Science Fiction: The Early History

                            by H. Bruce Franklin

Anyone who wants to comprehend human affairs in the 19th and 20th centuries needs some knowledge and understanding of science fiction. But what is science fiction, anyhow?

Let's start by distinguishing it from other fiction. On one side lies fantasy, the realm of the impossible. On the other side lie all the forms of fiction that purport to represent the actual, whether past or present. Science fiction's domain is the possible. Its territory ranges from the present Earth we know out to the limits of the possible universes that the human imagination can project, whether in the past, present, future, or alternative time-space continuums. Therefore science fiction is the only literature capable of exploring the macrohistory of our species, and of placing our history, and even our daily lives, in a cosmic context.

Science fiction must be defined further, as an historical happening. Though science fiction has antecedents that stretch back at least two thousand years, science fiction as a body of literature--and movies, graphic art, comic books, radio shows, futuristic exhibits, TV serials, video game machines, computer games, virtual reality, and so forth--is a new phenomenon. It is an expression of only modern technological, scientific, industrial society, appearing when preindustrial societies are transformed by an industrial revolution. Indeed, industrial society creates not just the consciousness characteristic of science fiction but also the very means of physically propagating science fiction in its various cultural forms, even before it was beamed as images on movie and video screens. For science fiction, like other forms of literature typical of industrial society, is propagated in mass-produced magazines and books, which require advanced manufacturing and distribution as well as a large literate audience.

All this is very recent. The word "scientist" appeared for the first time in 1840, as a deliberate coinage (see Raymond Williams's discussion in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society). The term "science fiction" was used first in 1851 (in Chapter 10 of William Wilson's A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject): "Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true."

We take for granted living in a world where technological change is so rapid that it is part of our lives--continually transforming the present and the future. But this epoch of rapid technological changes, dating from the Industrial Revolution in Europe, is a mere microinstant of cosmic time.

The Earth is approximately four and a half billion years old. The ice ages ended about 10,000 years ago. Thus the age of the Earth is 450,000 times the period since the last ice age. Let's make this more imaginable by picturing the age of the Earth equivalent to 45,000 feet, the altitude of a very high flying jet airliner. In comparison, the time since the last ice age would be represented by 1.2 inches. The period of modern science, technology, and science fiction, which began with the Industrial Revolution just over 200 years ago, would then be equivalent on our spatial scale to .024 inches, about the thickness of a line made by a medium ball point pen.

Within that pen scratch of time, the rate of technological change has been exponential. Modern consciousness therefore is radically different from that of the peoples who inhabited the planet before the emergence of science fiction.

So my key definition is this: Science fiction is the major non-realistic mode of imaginative creation of our epoch. It is the principal cultural way we locate ourselves imaginatively in time and space.

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Science fiction, however, has a long prehistory. The epics of early Greek civilization, for example, feature superhuman beings such as the residents of Mount Olympus and include a marvelous voyage to far distant worlds (way out in the Mediterranean) inhabited by one-eyed giants, a six-headed monster, a creature that swallows passing ships, and a woman who chemically transforms people into animals.

The first fictions about travel beyond the Earth were satires of such epic voyages by the Syrian writer Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century A.D. The hero of his Icaro-Menippus sprouts wings and flies to the Moon; in The True History, the author and a shipload of companions are wafted to the Moon, where men have artificial phalluses (ivory for the rich, wood for the poor), and the travelers observe an interplanetary battle fought to determine whether the empire of the Moon or of the Sun gets to colonize Venus.

But Lucian's works are not science fiction. They are intended to be read as fantasy--imaginings of the impossible--just like similar works for the following fourteen hundred years. As late as 1532, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso projected a trip to the Moon merely as a preposterous fantasy (to find and bottle his hero's lost wits).

Meanwhile, however, other events were taking place, events that would profoundly transform the world and the European concept of space.

The magnetic compass and advances in shipbuilding made possible the voyages of so-called "discovery" in the late 15th century, leading to a "New World"--that is, new to Europeans.  Then in 1540 came the publication of an earthshaking book,  On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, Copernicus' demonstration that the cosmos is vast and does not revolve around the Earth.  With the development of the telescope in the early 17th century, the concept of "plurality of worlds" began to be taken seriously.  Marvelous voyages to the Moon, planets, and stars became commonplace.

Johannus Kepler, who developed the basic laws of planetary motion, uses them in Somnium (1634) to imagine living on the Moon. Francis Godwin describes a utopia on the Moon in The Man in the Moone (1638). Cyrano de Bergerac's Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1659) and Sun (1687) include marvelous inventions such as solar energy converters and talking machines.

As the European concept of space was being reshaped, the European concept of change, and of historical time itself, was also being transformed.

Thomas More's Utopia, published in 1516, introduced a concept fundamental to modern consciousness and science fiction: change in the mode of production changes the conditions of human existence. As More argues, the cloth industry's growing demand for fine English wool had led to the enclosure of the common land, which caused massive unemployment and skyrocketing inflation, which forced many people into crime, which in turn led to wholesale capital punishment. These ominous conditions induce More to coin a pun and imagine a place with a mighty host of offspring in science fiction: Utopia, the good place (eutopia) which is noplace (outopia).

Francis Bacon, the so-called father of modern science, used fiction to show the wonders that could be achieved using his inductive method of scientific experimentation. In his New Atlantis (posthumous 1627) he describes the discovery of a utopian society based on experimental science, including the development of "New Artificiall Metals," vivisection, genetic manipulation, telescopes, microscopes, telephones, factories, aerial flight, and submarines.

During  the 17th century, technological and social change were accelerating so rapidly that they could be experienced within a person's lifetime.  It  would soon become  possible to imagine an historical  future qualitatively different from the past or the present.   Prior to this, there had never been a fiction set in a future period of  human history. The closest had been millennial imaginings that had pictured the replacement of human history by God's kingdom. The first known fictions even vaguely set in future time are Francis Cheynell's six-page political tract Aulicus: His Dream of the King's Second Coming to London (1644) and Jacques Guttin's Epigone, Story of the Future Century (1659).  Fully developed fictions set in the future would not appear until well into the 18th century.

During the 18th century, some authors took a bleak view of the ever-accelerating technological and social change. In Gulliver's Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift presents both an extended parody of experimental science and a vision of a terrifying superweapon, a flying island used by its rulers literally to crush any earthly opposition to their tyranny. Voltaire took a similar stance in Micromégas (1732), notable as the first known story of visitors from other planets: two giants, one from Saturn and one from a planet of the star Sirius, who mock the follies of the diminutive earthlings.

But science was not to be halted by warnings and ridicule. The following year Benjamin Franklin reported to the Royal Society his experimental control of electricity. Within a few decades, quantitative change would become qualitative; in other words, there would be a true Industrial Revolution. On the eve of the resulting political revolutions in America and France, Louis-Sébastian Mercier's remarkable The Year 2440 (1770) foresees a marvelous society that worships science, with the telescope and the microscope central to each youth's first communion.

By the end of the 18th century and the opening of the 19th, industrial capitalism was beginning its conquest of the world. Modern science was providing the technological means to develop large factories, rapid large-scale transportation, and new energy sources. The drive to find huge quantities of coal to power the steam engines of industrial capitalism led to a reconception of time as profound as the Copernican reconception of space. Coal is, after all, fossils from remote geological ages. To discover vast deposits, industrial society had to discard the dominant theory of cosmic time--Bishop Ussher's dating of the creation of the universe in 4004 B.C.--and recognize that the Earth's age must be measured in billions of years. Only on such a scale was it possible first to comprehend the time necessary for geological evolution and then to conceive of biological evolution.

Under industrial capitalism, vast numbers of people were soon spending their lives working for a handful of capitalists who owned everything the people produced, including the factories, coal mines, railroads, and ships. Not only were the workers thus alienated from the means of production and their own products, but they also found themselves increasingly alienated from nature, from each other, and from their own essence as creative beings. Human creativity now appeared in the form of monstrous alien forces exerting ever-growing power over the people who had created them.

From this matrix emerged what Brian Aldiss has so aptly labeled "the first great myth of the industrial age" in the form of a novel that many now accept as the progenitor of modern science fiction: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Then, less than a decade after Frankenstein, Shelley created one of the first science fiction visions of the end of the world; the title character of her The Last Man (1826) wanders alone over a dead planet, sampling the useless achievements of all human society. Mary Shelley set this scene in the year 2100.

The 19th century was the first in which life was continually being metamorphosed by technological change. The century began with the first experimental locomotive in 1801, advanced through the airship in 1852, and ended with the first experimental airplane in the late 1890s. In that century came the first practical steamboat, the screw propeller, the bicycle, and the automobile. Agriculture was being revolutionized by the invention of the harvester, the disc cultivator, the reaper, and the mowing machine. The electric battery appeared in the opening year of the century; the electromagnet, the cathode ray tube, and the magnetic tape recorder mark the successive quarters. The history of capitalism can be traced in the inventions of the adding machine, the calculating machine, the punch time clock, the cash register, the stock ticker, and punch-card accounting. Basic commodities such as industrial steel, vulcanized rubber, and portland cement were all 19th-century innovations. There appeared those special hallmarks of modern times: dynamite, the rapid-fire pistol, the repeating rifle, barbed wire, and the machine gun. The means of communication and artistic creation changed with the introduction of photography, the phonograph, the fountain pen (and the ballpoint), the typewriter, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and the movie machine. Before the end of the century appeared several brief science fiction movies.

America proved especially hospitable to science fiction, even before it acquired a name. Many of the leading figures of antebellum fiction--including Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville--made important contributions to the form. How then did science fiction get its bad name as "subliterary"?

With the triumph of industrial capitalism in the Civil War, there emerged a newly literate mass audience of boys and young men intrigued by the opportunities of fame and fortune in science and technology. Aimed directly at this readership was the science-fiction "dime" novel, with its teenage boy genius as hero, first presented in Edward Ellis's seminal The Steam Man of the Prairie (1865). Between the Civil War and World War I, the most popular form of literature in America was the dime novel, and its science fiction versions were to have a formative influence on American culture (as can be glimpsed in this volume's entry on Luis Senarens). Only when it became an influential form of mass entertainment did science fiction come to be disdained as vulgar and puerile.
 
 

H. Bruce Franklin , author of  Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the 19th Century , War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, and Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction