Mind The Gap: Forgotten History of Science Fiction

Thursday , 5, January 2017 17 Comments

There’s a strange blank in SFnal history these days:

When most people talk about SFF literature they start in the middle, with the lionized authors of the Campbell era – who doesn’t know the names Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke? – and then skip forward an entire generation to start talking about the 1980s and 1990s.

There are those of course who cry foul and point out the non-Campbell greats who had eager followers during the same era, and those who point further back to the pre-war pulps and the rich but forgotten veins that lie in the pages of Argosy and Weird Tales of the 1920s and 1930s.

The wrangling over where, exactly, the sweet spot of SFF lies has been going on about as long as there has been a fandom.[1] But the truth is that many of these painstaking histories seem to make the same mistake: pinning the conception of science fiction on Mary Shelley and the publication of Frankenstein in 1818.[2]

Frankenstein certainly is an important work, and strong arguments have been made that Shelley’s most famous tale deserves a place of honour as the first modern fiction to bring key elements of the science fiction story together.[3] The big problem with anchoring the start of science fiction in 1818 though is that it’s not true.

Shelley was not working in a vacuum. In fact, she was building on foundations that had been “curing” for centuries before she was born. That’s not to demean the importance of Frankenstein or to argue with more erudite scholars of SF history – 1818 was definitely an important year for this genre. But to sweep away all that came before is to forget our roots and to lose out on some very interesting deep history.

One place to start looking for the SF elements that eventually find their way into modern English SF writing is all the way back: The Epic of Gilgamesh. This idea may seem a little fantastic at first, but bear with me.[4]

On the face of things, the story is very much a fantastic tale, and most readers are apt to class it as fantasy rather than science fiction[5] – the tale is populated by ogres, by scorpion-men, supernatural acts, and Gilgamesh’s boon companion: the beast-man Enkidu, who tames him and ultimately makes him a better king. But the epic also contains the themes that are the life-blood of science fiction today: questions about the nature of humanity, about the human condition, and about what it means to be human in a universe that contains things that are deeply unhuman. Even the implications of immortality are considered. The Epic of Gilgamesh doesn’t contain any explicit technological references that we would recognise as SFnal[6] but in addition to the “humanity” themes we see the exploration of alien environments (Gilgamesh’s descent to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve the herb of youth, for example) and the concept of post-apocalyptic tales and the recovery of lost secrets from a fallen civilization.

Still, while some of the core ideas of science fiction are present in the epic it does seem a little strained to class the tale as SF per se. Perhaps we need to move a little further forward: enter the Syrian author Lucian.

Lucian’s satirical text True History brings us much closer to what we would recognise as science fiction in that it presents us with actual space travel – complete with alien beings and interstellar war.[7] In contrast to Gilgamesh[8], we can be certain True History was intended as fiction because Lucian tells us so right in the text.[9]

The heroes of Lucian’s tale start out and finish in territory we would definitely categorize as fantasy – they are simply going on an ocean voyage like any other, save for the exotic and fantastic locales they encounter: rivers of wine filled with fish and bears, for example). But in the middle portion of their voyage, although Lucian doesn’t actually put much effort into speculating how actual people might travel to the stars – he simply has the heroes carried there by a whirlwind[10] –  Lucian’s narrator and his companions are much more firmly in science fiction territory until their return to Earth.

From the first, Lucian’s heroes are caught up in an interplanetary war between the kings of the Moon and the Sun. And over what? Over the colonization of Venus! Sound familiar? But lest we dismiss these locales as simply metaphorical incarnations of Earthly polities[11] Lucian also populates his story with alien beings, including fungus-based life-forms and dog-like pilots. Even the men of the Moon – who are otherwise portrayed as essentially human – turn out to be an example of alien biology: there are no women, and children are borne in the legs of the men. But Lucian doesn’t stop at imagining alien worlds and beings and imbuing his characters with a desire for exploration and adventure – he goes on to conceive of a number of SFnal ideas that are common in genre today: the colonization of other worlds, artificial atmosphere (including liquefied air), telescopes[12], even robots/automata make an appearance.

And speaking of automata, where in the world would SFF be without the tales found in One Thousand and One Nights?

While many of these stories are better seen as fairy tales or fantasy, there are definite SFnal concepts at play as well – particularly robots. To some degree, many of the automata that appear in One Thousand and One Nights are clearly fantastical in nature – the dancing marionettes in “The City of Brass” seem to fall into this category – but in the same tale we see a brass horseman who seems to be intended as a robot, as do some of the other humanoid figures that populate the lost city.

Some will be tempted, even while admitting the SFnal flavour of some of the “lost secrets” and exotic beings (the automata mostly), to argue that these are only really technological imaginings from our position of hindsight. But the fact of the matter is that a few of the devices imagined are remarkably detailed and elaborate – take for example the ebony horse from the story of the same name:

Here we have a mechanical horse which is controlled using a set of buttons or switches, which is capable of great speed (traversing in a day distances natural horses would cross in a year), and is even capable of taking the rider into space.

Not a rocket, certainly, but an image that would be very much at home in any of the more fantastic science fiction of the last century, and an idea so compelling it may have inspired Chaucer in the 14th Century.[13] Certainly, the automata that appear in ancient Middle Eastern and South Asian tales were a popular device in the fiction of Western Europe during the Middle Ages, but although there were SFnal elements to stories in this period the fantastic dimensions seem to win out, and many of these stories end up being very much in the fantasy camp.[14]

But so far we have really been talking about the roots of science fiction – the stories from our distant past that contain the key elements, but that in many cases don’t combine them in the way we would normally define as science fiction. So did it really take until Shelley’s masterpiece for the pieces to snap together to create modern science fiction?

As with everything, it depends on your definition.

Looking backwards on the literature of the past and measuring it against the Campbelline work of the 1940s and 1950s, it’s easy to see how Frankenstein gets placed as the cornerstone of modern SF. But that would be looking with very narrow eyes. In reality, the Renaissance and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution were hotbeds of exactly the kind of untrammeled enthusiasm for technology, the future, and exploration that fuelled the Penny Dreadfuls, the Pulps, and the Campbell Era, and it really shows in the literature.

It might well be a bit of a stretch to call The Tempest a mad scientist story as some do[15] and Bacon’s New Atlantis is similarly difficult to see as SF despite being set in the future, but there are definitely some excellent examples of stories that could be published today, with just a bit of polish to bring the writing up to modern tastes for style.

Although it was written in 1608, it isn’t until 1638 when we see Kepler’s “space travel” story Somnium[16] in which, while there are fantastic elements (the protagonist’s mother is apparently a witch, and the source of her power and the means by which they travel are demons) there is a great deal of scientific detail, and hints of technology – including hibernation to protect humans travelling through space, and an effort to imagine a way to carry atmosphere along with travellers in space.[17]

In 1666 Margaret Cavendish publishes her novel The Blazing World in which her heroine discovers a gateway in the arctic that leads to a world populated by strange animal-creatures, who promptly invade Earth complete with submarines and aerial bombardment.[18] This tale is particularly interesting since the structure and content is echoed by the “lost world discovered” fantastic stories of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, such as those popularized in Argosy and Weird Tales.

But Cavendish’s fantastic voyage story, though a convenient bridge between the earlier era and the fantastic stories of the pulp era, was something of an anomaly among stories that could reasonably be described as science fiction.[19] In fact, space travel seems to have been of particular interest in the late 1600s.

Francis Godwin’s book The Man in the Moone (1638) is a good example, and in fact is yet another contender for “first science fiction novel.”  True, the protagonist’s mode of transport (a kind of harness drawn by a species of swan) isn’t de rigueur for a science fiction tale, but the significant aspect here is that the story was building on current scientific advances in astronomy – Copernican ideas in particular, and Galileo Galilei’s orbital treatises. Godwin was a significant scientist in his own right, and the story embeds some of his own ideas regarding the Moon as a planetary body. Interestingly, this era also saw an English translation of Lucian’s story, as well as a rash of other stories about life on the Moon – some satirical like John Donne’s Ignatius His Conclave which proposed an anti-Christian society established by Lucifer and the Jesuits on the Moon, but others seeming to seriously speculate what life on the Moon might be like.

The 18th Century continued the romance with space, and as an example Voltaire’s Micromégas is an interesting extrapolation from the interest in the Moon in the previous century – here Voltaire imagines not just that there might be life on other planets in our solar system, but that there might be people living on planets circling other stars as well (Sirius in this case). While the story is really a satirical examination of human society it’s significant in that it explores the challenges of communication on first contact[20] and even wonders whether aliens would recognise humans as intelligent creatures worth attempting to communicate with.

So what is it about Shelley?

First of all, Frankenstein really is a powerful story – quite apart from the intersection of several SFnal themes that had previously been more commonly deployed separately and embedded in more fantastic stories, the philosophical and moral themes she deploys and the way she attacks them resonate in a way that many older works can’t manage.

Second, in terms of timing she has an advantage that her predecessors lack: she is writing at the beginning of an era when scientific and engineering thought were coalescing into the forms we recognise today. Where older works such as Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale might try to explain a “wonder” in technological terms, it’s hard for us to grok simply because the author – and the audience – consider technology and science in quite different ways.

Finally though, I think Shelley’s greatest advantage is that she wrote right at the beginning of a revolution in printing technology. The lithograph had been invented only two decades earlier in 1796, and a continuous paper-making process had been invented and was being perfected in the decade before.  Books were getting cheaper, and print runs were getting bigger. Reach was increasing rapidly as more and more people had access to affordable books. Indeed, by the mid-1800s, paper had become cheap enough that the printing industry was starting to revolutionize society.

So maybe the idea of Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel is a little exaggerated, considering the deep history behind it. But the book sits at the cusp of the technological and literary explosion that led inexorably to the literary magazines of the 1890s onwards.

Sitting as it does at the very edge of the watershed, I suppose it makes sense for people to focus on Mary Shelley’s work as a landmark in the literary terrain – a kind of tower on the horizon that shows us the way back to where we came from.

But let’s not forget about the riches that come both before and after.

Footnotes:

[1] Indeed – this kind of wrangling is pretty much the point of fandom!

[2] Though to be frank, references to Shelley seem to be mostly pro forma – which is a shame, since she deserves a place among the 19th Century writers of fantastic fiction we remember today more substantial than as a side-comment.

[3] Brian Aldiss goes into detail on this in his book Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (Weidenfield & Nicholson 1973) and seems to be the first to make a strong argument for Frankenstein as the first SF novel.

[4] Or rather, bear with Lester del Rey, who supported the idea in the introduction to his own history of genre The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1876: the History of a Subculture (Garland 1980), though he wasn’t the first nor was he the only supporter. Indeed, there are a handful of modern authors who still look back that far, but it’s a dying breed.

[5] I’m personally sceptical of the strict division, but I suppose I must bow to convention until I have a chance to make my case.

[6] Some suggest Ea’s creation of humanity from clay and its subsequent “redesign” by Ninhursag could be read as a hint at genetic engineering, but that seems a stretch to me.

[7] The Japanese tale Taketori Monogatari (tale of the bamboo cutter) gives us this as well, from the opposite perspective (the Moon Princess Kaguya-Hime is sent to Earth to escape the war) and even translates to modern genre with a number of fantasy and science fiction adaptations or re-imaginings – including the famous Sailor Moon franchise.

[8] On the one hand, it’s tempting to ignore The Epic of Gilgamesh as a work of science fiction on the basis that it was mythological and considered, in some sense, “true” – but I suspect this position seriously underestimates ancient peoples. We accept Beowulf as being intended as entertainment – why not Gilgamesh?

[9] He says himself that it’s about “things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else; things, what is more, that do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all.”

[10] Foreshadowing The Wizard of Oz?

[11] Though there might be something to that, does Jack Vance’s satirical takes on real humans make his stories less science fictional?

[12] This might not seem like much in the way of technology, but remember this was written in the 2nd Century CE.

[13] The brass horse that figures in The Squire’s Tale bears sufficient similarity to the ebony horse that it seems possible the ebony horse was the origin of the idea – though of course it might be very indirect, or an independent conception for that matter – the idea of a horse with supernatural speed and strength is surely an obvious one.

[14] Though perhaps I am letting my modern biases get the best of me. In many of the stories I know, while the effects themselves may be fantastical they are often explained in terms of known technologies – take for example the effort Chaucer makes in the Squire’s Tale to explain the “magic mirror” in terms of optics and reflection, or the claim that the Squire’s “magic sword” could both wound and heal as a result of advanced smithing techniques.

[15] More a mad wizard story, if truth be told – Shakespeare’s tale has far more in common with Faust than Frankenstein, though if we’re honest the theme of meddling with dangerous powers is equally at home in SF.

[16] Which Asimov suggested as the first science fiction novel

[17] Though personally I would balk at sticking damp sponges in my nose…

[18] It bears noting that Cavendish published the novel along with her commentary Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy – one of six books she published on naturalist philosophy of the era, in which she criticised the Aristotelian mechanistic interpretation, defended the Hobbesian position that immaterial spirits play no part in nature, and put forth her own theories. If we really need a “mother of science fiction” surely Margaret Cavendish fits the bill better than Shelley?

[19] There were quite a number of fantastic voyage stories being written, things like Utopia and New Atlantis, but they have limited SFnal themes, being mainly descriptions of notional societies. Admittedly, this is a common theme in SF but absent the trappings of “science” or a focus on explorations it’s hard for me to put them in this category.

[20] Size is the issue in Micromégas – but even here the idea has more contemporary imitators.

17 Comments
  • Isabeau says:

    one novel that after reading it, and seeing the movie, i came to consider science fiction/fantasy though it’s never marketed that way is Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” (400 yrs as a man, then wake up as a woman — and still ageless? Not a normal life…)

  • Mike says:

    Excellent analysis. I’d add that much of the tension in Frankenstein that makes it so fascinating is how Shelley was revealing and exploring her strained relationship with her father William Godwin. Like the monster, Shelley felt betrayed by her “creator.”

    And that’s the power of SFF – it gives the writer a safe distance from topics otherwise too painful or risky to approach.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Thank you – I’d have liked to do a deeper delve and discuss more thoroughly, but this isn’t really the place for something that long. Yes, that’s an interesting dimension to Frankenstein, and another one of the things that I think makes it the go-to example of “the first SF novel!” – the effort to map the fantastic story onto the psycho-social issues Shelley was exploring make it very much like a more modern SF story.

      [edit: actually I think the turbulent relationship was with her step-mother, but there’s definitely a theme of exploring father-child relationships in her novels]

  • caleb says:

    Heh! I was prepared to mention the “Bamboo Cutter”, in order to make myself feel all good and erudite and stuff, but you actually did mention it in the end.

    Props for doing this. It’s the sort of thing that VanerMeers and their like ought be doing, but they won’t as they are not who they claim to be.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Sorry to steal your thunder!

      Actually, I left out quite a lot of material simply because it made sense to look at modern English SF mainly in the context of the coherent trail that leads us back from here, through Frankenstein, and to the roots of Western SF. Taketori Monogatari has the same kinds of images and references we see in the Western canon of course, but there isn’t a clear relationship to the trail I was following – but it seemed right to keep it around, so I stuck it in the footnotes as you saw. I’m planning a delve into the history of Japanese SF some time in the coming months though, so perhaps I can discuss Moon Princess more completely there.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Gulliver of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels visited more then just the land of Lilliput.

    The parallels in poli-sci SF where an every-man collides in culture shock with an alien culture found in everything from Star Trek to La Guin to Lem to Ender’s Game’s sequel to Anderson’s Night Face (i could go on for hours) and Gulliver’s Travels are unmistakable.

    And pointing out pre-Marx, deeply catholic Swift being one of the originators of it, i am sure, would make more then a few of the poli-sci SF howler in pain.

    Also one can’t forget the flying castle of Laputa.

    This!

    “Gilgamesh’s boon companion: the beast-man Enkidu, who tames him and ultimately makes him a better king.”

    The the similarities of the innate romantic chivalry found in Tarzan and Enkidu are uncanny.

    • Alex says:

      Also, his abilities as a giant among the liliputians and his string of captivities and failed attempts to introduce technology among the brobdingnagians are tropes that writers like Burroughs, Kline and many others would play to hilt in their scifantasy adventures.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      bah!

      “where an every-man collides in culture shock with an alien culture found in everything from Star Trek to La Guin to Lem to Ender’s Game’s sequel to Anderson’s Night Face”

      Don’t know how or why i forgot to mention the green men from ERB’s A Princess of Mars.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Yes! I had that same thought when I wrote that line, but I was already looking at a much longer piece than I’d planned. I think the “man tames beast, beast tames man” narrative crops up often enough in literature that it deserves an examination on its own.

      Swift’s Gulliver is a really interesting story from a number of dimensions, and you’re right to point out the parallels to modern poli-SciFi. In fact, Swift packs so many of our treasured SF tropes into that one book it’s stunning. It’s a more obvious one that most people know, however, and the SFnal dimensions are harder to articulate in a few lines so I left it out in favour of some other interesting works from the same era. It’d be interesting to revisit it, perhaps in the context of tracing the history of poli-SciFi.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “although”

    https://infogalactic.com/info/The_Blazing_World

    “one of the earliest examples of what we now call ‘science fiction’ — although it is also a romance, an adventure story,”

    Romance and adventure….

    Call me paranoid but one can see why post Campbell revolution feminists would choose “Frankenstein” as their SF champion and memory hole “The Blazing World”.

    In fact this more then reminds me of how Leigh Brackett is treated.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Margaret Cavendish’s invisibility really is puzzling. Her story is very much in line with the kinds of fantastic voyage tales that were published in the 1920s Argosy/Weird Tales era, though perhaps a little further into the fantastical than was vogue. On top of that, she was a publishing scientific scholar in her own right! (Shelley’s father was a scholar, and Shelley was herself very well educated but to my knowledge she wasn’t especially interested in the sciences)

      The dismissal of the romance and adventure dimension is curious too – but I think I blame the Futurians: the movement in the 40s and 50s toward “pure hard SF” is part of what resulted in romance and adventure not exactly being excised, but at least disavowed in works that could be labelled “science fiction.” Merritt and similar authors survived a while because their work was reclassified as fantasy, but older works that blend the fantastical with more obvious science fiction seem to have fallen by the wayside by WW2.

  • icewater says:

    True History sounds genuinely interesting, and I don’t think I heard of it before. Seems like a portion of it is available as a Librivox audiobook too https://librivox.org/trips-to-the-moon-by-lucian-of-samosata/ so I might check it out.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      The Francis Hicks translation is readily available, and is quite readable by us poor moderns even if it’s a bit turgid by 21st Century standards (Hicks translated it in the 16th): https://archive.org/details/lucianstruehisto00luciiala

      The Archive version has the added advantage of both gloss to explain the more impenetrable parts and being a side-by-side text in case you want to teach yourself Greek!

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Kevyn: Thanks for pulling all of this together and publishing it in one spot. Deep roots indeed.

    Hooc Ott: Enkidu – Tarzan, yes!

    Agree with your comment on Leigh Brackett

  • Leave a Reply to icewater Cancel reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *