A Short History of the Birth of Sci-Fi
Science fiction, also known as SF or sci-fi, is part of a larger genre within fiction known as speculative fiction. Speculative fiction not only includes science fiction, but also fantasy and horror as well. The delineating factor that produces science fiction is a reliance on technology, specifically technology that is more advanced or futuristic than the time period of a work’s setting. Many themes within science fiction revolve around one or more of three particular ideas…
1. Technology we wish existed now but doesn’t. Examples include time travel (Doctor Who), more efficient space travel (The Martian), or no more reliance on fossil fuels (Star Trek).
2. Technology gone wrong, such as things we wish were never invented or things we wish never fell into the wrong hands. Examples include weapons of mass destruction (Star Wars’ Death Star) or methods of psychological control (The Matrix).
3. Technology delivered to us or used on us by extraterrestrial life forms. Examples range from helpful technology (The Iron Giant) to the total annihilation of our planet (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
Bear in mind that none of these ideas are required to take place on Earth or even involve humans. Many do not.
It is also worth mentioning that the mere presence of advanced technology does not make something science fiction. Technology beyond the time period of the setting exists often in many works. Spy fiction is replete with this in works such as Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Early science fiction stories were expected to have some basis in real fact or theory, although this facet of the genre is not as rigid anymore. Science fiction is now divided into two categories in that regard, hard science fiction, which is based on scientific methods, fact, and theory, and soft science fiction, which is based on social sciences, absurd science, or science with no basis in reality.
Although there are a number of rules and expectations in regard to the definition and identification of science fiction, don’t worry if you do not agree with another person’s interpretation. Damon Knight, an award-winning science fiction author best summed up the definition of science fiction when he stated, “science fiction is what we point to when we say it”(1).
Because a hard and fast definition and set of characteristics of true science fiction is so hard to pin down, it is justifiably difficult to discover the first science fiction works. Some tales found in the 8th century Arabian Nights seem to fit as do elements of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which was published in 1726. Many literary experts consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, to be the first true work of science fiction, followed eight years later by her novel The Last Man, which also happened to become one of the first post-apocalyptic works, thus establishing that sub-genre of science fiction. Edgar Allen Poe entered the field in 1835 with his short story The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, which chronicles Pfaall’s trip to the moon. By the time H.G. Wells and Jules Verne burst onto the scene, the genre had already been firmly established.
(1) Knight, Damon Francis In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction. Chicago: Advent Publishing, 1967.
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