Science Fiction - Sci Fi Books

The Development and History

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This is a brief guide and overview on the history and development of Science Fiction.

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Science fiction is the branch of literature which most remarkably exhibits the quality for which the novel itself was named: novelty. Its narratives generally feature a divergence of some kind from what we regard as the norm. The history of science fiction itself represents a kind of divergence. It is no surprise to find that its earliest examples coincide with the marked divergence in society which took place following the Industrial Revolution: in France, with Sebas-tien Mercier's L'An 2440 in 1771, in England with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1818.
These novels, as well as their successors, owe much to previous writings, respectively to the Utopian tradition as represented by Francis Bacon and the eschatological tradition, with its belief in heaven and hell, as represented by Milton and Goethe. They also exhibit divergences in the history of thought. Mercier introduces Enlightenment ideas concerning the progress of society, Mary Shelley shows Man, in creating life by scientific means, taking over the role of God.

Much of the science fiction written last century is forgotten, although Jules Verne (1828-1905) is now receiving renewed critical attention. His divergences from the norm are characteristically expressed through rebellious heroes who, aided by machines, colonize the remote points of the globe; Captain Nemo of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869) is a good example. Later, Verne's vision became darker, and ever since then science fiction can scarcely be described as sunny.
The other great figure to set beside Verne is H. G. Wells (1866-1946). Wells's sense of the continuity of history is evident in his science fiction. His divergences are remarkable in that they paradoxically demonstrate the underlying continuity; the creatures on The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) remain animal despite their man-like form. With Wells, SF acquired stature and popularity.

The popularity was reinforced when magazines appeared devoted to science fiction. Audiences grew with the arrival of the paperback; nowadays, one tenth of all fiction sales lies in the SF market. Most of the vast output is designed as ephemeral entertainment; some achieves philosophical import, often by adhering to the original principal of divergence. Such divergences cover a wide range of phenomena, from simple climatic changes, such as the onslaught of a new ice age or a drought, to the introduction of new elements into society, such as the invention of androids (human-like robots) or the arrival of aliens (extra-terrestrial beings). One of the finest alien invasion stories remains H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898), which utilized interest in the planet Mars to introduce an adroit mixture of sensationalism, didacticism, adventure, and extrapolative thinking on society. This recipe has often proved effective since. But the divergences proposed in a science-fictional narrative may be more far-reaching than the introduction of one single element, and result in novels of greater structural complexity.

Good examples are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) or Frederik Pohl's Jem (1979), in both of which society itself has changed. Here the force of the narrative is derived in part from the way in which we as readers perceive how the parameters of the future society can be discerned in our own times. In the Pohl novel, for instance, the world is divided into three power blocs, Fuel, Food, and People. In order to deploy any of these changes convincingly, the tale must be set in the future. This represents a novelty in itself; we can say that almost any tale set in the future is classifiable as science fiction. Tomorrow is the plimsol line between science fiction and the ordinary novel. A more recent development is the SF novel which manages to sidestep the present entirely.

In it, the divergence is introduced in the past of the fiction concerned, so that we read of an alternative present. The best example here is Philip K. Dick The Man in the High Castle ' (1962,), in which the Axis Powers won World War II some years before the novel opens, and America is partitioned between the Japanese and the Nazis. Impressive recent examples are Kingsley Amis The Alteration (1976) and Michael Moorcock Glonana (1978). Novels about alternative worlds generally delay the revelation of how and why they departed from our received present; this serves as a suspense element. They tend also to be elaborately, if not well, written; perhaps because of a certain self-indulgence in such imaginings.

The most popular type of science fiction is that which features action in space or on other planets, and which may, in quest of novelty, venture into other universes, although when you've seen one galaxy you've really seen them all. Uninformed people still speak of science fiction as "space fiction". Certainly, the spaceship is everyone's favourite uninvented vehicle, and a minor publishing industry is devoted to books which illustrate the interiors and exteriors of such vessels (often as spin-offs from television shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica). In all the examples quoted so far, with the possible exceptions of the alternative world, science or technology is in evidence.
For this quality the game was named. (The term "science fiction" was coined in 1851, re-coined and brought into currency by the American editor Hugo Gernsback during the early 19305.) In the popular mind, science fiction and science are inseparable; however, even a literature of change itself changes. One of the noted critics of science fiction, Darko Suvin, has claimed "SF should not be seen ... in terms of science, the future, or any other element of its potentially unlimited thematic field"; rather he sees the genre in terms of "cognitive estrangement". To look at SF from a more functional point of view, we can recall the remarks made by the poet Shelley in "A Defence of Poetry". "Man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave . . . "We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know . . ." However fitfully, SF does supply that creative faculty, often through images of great power and mystery.

It is difficult to determine where SF shades off into other forms of writing (is George Orwell 1984 science fiction or not?), and in particular where it shades off into "Fantasy" - not least because the term fantasy is open to more than one interpretation. But there is a branch of SF which straddles the fantasy frontier; it is generally known as "Sword-and-Sorcery", and is often set on barbarian worlds where problems are solved with the blade. These worlds lie beyond the cognitive norms of the reader's own world-perception, and so are outside SF proper. From this we can say that if embraces the possible, however remote. The worlds depicted in Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974) are immediately accessible to our waking comprehension; we could reach them in a hypothetical spaceship if we knew in which direction to travel. If Ms. Le Guin had, as an additional novelty, given her planetary beings an extra head apiece, then the novel would fall towards Fantasy, and lose much of its power. From this, it does not necessarily follow that SF is the literature of the rational. Its attractions frequently lie elsewhere.

We are willing to accept stories set in the future for the sake of the argument, but those stories are never written in the future tense. The further in the future they are set, the nearer they approach the "Once upon a time" atmosphere of fairy tales. Examples are the present writer's Hothouse (1962), set when the sun is dying, or Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956), which begins in true fairy tale fashion: "Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert. Once it had known change and alteration, but now Time passed it by. Night and day fled across the desert's face, but in the streets of Dispar it was always afternoon, and darkness never came." SF has been proliferating all round the world over the last quarter-century. The most successful motion picture ever made is Star Wars; it has assisted SF's enormous commercial expansion during the 1970s.
Among today's most popular authors, apart from those already named, are Poul Anderson (Tau Zero), Isaac Asimov (Foundation), JG Ballard (The Drowned World), Harry Harrison (Bill, The Galactic Hero), Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land), Frank Herbert (The Dune Trilogy), Bob Shaw (Vertigo), Robert Sheckley (Dimension of Miracles), A. E. van Vogt (The Voyage of the Space Beagle), and Kurt Vonnegut Jr (Sirens of Titan).

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