Last time, we looked back at Hugo Gernsback and his legacy in the science fiction world. At such a tipping point in the genre’s history, it's a good point to examine the early days of the proto-science fiction world.
Broadly speaking, the genre can be broken down into a number of epochs, each with their own distinct elements and features. For a century, from the publication of Frankenstein (1818), up through to Last and First Men (1930), we have a style of fiction that began to draw upon the findings of science in ways never before imagined at that point in time.
Outside the literary world, science was advancing rapidly. Exploration of the Earth’s poles had begun, while Darwin published his Origin of the Species, which revolutionized how people thought about humanity’s origins.
Let’s take a look at some of the high points of the scientific romance period:
Shelley wasn't the first to draw on such themes, but she was the first to strike a chord with readers. Her first and most famous novel, Frankenstein, doesn’t use a lot of hard science. The scene where Frankenstein is born contains no details of just how Dr. Frankenstein created his monster, and the word electricity is used only twice in the story. That being said, the book drew upon the some scientific elements at that point, from advances such advances in biology to polar exploration.
America’s own gothic writer, Poe might wield some of the greatest influences on a number of modern writers, and helping to shape the face of the modern science fiction genre. Poe’s greatest thumbprint in this instance is his ability to take regular people and place them into supernatural situations. Like Shelley, he used scientific and speculative elements, such as the South Pole, and posited travel to the moon.
Many readers count Verne as the first science fiction author, and in a lot of ways, he was one of the first to really take on real scientific knowledge in a true speculative form. Heavily influenced by Poe, Verne continued his work of placing regular people into speculative situations, drawing on the knowledge of the time to set his stories in some of the most fantastic places: outer space, dystopian cities, under the ocean, through the center of the Earth and across the face of the entire planet.
Alongside Verne, Wells is one of the early recognizable authors of the time and coins the term “scientific romance” when talking about his works. Heavily influenced by his experiences as a science writer and teacher earlier in his life, Wells tied in scientific ideas into his stories, but continued a step further, bringing in social and political ideas in alongside his stories to comment on the world as he saw it.
Stapledon rounds out the last of the science romances for this series, publishing at the beginning of the pulp era best exemplified by Gernsback. Influenced early on by fellow British author Wells, Stapledon worked his interests in philosophy into his stories, seeking to create a complicated mythology for humanity far, far into the future.
Finally, the lineup for Gernsback’s landmark science fiction pulp Amazing Stories included several familiar names: Poe, Verne and Wells. A controversial figure in the genre, Gernsback looked back to the past greats of the genre that would serve to shape up the next generation of stories. Using his publishing business to coin the term “Science Fiction,” Gernsback was able to steer the direction of the genre into the next major epoch, the Golden Age of Science Fiction.