by Cosmic Voice
What is science fiction?
| The earliest beginnings of science fiction may be traced as far back as ancient Greece. The years-long journey of Odysseus in “The Odyssey” details his fantastic travels around strange, unknown lands bordering the Mediterranean. Plato’s “The Republic” depicts the first utopias, ideal states, self-contained cities divided into fixed classes, which have become the theme of countless science fiction stories. One of the first trips to the moon, written around A.D. 165 by Lucian of Samosato, was called “Icaromenippus”. These first tales of adventure were concerned with the science of ideal societies and governments, or fictional journeys of far traveling to distant, unknown lands. The history of this literary form is sparse until the 1600’s when the scientific method began to replace more authoritarian and dogmatic modes of thought. The human imagination can build on current understandings of the physical universe and ourselves and fabricate future worlds. What will things be like in one thousand years? Or in one million years? What will science be capable of then and what will be the impact on human beings? More importantly, what will human beings be like then? Science fiction in the literary field is distinguished from other fiction not by the employment of gadgetry or by the ability of the writer, but through its exploration of ideas.
The range of science fiction is far wider than the name implies. It is not necessary to write about technological developments; the effect of those developments may provide more imaginative scope. The explosion in knowledge, in new technological developments, in consumer goods, and in social change has been overwhelming since World War II. Science fiction is one attempt to understand the knowledge and the social change brought about by this technological boom. As science advances, science fiction goes several steps further ahead to anticipate even more changes. Things are often the catalysts of a story but ultimately it is man who must bear the responsibility for his actions, not his science or his machines. These stories of future worlds may be classified under one of two broad groupings of the science fiction genre: surrealistic or fantasy fiction and realistic or speculative fiction. Each deals with people and ideas but on different levels.
Surrealistic fantasy fiction concerns events against a background that does not exist or has not existed in the past. It is unrestricted fancy that may ignore all known laws of physics and other sciences to create magical places of adventure. Fantasy starts with an idea and builds a world around it.
Realistic or speculative fiction, on the other hand, makes excellent use of imagery but the ideas speculated upon are possible or at least have not been proven impossible. The ideas maintain respect for known scientific theory. They could have happened in the past or they could be a possibility in the future. Speculative fiction proceeds from know facts and develops the story in a credible way.
The industrial revolution provided technology, which became a major obsession of science fiction. It began an acceleration of social and technological change to the point at which it became noticeable both culturally and psychologically within the life span of a single individual. Man could perceive the future as noticeably different from the present. In science fiction, it is not the importance of a worse or better future, only that it is going to be different. Mary Shelly, with her story of future medical possibilities, may be hailed as a pioneer in science fiction.
“Frankenstein”, published in 1817 and described as science fantasy, explores the possibilities of creating life more or less in the image of man. In the preface of her book, Mary Shelly said she did not want the novel to be considered a story of the supernatural but of the power of science to work miracles. The concept of the “mad scientist” was one outgrowth handed down from this first science fiction novel.
Jules Verne took something reasonably possible, added research and invention, and scientific explanation to make readers believe it could be happening or was about to happen. “Journey to the Center of the Earth” was an extension of the hollow earth theory. In “From the Earth to the Moon”, Verne launched three men in a ship toward the moon from a huge cannon built on the coast of Florida. Prophecy or coincidence?
The imagination of H.G. Wells was stirred by the strange markings discovered on Mars. “The War of the Worlds” concerns the invasion of earth as two species, humans and aliens, compete with the alien technology superior to that of earth. The invaders are eventually defeated by another species from earth, something small but lethal to the aliens...earth bacteria.
Stories such as these are imaginative and entertaining but have not always been considered proper reading for the public, especially young people. Most of the science fiction as we know it today first appeared in magazines beginning in the 1920’s. Amazing, Science Wonder Stories and Astounding Stories of Super Science are three of the pioneers in the pulp magazine field. They were read avidly by science enthusiasts while being discredited by the majority of the reading public as mere childish escape, possessing no literary merit. The magazine covers were considered lurid with flashy bright colors, scantily clad women, or some grotesque form of creature.
The content of the stories were degraded as ridiculous because no one could travel to another planet; there were no bug eyed monsters (Bem's) to the science fiction enthusiast; and the only intelligent life was on earth, so there could be no possibility of a confrontation with other beings from strange new worlds. A type of motto covered science fiction during its early days: “If it’s science fiction, it can’t be good. If it’s good, it can’t be science fiction.” Aldous Huxley's “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984” weren’t considered science fiction. They were good.
Every culture, primitive or modern, has its version of the universe. Science fiction is that literary form created by the imagination as it attempted to relate man to the new models of the universe described by science and to the new possibilities suggested by technology. It was the success of these possibilities that generated a new interest in science fiction and caused the general public to sit back to reconsider the merits of science fiction in literature.
The dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan brought to the forefront of man’s awareness the devastating effects science could have on humanity and the latent scientific possibilities yet to be considered. If man can manufacture a weapon to destroy entire cities in seconds, what other devices, good or evil, is he capable of creating?
The launching of the first satellites into space heralded the opening the space age and proved that man was not bound to the surface of the planet. This was something science fiction writers had known for some time. And the accuracy of scientific theory in those stories was another step forward in the path to respectability. The giant strides in medical science, polio vaccine and heart transplants, helped to point out the limitless possibilities of man’s advancement.
In 1969 when man first stepped onto the moon, science fiction had arrived. It now held a respected place in literature. Many of the more thoughtful science fiction writers have seen man’s confinement to a single world as a brake against his ultimate development. This resulted in stories of interstellar flight concerned with exploration and the establishing of colonies in other galaxies. If man could travel to the moon and back, it was no longer childish fantasy to consider space exploration as a reality. If the public could agree on the literary merit of science fiction, many writers could not reach a common ground when composing a definition for their genre.
Definitions for science fiction are influenced by personal interpretation and very from writer to writer. One defines it as “ that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings”. This leaves it open as to whether the changes are advantages or retrogressions, or whether the accent is placed upon the scientific aspect or upon the human response to the science.
Another considers stories science fiction when they deal with change, new ideas...what would happen if...?
The words used to define science fictions can be different, but each still contains the same ingredients. All deal with changes, with ideas asking how and why, and all are stimulated by the universal urge to know...by curiosity.
With imagination and creativity, the range of science fiction is limitless. The field may be subdivided into four generalized areas of subject matter, one of which is science technology and invention. Every new idea for a tool, for machinery, or for a vehicle, either for space or for the planet, is possible fuel for science fiction. How many imaginations were stirred to action by those early science fiction stories? How many of those young readers went on to become the workers, technicians or the genius behind the mechanics of the machinery that put humans into space? The ways in which the advancement of technology effects humans is a vital part of science fiction. Before the automobile, people saw very little of the world beyond their own homes; television and the airplane expanded the world even further, while the advent of space travel pushed the boundaries of possible human habitation to the far reaches of the universe.
H.G. Wells wrote of time travel in “The Time Machine”. Today, due to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, we know that, at least theoretically, some form of time travel is feasible. If man can someday approach the speed of light, he could travel to distant stars in a comparatively short time to return home to a much altered planet, where centuries would have passed during his absence.
Man has already walked on the moon and landed unmanned vehicles on two of our nearest neighbors, Mars and Venus. Our satellites have passed out of our solar system after signalling back invaluable information about the planets and their various moons. Stories speculating of the life of other worlds or other dimensions have been a topic of science fiction since the early days of the pulp magazines. Visitors from these alien worlds also fit into this group. If intelligent life exists outside our galaxy they, too, might be anxious to discover other habitable worlds. Most of the first contact stories depicted the aliens as invaders out to conquer earth, and it has not been until recently that stories allow for humane alien visitors.
The final division includes all catastrophes both natural and man-made. What would happen if a tremendous earthquake were to strike a major city? This was speculated upon in the movie “Earthquake” showing the physical effects on the city and the reactions of the people. Many books have been written about flooding by tidal waves or melting ice caps, or the possibility of meteorites or comets striking the earth. Total global shifting with the relocating of all landmasses and seas and a world war between the two major forces in the world have been speculated on in countless stories and books.
The persistent aspect of the vision of science fiction is the desire to transcend normal experience. Arthur C. Clark coined the phrase, “the only way to find the limits of the possible is to go beyond them to the impossible”. Science fiction stories do this. By pushing into areas that are impossible today, science fiction has excited its readers with a “sense of wonder” and started them thinking. Questions of how, why, and what if are the major ingredients in science fiction
Science fiction in the last thirty years has finally become a respected literary form. It explores and speculates on future ideas and situations. If it’s science fiction, it can be good! H.G. Wells, a founding father of science fiction, has been proven correct in his assertion:
“All this world is heavy with the promise of greater things, and a day
will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings
who are now latent in our thoughts and in our loins, shall stand upon
this earth as one stands upon a footstool and shall laugh and reach out
their hands amidst the stars”.