“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” ~William Gibson
I’ve read a fair share of science fiction in my life: Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Dan Simmons, Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, and Walter Miller, to name a few. But after finishing How Great Science Fiction Works, a wonderful series of lectures by literary critic Dr. Gary K. Wolfe, I no longer consider myself even moderately well-read in the genre. There are so many fascinating stories out there, so many incredible themes, ideas, and authors I was completely unaware of.
“Oh?” you say. “Like what?”
So glad you asked.
1. The Mother of SF
You may know that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is widely considered the mother of science fiction (which I’ll hereafter refer to as “sf”). You may not know exactly why. Wolfe boils it down to two things:
- During his collegiate studies the protagonist abandons “natural science” and “alchemy,” which rely on pseudo-scientific methods at best, in favor of purely rational, empirical science
- The protagonist deliberately creates a “monster” with the instruments of science and technology, as opposed to relying on gods or magic.
In fact these two points neatly illustrate Wolfe’s definition of the genre, which is that sf is concerned not with what has happened (as in historical or contemporary fiction), nor with what cannot happen (as in fantasy), but with what might happen in the future, even though it may be impossible now. Integral to this idea is that there is a technological or scientific explanation for a story’s central premise. (Hence Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern is considered sf because the dragons were bio-engineered by humans rather than made by gods.)
2. How Frankenstein’s Name Got Confused
You may recall from lit class that “Frankenstein” does not refer to the “monster” depicted in the story, but to Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who created the monster. Less known, however, is how confusion over the name first came about. Wolfe lays the blame on the playwright Peggy Webling, who gave the name “Frankenstein” to both the creator and the monster in her 1927 version of the play.
3. The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe
The first magazine devoted exclusively to sf, Amazing Stories, displayed three famous names on the cover of its first issue: Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and HG Wells. Verne and Wells are obvious choices (they penned classics like Journey to the Center of the Earth and War of the Worlds), but what explains the appearance of Edgar Allan Poe, who is best known for his works of horror? A big reason is a little-known story of his, The Balloon Hoax, in which the protagonist crosses the Atlantic ocean in a hot air balloon in three days. The story contains surprisingly detailed and accurate technical descriptions, and is credited with inspiring Jules Verne’s later work such as Around the World in Eighty Days.
4. What the Heck Does “Stapledonian” Mean?
With the publication of books like Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species in 1859, the groundwork was laid for sf authors to imagine what the distant past or distant future might hold without reference to religious myth. HG Wells was the first to play with this idea in The Time Machine, but another highly influential story was Last and First Men, in which author Olaf Stapledon imagines the world two billion years from now. Stapledon garnered praise from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, CS Lewis, and Virginia Wolf, and left such a deep impression on the genre that sf authors and critics would later call a book “Stapledonian” if it had a grand scope.
5. The Road from Utopias to Dystopias
Sir Thomas More was among the first to ever write a utopian work of literature cast as a story rather than a non-fiction treatise. But, ironically, his utopia included slaves, and it doesn’t really qualify as sf given its lack of scientific or technological solutions to the problems of civilization. Sir Francis Bacon’s 1627 work New Atlantis probably gets closer, since it discusses inventions grounded in what might then have been called scientific inquiry. Later in the 19th century there was an explosion of utopian literature (see for example Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which is still frequently assigned in certain high school and college courses). But then in the early 1900s, things took a dramatic turn, with dystopian stories such as Jack London’s The Iron Heel and EM Forster’s The Machine Stops. What explains the shift? One factor was the violence and destruction seen in World War I, but Wolfe highlights other social anxieties which existed prior to the war—namely, fears of mechanization, invasion, and the growing influence of corporations.
6. The First Orwell
One of the earliest and most influential dystopians was written by a Russian author you have probably never heard of: Yevgeny Zamyatin. His story, We, was published in 1924 and became more or less a template for subsequent dystopian works, inspiring the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Vladimir Nabokov, and George Orwell. Indeed, Orwell looked to We as a major source of inspiration for his classic 1984; the parallels between them are uncanny. What is interesting is that 1984 was far more successful, a fact which Wolfe attributes to how Orwell grounded events in a much closer future, and made the characters and technology more recognizable.
7. Pulp Fiction Magazines Mattered—A Lot
Increased literacy, high-speed printing, urbanization, more leisure time, and public transportation all helped to fuel the demand for mass market pulp fiction—and pulp fiction, in turn, was hugely important to the development of sf. One reason is that Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose books we still read today, launched his career in the pulp magazines. Another reason is the pulp magazine editors, and in particular Hugo Gernsback, who became the editor of Amazing Stories magazine. By discovering a widespread interest in sf, Gernsback helped the idea of an sf writing career become possible.
8. Pulp Magazine *Editors* Mattered—A Lot
Speaking of editors, two of the most important individuals in sf—Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell Jr.—are not primarily remembered as sf authors but as editors (both have prestigious sf awards named after them). Per the point above, this is because sf started off as a short story form, and editors were the gatekeepers. (Campbell, for example, helped to launch and shape the careers of Isaac Asimoz and Robert Heinlein during his stint as editor of Astounding Stories, a separate American sf magazine that emerged in 1930 as a competitor to Amazing Stories.)
What exactly can an editor can do to promote an entire genre of literature besides being really good at curating stories? Quite a lot, explains Wolfe. Campbell and Gernsback did things like promote competent scientific methodology and knowledge over the “strong hero” stereotype; emphasize en media res as the means of revealing key narrative details (rather than through extended information dumps); and work closely with authors to ensure that the science represented in their stories was accurate and defensible. As a result their actions went a long way in shaping sf as we know it today.
9. Spaceships Get Weird
Some of the earliest descriptions of spaceships in sf imagined them as cozy yachts, complete with feather beds and dining rooms. Later descriptions produced the tropes we know today, like warships and exploration vessels. But other writers took the concept of the ship in incredibly imaginative directions. One such idea was that of the generation starship, which can sustain life for whole generations of people over hundreds of years. Robert Reed’s Marrow, published in 2000, goes so far as to envision a ship the size of the planet Jupiter. On the other hand, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora provides a more skeptical and realistic account of what would happen in such situations. (For example, mold would grow. Sorry, generation ship optimists. For an extended essay on the subject, see Robinson’s essay “Our Generation Ships Will Sink.”)
10. The Etymology of “Robot”
In early sf literature, robots are commonly depicted as slaves or servants. In fact, the word “robot,” which was invented by the Czech artist Josef Capek, derives from the Czech term for forced labor. Josef’s brother Karel Capek introduced the word in a play called Rossum’s Universal Robots, which features androids on whom the economy becomes dependent. Spoiler: the robots stage a revolt, but they spare one human who works with his hands.
11. Asimov, Misunderstood
One of the biggest shifts in our notions about robots can be traced to Asimov’s I, Robot. Asimov, who was more or less an optimist about science and technology, wanted robots to be friendly and embraced, and he thought that carefully managed robots could benefit humanity. Together with John W Campbell Jr., he came up with the Three Laws of Robotics. Ironically, the modern movie rendition of I, Robot starring Will Smith portrays robots as exceedingly dangerous—which as Wolfe reminds us is quite the opposite of what Asimov intended.
12. Planets as Genre Differentiators
In discussing the role of planets in sf, Wolfe creates another interesting distinction between sf and fantasy fiction: fantasy takes place in a world, a moral space where you cannot go, whereas sf takes place in a planet, a physical setting where you can go. Probably the most famous planet in sf is Arrakis, as depicted in George Herbert’s 1965 hit novel Dune. Before his career as an author, Herbert was a journalist and speech writer who researched shifting sand dunes in Oregon, a subject which became the inspiration for the book. Dune illustrates how a planet can be a “character” in its own right: a complex ecological system in which human actions have serious consequences.
13. Ye Olde Wasteland Template
The wasteland theme in fiction can be found as early as Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, The Last Man, which is apparently a rather long and dull story about a future world devastated by disease. The principle behind it and other wasteland pieces (such as TS Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land) is not just a pessimistic account of human fragility, but a story about longings for renewal. Wolfe contends that there is even a sort of wasteland template, which can be seen as early as Jack London’s 1912 The Scarlet Plague. Stages in the template include:
- Portents of impending danger
- A journey through the wasteland
- A community of survivors
- The threat of the wilderness
- The emergence of a warlord antagonist
Naturally, other historical events like nuclear bombs in WWII and the rise of the Cold War led to an obsession with wasteland themes based on nuclear disaster, such as Walter Miller’s A Canticle of Leibowitz. (Interesting side note: The term “atomic bomb” wasn’t invented during WWII, but was coined by HG Wells in 1914 in his book The World Set Free—a haunting example of sf coming true.)
14. When SF Causes Public Panic
If you read HG Wells’ War of the Worlds in high school or college, you may remember something about how the radio version of the book led a large number of people to believe that an alien invasion was actually happening.
Wolfe says that in reality the scare was minimal, partly because it aired at the same time as another popular radio show. By comparison The Battle of Dorking, an 1871 novella about the invasion of England, precipitated a bigger scare (according to Wolfe it got all the way up to the then British Prime Minister, William Gladstone). The Battle of Dorking essentially launched the “invasion tale” genre and was a precursor to other sf stories like War of the Worlds. What I found surprising was that it was inspired by a war we don’t talk much about, the Franco-Prussian War—the first major European war to deploy the use of machine guns.
15. The Remarkable Recurrence of Jesuit Priests
There is a startling number of award-winning sf stories that feature priests of the Society of Jesus. Examples:
- Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez in A Case of Conscience by James Blish
- Father Emilio Sandoz in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
- Fathers Lenar Hoyt and Paul Dure in Hyperion by Dan Simmons
- The astrophysicist in The Star by Arthur C. Clarke
Then again it is not that startling. Jesuits are known for their inquisitive minds and keen sense of missionary exploration. And, of course, it’s convenient to have a religious character who can wrestle with the dilemmas of science and faith.
16. How Aliens Reflect Social Anxiety
In early sf literature, aliens are frequently portrayed as hostile and power-hungry, a trend which Wolfe ties to the social context in which sf emerged as a genre. In late 19th century England, for example, people feared invasion from mainland superpowers such as Germany, France, and Russia. Hence when HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds, he made important connections between invading aliens and contemporary social anxieties about foreign takeover and enslavement. By the Cold War era, when fears of Communism and brainwashing were widespread, aliens were sometimes portrayed as nefarious agents of mind control (see for example Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters). In sum, Wolfe explains that aliens provide a convenient storytelling tool in sf, a sort of blank slate for representing that which we don’t understand, or a symbolic entity on which to project prejudice. This idea was even applied to gender, as in the short story The Women Men Don’t See. (More on this below.)
17. The Wonder Women of SF
A number of female have used the conventions of sf to tackle tough gender issues. Ursula K Le Guin was a major figure in this regard, with her immensely popular 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which featured a race of ambisexual individuals. Suzy McKee Charnas imagines an alternative to a patriarchal society in her award-winning series The Holdfast Chronicles. The series, which is unusual to say the least, centers on a bleak, post-apocalyptic colony of gay men who keep a few slave women around for breeding, and a rumored “Free Fems” society of escaped female slaves who live in the wild. See here for an in-depth review.
One of the most interesting biographical stories Wolfe shares about gender in sf occurred in the year 1977, when a mysterious and highly successful sf author, James Tiptree Jr., was revealed to be a remarkable woman named Alice Sheldon. Sheldon was a PhD psychologist, art critic, former Army intelligence officer, and the frequent subject of her mother’s travel stories. Perhaps Sheldon’s most important treatment of gender was The Women Men Don’t See, a first contact short story about two female characters who search for aliens and wish to be taken away by them because they feel invisible in a male-dominated society. Sheldon was a prolific sf writer and became so influential that the annual James Tiptree Jr. Award was created in her honor.
It’s also pretty cool that the person who has won the most Hugo and Nebula awards of any writer is the American author Connie Willis. One of her most critically-acclaimed novels, Doomsday Book, tells the story of a female Oxford historian who travels back to the Middle Ages and gets stranded during the Black Plague. As someone who loves medieval history, this is one I’m dying to read.
18. Cyberpunk’s New Take on Tech
In 1983, a short story called Cyberpunk by Bruce Bethke was published in Amazing Stories magazine. The term “cyberpunk,” which Bethke coined for his story, became mainstream not long afterwards.
As a subgenre, cyberpunk had already been taking shape as critics and authors looked to take the New Wave sf movement of the ’60s and ’70s in new directions. Some core features of the movement include post-industrial dystopias and young tech-savvy “punks” adapting technology for unanticipated uses. William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer became widely known as the archetype. Featuring everything from cyber space hackers who jack into “The Matrix” (yes, Gibson was writing before The Matrix of Keeanu Reeves fame), to characters with cybernetic body modifications, to the dreary gray atmosphere of urban sprawl, Neuromancer was the first book to win the Nebula, Hugo, and Philip K. Dick Award for a paperback original.
(Amusing anecdote: When Gibson saw the movie Blade Runner in 1982, he was convinced that his novel, which was in progress at the time, would be perceived as a ripoff of the film’s visual style. But, for better or worse, the film didn’t do too well, and so it seems that few people noticed.)
What I find so fascinating and relevant is that cyberpunk introduced (or at least significantly built upon) the idea that we aren’t just changing technology to serve us and facilitate our goals. Rather, technology is changing our nature in profound ways—and not always for the better. According to Wolfe, much of the sf prior to the cyberpunk movement portrayed technology as a tool more or less neutral and subservient to our interests. Then came cyber punk, with its emphasis things like body enhancements and virtual reality, delving into how characters and indeed whole societies are modified and remade by their inventions. As I’ve mentioned before, I hope that this is a theme which sf authors continue to explore as the genre evolves.
19. The Philosophy of Alien Artifacts
Alien artifacts, another frequent subject in sf, often symbolize or reflect philosophical questions about the meaning of life. According to Wolfe, one of the greatest novels on the subject is Rogue Moon, by Algis Budrys. Scientists discover an artifact on the moon that kills or renders insane anyone who enters the labyrinth inside and makes one false move. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the original title for the book was Death Machine.) One critic argued that the story was about the human attempt to transcend death; another believed that death was the point. Read about it here if you’re curious.
20. Urban Landscapes: The Best or the Worst of Humanity?
Cities have received a wide range of treatment by sf authors. Some stories portray cities as idealized futures, others as self-contained fortresses, and still others as sprawling dystopian nightmares. Authors had no shortage of material to fuel their imagination. The idea of a vast enclosed city was seriously proposed by Paolo Soleri in his writings on “arcology” (architecture + ecology), an actual field of design which inspired the likes of Robert Silverburg’s award-winning The World Inside. The question posed is this: do cities represent the best of humanity, or its end?
Whatever the case, I think it’s super cool that in 1909 EM Forster published a short story about a subterranean city called The Machine Stops. In it, human civilization has migrated underground, where their every need supplied by a central robotic system known simply as the “machine.” Inhabitants eventually begin to worship the machine, to live in terror of earth’s surface, and to prefer living in solitude while communicating with their thousands of acquaintances over audio-visual devices rather than in person. Apparently Forster was criticized for not tackling contemporary social issues, but his story is poignant and relevant to us modern addicts of social media. Wolfe suggests that Forster may have been the first writer to foreshadow Facebook.
21. SF in the 21st Century
What has changed the most in 21st century sf? In Wolfe’s view, the answer is an increase in diversity, by which he means a growth in the variety of sf authors as well as the range of cultural sensibilities represented in sf stories. One reason for this is that there are more entry points into the genre, which used to be dominated by a select few pulp magazines. (He admits, of course, that stereotypes remain and sf has by no means reached some sort of diversity zenith.) Another is that so little sf written in other countries was ever translated to English. As Wolfe puts it, no one “owns” sf anymore—or rather it can be “owned” by anyone. He illustrates this point by summarizing fascinating stories from three authors whose careers have developed since 2000: Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, and Lavie Tidhar. Here I’ll briefly go over Hopkinson and Okorafor.
Nalo Hopkinson. Hopkinson was born in Jamaica and moved with her family to Canada at a young age. Her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, is an urban dystopian story notable for its use of Caribbean cultural themes and speech patterns, and for combining elements of sf and fantasy. The heroine, a woman named Ti-Jeane, gets embroiled in a plot to find a heart transplant for the Prime Minister of Toronto. The story won multiple awards—and that was just her first!
Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor was born to Nigerian parents and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. She earned a PhD in English and launched her career with two award-winning young adult novels, The Shadow Speaker and Zahrah the Windseeker, both of which feature African themes and won prestigious nominations and awards. Her first adult novel, Who Fears Death, won the World Fantasy Award and, like Hopkinson’s work, combines elements of fantasy and sf. Okarofor later went on to work on the Black Panther comics.
22. Will SF Ever Be Recognized as Literature?
Wolfe closes his lectures with observations about how sf has traditionally been regarded as a “lower” form of literature. Sponsors of the Pulitzer, Nobel, and National Book Circle awards have tended to focus more on character development, realism, and stylistic mastery as core elements of “true” literature—elements which sf is not exactly reputed to deliver. In a sense, explains Wolfe, this is not surprising given sf’s humble origins. Many of the first sf writers were not trying to produce marvelous works of art: they churned out stories to make a living, and knowing the transience of pulp magazines, they didn’t expect their stories to outlast them.
But that doesn’t mean sf can’t be literature, a sentiment which comes out in Ursula Le Guin’s acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation award in 2014. Le Guin shares her award with “all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful awards go to the so-called realists.”
And yet as Wolfe goes on to say, there is another way of looking at the issue as suggested by the British writer, China Mieville. Mieville argued that the schism here isn’t really about realist literary genre differences, but something deeper: “literature of recognition” versus “literature of estrangement”—a way of framing the question of why people read in the first place. Bottom line: some readers prefer realist literature, some prefer sf and fantasy.
Wolfe contends that today’s average reader is probably somewhere in the middle and able to enjoy either kind. He also believes that modern authors are increasingly comfortable with the idea that sf can satisfy both types of readers. He cites Flowers for Algernon as a key example, a moving sf story about a man with mental disabilities who receives medical treatment to increase his intelligence. Wolfe concludes that today there is more awareness “that great fiction is simply great fiction, and some of it is science fiction.” I like what he had to say here, so I’ll quote it in full:
It’s just that how great science fiction works is a little different, sometimes making a few additional demands on the reader, sometimes forcing us to puzzle out on our own exactly how this fictional world works, sometimes even inventing new words or borrowing fairly technical terms from contemporary science. It may be, as some writers have claimed, that science fiction uses language differently from realistic fiction. But at its core it deals in the same hopes, fears, dreams, and shocks of recognition that the best fiction has always dealt with. And I would argue the finest works of science fiction, more today than ever, are simply among the finest works of fiction that we have.
Needless to say, I found Wolfe to be a great presenter on the subject, and what I have mentioned here is just a tiny sliver compared to all the fascinating topics he covers. I highly recommend his series at The Great Courses.