I was reading an interview with William Gibson recently, where he noted that science fiction authors have an abysmal track record for predicting the future accurately. There are a couple of particularly astute individuals, such as Jules Verne or Arthur C. Clarke, who have come up with technologies that have appeared in the real world, but they represent a small minority within the field. Science fiction as a literary movement is relatively new: The early modern forms appeared in the early 1800s, around the same time in which society was undergoing a massive disruption—the Industrial Revolution. In a lot of ways, science fiction is the literary world’s way of grappling with the changes and advances in technology in society around us, and how we interact with said changes.
Mary Shelley’s seminal novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, was written in the later days of the Industrial Revolution. Penned in the summer of 1816, the book portrays a scientist obsessed with creating life from dead body parts. The story shows a stark concern with the abilities of science to act out of the natural world, with man essentially assuming the duties of a god, ready to bring life to the world. For a starting point in science fiction, it’s a good one. At this point in time, science had already begun to appear in society: Steam powered engines were introduced in England in the early 1700s, with improvements following, while new fields in mechanical engineering and industry, medicine and astronomy were changing how people lived throughout Europe, and soon, in other parts of the world. Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel the Strange Case of of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published in 1886, likewise taps into the anxiety over the rapid progress that was overtaking Victorian England, as the good Doctor Henry Jekyll seeks to overcome his darker half through chemical means. In 1897, Bram Stoker likewise brought in a host of modern technologies as learned men worked to subdue an ancient, evil threat in the form of Count Dracula. Tools such as blood transfusions and recording equipment demonstrate the more prominent role in which technologies (or the ideas of said technologies) were being used.
From the early gothic roots of science fiction came some of the first, widely recognizable works of science fiction, known at the time as science romances. These stories fully embraced the advances of the Industrial Revolution and the changes which it brought to society. Author Jules Verne, inspired in part by the fantastic stories of Edgar Allan Poe, had begun to publish his own stories in 1851 with “The First Ships of the Mexican Navy” and “Science for families. A Voyage in a Balloon.” Over the course of his career, Verne would become known for his stories of fantastic technologies, taking readers to the Moon and deep under the waters of planet Earth in a celebration of technological progress. H.G. Wells, influenced by the contemporaries of Charles Darwin, tacked along a different route: He was interested in how a changing modern society reacted to the advances that carried it along. Many of his tales, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The War of the Worlds, took a keen political and ethical interest in the actions of modern society, such as class structure, bio ethics and nationalistic imperialism. Another author, Arthur Conan Doyle, famed for his Sherlock Holmes novels (which relied on empirical observations from Holmes), also tied in the role of an expanding West with novels such as The Lost World, while another book in his Challenger series likewise looked to modern Astronomy in The Poison Belt.
The Industrial Revolution helped to spur incredible advances in technology and supporting infrastructure—and societal structure—as well as social and political movements that accompanied exploration and exportation to new worlds. In the United States, this translated into westward expansion, which was checked only by the pace at which railroads could expand, as well as the presence of Native American tribes. The notion of the U.S.’s drive to the west (and beyond), has become deeply ingrained in modern science fiction, in part due to authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs, born in 1875, was party to the United States after the Civil War, joining the U.S. Cavalry for a short period of time. In 1912, one of his best known books, A Princess of Mars, began its serialization; this first entry in Burroughs’ long-running John Carter of Mars series helped to start up the planetary romance subgenre. Burroughs wrote Westerns in space, swashbuckling pulp stories which were an immediate hit with the reading public, all the while helping to cement the notion of Western society continuing forward into the wilds of the unknown.
By the start of the 20th century, the drive for expansion across the world continued with new political powers in the world: the United States was a rising star, while Europe struggled with its own internal divisions. Coupled with a new wave of technological innovation, this brought with it some devastating consequences: The First World War, with its extraordinary casualties and advanced technology, introduced aircrafts and tanks to the battlefield. H.G. Well’s predictions that technology would be devastating proved to be chillingly correct. There’s other notable moments during this time: Four science fiction authors—John Jacob Astor, Jacques Futrelle, F D Millet and W T Stead—were onboard the RMS Titanic, the most advanced ship of the time, only to perish when it sank in April 1912.
As a variety of weekly magazines printed some of the earlier speculative stories during this time, one man, Luxembourg immigrant Hugo Gernsback, saw a great potential in the booming magazine market. An inventor by trade, he arrived in the United States at the age of 20 in 1904, where he set up a mail order business for radio parts. Soon, Gernsback jumped onto pulp magazine bandwagon, starting to publish short science fiction works in his magazines to capture reader’s attention. Coining the phrase “Scientifiction,” he had a popular product on his hands. In 1926, he launched the world’s first dedicated magazine to stories about fictionalized science. Science fiction had arrived, and it now had a platform for a number of other authors who were all interested in the same types of stories: E.E. "Doc" Smith, Clifford Simak, C.L. Moore and others. The pulp era was driven by technological optimism, carried along by the latest advances in magazine printing technology and delivery logistics. Fans across the United States could take advantage of the distribution infrastructure to read the same stories, travel across the country and interact with one another, sometimes leading to clashes in ideology.
By the end of the 1930s, the worldwide Great Depression was beginning to lift, with more people seeking out an education, and with more opportunities for work in the sciences. Authors such as Robert Heinlein, L. Sprauge de Camp and Isaac Asimov found work during World War II as contractors helping with the war movement, while other authors, such as E.E. Doc Smith and Jack Vance, put their educations to work. In a number of cases, these hard-science backgrounds helped shape the attitude toward the genre and their writing, helping to build what’s now popularly known as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” where hard science and enterprising heroes were all the rage. As the genre grew into a new technological age in a post-war world, a number of authors latched onto the potential offered by this new world: Asimov looked at his robots not as movie monsters, but as mere kitchen appliances.
As the century reached its midpoint, technological optimism began to mature as a reading public adjusted to a new standard of living: air travel, suburbs, television and warfare were aided by high-tech innovations that transformed how we lived. The ideas of new gadgets and technologies were not enough to carry the pulp stories any more: Authors began to look at how the world was reacting and living with technological changes, namely Ray Bradbury with his novel Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell with his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Also, the changing workplace led to greater numbers of female science fiction authors, who began to build careers within the genre and literary worlds.
By the middle of the 20th century, science fiction had arrived and had become firmly ingrained in society, with a growing population of fans and readers who consumed everything they could find to read. Science fiction also began to make the jump from a literary genre to new outlets; outlets such as television and movies that had once only been imagined in science fiction.
In many ways, science fiction as a literary movement came about alongside major societal change, and I don’t think that was accidental. The worlds in which Frankenstein and John Carter of Mars appeared are two extraordinarily different environments, propelled in part by new tools at our disposal, and new ways in which we used them to better our lives. Often, we’ve seen how advances in medical and scientific knowledge have improved the longevity of human health and our surroundings; and science fiction has been there as a tool to think about how these advancements are used. There’s little doubt that it’ll continue to do the same well into the future.