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The birth of science fiction literature

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March 15th, 2017
Early twentieth-century French illustrations for H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, in which Martians attack planet Earth.

Early twentieth-century French illustration for H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, in which Martians attack planet Earth.

Legendary author Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, 1953) broadly described science fiction as “any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet but soon will, and will change everything…” His view may not apply universally to such stories, but it certainly captures the essence of science fiction as a literary genre.

After all, our ability to recognize what isn’t, envision what could be, and use our powers of logic and reason to make it so are precisely what set human beings apart from the rest of Earth’s creatures. And herein resides the spirit of science fiction.

While we generally associate the genre with twentieth-century writers like Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick, and Larry Niven, its roots have tendrils that reach surprisingly far into the past. A product of the Age of Reason, science fiction easily dates back to the seventeenth century.

Early imaginings

In 1608, the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote a novel called Somnium, in which he depicts a voyage to the moon, describing Earth as it appeared from the lunar surface. Cyrano de Bergerac touched on the same subject in his Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1657), about a man who attempts to venture into outer space in search of extraterrestrial life.

Even the French philosopher Voltaire tried his hand in the genre with Micromegas (1752), a short story about two aliens who visit Earth.

Of course, the timing of these stories was hardly coincidental. Around the 1500s, the Church began to lose its dogmatic grasp on people’s understanding of the natural world.

In its place, a new, secular science took shape through the work of luminaries like Nicolaus Copernicus, author of a groundbreaking heliocentric model that showed the earth revolving around the sun. Published in 1543, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres helped shatter the prevailing Church-endorsed doctrine of a geocentric solar system.

Subsequent scientists readily followed the path Copernicus had forged. 

By the early 1600s, noted astronomer Galileo Galilei could extend his gaze well into space thanks to the telescope. Similarly, biologists Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke descended into Earth’s own hidden universe through the lens of a microscope.

These revolutionary instruments allowed the greatest minds to transcend the perceived boundaries of exploration. They discovered new planets and moons, tracked comets, and observed terrestrial life down to the cellular level. 

In short, their once limited world suddenly seemed infinitely vast, as did their ability to further investigate it. And in this environment, science fiction flourished.

Impact of scientific progress

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the genre had begun to work its way into the literary mainstream, borrowing from a fresh wave of scientific progress.

For example, the electrical experiments of scientists like Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta inspired author Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818). Although the notion of quickening a still heart using electricity was pure fantasy when she wrote her horror classic, today it is a key lifesaving tool for paramedics everywhere.

Edgar Allan Poe—who was, himself, an amateur philosopher and mathematician—also penned numerous science fiction stories that incorporated soon-to-be realities like human flight and lightning-fast electrical communications.

Later authors persisted in this vein, crafting fantastic stories on a foundation of contemporary innovations and imaginative optimism about future prospects. The science fiction works of writers such as Jules Verne were more creative and adventurous than ever, yet they were never without traces of modern reality. 

Readers encountered a functionally practical submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), while twentieth-century audiences no doubt found Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) reminiscent of Lindberg’s and Earhart’s exploits.

As science moved forward, so did the genre that had started with Kepler and his counterparts. Before long, the stories of Verne, H.G. Wells, and countless others spawned science fiction magazines and radio, television, and motion picture productions.

Authors ranging from Aldous Huxley and George Orwell to Ray Bradbury, Anthony Burgess, and Isaac Asimov assumed the mantle of their predecessors with tales centered on space and time travel, medical experiments, nuclear weapons, and dystopian societies. 

Over the years, they’ve attracted a devoted readership. Formerly on the fringe of the literary establishment, science fiction novels now adorn The New York Times bestsellers list; they’re part of school reading curriculums around the globe.

As Bradbury had insinuated, science fiction is more than mere entertainment. It’s a testament to the true breadth of human ingenuity and vision.

   


 

Selected science fiction works

Somnium (1608), Johannes Kepler

Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1657), Cyrano de Bergerac

Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift

Niels Klim’s Underground Travels (1741), Ludvig Holberg

Micromegas (1752), Voltaire

Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley

The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827), Jane C. Loudon

The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall (1835), Edgar Allan Poe

The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether (1845), Poe

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Jules Verne

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), Jules Verne

Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), Jules Verne

The Time Machine (1895), H.G. Wells

The War of the Worlds (1898), H.G. Wells

Lord of the World (1907), Robert Hugh Benson

Under the Moons of Mars (1912), Edgar Rice Burroughs

Last and First Men (1930), Olaf Stapledon

Brave New World (1932), Aldous Huxley

1984 (1949), George Orwell

Foundation (1951), Isaac Asimov

Foundation and Empire (1952), Isaac Asimov

Second Foundation (1953), Isaac Asimov

Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Ray Bradbury

A Clockwork Orange (1962), Anthony Burgess

Dune (1965), Frank Herbert

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Philip K. Dick

Ringworld (1970), Larry Niven

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), Ursula K. Le Guin

Neuromancer (1984), William Gibson

Jurassic Park (1990), Michael Crichton

Cloud Atlas (2004), David Mitchell

The Martian (2011), Andy Weir

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