Science Fiction is an amazingly strong genre, that has been extremely successful as of late. Between Star Wars being the largest franchise ever, dramas like Ad Astra, and streaming series’ like The I-Land and Undone on Netflix and Amazon respectively, there is so much sci-fi coming out. As you look at those though, a high fantasy space opera, an astronaut story, strangers on a deserted island, and time travel, none of these films have anything in common. How then are they all under the banner of Science Fiction, and what does that even mean? Let’s start from the beginning.
Science fiction before the discovery of electricity barely counts, because the world could have run on magic, and been exactly the same. Even though some stories involve visiting other planets, it’s not due to some elaborate contraption, it’s just magic. For that reason, pre-science science fiction is really just fantasy, but one story from One Thousand and One Nights; or Arabian Nights stands out as being a little more sci-fi than any other story of the time.
“The Ebony Horse” is about, well a horse made of ebony that can fly the rider anywhere in the world. Truly the only thing about this that is different from a classic construct is that the horse is activated by the turn of a key, as opposed to maybe a magic word. This was as sci-fi as it got, until we get to Mary Shelley.
Birth of Sci-Fi
Mary Shelley is known as the mother of Science Fiction because of her story Frankenstein, which was the first story wherein science is used to achieve results impossible by the science that existed at the time. In 1818, at the age of 21, Shelley’s Frankenstein was published, and science fiction has never been the same.
Interestingly, this story was written before the first lightbulb, but in the original novel, the monster was created through scientific study of chemistry and alchemy, and not with lightning hitting bolts sticking out of his neck. Alchemy, as we know now, is more magic than science, and this wasn’t the first “mad scientist” story, but it was the marriage of alchemy with chemistry that brought this fantasy idea into the modern day, and created sci-fi. In fact, the alternate name for the novel was The Modern Prometheus.
Not only did Shelley create the first science fiction story, but also the first post-apocalyptic sci-fi story, with The Last Man. A story set in a world ravaged by a plague, following a group of survivors. Of course this plot has been used over and over again in most post-apocalypse stories, especially zombies, aliens, or robot uprisings (I for one welcome our new mechanical overlords).
Height of Literary Sci-Fi
While Shelley created sci-fi, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells helped it grow. Jules Verne brought the first high level adventure to sci-fi with stories like Journey to the Center of the Earth or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Verne’s attention to potential accuracy is still alarming, considering that the battery operated submarine in 20,000 Leagues later became reality and are still in use today, as well as skyscrapers, elevators, cars with internal combustion engines, trains, electric city lights, suburbs, mechanical calculators (computers) that communicate over a network (internet).
Some H.G. Wells works, such as The War of the Worlds, are commonly referred to as “Scientific Romance” novels, where the focus shifts from single protagonists, and instead focuses on the “evolutionary perspective.” The heroes might be powerless in comparison to the strength of the antagonist.
A story for another day, but if you haven’t listened to The War of the Worlds radio play, you should do that. It’s very long, but people believed that the play, produced to sound like a real broadcast, was actually happening and mass hysteria occurred as a result.
Golden Age and the Big Three
In the 1920s and ’30s, we reached the Golden Age of Science Fiction. This was due to the fact that Science Fiction pulp magazines became popular, like Astounding Stories of Super-Science. This gave rise to quick stories and a lower barrier to entry for science fiction authors. The most famous of these authors, known as “The Big Three,” were Isaac Asimov (I, Robot), Arthur C Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey), and Robert A Heinlein (Starship Troopers). It was the popularity of Astounding Stories and other pulp magazines that lead to early comics, specifically Superman and Batman.
So science fiction started as a written genre, but blockbuster movies are almost exclusively science fiction in one way or another. So when did sci-fi make the jump to the screen? Look out for Part 2 of this article coming soon, as we look at TV, movies, steampunk, and more.