Most people think of science fiction as a twentieth century phenomenon, born in the age of atomic energy, the ‘bomb’, and the race for the moon. It may surprise many to find that science fiction traces its roots much further back and has its origins in more traditional fiction and fantasy. Even more oddly, science fiction was not born from a sense of wonder and intrigue about technology. It emerged as the result of a growing sense of desperation from the writers of the nineteenth century.
Prior to the 1800’s, books were still relatively rare. Printing was expensive. Books were so precious that they were handed down from one generation to the next. Due to their high cost, only very important works found their way into print; the Bible, religious commentaries, histories, scientific treatises, textbooks, classic plays, letters of famous men, and the great works of classic literature.
Fiction, while popular, was cherished as much for its rarity as its value. Books were so costly and so rare that resources could rarely be wasted on frivolous works of fiction. In the eighteenth century, about the time the United States won its independence, most libraries were either private collections or were holdings associated with Universities.
For example, Benjamin Franklin established the first private-member library in 1731. The Darby Library, in Pennsylvania, the oldest continuously operating library in North America was opened in 1743 with a stock of only 45 books. In another of the first documented libraries in America, the Waterboro Public library in Maine was a revolving library established in 1751 by 26 gentlemen but it wasn’t open to the public until 1784, when it became the Portland Public Library. Fiction wasn’t all that popular because it simply wasn’t that accessible.
With the advent of the industrial revolution in the early 1800’s, printing became cheaper and written stories became more popular. As oral traditions of storytelling transitioned to the written page, fiction flourished as it never had before. The masses suddenly had access to inexpensive and plentiful stories and they developed an insatiable appetite for stories of all kinds.
The unprecedented growth in the printing industry in the nineteenth century coincided with one of history’s highest levels of literacy. Indeed, immigration laws were passed which had strict literacy requirements.
The literature of the early nineteenth century, however, focused on what we consider to be traditional fiction. In 1828, Nathaniel Hawthorn published The Scarlet Letter. Melville wrote Moby Dick in 1851. Indeed, this era has become known as the American Renaissance or era of American Romanticism. Still, while most fiction was action or romance of the most mundane sort, the seeds of early science fiction can be seen in such works as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, which was published in 1817.
Besides textbooks and these early works of fiction, the principle use of printing was to publish news. While there were many newspapers across the country, most were small, focused on local news and had tiny circulations. The 1850 census documents over 2,500 local newspapers. It was the Civil War, however, that generated an unprecedented demand for timely, accurate news reporting. American journalism was transformed into a dynamic, hard-hitting force in the national life.
Printing retained its real-world focus until the 1850’s, when large powerful presses appeared which could create ten thousand complete newspapers per hour. Not only did newspaper chains from in size, giant publishing houses were born to feed the public’s insatiable appetite for the written word. Giant newspaper empires appeared which exerted incredible power over public opinion. “Yellow journalism” became commonplace. Indeed William Randolph Hearst bragged about being responsible for the public outrage that led to the Spanish American War, 1898.
About this time, the public developed an insatiable appetite for the written word. Fiction and fantasy flourished. Dime novels, westerns, and adventure stories captivated young and old alike and began to displace the desire for less exciting news of the real world. For a time there was a virtually unlimited demand for such stories.
However, after several decades, such stories lost their novelty. Stories about characters in large cities (Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1847; David Copperfield, 1849; Tale of Two Cities, 1859) became familiar. The most exciting stories were those that told readers about new frontiers with strange exotic people and new and wondrous locations. War stories, stories of sea adventures, pirates, lost treasure, shipwrecks and battles predominated for a time as a high age of fiction was born. Mark Twain published most of his works after 1850. Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1857, Kidnapped in 1886, and Treasure Island in 1883. Rudyard Kipling published Captains Courageous in 1897, The Light that Failed in 1890, and Kim in 1900.
By the late 1800’s the great growth of fiction was accompanied by a great deal of competition by other authors. It became increasingly harder to write original stories or to find venues for adventure or drama that had not been used so much before that it became commonplace.
Oddly, the introduction of science into fiction was driven not by technology, but rather by desperation. As industry progressed, the world’s frontiers shrank and once exotic locations became less and less novel. After a time, there were fewer and fewer places that were fresh and new. With advances in transportation, even the most distant places seemed far closer and accessible than ever before. Writers began to stretch the limits of fiction beyond its traditional boundaries.
For a time, Africa became the last frontier. In the 1880’s, H. Rider Haggard wrote a number of novels based there, including King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quartermain, and She. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the famous English detective, left the streets of England and ventured into Africa when he wrote his classic, The Lost World, in which a lost plateau deep in the jungle is discovered to hold the world’s last surviving dinosaurs.
Over time, however, even Africa was explored and it became as implausible to discover a new civilization. By the turn of the century, it was as implausible to find an undiscovered civilization in Africa as it was to find one in the heart of England.
It was the desire for adventure and fantasy and the need for new venues that provided the impetus that forced science into fiction. With the introduction of science into fiction, new settings and locations could be proposed. Entire new worlds and cultures could be created. New conflicts and situations could be manufactured that were more unusual and exotic than anything
Science itself wasn’t exciting. Science was simply used as an excuse to create more exotic situations so writers could create more exciting fiction. In early stories, science was rarely accurate and was applied liberally and with great excess.
One of the first bold writers to leap into this new realm of fantastic scientific fiction included Jules Verne. His early works of included, A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1866), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), Mysterious Island (1874). Another famous writer to venture into this new brand of fiction was H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895).
Soon, innovative fiction became so dependent upon science to open new venues for its stories that new discoveries in science resulted in immediate surges in fiction, which took advantage of these new ideas. When the noted astronomer, Percival Lowell, reported that he saw canals on Mars in 1895, for instance, H.G. Wells capitalized on the idea by writing War of the Worlds in 1898.
Moreover, when radium was discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie of France, many writers incorporated this new energetic element into their stories. H. Rider Haggard abandoned his African settings and wrote When the World Shook (1919) about a lost civilization frozen beneath Antarctica (preserved by radium, of course). Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote far more books about John Carter of Mars (the locals called it Barsoom), in which all combat involved swords or radium blasters, than he did about his other famous character, Tarzan.
Speculation about other worlds and a fascination about astronomy pervades SF in the early 20th century. Burroughs, for instance, went on to write many others novels using distant worlds to create all sorts of imaginable culture and heroes; including Carson of Venus, Pellucidar (in the center of the Earth), and the Moon Maid (in the center of the Moon) to name a few.
One of the most important figures to reshape fiction into science fiction was H. P. Lovecraft. He wrote fantasy and horror stories in the 1920’s that forever changed science fiction and horror. His stories, like The Call of Cthulhu (1926) and Shadow Out of Time (1934) make contemporary horror tales seem like children’s stories in comparison.
One of the most unique features of his works were that he created truly alien, and thus spectacularly terrifying, aliens. His stories incorporated all of the elements of science fiction used thus far. He had flying saucers, parallel dimensions, alien invaders, telepathy and lost science. Like others before him, he too had a civilization lost beneath the ice of Antarctica, the Mountains of Madness (1931). He also managed to incorporate some of the stranger elements of popular science of the times, the concept of multiple dimensions.
It’s important to note theories of multiple dimensions had grown in popularity during the late 1800’s. Indeed, they had been become closely tied with the occult despite legitimate works of science and literature (Edward Abbott’s Flatland, 1882, and Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity dating from 1905). Some of Lovecraft’s lost ruins included windows to other worlds, which contained featureless five-dimensional constructs, a mere glace at which, would drive men mad. Like many others of his era, Lovecraft even ventured to other planets. His story, In the Walls of Eryx (1936), is based on the planet Venus.
What is special about H. P. Lovecraft is the degree to which he created his new worlds. He not only created settings for his dramas and adventures, he created entire histories and cultures. He created an entire mythos of forgotten races, sleeping gods and ancient evil with detail that few other writers have rivaled since. (Well, perhaps Frank Herbert’s Dune and Issac Asimov’s Foundation series managed to match him.) In any case, Lovecraft not only legitimized science based fantasy and horror, more importantly, he personally fostered the careers of many other writers.
The others with whom Lovecraft corresponded became known as ‘The Lovecraft Circle’ and included such people as Robert E. Howard (Conan), Robert Bloch, Clark Aston Smith, August Derleth, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Lieber, William Lumley and many, many more. He is reported to have written more than 100,000 letters in his lifetime, most of them establishing and promoting a genre that survived long after his brief 46 years.
Many others have emulated his style, writers such as A. Merritt in his works, Burn Witch Burn, Creep Shadow Creep, The Ship of Ishtar, and Face in the Abyss. The works of his associates dominated the fictionmarket for several decades. Decades after his death, his tales continue to influence modern writers such as Stephen King, Anne Rice and Clive Barker. Many people attribute the emergence of Sword and Sorcery Fantasy directly to Lovecraft and his fellow writers.
In any case, science fiction eventually became a legitimate category of fiction in its own right and evolved into the works with which we are familiar today.
The invasion of science into fiction during the late 1800’s however, remained an unprecedented period in literature. The appearance of science as a premise for fiction opened new opportunities for writers and created entirely new worlds for their readers. Fiction has never been the same. When the boundaries of traditional fiction were breached by technology’s ability to stretch the plausibility of truly strange and exotic ideas, all the rules of classic fiction were broken. In fact, so great were these opportunities that it took several decades of exploration, and excess, before a new genre of scientifically accurate science fiction, or hard-SF, even became possible.
Eventually the lure for more exciting locations and venues for stories was supplanted by the purer lure of new ideas. The frontiers that draw readers and hold them are no longer the physical frontiers of adventure, but frontiers of ideas instead.
Science fiction today is less fantastic than in its early days, but it is no less exotic. Perhaps that’s because there’s far more science in it and people take it more seriously, as well.
Still, frontiers move and change. New day-to-day discoveries in physics and medicine are reflected in SF today. New theories (from super-symmetry, chaos theory, quantum mechanics, and super-strings) are almost immediately incorporated into new stories as they develop. Still other unproven possibilities of virtual reality and nano-machines continue to evolve in stories.
The question is no longer ‘whether science influences fiction’ as much as it is ‘how fiction influences science’. SF has become the arena where ideas and theories are investigated, explored and refined.
Science fiction is the literature that captures the stories of this moving edge of ideas. Nowadays, that frontier is just a little further than it used to be.