Thursday, 11 January 2018

What is Science fiction? And who wrote the first Science Fiction story?

In their book “Science Fiction, an historical anthology” Eric S. Rabkin and Robert Scholes explore the historical cannon of Science Fiction literature.

They cover in Part one “The Emergence of Modern Science” and include Cyrano de Bergerac’s “From Other Worlds” (1657), Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, (1726) and François Marie Arouet (Voltaire) Micromegas (1752)

In Part 2, Nineteenth Century they cover E. T. A. Hoffman’s The Sandman (1816) Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818)
Edgar Allan Poe A Decent into the Maelstrom (1841)
Nathanial Hawthorne Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844)
Edward Bellamy Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888)

In the section Early Twentieth Century they include The Star by H. G. Wells (even though this story was published in 1889, thus part of the previous century) and Hugo Gernsback’s novel Ralph 124C 41+ (1911.)

They would appear to argue, or at least, suggest that Science Fiction began as early as the 17th century.

However, they omit Swift’s bitter and biting satire “A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick”. One might argue that the theme of commodifying people as a potential food source was taken up in the film “Soylent Green” which has corpses being turned into a foodstuff called Soylent Green. (Incidentally this theme was not in the Harry Harrison novel upon which the film was based, Make Room, Make Room.

(Note: They also failed to mention Jules Verne, a leading exponent of scientific fiction.)

However, if one undertakes further research it becomes clear that Science Fiction stories predate the eighteenth century.

In an article in The Daily Telegraph published 7th November 2013 arts editor Charlotte Runcie wrote an article that reported during the 2013 Cambridge Festival of Ideas, senior lecturer Dr Justin Meggitt posited “the first ever work of science fiction was in fact written by a Greek-speaking Syrian author, in Ancient Rome.”

Runcie added: “True History by Lucian of Samosata is ostensibly a parody of Ancient Roman travel writing. But with characters venturing to distant realms including the moon, the sun, and strange planets and islands, it has a surprising amount in common with modern sci-fi novels and films.”

Runcie also points out the following ancient writings should be considered as Science Fiction:  “The Ramayana - attributed to Valmiki, between the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Urashima Tarō - Japanese legend dating from around the eighth century AD, The Republic - Plato, around 380 BC and the Book of Revelation - John of Patmos, around 90 AD.”

However, some scholars would question that list because some of them involve “magic, not science.
Runcie also cites author and scholar Margaret Attwood “But some question whether it is really the first ever example of the genre. Last year, Margaret Atwood published a book of essays exploring her own theories on the origins of sci-fi, citing Plato's Republic and even the Book of Revelation as possible contenders for the title.”

In general it is acknowledged Science Fiction as we understand the term began at the turn of the 19th century, with novels like H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898).

Mention must go to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)
In the USA Science Fiction novels can arguably be said to have begun with Edgar Rice Burroughs, with his serialised story Under the Moons of Mars (1912; novelised as A Princess of Mars, 1917.
In 1926 Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories.

The magazine spawned many imitators and Gernsback added other Science Fiction titles to his stable; Science Wonder Stories, Air Wonder Stories, and Scientific Detective Monthly, later renamed Amazing Detective Tales.

In 1934 the clamour of readers demanding Science Fiction stories was so high it was decided to launch the Science Fiction League, sponsored by Gernsback himself.

The Science Fiction League had branches throughout the USA and with branches in the UK and Australia. It began holding conventions, still a staple for fans today.

An early, long-serving influence on Science Fiction was the editor of Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 until 1971. With his scientific background (he had a BSc) he was rigorous in ensuring the science was accurate.

Under Campbell the magazine published stories by authors who were to become Literary Lions of the Science Fiction world, like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke (another ‘proper’ scientist like Isaac Asimov.)

There have been a number of protagonists of satirical Science Fiction, like British author Michael Moorcock and fellow British author J. G. Ballard whose satirical novels include his 1973 novel Crash, which is about people who get sexual kicks from car crashes. Possibly the first Science Fiction novel to feature symphorophilia as the main theme.

However, renowned Science Fiction author Harry Harrison was able to prove in the multiple Stainless Steel Rat novels featuring his character James Bolivar diGriz , also known by the sobriquets Slippery Jim and The Stainless Steel Rat, that it is possible to write Science Fiction novels that are both satirical and highly amusing.

If one reads the Douglas Adams Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy novels and the Stainless Steel Rat novels, one might be forgiven for noticing a similarity if not in the subject matter a certain similarity in the joy de vivre that both authors brought to their published works.

Rabkin, E., Scholes, R, 1983. Science Fiction, an historical anthology. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Charlotte Runcie, arts editor. 2013. Daily Telegraph. [ONLINE] Available at:
Encyclopedia Britannica. 2018. The 19th and early 20th centuries Proto-science fiction. [ONLINE] Available at:
Psychology Dictionary. 2018. symphorophilia. [ONLINE] Available at:
Famous People. 2018. John W. Campbell. [ONLINE] Available at:

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