The Science-Fiction Novel Roots of science fiction

Roots of science fiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Many individual works lie within the borderland between mundane and imaginative fiction, but there is one entire genre that occupies a curiously ambiguous position, a genre that depends on the use of the imagination to a considerable degree but that tries to make its imaginative products responsible in some way to a realistic outlook. The names given to this genre all have a somewhat oxymoronic flavor in common: “scientific romance,” “realistic romance,” and “science fiction.”

There are, as might be expected, two conflicting traditions in science-fiction criticism. One of these traditions stresses the close alliance between science fiction and other kinds of fantasy, and values the genre for its venturesome qualities. The other tradition emphasizes the responsibilities of the conscientious science-fiction writer in maintaining a firm base within scientific possibility and in the avoidance of any traffic with the occult. Brian Aldiss, in The Billion Year Spree (1973; revised as The Trillion Year Spree, 1986), suggests that science fiction is “characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode” and traces its ancestry from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Robert A. Heinlein, by contrast, contributes to the symposium The Science Fiction Novel (1959), introduced by Basil Davenport, a spirited defense of science fiction as a species of realistic fiction, likening the method of science-fiction writers to the scientific method itself.

Not unnaturally, adherents of these two views differ markedly on the issue of which texts should be labeled “science fiction” and which ought to be cast out as pretenders. Everyone agrees, however, that publishers and critics tend to use the label irresponsibly—on one hand, extending it promiscuously to cover stories that are “really” fantasy, and on the other hand, refraining from its use in respect of many prestigious works that, though “really” science fiction, might somehow be stigmatized or devalued if they were so named in open court.

Despite the fact that several different histories of science fiction have been compiled by adherents of different definitions, it is to the history and development of the genre that one is inclined to turn in the hope of discovering a reasonable analysis of the genre’s characteristics and relationships with other literary traditions. There is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever of a coherent tradition of literary endeavor extending from Frankenstein to more recent science fiction. Although there were echoes of gothic freneticism in a few of the works produced in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when fiction recognizably akin to what today bears the label began to proliferate, most of it was very different in character.

One can recognize four main stimuli that encouraged writers in the late nineteenth century to produce more or less careful and conscientious works about imaginary inventions, future societies, and alien worlds. The first was the revolution in transportation, which brought the products of the Industrial Revolution into the everyday world of the middle classes in the shape of steam locomotives and steamships. This stimulated the growth of the novel of imaginary tourism, the greatest and most popular exponent of which was Jules Verne, author of Voyage au centre de la terre (1864; A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 1872), De la terre à la lune (1865; From the Earth to the Moon, 1873), and Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1869-1870; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1873). Most of the early novels of space travel have a distinctively Vernian flavor and represent the more ambitious extreme of this particular subspecies. Examples include Across the Zodiac (1880), by Percy Greg, and A Columbus of Space (1909), by Garrett P. Serviss.

A second important stimulus was the discussion provoked by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Literary reconstructions of the prehistoric past became common, and so did speculations regarding the possible evolutionary future of humankind. The most famous examples are The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), by H. G. Wells, and The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911), by John D. Beresford.


(The entire section is 1835 words.)