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Science Fiction's Clouded Origins

written by: George Adcock • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 8/2/2012

Science fiction is the youngest of all literary genres. While the appreciation of stories based on science or about the future was birthed only in the last century, there were novels based on those themes in the 19th century as well. But which were the first is open to discussion.

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    Fantastic Scientific Adventures

    jules verne Most critics and experts agree the first novels that can be dubbed strictly science fiction were written by Jules Verne. Yet the history of science fiction is somewhat vague. Still, Verne did set a precedent. Beginning around 1860, Verne penned a series of novels about amazing scientific exploits by scientists and explorers. All incorporated the Victorian attitude that mankind had reached; a pinnacle that all things were possible.

    His first book was Journey to the Center of the Earth, a fanciful story about finding a route down to Earth’s center, then thought to be hollow. In that imagined space lived dinosaurs and other beasts.

    Next came From the Earth to the Moon, possibly the first space travel story. Verne used a mammoth cannon to propel his ‘astronauts’ to our satellite. Obviously, we know today the g-forces would have destroyed the craft, not to speak of its occupants.

    These and most of his other ‘science fiction’ novels more properly fall into the category of science fantasy. It was not until 1870, with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, that he actually put real science in a story. The submarine Nautilus, as he described it, could have been a modern nuclear sub. In fact, his description of the Nautilus’ power source is eerily similar to an atomic pile or fusion reactor.

    Beyond that, the diving gear the crew wore when they went outside to gather food is almost a blueprint for scuba gear.

    It is noteworthy that none of these stories are set in the future. They take place in contemporary Victorian times. For that and other reasons, I consider Around the World in 80 Days science fiction.

    This novel contains no fanciful journeys and no extrapolative science. It is simply Phineas Fogg using the most up-to-date technology of his day to win his bet that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.

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    Before Verne

    Verne certainly was the first science fiction author. But I believe the first science fiction novel, without equivocation, was published in 1818. It was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This gothic tale of Dr. Victor von Frankenstein's successful experiments to reanimate a jigsaw puzzle of sewn together human parts with electricity was the first true science fiction story. Shelley based her tale on the science of her time--the experiments of research that showed that electric currents could cause a dead frog's legs to move. It was believed then that nerve impulses were believed to be electrical in nature. We know today they are chemical. But Shelley simply extrapolated from contemporary scientific thinking--a plot ploy that would become standard in SF when it became a true genre.

    Decades after there was Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii. This is set in the past—the Roman world of 79 AD. But the story is based on the science of archeology and the findings of the first digs in unearthing the ruins of the doomed city. It’s a Victorian novel and very slow, but the final fourth, as Vesuvius begins to rumble and the Pompeians flee, is as exciting as any SF novel you’ve ever read.

    And there’s another novel prior to Verne regarded as SF that most everyone considers mainstream--Moby Dick. The 1851 tale of Ahab’s obsession and pursuit of the great white whale is no doubt an American classic. But it also has enough elements of science—and ‘what would happen IF'—that many classify it as SF. The whale is gigantic, larger than any normal whale, and while there were tales of whales ramming ships then, the white whale’s seemingly premeditated, sentient approach to it makes Moby Dick’s vengeance more than chance.

    In addition to this, there is Ahab’s psychological obsession with the whale--science well knitted into the story.

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    After Verne

    Verne’s last true SF novel, Master of the World, was written in 1904. By then, two other authors had taken up his mantle. In 1895, one Herbert George Wells published a novel titled The Time Machine. Like Verne, it was set in Wells’ contemporary period and told the story of a tinkerer who invented a time machine and traveled to the past and the future. Being a socialist, H.G. Wells used his views of the future to comment on society’s ills and basically invented SF’s ‘if this goes on’ plot line.H. G. Wells 

    In Island of Dr. Moreau, Wells brought more real science into his story, with the crazed doctor trying to create superior beings from the animals on the island.

    But it was War of the Worlds that solidified Wells as a bona fide science fiction writer. In 1898, most regular folks were convinced Mars was inhabited by intelligent beings. Giovanni Schiaparelli had announced that he had discovered canali on the red planet in 1877. In 1895 Percival Lowell, who later would discover Pluto, released his own drawings of the canals, and stated he believed it proved Mars was inhabited. Wells took them at their word.

    War of the Worlds was also set in Wells' own time, and so featured mechanical Martian machines razing the English countryside.

    Besides his visons of the future in Time Machine, Wells wrote two novels of the future. The Sleeper Awakes is a tale of a man who sleeps for 200 years and awakes to a futuristic world full of technological wonders—such as aeroplanes—and social upheaval. The other is his future predictive tour de force—The Shape of Things to Come. Written in 1933, it predicted a second World War, the use of giant bombers in the war and the rise of a super power after the conflict. The super power then develops space travel.

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    A Surprise

    One other author may surprise you—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, he's the creator of the amazing Sherlock Holmes. Doyle wrote several science fantasy novels, the most famous being The Land that Time Forgot: A group of explorers find a valley where dinosaurs still live.Arthur Conan Doyle 

    But again, the contrarian in me says the Sherlock Holmes stories are science fiction. They clearly deal with the science of early forensics and deductive logic. Later, as SF developed as a genre, deductive logic would become a mainstay of plot lines, thus muddying the history of science fiction even more.