significant novels and short stories and a lot of his predictions turned out to be uncannily true. How did he do it? We cannot know the full truth, but you can see in a lot of his novels he is extrapolating the science of the day. The Island of Doctor Moreau for instance is the speeded-up extrapolation of the way livestock was bred for improved product or performance. He also joined the group of people writing about future war. Unfortunately his predictions turned out to be all too true in too many instances.
Even E M Forster got on the bandwagon and published a science fiction story, The Machine Stops in 1909. This is a warning about the over-reliance on machines, which did almost everything for the human to keep them comfortable and happy. It is one of the first stories where the machine / technology ‘acts’ on its own (I use acts here as an instigator of events). Humans are just bystanders and react to what is going on around them. This story is a product of the automation trends being secured by the industrial revolution, the cogwheels and levers acting in their complicated dance, the electricity supplies that were starting to get through the general public, supply of piped gas around cities to light the way in the evenings and the horseless carriages to transport goods and people along the roads. These machines acting in their own right continues and becomes more sophisticated as a theme throughout all subsequent science fiction – sort of technological aliens or beasts of wonder.
Printing after World War I became cheaper leading to the advert of pulp fiction and many more magazines. Story after story was written and published to relieve long journey times, keep children quiet and entertain people in the increasing spare time they had. It is inevitable that variations on variations were produced. A lot of it was poorly written, but it nevertheless filled the pages.
Out of this maelstrom of fiction came the inevitable tidying up, indexing and categorisation. Rockets, ray-guns and space exploration sense of wonder themes became the most ambitious and captivating of the potential future science themes. E E Doc Smith’s combined these elements, but the result was initially too far out for the publishers’ liking. The Skylark of Space, the first of his novels was completed in 1920, but it was not until it was not published until 1928 when it was serialised in three parts in Amazing Stories. Thus the Space Opera sub-genre as we know it was born. It was and continues to be the human wish list for the future when it comes to world-building.
Meanwhile the global clouds of war gathered once more. How much science fiction played a part in helping to develop the rockets, radar and communications systems of World War 2 is unknown, but by this time the science fiction ideas had embedded themselves into many people’s subconscious. Yes the idea of rockets had long since been known, but the science fiction brought their uses to life. Nevertheless technological progress was made.
Thanks to John W Campbell, the success of that technological progress led to another slew of science and technology science fiction stories of the near to medium term future being published. In addition to the dire warnings of misuse, there was what new up and coming technologies could bring. John W Campbell became editor of Astounding Science Fiction and he single-handedly guided his authors to improve the science basis of their worlds. He pushed his authors to come up with things like the three laws of robotics (Isaac Asimov). He pushed stories like Deadline by Cleave Cartmill in 1944, which gave such a good description of the atomic bomb that the FBI descended on Campbell’s office demanding he pull the issue.
Why did Campbell do this? He wanted to pull science fiction out of the fiction gutter it had found itself in. He id this by improving the quality of writing and once again making the story issues relevant to people so that had to sit up and take notice. And he succeeded.
Of particular note is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which is really a set of eight stories published by the Astounding Magazine from 1942 – 1950 plus one more for the trilogy published 1951 – 1953. It deals with psycho-history, a form of prediction by sociology, which finds its basis on Edward Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was applied to space, a kind of past being applied to the future. It caught the readership’s imagination with the pointer to being able to predict the future of the human race. So began a period of sociology dominant science fiction.