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The History of Science Fiction - Origins of SF

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series History of Science Fiction

This is the first in a series of posts where I will be exploring the history of science fiction and staying true to the remit of the site I will be looking at science fiction in all media. Obviously I plan on it being a long series. To kick things off I thought I should discuss the origins of science fiction which is a surprisingly young branch of fiction.

Science Fiction as we know and understand it did not come into being until the 19th century and really came into its own in the 20th century. While there are many great works of literature which can be pointed to as the roots of Fantasy fiction, that isn’t the case for SF.

This isn’t as surprising as it might first appear when you consider that our culture’s ideas of what science is have changed radically over the years. After all we get the word science from the latin scientia which simply means knowledge. The word scientist did not appear in our vocabulary until 1833, co-incidentally just about the time that science fiction began to blossom. In fact that word was first used in 1851 (specifically in A Little Earnest Book Upon A Great Old Subject by William Wilson).

It’s also not surprising that perhaps the earliest example of science fiction might be an Arabic novel Fādil ibn Nātiq (translated to Theologus Autodidactus) by Ibn al-Nafis in the 13th century. Arab culture was at that time far ahead of western Europe in science and philosophy.

The first European work that is often considered science fiction is Utopia by Thomas Moore. Written in 1516, it depicted a fictional island and it’s religious, political and social customs. While not precisely science fiction as we currently understand it, this method of creating a fictional society to explore philosophical issues clearly takes a similar form to much contemporary SF.
Manuscript page from Frankenstein by Mary ShelleyImage via Wikipedia
If you’re looking for an obvious starting point for Science Fiction then perhaps Frankenstein has the strongest claim. In Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldis said that Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel was “the first seminal work to which the label SF can be logically attached”.

The 1800s were a time of great scientific progress in the west with the British Empire the dominant power and in control of a quarter of the world’s population. There were developments in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, electricity and metallurgy. Science became a recognized profession for the first time. Charles Darwin published The Origin Of The Species in 1859. Pasteur, Edison and Faraday were all active.

Never before had ideas and technology developed at this pace and in that culture it was almost inevitable that the genre of science fiction would emerge.

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Eoghann Irving is amongst other things the creator and Editor of Solar Flare. He has a life long interest in all forms of science fiction and fantasy and a pressing need to share this interest with anyone who will listen. Find out more at his personal website eoghann.com..

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5 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Hmmm. As with any discussion of any aspect of sf, there’ll be someone to disagree with you. In this case it would be Adam Roberts, whose History of Science Fiction attempts to follow the thematic strands of the genre way back to Ancient Greece. Well worth a read, even if you don’t find you agree with Roberts’ redefinitions (which many have not, to be fair).

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  2. I think a lot of this hinges on how you define science fiction, which is something I will be struggling with as this series develops (do I include superhero comics or just sci-fi comics). For my own sanity I’m taking a fairly strict definition.

    I’m not familiar with Robert’s arguments, but I would certainly agree there are elements of what became science fiction in Ancient Greek literature. However from what I know (and it’s certainly not my area of expertise) they are elements, not complete science fiction stories.

    To my mind science fiction is a modern genre because it requires a way of looking at the world which did not really exist previously even amongst the sophisticated greeks culture.

    However I’m wondering if I should create a companion post for this series which acts as a bibliography of sorts and to provide alternate or simply more detailed insight into the topics.

  3. Some ancient works in Sanskrit that immediately come to mind (of course not tagged sf by anyone - usually labeled mythology, religion, or kids’ stories - but see if themes sound familiar):

    A. Untitled short story included in Vishnu Sharma’s “Panchtantra”: a young man builds a little flying craft to impress his lady love. About 200 BC.

    B. Valmiki’s “Ramayan”. Date unknown, but among the oldest books in India - at least several centuries BC. Hero & his party travel to Ayodhya in north India from Lanka (some 3000 km south of it) in a flying vehicle.

    Also, there are innumerable stories featuring teleporting. And at least one in some versions of “Mahabharata” (several centuries BC) involving travel to moon - though their travel arrangements are more fantasy than science fiction.

  4. Again there are definitely elements that are used in Science Fiction. But I really can’t see something like Mahabharata as SF.

    I don’t see any path from these sorts of works directly to science fiction because I don’t think the aim of the stories is really the same.

  5. I think also it is important to understand that the cultural concept of science fiction may not be Western specific. The Sanskrit scriptures mentioned y a prior commentary are fascinating, and definitely predictive of current technology, and these scriptures have echoes in Norse oral (and now written) histories as well. Also, there are Native American prophecies that seem to have predicted a great deal of the technology we are now using today. One should also not rule out certain aspects of Asian and Polynesian story telling, as well as Australian Aboriginal projections on the world future view.

    The question, to me, likes not in how we interpret what is fiction with a focus on the genre surrounding science, but whether we should include or exclude the oral and written histories of prophecy or prediction, based solely on the notion that such ideas were believed at the time of their creation and continuance, rather than expounded as story. Much of our fiction, after all, does blossom into fact, eventually. Especially within the genre of science fiction.

    If we are going to argue for a technological foundation in modern science fiction, then I think we should argue for the advent of the tool of the typewriter as a use for the writer (Samuel Clemens, I believe was the first person to pen one of his works using the typewriter) and then discard any notion prior to that, and categorize such works as Frankenstein to horror, or, in a morose sense, fantasy.

    Of course, if one is to argue in favor of the printing press as the key technological turning where the notions of technology and fiction first form a synthesis, and to where technology and its impact on the future are first explored as ficton, then one would have to trace the passage of origin back into the history of China, where movable print is believed to have originated.

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