Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus reached a rather big milestone in early 2018, with many hailing it as the first science fiction novel to reach the big two-oh-oh. As we reflect on two hundred years of sci-fi literature, it is perhaps out of the everyday reader’s usual remit to consider how science fiction actually developed and established as a genre. Join us as we take a plunge into the deep, dark (okay, not that dark) history of the ultimate nerd culture genre.
This ongoing series is going to explore how the genre we know and love today came about. Like all good stories, we ought to start at the beginning. However, the ‘beginning’ of science fiction, as it happens, is a rather subjective term. To find the true starting point of sci-fi, we need to understand what is meant by ‘science fiction’ – a term that does not necessarily mean ‘fiction about science’. We can’t, therefore, just think of sci-fi as being based around scientific advancement, like in HG Wells’ The Time Machine or alien life in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (2005)
A good place to start with definitions is a dictionary, for obvious reasons. The oracle, commonly known as ‘Google’, uses the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and so defines the genre as follows:
“Fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.”
Case closed, right? This seems like a decent definition at first glance. However, it does include some pretty ‘big’ and broad subjects. This is where the difficulty of defining a genre comes into play. The name suggests that by its very nature, science fiction relies on the existence of ‘science’ as a concept. Using my main man again, the OED, ‘science’ can be defined as:
“The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”
Again, that’s quite a broad and vague definition. And, if you consider the term ‘science’ on a colloquial level, it doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that pretty much anything can be considered a ‘science’.
When I was thinking about this aspect of science fiction, I toyed with going into the origin of the term ‘science’ itself and its usage in people’s lexis. However, examining the root of the English word ‘science’ feels redundant for a concept that transcends culture and language. But wait – the existence of science does not necessarily rely on the existence of the term ‘science’. Therefore, science fiction may, in some respects, predate science itself. Now THAT has the making of a damn good sci-fi story! Are you still with me?
Ultimately, despite being tricky to formulate into an exact definition, we do have a pretty good grasp of what science fiction is. It seems simple enough. Despite the various changes it has gone through (like the shift towards marketing it to a young adult audience and the rise of dystopian tropes in the 21st Century), it’s not too difficult to understand what the genre is all about when someone mentions sci-fi. Whether we’re talking Jules Verne or Suzanne Collins, science fiction seems pretty easy to pinpoint.
Fantastic Definitions and Where to Find Them
Nonetheless, when following a popular fiction trope, things are not always as simple as they seem. Discussion of science fiction almost always leads to discussion about the fantasy genre. Everybody’s favourite ‘help me pass GCSE English Literature’ website, Cliff Notes, defines the world of fantasy fiction as:
“Fantasy fiction is a genre of writing in which the plot could not happen in real life (as we know it, at least). Often, the plot involves magic or witchcraft and takes place on another planet or in another — undiscovered — dimension of this world.”
So, there seems to be a clear difference between the definitions of fantasy and sci-fi, in that fantasy is intended to be a story that the author (and in a broader sense, society) deems to be impossible, while science fiction is perhaps best described as the “maybe”.
So Where Do We Begin?
What is clear is that the major difference between these two genres is their intention and belief. For example, to understand the difference between fantasy and science fiction, we must ask ourselves “did the author think that this could actually happen?”.
Of course, what is regarded as possible and impossible in terms of scientific and technological advancement does have a degree of subjectivity. This is where the tricky part comes in. Where do we start? A history of science fiction has to include a starting point, and we should probably begin with ancient civilisations’ literary feats. But while many point to these as being the early precursors to modern the genre, I’m not sure we can name them as such.
The Martian (2015)
We have established that the primary difference between science fiction and fantasy as genres is essentially down to intent and what author and societal perceptions of ‘the possible’.
This series will discuss “science fiction” from ancient civilisations, but it is important to note that, while they may read as works of science fiction to the modern reader, they were very much works of fantasy at the time.
Science and technology certainly were not as they are today and much of what was written about at these times were not conceived as even being remotely possible. Therefore, things we may consider as science fiction today were pure fantastical ideas years ago. Nonetheless, they are important to discuss in understanding how science fiction has developed and established itself as a major genre across all artistic mediums.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
As a final note before we blast off into the world of science fiction, I should mention that modern fantasy works will not be discussed. While I am still holding out hope that my Hogwarts letter is just lost in owl postal system and my dreams of adopting second breakfast without judgement are strong, I won’t be including modern fantasy in this series about science fiction. The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises are undoubtedly influential in the world of literature and film, but they won’t be a part of this study.
With that out of the way, let’s jump into the TARDIS or DeLorean or other fictional time-machine of your choice and get ourselves back to the ancient world. Current ETA – next month.