I have to admit that I have never been a big fan of science fiction, but I have begun to take an interest in this genre. First of all there are a couple of things I need to get a couple of things out of the way. Firstly, I am going to refer to SF and not Sci-fi. This is because I have read that Sci-fi is seen as a pejorative term used by those who don’t understand the genre or who are excessively critical of it. Then there is the thorny question of definition; it notoriously difficult to pin this down. A famous definition was provided by Darko Suvin in the 1970s:
“a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.” I’m sure you’re much clearer after that. SF is so hard to define because it includes such a wide range of subgenres and themes. I had no idea that there were so many subgenres – Cyberpunk, Biopunk, Space opera, Gay/Lesbian and Libertarian to name but a few. The typical themes and tropes include alternative societies, technology, cosmology and galactic travel. Within SF there is a distinction between soft and hard. Hard tends to be more concerned with the quantitative sciences, especially physics, astrophysics, and chemistry. Soft SF, which is what interests me, is more focussed on character and emotion and often deals with anthropology, economics, politics, psychology etc.
Science fiction has often been called the literature of change, and it has really influenced our culture and sometimes even driven technological change. A couple of examples show this. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics have gained widespread acceptance and did seem to influence the field of robotics. But with the increasingly complex nature of robots, the laws are more useful on the printed page and movies than in the real world. William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace” and would later popularise it in his famous novel Neuromancer, created the iconography for the information age before the internet even existed. He was also able to foresee the rise of reality television and video games.
It’s difficult to say which book was the first work of science fiction. Vladimir Nabakov argued that it was Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I prefer to begin with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This book was written at the height of the industrial revolution. It was an age when science was coming to the fore, but many people feared its effects. Gothicism and Romanticism had a huge influence on the birth and evolution of SF. Later on in the century Jules Verne and H.G. Wells really brought science fiction to the masses. This was a period when passion for science went well beyond science fiction. New technologies such as electricity, the telegraph and the new forms of transportation were transforming the world. This love of science and technology was best captured in the enthusiasm aroused by the World Fairs of the nineteenth century, such as the one in Crystal Palace in 1851. The next important figure was in the 1920s, Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemburger who founded The Amazing Stories magazine. Gernsback had a real love of science and this was definitely a golden age. He said he published scietifiction. This term would evolve into science fiction. In the 1940s of the greats emerged – Robert Heinlein, who also happened to be a libertarian. In fact, he coined the term TANSTAAFL (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch), so beloved by many economists. Heinlein used the framework of science fiction to explore social themes such as individual liberty the influence of organised religion on society and various unorthodox family structures. Heinlein had an unconventional private life and was credited with popularising polyamory. The fifties and sixties brought us such titans as Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick. Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. The quality of their writing and the ideas they explored helped to bring greater credibility and more readers to SF. After the New Wave of the sixties, the next interesting movement was Cyberpunk in the 1980s. Its seminal work was the postmodern, postindustrial Neuromancer. And finally we come to contemporary science fiction. There are two authors who seem to stand out. Neal Stephenson, who likes to incorporate areas such as mathematics, cryptography, philosophy, and the history of science. The other one is the Australian Greg Egan, whose themes include the nature of consciousness, genetics, virtual reality, sexuality, artificial intelligence, and his preference for rational naturalism over religion.
That then is a very brief history and I’m sure I will have missed out some important names. I have researched the history of the genre before actually reading the books. I wanted to get a feel for it before starting to get down to some serious reading – I am really looking forward to it. I am going to remain a book omnivore as I couldn’t confine myself to one thing. But science fiction is a powerful way of looking at the world and what it means to be human. I will let you know how I get on.