What is science fiction? I suspect there are more definitions than authors writing the genre. But one that caught my eye was a definition that Adam Roberts came up with in his History of Science Fiction:
Science Fiction is: stories of travel through space (to other worlds, planets and stars); stories of travel through time (into the past and into the future); and stories of imaginary technology (machinery, robots, computers, cyborgs and cyber-culture).
The examples stated for each is, in my view, limited. Space is what we have seen and in most cases measured. Surrounding our seeable universe is a ‘soup’ of big-bangness stuff – I’m not sure you could call it material – that as far as I’m aware has never been explored (as opposed to mentioned in the background) in science fiction. Time could involve parallel universes – like the what ifs of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Keith Roberts’ Pavanne. Imaginary technology extends beyond the implementation of machinery and use of data to understanding of the impact we can have on the real world such as how we as a race cause climate change (which involves none of the list cited).
Roberts then goes on to indicate that, although he doesn’t add it to his science fiction groups, utopias. He argues they are used as a mirror to reflect what is going wrong in our society. As they can take any method, it is not surprising that they use science fiction themes to produce their satire.
So when did these three streams of the genre start?
Space travel can find its roots in the ancient world stories such as Jason and the Argonauts. Francis Godwin is credited with publishing the earliest story of travelling to the Moon in his The Man in the Moone: Or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger (1638). It was more about a Utopia than anything else, which is why people consider it proto-science fiction. The first serious attempt at realistic space flight was made by Jules Verne in From the Earth to the Moon (in French 1865, in English 1869). Science fiction space flight really took off in the era of Hugo Gernsback pulps, more because of the realisation of so many possibilities, rather than specific breakthrough story.
Time travel was first significantly employed in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. However, I would argue that time travel has its roots in a real event in Falun, Sweden. In 1719, miners in Falun’s copper mine found an intact dead body in a water-filled, long-unused tunnel. When they brought the body to the surface, it was identified by his former fiancée, Margaret Olsdotter, as Fet-Mats Israelsson, who had disappeared 42 years earlier. However, the first novel to use a device to travel in time was, of course, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895.
The third category, imaginary technology, does have a definitive point of origin, namely Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818. This story was based on the newly discovered property of galvanism, where a frog’s leg could be made to twitch by passing an electric current through it.
The interesting thing in listing those novels I mentioned above are is that apart from Verne and Gernsback, all the initial science fiction forerunners were English authors. Of course being British, I may have a natural bias towards this, but I think there is something else at play here. Not sure what though.
Turning now to the modern day, and bearing in mind that I view today’s e-publishing as yesterday’s pulp fiction.
It is not surprising given the increase in worldwide population that there are more science fiction authors being published today. Science fiction has, like other aspects of society, splintered in factions or sub-genres. For instance, can you see the Alastair Reynolds’s or Peter Hamiltons writing about climate change? This splintering, along with the volume of new stories in each sub-genre, leads to pigeon-holing, by and for both writers and readers.
Which has led to the rise of crossovers between science fiction sub-genres. But that’s what they are limited to, cross-overs between two, and occasionally three of them. But to be fair to the authors, anything more is a humungous task… or is it?