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Early 20th Century Science Fiction Books: Clues to the Future

written by: Elton Gahr • edited by: Amanda Grove • updated: 8/26/2012

No genre of literature better depicts the 20th century than science fiction. Its growth as a genre matches the growth of importance of technology in people's lives, and science fiction books from the early 20th century are vital to the understanding of science fiction as well as society mores.

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    Science Fiction Comes Into Its Own

    Although there are science fiction books that predate the beginning of the 20th century, the SF genre didn’t really come into its own until the early 1900s. Yet there are a lot of great books from this genre that predate the 20th century that inspired the golden age pantheon of writers such as Asimov, Bradley, Clark, Heinlein and many others. These books should not be overlooked and for the fan of science fiction are interesting both as history and as stories.

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    The Fathers of Science Fiction

    Jules Verne 

    In the late 19th century and early 20th century we find the fathers of science fiction. These three brilliant men are Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Hugo Gernback. Each of these men was legendary in this genre and were vital in the early 20th century science fiction movement.

    Jules Verne’s most notable books were written before the turn of the century, and he himself died in 1905. But while books like Around the World in 80 days, From Earth to The Moon and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were all written before the turn of the century there is no doubt that they were still vastly popular at that time.

    H. G. Wells, a bit younger than Verne, wrote more of his books in the 20th century. These include books such as The First Men In the Moon, Men Like Gods and The War in the Air. These covered ideas such as anti-gravity, parallel realities and the advent of the modern air forces.

    Hugo Gernsback is the least known of the three and not particularly well known as an author, with his best known work being Ralph Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback 124C 41+, which is generally unpopular among modern readers, and mostly read because of its importance to the genre. Yet his influence on the genre may be more vital than that of the others as it was his magazine, Amazing Stories, which brought science fiction into the golden age. Today he is best known for the Hugo award, named after him, which picks the best science fiction of each year.

    There are very few, if any, more influential science fiction authors than Verne and Wells and, more importantly to the average reader, the most famous of their stories are still fun to read. They may be a bit more difficult to read than the modern novel due to unfamiliar styles and word usage. This is largely made up for by the enjoyment of finding things predicted so accurately or so inaccurately, both of which can be entertaining.

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    Authors Outside of the Science Fiction Genre

    Before Adam by Jack London While the three fathers of science fiction were vital there were other famous authors who wrote mainly in other genres. One of the better known of these was Jack London. While known best for books such as The Call of the Wild, his book Before Adam explored early human evolution with the story told from the point of view of a hominid. Also science fiction, though softer, is The Iron Heel. The Iron Heel is one of the earliest of dystopian novels set in a future where the societal changes are more important than the technological changes.

    Also published around this time was The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster. This is set in a future where humans can no longer live on the surface of the earth but instead live in underground cells that are serviced by a global machine while humans do nothing but share ideas and knowledge over a video-conferencing-like device.

    Finally, there is Edgar Rice Burroughs who is best known for Tarzan but also wrote A Princess of Mars. Called a sword and planet A Princess of Mars A John Carter Book by Edgar Rice Burroughs story, this genre of science fiction has largely died out, but was popular through much of the golden age. It enjoyed a resurgence of interest with the release of Disney's John Carter movie in 2012 even though the movie was not critically popular. In this story a confederate civil war veteran, John Carter, is transported to Mars where he gets involved in the politics of the Martian tribes.

    As excellent authors, these words are not the best of their works, but each of them introduces interesting ideas and styles to the genre of science fiction. If you love reading classic fiction they all are interesting as much because of what they got wrong as what they got right. It is also interesting to see a time when major authors did not see science fiction as a detriment to their career but simply as a good way to tell a story.

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    Other Notable Stories

    the lost world arthur conan doyle 

    There were many other science fiction books written at this time, often by less known authors or authors known far better for other works. One of the most notable of these is the 1912 novel, The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This is the story of an expedition that finds a South American basin where many extinct animals still exist.

    There is also some argument to be made that the forensic science in Sherlock Holmes was advanced enough at the time to be on the borderline of the genre as well, though most of what was done in those stories was possible at the time, but simply not used or understood.

    The Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling is an exploration of what he thinks life might be like in the year 2000. Largely it's an exploration about how new technologies such as air flight and radio may affect people once they have become common. This means that scientifically it's more interesting as a view on what people expected than the technology itself.

    Finally, you have A Columbus of Space by Garrett P. Serviss which is dedicated to the readers of Jules Verne. An astronomer, Serviss wrote a story about an atomic rocket that is traveling to Venus. Published in 1909, the ideas of the technology of this story are impressive and the story remains a good adventure.

    Of these three The Lost World is the best known and generally for good reason. Burroughs was able to write a story that captured the adventure of exploration and ideas that still make this style of book a lot of fun to read. It has also inspired countless other stories, including the obvious Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and the more recent movie Land of the Lost.

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    Themes and Similarities

    Often called scientific romances at this time, the early 20th century science fiction books became popular in large part because society began to see the major changes brought about by technology, and these authors were able to capture that awe and fear. These novels are similar in many ways to the genre that continues to exist but have a few notable differences from modern books.

    One of the most important is that at that time science fiction was not a separate genre and those stories would be found alongside any other novel in most stores. The stories were also often experimental, serialized in magazines, generally focused far less on the individual character with many these stories having unnamed narrator protagonists. The authors were far more likely to stop the story to take pages to describe their technology. Yet these stories invented entire subgenres and introduce fantastic ideas to generations of readers. For this reason, if no other, they are worth reading, but most of them are still fun to read as well, so long as you don’t mind a challenge.

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    Resources

    • Source, http://www.sflare.com/archives/the-history-of-science-fiction-1900-1909/
    • Source, http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F60F10F8345C14738DDDA90A94D0405B878AF1D3
    • Source, http://www.sfsite.com/08b/ra110.htm
    • Source, http://www.dieselpunks.org/profiles/blogs/hg-wells-the-war-in-the-air
    • Source, http://www.troynovant.com/Franson/Wells/Men-Like-Gods.html
    • Books, H. G. Wells. The First Men In the Moon. 1901. Men Like Gods. 1923 and The War in the Air. 1908
    • Books, Verne, Jules. From Earth to The Moon. 1865. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 1870. Around the World In 80 Days, 1873
    • Book, Gernsback, Hugo. Ralph 124C 41+, 1911
    • Book, London, Jack. The Call of the Wild. 1903, Before Adam. 1907, The Iron Heel. 1908.
    • Book, Forster, E. M. The Machine Stops. 1909.
    • Book, Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan of The Apes 1912. A Princess of Mars. 1912.
    • Book, Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Lost World. 1912.
    • Book, Kipling, Rudyard. With The Night Mail. 1905.
    • Book, Serviss, Garrett P. A Columbus of Space. 1909.
    • Link,http://infomotions.com/etexts/gutenberg/dirs/etext05/7spce10.htm
    • Link, http://www.literature.org/authors/doyle-arthur-conan/lost-world/
    • Link, http://www.sciencefiction-quality.com/Night-Mail.html
    • Images, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons