Ancient precursors to science fiction (or proto-science fiction)
Many historians believe that science fiction is as old as civilization itself. Believe it or not, even in the ancient times such work that resembles science fiction did exist. Few of the earliest surviving works of ancient “science fiction” literature included The Epic of Gilgamesh (especially the story of the calamitous flood), the ancient literary relics Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as Arabian Nights, Lucian’s The True Story, and others.
These are considered precursors of science fiction because they exhibit the fantastical elements although they lack the characteristics that really makeup of science and technology. The fantasy aspects that are likened to modern science fiction include mechanical birds (which are equivalent to aircraft), the idea of time travel, human-like machines, the concept and quest for eternal life, as well as others. Because these were written in a time where technology and its advancements were still in their infancy, many of these aspects had not been made possible yet.
However, it is clear that the literary genre was born, but not yet fully developed. It was then called proto-science fiction. It has the elements which are associated with science fiction before the recognition and acceptance of science fiction as a true and distinct genre.
Following the wave of newer scientific discoveries, an impossibly “perfect” society was formed. It was called “utopia” which was coined by Sir Thomas More when he wrote and published a book of the same name in the early 16th century. This book was about a fictional island that has an ideal society. This utopian theme would continue to be the basis of many science fiction works.
The Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment, or known simply as Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, is the era that occurred in the 17th to 18th century. This era is considered the “seed” of modern science, as many of the scientists — in the persons of Newton, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal, and many others — emerged. They made groundbreaking inventions and discoveries that would forever make an indelible mark in the world of science.
Science, as a branch of knowledge, had now come to be taken seriously. Chemistry evolved from the fraudulent nature of alchemy, and astronomy progressed from astrology. There were a lot of inventions that would also become practical in our everyday lives (in and out of science) such as telescopes, steam turbines, barometers, air pump, and so many others. This era became a fertile ground for more exploration and thrilling inspirations to write science fiction.
Science fiction from the 19th to early 20th century
Science fiction continued to evolve in this era. One of the most important works that shaped the modern science fiction genre was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 novelThe Prometheus aka Frankenstein. The novel is usually associated with horror or Gothic literature, but many historians believe that it is the first real science fiction work because the central character Victor Frankenstein attempts to create something that has life, out of his scientific experiments. This is based on Dr. Frankenstein’s predetermined decisions and not by whim alone.
Shelley’s major work has influenced science fiction, even up to today. Another one of her works was Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman. It narrates of a story of a man who has been frozen for a long time and then comes back to life when the ice has been thawed. The story was based on a real-life newspaper report about a man involved in a “cryogenic” hoax.
A subgenre of science fiction was introduced and had become in vogue from the late 19th century until the early 20th century. This was called “scientific romance,” which is mostly a more fanciful and improbable (as well as archaic) form of the genre. The most prominent works of scientific romance are Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Leagues Under the Sea, H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau and Arthur Conan Doyle’sSherlock Holmes stories.
Recognition of science fiction as a literary genre
In the 20th century, science fiction was beginning to be recognized and accepted as a literary genre. This started with the pulp magazines (cheap kind of magazines) that were immensely popular at that time. It started with the publication Amazing Stories, which was published by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. Gernsback also coined the phrase “scientifiction” to this nascent literary genre.
From the paper, science fiction made a big, successful leap to the big screen. The first and pioneering science fiction movie was the German silent film Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang. It was set in a society with a sharp division between the rich and the poor.
Fan cults — called fandoms — began to exist, spawned by the popularity of this relatively new literary genre. The first science fiction fandom is the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society which was established in 1934, and it is the oldest existing one ever. Other earliest and pioneering sci-fi fandoms were the Futurians (1937-1945) and National Fan Federation (formed in 1945), which is the second oldest active.
Along with the “arrival” of the science fiction genre, modernism also entered the Western philosophy up to the early 20th century. Some non-science fiction writers also wrote material surrounding modernist themes. Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf and Karel Capek were some of those “modernist” writers whose stories also embrace the aspects of science and technology.
Capek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) narrates the story of manufactured humanoid machines that are soon invading the world and threatening the extinction of the human race.
Besides the play giving rise to the word “robot,” R.U.R. is also one of the earliest works of fictional dystopia, which is the complete opposite of utopia. Dystopia is an imaginary form of society where people suffer from misery and oppressive social control. This idea has been frequently used by modern science fiction writers and the recurring theme of many sci-fi films and television shows.
The Golden Age, and science fiction in the 1960s-1970s
The years between 1940-1950 were referred to as the “Golden Age” of science fiction because many of the classic modern science fiction works were produced. Many historians consider this era where science fiction came to be seen as a true and serious form of the literary genre. Many more science fiction writers emerged in this era, but it was the trio of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke who were recognized as the prime science fiction writers during their lifetimes. They came to be known famously as “The Big Three.”
Thanks to publisher and sci-fi magazine editor John W. Campbell, he published most works of “The Big Three” that ushered the Golden Age of this literary genre. Some of their most popular works that appeared during that era included The Foundation and The Robot series, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The 1960s “New Wave” filmmaking era (originated in France) junked the “pulp magazine” sci-fi style and leveled it up into a more sophisticated and more experimental method, all intended for arts’ sake.
The advent and popularity of more advanced media like films and television made science fiction appear more realistic. Most known science fiction movies include A Clockwork Orange, The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Star Wars movies.
In the small screen, the first science fiction series that first comes to mind is of course Star Trek. Other notable series include The Twilight Zone, and the British television series Doctor Who which is the longest sci-fi TV series in the world, according to Guinness Book of World Records.
Modern science fiction
With the advent of computers and cybernetics, they provided more exciting inspirations and fodders for science fiction. They still figure in our everyday lives today, but it was in the 1980s where this computer technology became new and already making an impact on the lives of many people.
From the New Wave sub-genre, science fiction transferred into Cyberpunk whose emphasis is on high new technology and information technology, laced with many elements such as detective fiction and post-modernism. Cyberpunk also draws the negative and dystopic side of technology and its dehumanizing impact on people, hence the phrase “high tech and low life.” Notable cyberpunk writers include William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and Neal Stephenson.
Japan’s vast economic and especially technological stand those days influenced Cyberpunk as well. Manga and anime works that combined fantasy and science and technology became prevalent in that country. Many conclude that Japan is synonymous to Cyberpunk.
Some literary works of Dick and Gibson were adapted into the big screen, such as Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic and New Rose Hotel. With the advent of gaming consoles in the 1980s, they were also incorporated into cyberpunk.
Time and dimension travel was mostly emphasized in 1990s sci-fi television, popularized by the series Quantum Leap and Sliders. The conspiracy theory thriller The X-Files, with its stories of aliens and paranormal phenomena, became somewhat of a pop culture icon.
Science fiction in the 21st century and beyond
Today’s science fiction has considerable elements of cyberpunk with the advent of the new technology, the Internet and their implications for the world. This “cyberpunk” idea became an integral part of science fiction. As the new technology got bigger and bigger, it also became a negative impact on the environment and our everyday lives, so those concepts have also been incorporated into the contemporary science fiction (think Mad Max). Biotechnology and nanotechnology have also become prominent themes that make up some today’s science fiction writing.
Science fiction has evolved from the ancient era up to the present. Past ideas that were mere science fiction are a reality today such as the airplane, rocket ship, smartphone and much more. It will be interesting to see what the imagination of science fiction writers will bring to us in the future.
Useful related links
- History of science fiction – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Science Fiction Writer Robert J. Sawyer: The Evolution of Science Fiction
History of science fiction into the 20th century.