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Science fiction literature

Parent categories: science fiction - literature

Subgenres: cyberpunk

Titles: Frankenstein (1818) - Flatland (1884) - We (1920) - Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

Authors: H. G. Wells - Jules Verne - William Gibson


Form of fiction that developed in the 20th century and deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals. The term is more generally used to refer to any literary fantasy that includes a scientific factor as an essential orienting component. -- Brittanica.com

Science fiction is a form of fiction which deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science (and/or technology) upon society or individuals. --http://wikipedia.com/wiki/Science_Fiction

Forerunners of science fiction

Before science fiction (SF) there existed travellers' tales. Somewhere, out there, around the partially explored world, existed strange cultures, exotic fauna and flora, perhaps even sea monsters.

Science fiction was made possible only by the rise of modern science itself, notably the revolutions in astronomy and physics. Aside from the age-old genre of fantasy literature, which does not qualify, there were notable precursors: imaginary voyages to the moon in the 17th century, first shown in Johannes Kepler's Somnium (The Dream, 1634), then in Cyrano de Bergerac's Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1656), space travel in Voltaire's Micromégas (1752), alien cultures in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and in Ludvig Holberg's Niels Klim's Underground Travels, and science fiction elements in the 19th century stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Fitz-James O'Brien. In Romantic Poetry, too, the writers' imaginations leapt to visions of other worlds and distant futures as in Alfred Lord Tennyson's Locksley Hall, which makes reference to "the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time". Voltaire, on the other hand, calls Micromegas not a fairy tale but a "philosophical story".

Most notable of all is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published in 1818. In his book Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss claims that Frankenstein represents "the first seminal work to which the label SF can be logically attached". It is also the first of the "mad scientist" subgenre. Another futuristic Shelley novel, The Last Man, is also often cited as the first true science fiction novel. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_science_fiction#Forerunners_of_science_fiction [Feb 2005]

Early science fiction


The European brand of science fiction proper began, however, toward the end of the 19th century with the scientific romances of Jules Verne, whose science was rather on the level of invention, as well as the science-oriented novels of social criticism by H.G. Wells.

Wells and Verne had quite a few rivals in early science fiction. Short stories and novelettes with themes of fantastic imagining appeared in journals throughout the late 19th century and many of these employed scientific ideas as the springboard to the imagination. Erewhon is a novel by Samuel Butler published in 1872 and dealing with the concept that machines could one day become sentient and supplant the human race. Although better known for other works, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote early science fiction. The only book in which Charles Dickens ventured into the territory of science speculation and strange mysteries of this nature (as opposed to the clearly supernatural ghosts of Christmas) was in his novel Bleak House (1852) wherein Dickens had one of his characters die by Spontaneous Human Combustion. Dickens carefully researched recorded cases of SHC before writing about the subject and was able to answer the skeptics who were outraged by his novel.

Wells and Verne both had an international readership and influenced writers in America, especially. Soon a home-grown American science fiction was thriving. European writers found more readers by selling to the American market and writing in an Americanised style.

The next great British science fiction writer after H. G. Wells was Olaf Stapledon (1886 to 1950), whose four major works Last and First Men (1930), Odd John (1935),Star Maker (1937), and Sirius (1940), introduced a myriad of ideas that writers have since adopted.

Later, the works of John Wyndham (real name: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris) (1903 to 1969) gained a great deal of popular and critical acclaim. Wyndham, who also wrote under the pen-names of John Beynon, John Beynon Harris, Johnson Harris, Lucas Parkes and Wyndham Parkes. John Wyndham also liked to refer to science fiction by the name logical fantasy.

Before the Second World War John Wyndham wrote almost exclusively for American pulp magazines but after the war he became famous, under the name John Wyndham, to the general public beyond the narrow audience of science fiction fans. This fame came initially from his novels The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955), and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957).


In America Mark Twain wrote one novel which explores themes of science in a fictionalised form, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. By means of "transmigration of souls" "transposition of epochs -- and bodies" Twain's yankee is transported back in time and all his knowledge of 19th century technology with him. The results are catastrophic as the chivalry of King Arthur's aristocracy is subverted by the increased killing power afforded by such things as Gatling Guns, barbed wire and explosives. Written in 1889 A Connecticut Yankee seems to predict events which would take place 25 years later in 1914 when Europe's old ideas of chivalry in warfare would be shattered beyond repair by the weapons and tactics of World War I.

Jack London wrote several science fiction stories including The Red One (a story involving extraterrestrials), The Iron Heel (set in the future from London's point of view) and The Unparalleled Invasion (a story involving future germ warfare and ethnic cleansing). He also wrote a story about invisibility and a story about an irresistible energy weapon.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 to 1950) began writing science fiction for the pulp magazines just before World War I, getting his first story Under the Moons of Mars published in 1912. He continued to publish adventure stories, many of them science fiction, throughout the rest of his life. The pulps published adventure stories of all kinds. Science fiction stories had to fit in alongside of murder mysteries, horror, fantasy and Edgar Rice Burroughs' own Tarzan.

The development of American science fiction as a self-conscious genre dates (in part) from 1926, when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories magazine, which was devoted exclusively to science fiction stories. Since he is notable for having chosen the variant term scientifiction to describe this incipient genre, the stage in the genre's development, his name and the term "scientifiction" are often thought to be inextricably linked. Published in this and other pulp magazines with great and growing success, such scientifiction stories were not viewed as serious literature but as sensationalism. Nevertheless, a magazine devoted entirely to science fiction was a great boost to the public awareness of the scientific speculation story. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_science_fiction#Early_science_fiction [Feb 2005]


The notion of Progress was central, as the fruits of the Industrial Revolution spread worldwide. This was epitomized in the expansive fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Yet technology brought a dark side as well, as seen by writers as various as Mary Shelley ("Frankenstein"), Edgar Allan Poe, Sir George Chesney ("The Battle of Dorking"), Robert Louis Stevenson ("Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"), and Karl Marx.

A charismatic leader came out of nowhere and nearly conquered the world. Napoleon rises from First Consul of France in 1800 to Emperor in 1804, and essentially controlled the European continent before his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. This conquering hero/monster affected futuristic fiction forever, as did the European revolutions of 1848 and the American Civil War (1861-1865).

The science-driven future also changed the way the past was viewed, with Sir Walter Scott's invention of the Historic Novel as the keystone. The invention of photography (Daguerre, 1840s) and cinema (Lumiere brothers, 1895) was immediately seen as changing the nature of Art, though the invention of the computer (Babbage, 1822) was only understood a century later. Konstantin Tsiolkovski publishes fiction and nonfiction for the first time detailing how rockets can be used to conquer outer space.

Charles Darwin changed our view of human beings, as merely an evolved form of animal, and authors from Jules Verne, Konstantin Tsiolkovski, and Camille Flammarion changed our conception of the human place in the cosmos. -- http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/timeline19.html [...]

Counter-Clock World (1967) - Philip K. Dick

Counter-Clock World (1967) - Philip K. Dick
[FR] [DE] [UK]

“Dick’s best books always describe a future that is both entirely recognizable and utterly unimaginable.” --The New York Times Book Review

Counter-Clock World is a 1967 science fiction novel by author Phillip K. Dick, in which time has started to move in reverse, resulting in the dead reviving in their own graves, living their lives in reverse, eventually ending in returning to the womb, and splitting into an egg and a sperm during copulation between the receiving woman and a man. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counter-Clock_World [Oct 2006]

See also: reverse chronology in fiction - 1967 - sf-literature


  1. Flatland (1880) - Edwin A. Abbott [Amazon.com]

    Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) is a classic 19th century short story by Edwin Abbott Abbott, still popular among mathematics and computer science students, and considered useful reading for people studying topics such as the concept of other dimensions. As a piece of literature, Flatland is respected for its satire on the social hierarchy of Victorian society.

    The story posits a world that exists only in two dimensions, and our narrator, a humble square, guides us through some of the implications of that. He is visited by a three-dimensional sphere, which he cannot comprehend until he sees the third dimension for himself. The role of women is explained, along with a class system, both of which are a satire of Victorian society at the time.

    It poses several interesting thoughts, including the idea that higher dimensional beings have god-like powers over lesser dimensions. In the book, the three-dimensional Sphere has the ability to stand inches away from a Flatlander and observe them without being perceived, can remove 2-D objects from locked containers and "teleport" them via the third dimension apparently without traversing the space in between, and is capable of seeing and touching the inside and outside of everything in the 2-D universe; at one point, the Sphere gently pokes the narrator's intestines as proof of his powers. The book implies that higher dimensions than our own exist, and that a 4-D being could have the same powers over our world as the Sphere had over Flatland. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland [Feb 2005]

  2. Neuromancer (1984) - William Gibson [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    In his science fiction novels, William Gibson's hallucinatory account of cyberspace provided the first social and spatial blueprint for the digital frontier. In his 1984 novel Neuromancer – a colorful, disturbing account of our emerging information society – he added the word "cyberspace" to our vocabulary. His writings explore the implications of a wired, digital culture, and have had tremendous influence on the scientists, researchers, theorists, and artists working with virtual reality. Gibson's notion of an inhabitable, immersive terrain that exists in the connections between computer networks, a fluid, architectural space that could expand endlessly – an invitation to "jack in" to the "digital matrix" – has opened the door to a new genre of literary and artistic forms, and has shaped our expectations of what is possible in virtual environments.

  3. Mona Lisa Overdrive - William Gibson [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Into the cyber-hip world of William Gibson comes Mona, a young girl with a murky past and an uncertain future whose life is on a collision course with internationally famous Sense/Net star Angie Mitchell. Since childhood, Angie has been able to tap into cyberspace without a computer. Now, from inside cyberspace, a kidnapping plot is masterminded by a phantom entity who has plans for Mona, Angie, and all humanity, plans that cannot be controlled...or even known. And behind the intrigue lurks the shadowy Yakuza, the powerful Japanese underworld, whose leaders ruthlessly manipulate people and events to suit their own purposes.

    An over-the-top thrill ride sequel to Neuromancer and Count Zero. --Amazon.com

    Gibson burst upon the scene in 1984 with Neuromancer, a revolutionary, innovative novel that not only gathered up just about every award in the SF field, but also virtually invented a new sub-genre, which has come to be called "cyberpunk." He followed it with Count Zero , set in the same neon-lit, over-urbanized, polluted, high-tech future; an even better novel, it was necessarily not as breathtakingly unfamiliar and inventive as the first. This new novel completes the series, following the lives of some of the characters from the previous books (Bobby Newmark, Count Zero himself, is here) as well as many new ones, particularly Angie Mitchell, star of simstims and idol of millions, who is intuitively sensitive to cyberspace and the vodun deities that are its manifestations. Told in a gorgeous, highly compressedalmost poeticstyle that requires the reader's attention and intelligence, this very satisfying novel can stand on its own. --Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.

  4. Diamond Age () - Neal Stephenson [Amazon.com]
    Another addition to the thread: Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. Readers familiar with the cyberpunk generation of SF writers will know Stephenson's previous Snow Crash, one of the most brilliant, vigorous, picaresque, and influential of the type. In Snow Crash, as in cyberpunk generally, the purpose of networked information technology and all its street-level accoutrements (including the fact that the very notion of "street" culture is altered irrevocably by the insertion into the cultural field of virtual space) is to serve as the allegorical foundation for a near-future world dominated by neo-corporate social structures. Functioning to the exclusion of family, village, nation, and other socialities, such structures of human life are the great "virtual"experience. The Diamond Age is another beautifully rendered and detailed imagination of such a world, though more interested in nanotechnology than cybertechnology and more gentle and erudite in tone than picaresque. The use of the Romantics, including Wordsworth and Coleridge, is clear. But the real heart of the book is the "clave" or "phyle" (corporate clan) of the Vickys--who style their life and ideology after the Victorian age. The plot of the novel places the world view of the Vickys into play against the world of a powerful post-colonial China in ways that make for delicious ironies in the history and meaning of imperialism (including a neo- or retro-Boxer Rebellion). In general, the whole notion of setting Victorian culture in play against the grain of postindustrial and global culture is a delicious one.


  1. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (1993) - Scott Bukatman [Amazon.com]
    As dense as it is deep, Bukatman's work is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in science fiction, postmodern theory, or the relationship between technology and human culture. The glowing reviews by Bruce Sterling and Larry McCaffery were well-deserved, and this book will have a permanent place on my bookshelf (right next to Storming the Reality Studio). -- alone@waste.org via amazon.com

Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy (2002) - Gary Westfahl, George Slusser (editors)

Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy (2002) - Gary Westfahl, George Slusser (editors) [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Science fiction occupies a peculiar place in the academic study of literature. At a time when the canon is being consciously expanded and diversified, and when there is growing scholarly interest in technology and popular culture, works of science fiction are nonetheless marginalized by the academy. So too, many works of science fiction engage recognized canonical texts such as the Odyssey, yet traditionalists within the academy have largely shunned the serious study of science fiction. In this book, expert contributors examine the traditional and continuing tendency to exclude science fiction from the literary canon. In exploring this topic, the book addresses many broader issues, such as the nature of canon formation, the role of journals in legitimizing academic inquiry, and the cultural politics of academic gatekeeping.

"This collection will be useful for anyone teaching or writing about science fiction. It could also offer food for thought to those who dismiss science fiction, but of course they are the people least likely to read it....[T]hese essays, taken together, form a genuine dialogue, with all the irriation involved in actually having to listen to the "other side." No one will like more than half of them. But as collections go, that is not a bad average. Theeditors are to be commended for creating the space for a genuine exchange, something all too rare."-SFRA Review

See also: canon - SF - academic

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