From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginative content such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovations is one purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas". Science fiction has been used by authors as a device to discuss philosophical questions of identity, desire, morality, and social structure.
As a means of understanding the world through speculation and storytelling, science fiction has antecedents back to mythology, though precursors to science fiction as literature can be seen in Lucian's True History in the 2nd century, some of the Arabian Nights tales, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter in the 10th century and Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus in the 13th century.
A product of the budding Age of Reason and the development of modern science itself, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels was one of the first true science fantasy works, together with Voltaire's Micromégas (1752) and Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1620–1630). Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan consider the latter work the first science fiction story. It depicts a journey to the Moon and how the Earth's motion is seen from there. Another example is Ludvig Holberg's novel Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum, 1741. (Translated to Danish by Hans Hagerup in 1742 as Niels Klims underjordiske Rejse.) (Eng. Niels Klim's Underground Travels.) Brian Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) was the first work of science fiction.
Following the 18th-century development of the novel as a literary form, in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley's books Frankenstein and The Last Man helped define the form of the science fiction novel; later Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story about a flight to the moon. More examples appeared throughout the 19th century.
Then with the dawn of new technologies such as electricity, the telegraph, and new forms of powered transportation, writers including Jules Verne and H. G. Wells created a body of work that became popular across broad cross-sections of society. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898) describes an invasion of late Victorian England by Martians using tripod fighting machines equipped with advanced weaponry. It is a seminal depiction of an alien invasion of Earth.
In the late 19th century, the term "scientific romance" was used in Britain to describe much of this fiction. This produced additional offshoots, such as the 1884 novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott. The term would continue to be used into the early 20th century for writers such as Olaf Stapledon.
In the early 20th century, pulp magazines helped develop a new generation of mainly American SF writers, influenced by Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories magazine. In 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs published A Princess of Mars, the first of his three-decade-long series of Barsoom novels, situated on Mars and featuring John Carter as the hero. The 1928 publication of Philip Nolan's original Buck Rogers story, Armageddon 2419, in Amazing Stories was a landmark event. This story led to comic strips featuring Buck Rogers (1929), Brick Bradford (1933), and Flash Gordon (1934). The comic strips and derivative movie serials greatly popularized science fiction. In the late 1930s, John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding Science Fiction, and a critical mass of new writers emerged in New York City in a group called the Futurians, including Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Judith Merril, and others. Other important writers during this period and later, include E.E. (Doc) Smith, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Olaf Stapledon, A. E. van Vogt, Ray Bradbury and Stanisław Lem. Campbell's tenure at Astounding is considered to be the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction, characterized by hard SF stories celebrating scientific achievement and progress. This lasted until postwar technological advances, new magazines such as Galaxy under Pohl as editor, and a new generation of writers began writing stories outside the Campbell mode.
In the 1950s, the Beat generation included speculative writers such as William S. Burroughs. In the 1960s and early 1970s, writers like Frank Herbert, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and Harlan Ellison explored new trends, ideas, and writing styles, while a group of writers, mainly in Britain, became known as the New Wave for their embrace of a high degree of experimentation, both in form and in content, and a highbrow and self-consciously "literary" or artistic sensibility. In the 1970s, writers like Larry Niven and Poul Anderson began to redefine hard SF. Ursula K. Le Guin and others pioneered soft science fiction.
In the 1980s, cyberpunk authors like William Gibson turned away from the optimism and support for progress of traditional science fiction. This dystopian vision of the near future is described in the work of Philip K. Dick, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, which resulted in the films Blade Runner and Total Recall. The Star Wars franchise helped spark a new interest in space opera, focusing more on story and character than on scientific accuracy. C. J. Cherryh's detailed explorations of alien life and complex scientific challenges influenced a generation of writers. Emerging themes in the 1990s included environmental issues, the implications of the global Internet and the expanding information universe, questions about biotechnology and nanotechnology, as well as a post-Cold War interest in post-scarcity societies; Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age comprehensively explores these themes. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan novels brought the character-driven story back into prominence. The television series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) began a torrent of new SF shows, including three further Star Trek spin-off shows and Babylon 5. Concern about the rapid pace of technological change crystallized around the concept of the technological singularity, popularized by Vernor Vinge's novel Marooned in Realtime and then taken up by other authors.
The term "sci-fi"
Forrest J Ackerman used the term sci-fi (analogous to the then-trendy "hi-fi") at UCLA in 1954. As science fiction entered popular culture, writers and fans active in the field came to associate the term with low-budget, low-tech "B-movies" and with low-quality pulp science fiction. By the 1970s, critics within the field such as Terry Carr and Damon Knight were using sci-fi to distinguish hack-work from serious science fiction, and around 1978, Susan Wood and others introduced the pronunciation "skiffy". Peter Nicholls writes that "SF" (or "sf") is "the preferred abbreviation within the community of sf writers and readers". David Langford's monthly fanzine Ansible includes a regular section "As Others See Us" which offers numerous examples of "sci-fi" being used in a pejorative sense by people outside the genre.
Science fiction has criticised developing and future technologies, but also initiates innovation and new technology. This topic has been more often discussed in literary and sociological than in scientific forums. Cinema and media theorist Vivian Sobchack examines the dialogue between science fiction films and the technological imagination. Technology impacts artists and how they portray their fictionalized subjects, but the fictional world gives back to science by broadening imagination.
- French science fiction
- Proto-science fiction
- List of science fiction themes
- List of science fiction authors
- List of science fiction novels
- History of science fiction
- Science fiction film
- Speculative fiction
- Transhumanism (a school of thought profoundly inspired by SF)