Jules Verne and the birth of science fiction proper

Stylized illustration of a spaceship and the s...

Stylized illustration of a spaceship and the sun, based on the description of the emblem of the fictional Galactic Empire in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (“The golden globe with its conventionalized rays, and the oblique cigar shape that was a space vessel”). This image could be used as a icon for science-fiction related articles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first writer I would identify as writing what can be properly termed science fiction is the French author Jules Verne. Admittedly, a case could be made for Mary Shelley who penned the novel Frankenstein, but in my view that masterpiece has more in common with Gothic horror than science fiction. Nevertheless, I would certainly count it as proto-science fiction.

Although as a genre science fiction includes much more than hard science fiction, as a genre I would argue it owes its character and existence to the hard science fiction sub-genre. The reason I make this distinction is simple. Until one had Jules Verne taking the scientific and technological principle of the day and extrapolating them as a basis of stories, modern fantastic stories had not fundamentally distinguished themselves from those which had come before. Yet inherently science fiction in its proper sense is in fact different than other fantastic literature in that it draws on specifically modern notions of “what-if”.

Naturally, the distinction is not hard and fast. For example, Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune involves mystical and religious elements. Many of Isaac Asimov‘s Robot stories and novels and some parts of his Foundation series include telepathy. These are typically however put down to powers of the human mind.

Verne started as a playwright and also wrote travel literature. Virtually everything he wrote, to a greater or lesser degree, also reflected social issues. Thus, his science fiction works continue the social consciousness and extent travel literature to more speculative journeys. These fantastic travels had a basis in the technology of the time. For example, experiments with submarines had been conducted by the Confederacy during the American Civil War, a few years before Vingt mille lieues sous les mers was published. Having been trained by Alexandre Dumas who was notorious for his furious production of works, it is unlikely that Verne conceived the idea for the book before hearing of the American or similar experiments. The use of ballistics to create rocketry to go to the moon was an idea also increasingly discussed. Of course, it only succeeded after the idea of using an analog of a gun-barrel was put aside, but otherwise it worked. Rocketry is quintessentially an application of ballistics. Then the novel Le tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours no longer seems to modern readers to be science fiction, but in its time it decidedly was. Verne took the technologies involved to their limits.

For Verne, science fiction was an extension of travel literature and he brought his social criticism into it from the start. Both of these aspects would leave their mark on the genre as it developed, but it was British author H. G. Wells who took the next step.

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One Response to Jules Verne and the birth of science fiction proper

  1. Pingback: (Pre-)Golden Age Science Fiction Free Online | Classic Literature of Science Fiction

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