If one were to sit in casual discussion among friends, I feel it is safe to assume that most would agree on a number of what I will bluntly call science fiction stereotypes, or elements found throughout popular science fiction books: Aliens or other humanoid types; robots, cyborgs, and androids; spacecraft; time-travel. Some might mention other-worldly planets, either hyper-developed or complete dystopias; some would bring up economic and political evolution, or devolution. In 2017, the list of stereotypical elements border on innumerable.
What Science Fiction Is and How It Developed During the 19th Century
Broadly, science fiction is a fiction sub-genre with plots and themes based around technological, environmental or sociopolitical advances in human culture. From the perspective of the author, it is a speculative imaginary view of what could happen in the future; what humans might create, where might may go and how they may evolve in the future.
As a literary genre, one could argue for pages or hours about what the first real piece of literary science fiction was, about when it came to light and which writer brought it there. Some take the view that a fantastical work like The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the first pieces of science fiction, while others—myself included—take the side of science fiction truly coming to fruition alongside the scientific revolution between the 17th and 19th centuries. It is all wildly disputable, of course, but I feel the the origins of science fiction are most easily understood if we view them in tandem with the birth of modern medicine.
In Italy, a physician named Luigi Galvani stumbled on the concept that life and electricity might be connected. In approximately 1780, Galvani gave a mild shock to a dead frog that caused its leg to twitch. It was an involuntary muscle reflex from the shock—a thought that would now merely induce a shrug of the shoulders—but with this inadvertent discovery, Galvani suggested the connection between electricity and life. (Wolfe, 6; Bellis, ThoughtCo.)
Later, in 1918, Mount Tamboura in Indonesia erupted, which formed such a massive cloud of ash that it circled the world for over a year and lowered global temperatures, which then led to worldwide crop failures. Many consider this—‘The Year Without a Summer'—the world's first monstrous, planet-altering disaster. (Wolfe, 7; Evans, Smoithsonian)
In the same year, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley brought his wife, Mary, to visit Lord Byron's summer home, the Villa Diodati in Switzerland. Since the heavy rain made it too miserable to be outdoors, Byron suggested some indoor fun: Each of his guests would come up with a scary story and read it to the others during the chilly evenings. Byron wrote a piece of a poem; Dr. John Polidori wrote a short story called ‘The Vampyre,' which later became an inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula; and the teenage Mary conjured something up based on a nightmare she had recently had. Mary's monster was not created through magic nor alchemy, but through science. Her character, a scientist called Victor Frankenstein, rejected all forms of supernatural ideas and attempted to reanimate a corpse with electricity. Mary was inspired after reading about Galvani's experiments on frogs, and with unreasonable wonder gave credence to the notion that electricity could possibly be used for bringing the dead back to life. (Wolfe, 8; Sunstein, 152) Victor Frankenstein's ultimate rejection of all things supernatural, of alchemy and of natural philosophy, all in favor of modern science, is a pivotal moment in both his education and in the history of science fiction. Dr. Frankenstein's abandonment of magical thinking in the creation of his creature could be interpreted as Ms. Shelley's similar abandonment in supernaturalism and belief in the power of science. With Frankenstein, Mary Shelley spotlit one of the central concerns of science fiction: that a scientific education separated from moral education would most likely always lead to disaster. (Wolfe, 8; Sunstein, 156)
A bit over 100 years later, science fiction was established as a profitable genre, albeit not a very respected one. Earlier on in the 20th century, publications like Harper's and The Atlantic Monthly observed science fiction as a subliterary genre, and to some extent, it was. Science fiction could often be found in pulp magazines alongside other popular genres of the time, like westerns, romance, mysteries, and so forth. Pulp magazines, or ‘pulps,' were the cheap and disposable entertainment of the time printed on paper made of cheap pulp wood. In April 1926, the first science fiction-devoted pulp was initially published with three names on the cover: Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. While these writers may never have imagined themselves as science fiction writers, it is clear that fiction of the 19th century was the mixing pot that 20th century sci-fi stories would emerge from.
Key Publishers and Authors in the World of Science Fiction
“The Golden Age of Science Fiction”—from approximately 1938 to 1946—was when science fiction garnered wide public attention and was primarily consumed via the aforementioned pulp magazines, which were usually genre-focused anthology magazines filled with short stories from both established and up-and-coming science fiction writers. Though even today science fiction magazines still hold a bit of weight within the genre's community. The oldest magazine still in print today, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, was formed in 1930 in the United States and has published works by Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Spider Robinson, and Lois McMaster Bujold. The second oldest, The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, is now maybe the most popular, publishing works like Stephen King's Dark Tower and Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon. Other magazines like Asimov's Science Fiction, Strange Horizons and Weird Tales are all well-established and well-respected magazines in the States as well as the United Kingdom. (Every Writer)
At the moment, the most active and dominant science fiction publishers are DAW, an imprint of Penguin Books, which released the Hugo-award winning Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh in 1981; Ace Books, another American publisher that published works by Robert Howard (Conan the Conqueror anthologies), and later Samuel Delaney (Babel-17) and Joanna Russ' And Chaos Died; the recent Random House sci-fi/fantasy imprint, Hydra, which Marie Joekber's The Black Chalice in 2000; Baen Books, a publisher of science fiction and fantasy novels who now consider themselves the “purveyors of DRM-free e-books”; and Solstice, a large independent e-publisher that publishes a variety of genre books including science fiction. (Harthstone, Authors Publish)
Within the genre, science fiction has produced dozens of now-highly renowned authors from around the globe. Worldwide audiences came to regard writers like Isaac Asmiov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Robert A. Heinlein, Ursula K. LeGuin, H.G. Wells, and Ursula K. LeGuin—among many others—all respected for both their high-level writing craft as well as their unique and prescient speculations of the future.
Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein are often referred to as ‘The Big Three' of science fiction writing, as they were some of the most prolific writers but were also widely read in their time (Freedman, 71). Asimov, an American biochemist-turned-fiction-writer, is known for his Foundation and Robot Series, and is often associated with what is now considered the mainstream philosophy on robotics, all stemming from ‘The Three Rules of Robotics' found in his 1942 short story called “Runaround” (Wolfe 67). The rules are as follows:
—A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
—A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
—A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
(Wolfe, 67; Asimov, 40)
British writer Arthur C. Clarke is most famous for his screenplay of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, arguably one of the most influential films of all time, but was also a prolific science writer and science fiction writer, and wrote dozens of books and essays published in popular magazines on subjects like space travel. His most famous book, 1953's Childhood's End, is about well-intentioned alien Overlords who come to earth to create a utopia which leads to an unexpected evolution in human development. (Wolfe, 161)
American science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein was a best-selling sci-fi novelists for decades, and produced work that some consider controversial but still have an influential effect on both the genre and on modern culture. Heinlein's short stories were first published in The Saturday Evening Post in the 1940s, but his most notable novels are Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, the latter of which helped develop the typical space marine archetypes we see in modern science fiction and beyond. (Wolfe, 99)
Trends in the Science Fiction Market
Science fiction novels and short stories suffered decades of apathy in the literary world, though today science fiction does not seemed to be perceived as an embarrassment or some type of subliterary genre as it once was closer to a century ago. Science fiction is now so intertwined with pop culture that publishing and visual media seem to bounce influence off of each other today more so than ever. Movies and television shows now dominate mainstream pop culture media, in addition to new forms of popular media like video games and anime and manga from Japan, and each of these mediums borrow heavily from the realm of sci-fi. The methodical and benign infiltration of science fiction into pop culture could be considered the most sizable albeit most general trend that we can see without difficulty. Producers even now are taking older works of science fiction and transposing them into works for the screen. For example, Philip K. Dick's 1962 story The Man in the High Castle has been turned into an Emmy-award winning television series for Amazon, and Dick's short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has both a movie adaptation (1982's Blade Runner), and a sequel to it still connected to Dick's original work (2017's Blade Runner 2049). This example is just one of many, and each one speaks to the shelf life and overall quality and resonance of science fiction works, especially ones written in the early 20th century and onward. (Lerner, NoveList).
Another positive trend in the science fiction market is the increasing diversity seen throughout the industry. Science fiction has always had female and minority readers, though its ties to commercial consumer publishing would often minimize the diversity of the field. Looking back at the Golden Era of Science Fiction again, lead human characters would almost always Anglo-Saxon names, and the default condition would often be white and male. It was common practice in this for female science fiction writers to use pseudonyms or their initials to obscure their sex from assumedly either chauvinistic or immature male readers. Writers like Octavia Butler, an African-American female writer, and Samuel Delaney, an openly gay African-American author, are two strong examples of writers in the 1960s and and 1970s that focused on reflected their color and/or sexuality in their art, and helped to represent unheard voices in the genre and spread science fiction out to a wider, more diverse audience. Modern literary authors like Junot Diaz consider science fiction as a genre perfectly suited to depict “the reality of the African diaspora experience.” (Ibid.) The continuous increase and spread of diversity in science fiction will undoubtedly lead to a wider influence on mass culture and more opportunities within the industry for people of all sexes, races and orientations to be properly and distinctly represented.
Briefly, though it must be mentioned as it is very important but obvious, is the consumption of science fiction ebooks. After the introduction of e-readers in 2006 and 2007, and the heavy marketing blasts that proceeded them, science fiction fans and other genres—romance or mystery enthusiasts, for example—were able to easily and cheaply consume old and new works of science fiction at rapid paces. By 2013, ebook sales had reached a record high $3.04 billion in sales, or a 44% increase from 2011. (McMilan, Wired) Now more than ever, publisher are focusing more of their attention on genre fiction, or markets that have traditionally lagged behind literary fiction in sales. Random House VP and head of digital publishing, Allison Dobson, claims genre fiction is now “where all the action is.” (Ibid.)
Science fiction is not only what it seems to be; it is bigger than this. It is not just only genre of consumer book publishing, though it did begin and stay that way. But science fiction is something that we now understand as an abstract aesthetic, something that alters how readers will perceive the world after allowing their minds the experience. From Mary Shelley to Junot Diaz and all the pillars standing in between, the science fiction market stands tall and steady, through its assimilation and acceptance into the pop culture of today, and with an ever-expanding and more diverse readership that has easier access to print via ebooks and other modern technology than ever before.
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