While scholars and critics have long discussed and disputed the actual definition of science fiction as a genre, it is undeniable that if someone says that they read a sci-fi book or watched a sci-fi film, the average person will have a good idea as to what they are talking about. Familiar science fiction tropes, concepts, and story lines have been explored and refined time and time again to the point that they are instantly recognisable, yet their popularity never seems to wane. Each new iteration brings a new perspective to the sci-fi framework, and each generation finds fresh metaphors for contemporary issues within its themes and devices.
It could easily be argued that science fiction’s history goes back hundreds, even thousands of years, a whisper of its conception to be found in the work of Ancient Greek cosmologists and philosophers, but, spurred on by the industrial revolution, science fiction as we recognise it today was largely formed in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. The term science fiction itself, though first appearing in William Wilson’s A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject in 1951, was not widely used until its popularisation in the 1920s by the hugely influential publisher Hugo Gernsback, when it became firmly recognized as its own genre.
I’d like to share with you today some of our early sci-fi titles. As a fan of the genre I find it fascinating to witness its birth through these novels, and to see just how similar some of the storylines are to those in sci-fi that is being created today. Furthermore, our separation from them in time makes it is easy to see how the political, social, and technological landscape of the period influenced these novelists, which in turn helps us to more easily see how our own lives and times influence the content of contemporary science fiction, even without the clear lens of hindsight.
The Crystal Man
Edward Page Mitchell, edited and introduced by Sam Moskowitz, 1973 [1874-1886]
This is an anthology collection of early science fiction short stories by Edward Page Mitchell originally published in newspapers in the 1870s and 1880s. Mitchell’s stories explored human invisibility and time travel before H.G. Wells’ (undisputedly one of the most influential early sci-fi writers) The Invisible Man and The Time Machine, and it has been postulated by a number of scholars that Mitchell could have been an influence on the legendary author. Also in this collection are extremely early, formative examples of other now-popular science fiction themes such as faster-than-light travel, teleportation, mind transfer, and superhuman mutants. It would be difficult to find a modern sci-fi narrative that didn’t include a concept Mitchell touched on! After his death in 1927 he was largely forgotten until being rediscovered by leading science fiction historian Sam Moskowitz, who collected and published his work together for the first time in this volume, along with his own long and informative introduction which details Mitchell’s personal life and work.
Ceasar’s Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century
Edmund Boisgilbert, pseudonym of Ignatius Donnelly, 1890
Ceasar’s Column is one of the earliest works of dystopian science fiction in the English language. Compared to Mitchell’s work, Donnelly’s novel revolves less around the futuristic and fantastic technologies and occurrences of science fiction themselves, and instead focuses on the political and social struggles of the world they exist in. That’s not to say it isn’t rich in imagined technology – Donnelly’s portrayal of 1980s New York is filled with advanced tech, much of which, such as television, radio, aeroplanes capable of transatlantic flight, and poison gas really did come to exist, though not quite in the way he imagined them! The plot centres on the city’s ruthless financial oligarchy that rules over a vast, abject working class, and the secret resistance organization that opposes it.
The resemblance to modern works, particularly those created during the dramatic increase in the popularity of dystopian narratives in the late 2000s and early 2010s, is notable. When compared with one of the most popular dystopian novels of recent decades, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, it can be seen that both novels create worlds where the brutality of an oppressive state is matched in barbarity by the violence of the revolutionary resistance, with neither truly earning the moral high ground. The similarity of the climax of both novels, in which the struggle between both sides comes to a less-than-clean-cut conclusion, is particularly staggering.
Last and First Men
Olaf W. Stapledon, 1930
As science fiction matured throughout the early 20th century, more ponderous, philosophical, and cosmically-scaled narratives appeared, including the works of Katherine Burdekin that I discussed in my previous blog post, and exemplified by the groundbreaking works of Olaf Stapledon, all of which helped to form a strain of the genre that still exists today (a favorite example of mine being the 2009 film Mr Nobody, or, more recently, 2016’s Arrival). The recent and anticipated advancements in astronomy and cosmology, which Stapledon followed closely, encouraged a ‘zoomed-out’ view of humanity, and even of the very solar system in which we reside. The First and Last Men, about which Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001: A Space Odyssey acclaim) stated ‘no book before or since has ever had such an impact on my imagination’, takes on the incredible task of imagining the story of the human race all the way up to its demise billions of years in the future. Humanity makes its way through eighteen different forms or species, some of which occur through natural selection, others by human intervention, offering an early example of genetic engineering in science fiction. The narrator, a ‘last man’ residing on Neptune in the last remaining human stronghold, psychically holds the consciousness of a ‘first man’, a stroke of cyclical symmetry which is reminiscent of contemporary and later cosmological and philosophical theories such as the cyclical model, loop quantum cosmology and eternalism. The Last and First Men preceded Star Maker, in which Stapledon took his ideas a step further and traced the birth and death of an entire universe.
Look out for these early works of science fiction among many more like them (so many it was hard for me to choose which to include in this blog post!) in our upcoming catalogue of the legendary Martin Stone’s collection, which is rich in speculative and weird fiction.
Adam Roberts: The History of Science Fiction. Springer, 4 Aug 2016
H.G. Wells: The Invisible Man. Broadview Press, 30 Jun 2018
Ignatius Donnelly: Caesar’s Column, A Story of the Twentieth Century. Wesleyan University Press, 4 Dec 2003
Olaf Stapledon: Last And First Men. Hachette UK, 19 Mar 2012
Robert Crossley: An Olaf Stapledon Reader. Syracuse University Press, 1 Mar 1997
www.scififilmhistory.com: Karina Wilson, accessed 2 September 2019
www.sf-encyclopedia.com: Gollancz, SFE Ltd., accessed 2 September 2019