Introduction to science fiction as literature

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Science fiction as a genre of literature (generally novels and short stories) tends to differ greatly from what passes as science fiction on TV or in the movies. The differences while difficult to delineate tend to be easy to understand when one has read a good deal of science fiction, especially the classics of the genre. So what exactly is science fiction then?

The best way to answer that question is to discuss the history of the genre, as will be done in brief below, but a word addressing some common myths about the genre of science fiction may be in order. Science fiction literature does not attempt to predict the future as it actually will be or even necessarily realistically might be. The key element in science fiction is the depiction of how people deal with change and especially those changes driven by science and technology. That the genre began to flourish at the same time the effects of scientific and technological advances began to be seen in daily life and where this was most the case (especially the United States, Britain and what was then the Soviet Union) is hardly a coincidence. I do not mention France because, while the genre owes much to France, it has until recently (if even then) not gained the social acceptance needed for the genre to genuinely thrive. That degree of social acceptance has been rare outside the English-speaking world, possibly apart from the Russian-speaking world.

The two co-founding authors of the genre and Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The fact that both these authors are known for their social commentary should be seen as fairly indicative; science fiction has always involved social commentary to varying degrees. The elder of these two authors, Verne, was known for his travel literature, and his science fiction in many ways grew out of it in the sense that his science fiction consisted of travel tales using technology that (while as theoretically possible as he could make it) involved technology or other means of travel which did not currently exist. Even his novel Voyage au centre de la terre (translated as Journey to the Center of the Earth) was theoretically based on the then current hollow earth theory postulated to explain tropical fossils found at the poles. Wells took the next logical step which genuinely set the genre apart from other forms of literature by postulating a type of travel with a theoretical scientific basis but without even a theoretical technological mechanism in The Time Machine. Yet Wells also departed from the roots in travel literature more than Verne did. Ironically Verne’s main work of futurism (a genre to which science fiction is also indebted and in which in contrast Wells wrote his first published work) has only been published posthumously, namely Paris dans le vingtième siècle (translated as Paris in the Twentieth Century).

Within a relatively short span of time, science fiction began to thrive, especially in the form of short stories in magazines. The reason the shorter form thrived more than novels generally was because space in the magazines was limited.The early works were often not written to high literary standards, but notable exceptions do exist.

The Golden Age of science fiction is defined by the term of editor John W. Campbell as editor-in-chief of Astounding magazine, and Campbell in known for demanding literary quality from all his authors. Other magazines had to offer similar standards in order to compete. Horace L. Gold at Galaxy magazine matched the quality of Campbell but never reached the same level of pre-eminence. Meanwhile both sides in the Cold War used science fiction as much as they could for political propaganda, whether officially or not. (Much of this blog will concentrate on Golden Age science fiction literature, especially from the English-speaking world.)

After its Golden Age, science fiction has continued to adapt and evolve as literature. Much of the early optimism is gone, but that reflects a societal change more than anything else. Like all literature, science fiction is aimed at the people of its time. As author Frank Herbert is quoted as having once said, “Aliens don’t buy books; people do.”

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