The literary genre of Science Fiction is as diverse and controversial as the religions of the world. Its exact definition remains a contested question among both scholars and devotees. This lack of harmony is reflected in debates about the genre’s history, particularly over determining its exact origins.
There are two extensive philosophies about Science Fiction’s beginnings. The first one identifies the genre’s roots in early fantastical works such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (2,150 to 2,000 BC) and the Bhagavad Gita (3139 BC). A second school of thought argues that science fiction only became possible sometime between the 17th and early 19th centuries, following the scientific revolution and major discoveries in astronomy, physics, and mathematics. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is widely believed to be the first true Science Fiction story of this doctrine.
Was Daedalus the first Transhumanist?
Ancient mythology is full of stories about man innovating beyond what the gods intended for us. Daedalus crafted wax wings to escape his prison in Crete and fly across the ocean with his son Icarus. But Icarus soared too close to the sun. Icarus’s wings melted, and he drowned in the ocean as a result of his hubris.
For the same reason some sci-fi critics would argue that Lucian of Samosata’s True History (2 AD), the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Bhagavad Gita are not true science fiction, they would scoff at the idea of comparing Daedalus (or Prometheus) to Dr. Frankenstein. They widely held belief among many is that as long as the science used in the story is unrealistic, or out of the author’s intellectual reach, the story is not science fiction. It’s well known that the ancients had advanced ideas about astronomy, and delved pretty deep into biological taxonomy, but if they were not consciously using that – if their ideas of space hinged mostly on guesswork instead of scientific fact—perhaps they were just Fantasy writers.
But who’s to judge whether Daedalus’ wax wings or Lucian’s skies-sailing ship are unrealistic? Are Asimov’s sentient cyborgs any more likely? Wells’ time machine isn’t exactly in beta testing, and he wrote The Time Machine over a hundred years ago.
20th Century Science Fiction
Sci-Fi, as it’s also known, developed and boomed in the 20th century, as the deep integration of science and inventions into daily life encouraged a greater interest in literature that explores the relationship between technology, society, and the individual. Robert Scholes calls the history of Science Fiction “the history of humanity’s changing attitudes toward space and time … the history of our growing understanding of the universe and the position of our species in that universe.” In recent decades, the genre has diversified and become firmly established as a major influence on global culture and thought.
It is important to understand that Science Fiction has a relationship with the principles of Science. These stories involve partially true and partially fictitious laws or theories of Science. Some say it should not be completely unbelievable, because it then ventures into the genre of Fantasy. However, I disagree with this “Unwritten Rule”.
The Literary Element of Science Fiction
The plot lines of Sci-Fi stories create situations different from those of both the present day and the known past. Science fiction texts also include a human element, explaining what effect new discoveries, happenings and scientific developments will have on us in the future.
Sci-Fi texts are often set in the future, in space, in a different world, or in a different universe or dimension.
Writers who transformed scientific facts and aspirations into visions of the future, and commentary on the present, are the ones we consider for Hugos. So how could science fiction predate science as we know it?
Early pioneers of the Sci-Fi genre include H. G. Wells (The War of the Worlds), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World), Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter of Mars collection), and Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues under the Sea).
Some well-known 20th century Sci-Fi works include 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. In addition, the four most popular and well-recognized 20th century authors are Isaac Asimov, author of the Foundation Trilogy and his robot series, Arthur C. Clarke who is most famous for 2001, a Space Odyssey; Ray Bradbury, known for the Martian Chronicles, and Robert Heinlein, author of Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
So, is Science Fiction an artifact of the ancient world? It’s debatable. But, maybe we’re moving toward a more comprehensive concept of Science Fiction – one that can help stretch the genre to include writers, like Lucian, who may have twisted the limits of technology and science, even before they fully understood what they were twisting.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can leave leave a comment here…