The Science-Fiction Story Analysis

The Origins of Science Fiction

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

It was in the eighteenth century that the word “science” acquired its modern meaning. The scientific method and the discoveries it produced were key elements of what is now looked back on as the Enlightenment. The new definition of science represented the realization that arguments from authority are worthless and that reliable knowledge is rooted in the evidence of the senses, carefully sifted by deductive reasoning and the careful testing of generalizations. As soon as the new image of science was established writers began producing speculative fictions about new discoveries and new technologies that might come about as a result of the application of the scientific method.

The earliest short fictions of this kind were accommodated within the ready-made narrative frameworks of the anecdotal traveler’s tale, the dream story and the moral fable, sometimes embedding painstaking attempts to dramatize philosophical propositions within frameworks that had usually been employed for more frivolous endeavors. The argument in favor of the Copernican theory of the solar system advanced by Johannes Kepler’s dream story Somnium (1634; English translation, 1965) includes an ingenious attempt to imagine how life on the moon might have adapted to the long cycle of day and night. Voltaire’s Le Micromégas (1752; Micromegas, 1753) employs a gargantuan native of Saturn to pour witty but devastating scorn on human delusions of grandeur.

Early American Science Fiction

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The potential of science fiction as an imaginative tool for repeated and varied use was first tested by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s early poems include “Sonnet—to Science” and the cosmic vision “Al Aaraaf” and his career culminated in Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848), an extraordinary poetic essay on the nature of the universe revealed by astronomical telescopes. In the meantime, the visionary thread connecting these works was woven into a number of tales, including “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” whose protagonists recall the destruction of Earth by a comet and “Mesmeric Revelation.” Although the prefatory essay on verisimilitude that Poe attached to the lunar voyage story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” is not intended to be taken too seriously, it constitutes the first tentative manifesto for science fiction. Poe’s interest in hoaxes also led him to experiment with tales cast in the mold that eventually produced the modern “scientific paper,” including “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

Poe’s contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne also imported scientific experiments into some of his moral tales. Whereas Poe was only slightly ambivalent about the wonders of science, Hawthorne was deeply suspicious of its firm exclusion of ethics and aesthetics from the realm of reliable knowledge. His tales in this vein—especially “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter”—are among the...

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Early European Science Fiction

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Poe’s works were translated into French by Charles Baudelaire, and this helped to ensure that his influence in France outweighed his influence in the English-speaking world. The most important pioneer of French science fiction, Jules Verne, loved Poe’s work, but he wrote only a handful of short stories. Poe’s influence is more obvious in the work of J. H. Rosny the elder, whose best short stories include “Les Xipéhuz” (“The Shapes”) and “Un Autre Monde” (“Another World”).

British speculative fiction received its first important boost in 1871 when Blackwood’s Magazine published George T. Chesney’s account of “The Battle of Dorking.” This provoked the establishment of a genre of future-war stories that remained prolific until the outbreak of the World War I in 1914. Growing awareness that the advancement of military technology would utterly transform the business of war made accounts of the coming conflict increasingly lurid, but relatively few of them were couched as short fiction, even when the explosive growth of new middlebrow magazines like The Strand in the 1890’s opened up vast territories of literary space ripe for colonization.

It was while these new magazines were in an experimental mood—a mood which lasted little more than ten years—that the British genre of “scientific romance” first appeared. It was foreshadowed in the work of Grant Allen, in such stories as “Pausodyne” and the utopian parable “The Child of the Phalanstery,” but its most important pioneer by far was the young H. G. Wells, who quickly realized that the ideas in the brief speculative essays he was writing for the Pall Mall...

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Pulp Science Fiction

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The first pulp magazines appeared in America in the 1890’s. They were so named because they took advantage of new technologies that produced cheap paper from wood pulp. After Frank Munsey converted The Argosy to an all-fiction magazine in 1896 the kind of fiction most typical of the pulp magazines—garish melodramas aimed at unsophisticated readers—attracted the dismissive name of “pulp fiction.” Much early pulp fiction consisted of serial novels, and the first kind of science fiction to gain a firm foothold in the pulp arena was the extraterrestrial adventure story pioneered by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912.

The pulp magazines proved far more hospitable to science fiction than more respectable U.S. magazines like Harper’s and Cosmopolitan, as well as offering far more space, but the heavy emphasis they placed on action/adventure stories made it difficult for writers to develop science-fiction ideas in short fiction. The short forms most readily assimilated to pulp fiction were tales of rapidly aborted inventions, travelers’ tales, and horror stories using science-fiction motifs. Moral tales were considered too highbrow and dream stories too unsophisticated.

The U.S. pulps imported a certain amount of British scientific romance, including work by Griffith, Hyne, and Hodgson, but much of it was fiction by writers best known as writers of “boys’ books.” These included Francis H. Atkins, who wrote as...

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The Campbellian Crusade

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Science fiction crossed an important threshold in 1938 when the best-selling science-fiction pulp Astounding Stories was delivered into the charge of John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell believed that science fiction had the potential to become an important medium for the conduct of socially valuable thought- experiments. He wanted writers to be much more careful than they had previously been to make certain that their stories were scientifically consistent, but he saw that as a beginning rather than an end. The narrative thrust of any science-fiction story, in his view, had to involve the extrapolation of its speculative ideas as well as the projects and troubles of its characters.

Campbell’s editorial prospectus firmly established the idea-as-hero story as the primary template of science fiction, and he insisted that it ought to be employed as a means of intellectually disciplined inquiry. His cause was immediately taken up by a stable of young writers whose imaginations had already been schooled by pulp science fiction and who were eager for further education. The stable included L. Sprague de Camp, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, Clifford Simak, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, and A. E. van Vogt, but its most important members were Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.

Heinlein’s “Blowups Happen,” which examines the social and psychological stresses associated with the establishment of an atomic power plant, now seems remarkably prescient—as does del Rey’s “Nerves,” which describes the struggle to contain a meltdown in a nuclear reactor before it causes an environmental disaster—but such anticipatory hits were not the point of the exercise. In order to promote a new consciousness of the multitudinous possibilities that the future contained, and to emphasize that the adaptations that individuals and societies would have to make to future change would be...

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Beyond the Pulp Ghetto

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Campbell’s Astounding Stories became a “digest” magazine in 1943 but its competitors clung as stubbornly to the larger pulp format as they did to the norms and values of pulp fiction. None of them recovered fully from wartime economies, and the next phase in the evolution of magazine science fiction was led by a new wave of digest magazines, headed by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy. The smaller format encouraged more prolific use of short forms, and these diversified rapidly in the 1950’s in directions of which the increasingly narrow-minded Campbell did not approve.

The first science-fiction writer to break out of the magazine ghetto to achieve wider fame was...

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Satire and Social Commentary

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Another element shared by the work of Bradbury, Dick, and Sturgeon was a ready wit. All three were more accomplished tragedians than comedians, and their humor was often rather black, but each had a well-developed sense of irony. The same was true of many of the other writers who rose to prominence within the genre in the 1950’s, although the only really prominent writer of outrightly humorous science fiction in that era was Robert Sheckley.

Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth were singled out for particular praise by Kingsley Amis because of their accomplishments in “satire,” although the idiosyncratic kind of social criticism they practiced in their work is sufficiently distinctive to resist ready subsumption...

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British Science Fiction

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

American science fiction flooded into war-devastated Europe after 1945, overwhelming native traditions of speculative fiction that had already been enfeebled by World War I. British speculative fiction had revived in the 1930’s but it consisted almost entirely of doom-laden prophecies of a renewal of conflict that would complete the demolition of civilization. There was no room for such dark material in the popular magazines, so those new writers of scientific romance who dabbled in short fiction—including Neil Bell and J. Leslie Mitchell—quickly gave it up and concentrated on novels. The only significant science-fiction story collection published in the United Kingdom between the wars was S. Fowler Wright’s vitriolic...

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Avant-Garde Science Fiction

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The British new wave was enthusiastically supported in the United States by Judith Merril, but Harlan Ellison created a home-grown version with his pioneering anthology of “taboo- breaking” stories Dangerous Visions (1967). Ellison had put his early days as a prolific hack behind him when he broke through into writing television scripts in the early 1960’s, and from then on his literary output was concentrated on intense, vivid, and surreal short fiction. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” won him the first of many awards, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “The Deathbird,” and “A Boy and His Dog” all adding to the list.

Dangerous Visions called attention to the...

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The Contemporary Scene

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Science fiction ceased to be a magazine-based genre in the 1960’s, when paperback books became its primary commercial engine. Attempts to shift science fiction’s magazine culture into the new medium, involving such paperback anthology series as Damon Knight’s Orbit, Terry Carr’s Universe, and Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions flourished briefly but died out as conventional editorial wisdom embraced the theory that because novels always outsold collections of short stories there was no point in publishing any short fiction except for the occasional collection by a best-selling writer.

By the beginning of the 1990’s most people who identified themselves as science-fiction fans were...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Amis, Kingsley. New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction. London: Gollancz, 1960. A slightly superficial study by a critic whose relative ignorance of the genre’s history is amply compensated by his insights into the distinctive forms and merits of short sf.

Ashley, Michael. The History of the Science Fiction Magazines. 4 vols. London: New English Library, 1974-78. A comprehensive history of magazine sf; each volume covers ten years and includes representative samples of stories from the decade plus bibliographies of the works of leading writers.

Carter, Paul A. The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty...

(The entire section is 245 words.)