A Science Fiction Timeline: Yesterday and Tomorrow

scientifictionWhat follows is a high level timeline of Science Fiction history. Attempts are made to step back and view the evolution of science fiction and correlate that on where we are now and where we may go in the future. This subject is frequently on my mind. If you have read some of the interviews I’ve published recently, you will see this theme continuing. I confess to being a relative neophyte in my historical knowledge of Science Fiction, but here is my science fiction timeline none the less.

1920s: The Birth of Science Fiction

In 1926, Amazing Stories Magazine launched into society after the close of World War I. Science was still young and mysterious. The world held a few corners still left unexplored and unconquered.  Scientists, inventors, and explorers were held in high regard. Buildings were constructed with the names of a few famous scientists carved into the stone. The scientific world promised great wonders, especially when we looked towards space.

Science fiction existed before the 1920s, but Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories, helped focus the genre with his “Scientifiction”. The freshly christened fans got their science fiction from pulp magazines. In a short amount of time, the magazine rack was filled with pulps that promised tales never before imagined. It seemed the publishers could never satisfy their own desire to print more magazines. The film Metropolis was the lone movie to capture the minds of fans. Radio dramas were popular sources of entertainment. The still limited reach of science fiction assured that all fans enjoyed a shared experience.

The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

1930s: The First Revolution

As the pulps continued to flood young minds with scientifiction, fans began to organize.  They created fan groups like the Futurians. They published fanzines and organized conventions, going so far as to conduct the first World Science Fiction Convention in 1939.

John W. Campbell, Jr.
John W. Campbell, Jr.

More and more magazines joined the ranks of the pulps selling science fiction like Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, and Astounding Stories. A young editor named John W. Campbell, Jr. took over the renamed Astounding Science Fiction and worked with the young fans that were now writing their own science fiction. Through force of will Campbell reshaped science fiction in his own image and ushered in the start of what many consider to be the Golden Age of science fiction, focusing the stories more on science than adventure.

Around the world the Great Depression took hold, savaging society and pushing so many to the brink of destruction. Science continued to blossom feeding the minds of so many who wanted to dream of more exciting places and more exciting times.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1940s: The World at War

The Golden Age of science fiction continued for many, while others were swept up into the demands of the world at war. Many of the giants within the science fiction industry were amongst the greatest generation that put themselves in harm’s way to ensure the world would remain free from the tyrannical yoke.

Scientists created some of the first computers like the Colossus Computer used to crack the German’s Enigma encryption. The Manhattan Project brings the world into the nuclear age.

Astounding Science Fiction 1940Campbell continued to lead the charge in the publishing industry, including moving Astounding away from the pulp format into a digest format. The Golden Age of science fiction was in full swing, publishing stories that helped lay the cornerstones of the industry. Television crept into the market, bringing with it a new outlet for science fiction.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1950s: End of the Golden Age

The shooting war ended, and the Cold War began. The world was still picking up the pieces from the global conflict. The nuclear threat loomed over everyday life, and communism faced off against capitalism.

The pulp magazines began to shrivel and disappear. Many titles that had flooded onto the shelves found the market shrinking. Science fiction television shows and radio shows began disappearing, but science fiction was far from dead. New magazines appeared like Galaxy, If, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Shorter works were being replaced by novels just as the pulps were replaced by digests.

The 50s also saw humanity shooting things into space, and witnessed the organization of NASA. They hydrogen bomb is tested for the first time. Passenger jets make the world a smaller place. Nuclear power plants become a reality in Russia. The golden age of television changed how people entertained themselves.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

1960s: The Second Revolution

The cold war transformed into the Space Race. Humanity began launching itself out of the atmosphere, eventually taking a stroll across the surface of the moon. The first working laser was demonstrated at the Hughes Research Laboratories. All those scientific wonders that were mysterious and unknown were starting to become revealed.

Star TrekScience fiction evolved with the times, shifting into a more literary style known as the New Wave. The science began to soften somewhat as authors focused on an artistic approach that shifted away from the Campbellian directive. The cornerstone magazines still existed, but magazines like New Worlds, If, and Galaxy were being directed by Michael Moorcock and Frederick Pohl, giving authors the freedom to experiment.

The film industry fully embraced science fiction providing new audiences exposure to science fiction.  Doctor Who and Star Trek first appeared on television.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Dune by Frank Herbert

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

1970s: Riding The New Wave

Science continues to expand human understanding. Advancement in solid-state physics, the integrated circuit, and Hawking’s theory of black holes provided more scientific nourishment. NASA continued to erase the mysteries of space by sending probes everywhere they could imagine. Computers and the games that can be played on them, began to grow beyond the laboratory and into the home. The power of the oil producing nations begin to rise.

Science fiction magazines leveled off to just a handful, but they continued to publish important works guided by insightful editors like Ben Bova at Astounding. Novels continued to get longer and continued to become the predominant medium for reading science fiction.

Forever War by Joe HaldemanA man named George Lucas transformed the film industry forever with his film Star Wars and the special effects technology he brought into the world. Science fiction grew exponentially as now more people than ever had caught the fever.

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Gateway by Frederik Pohl

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

1980s: The Birth of Cyberpunk

The world is a smaller place. Space is closer and less mysterious. Personal computers become the norm. Computer games let people fight aliens in their living room on Atari and Nintendo. Special effects driven science fiction films begin to flood into the movie theaters.

The list of magazines offering science fiction began to retract, just as Omni appeared. The slick magazine expanded the reach of science fiction beyond the digests, just as the games and films attracted new audiences. Science fiction was no longer a stepchild. It was becoming pop culture.

Inspired by the idea of computers and how they might interface with humanity, the cyberpunk movement started. Ushering in a new facet of science fiction that had never before been explored.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh

The Uplift War by David Brin

1990s: Pop-Culture Explosion  

The magazines continue to contract. Novels dominate the printed word, and the cold war comes to an end. The Soviet Union falls, and the world is a new place. Cell phones and the internet are infants. Television, films, and computer games continue to expand the audience for science fiction, but now the public’s perception of the genre begins to be driven by these multimedia outlets rather than offer a blueprint for their content.

Doomsday_Book by Connie WIllisScience fiction authors begin swimming in their own directions as the number of voices continues to expand. The unified experience of science fiction no longer holds true. The shared experience is gone. Science fiction becomes personalized by each individuals exposure to the genre. Space opera makes a triumphant return.

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

2000s: Dystopia and Young Adults

The decade opens with terrorist attacks including the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The world is forever changed as it has not only shrunk, but hatred makes itself known. The War on Terror begins. Asia experiences an economic boom, and the world truly has a global economy. Cell phones and the internet are the rule rather than the exception. Humans put robots on Mars, and begin discussing hotels in space.

Sophistications in computer graphics have pushed the level of film and computer game effects to new heights. Comic books begin to dominate the film industry and the public’s perception of science fiction. Pop-culture is science fiction. Younger audiences begin and end with multimedia, but the birth of young adult fiction pushes the publishing industry to new heights.

Harry PotterWhile the Harry Potter phenomenon captures the world, more and more authors begin presenting dystopian views within science fiction. Science fiction continues to splinter into a now infinite number of sub-genres. It seems a new one is invented every day. Magazines continue to drop and their circulation shrinks. Some wonder if the market for short fiction will implode completely. Fantasy grows into science fiction’s bigger sibling.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

The Scar by China Mieville

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick

2010s and Beyond: The Third Revolution

Social normalization dictates acceptance of all beliefs and lifestyles. Twentieth century thinking is being put out on the curb. The power of supercomputing is growing at such a rapid rate that many authors explore the idea of an artificial intelligent singularity. Scientists have advanced technology to the point that they have to start pumping the brakes to determine if they should ethically continue. Subjects like indefinite life extension become real topics. Social media and the internet dominate society.

Filmmakers are now capable of producing science fiction tales that are only limited by budget and the profit loss column. Special effects that had found no ceiling are now sliding back down as studios realize they must cut back in order to turn a profit. The shared theatrical science fiction experience is now gone. The movie theaters are packed with science fiction film after film, making it unlikely a fan can see all of them.

The ebook has changed publishing forever. Major bookstores have closed. Magazines have gone electronic in an effort to survive. Short fiction is making a comeback, but in the form of free to read. The internet allows authors to reach readers anywhere in the world. The ease of publishing electronically has saturated the market. Self-publishing continues to expand. Everyone looks with uncertainty on where to go. Authors want to be published. Publishers want to survive.

Fantasy, space opera, cyberpunk, horror, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk, and so many others all live side by side. The shared experience is gone, never to return.

Redshirts by John Scalzi

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

Deadline by Mira Grant

amazon kindle

In my mind the Third Revolution is upon us. We are still trying to determine which direction it will go. Certainly it will be electronic. Certainly it will be driven by fans as much as the publishers. Fan sites continue to proliferate quickly outnumbering the publisher sites. New methods of profit are allowing fiction to be given away free.

Will we one day see free novels hit mainstream like we have short fiction?

Will we ever again be able to paint science fiction with a single brush stroke, or has it grown too big and diverse?

Will traditional conventions survive, or will they be replaced by new innovations?

To me, it feels like someone hit the reset button. The current state of the union more closely resembles the 1920s than any other period—more chaotic and rudderless. It seems as if many are looking around for the direction. They seem to be looking for the second coming of John W. Campbell to show them the way.

Maybe I’m wrong, but one of the differences I perceive between our current state and the early science fiction community is cohesiveness. In the 1920s, there seemed to be a greater sense of “we” and “us.” Today it seems as if there is a stronger sense of “me” and “mine.” Self-promotion is peaking out of necessity and desire to be heard through the white noise of so many voices. (Twitter, facebook, blogs, shameless plugs.)

I do think the revolution is upon us. I do sense a trending towards “us”. There is a changing of the guard underway across all of science fiction.

Pop-culture science fiction carries the big stick and there is no way around that. We must embrace it and determine how to survive in the new world order. If science fiction publishing is to grow and stay relevant, we must work together to find the best path forward.

Would John W. Campbell have the same impact, if he started working today?

Would Isaac Asimov be self-publishing and tweeting what he ate for breakfast?

How many Clarkes and Heinleins and Le Guins will we never see because they are lost in the sea?

How will we look back on this decade when the clock reads 2020?

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  1. I appreciate your efforts, R.K., but you really should have begun your timeline with the pre-Gernsback science fiction that inspired him to launch Amazing in 1926.

    Certainly, Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (which many consider the first true SF novel) was worthy of mention, and it’s inexcusable to omit Verne and Wells, who established SF as a genre. As late as the 1960s, they were the authors the general public most associated with science fiction.

    And let’s not forget Burroughs, who became a sensation years before Amazing’s debut, and the host of other writers who churned out books and stories that built the foundation for Gernsback.

    1. Gene,
      Great feedback. I appreciate your input. I decided to start with Gernsback because science fiction was not termed science fiction really before his time. There was lots of good science fiction that predates the 1920s (and predates those you’ve listed), but it was not until the 1920s that the term was coined and thus officially brought into the world. It existed but had not been given a name. James Gunn’s Road to Science Fiction does a wonderful job going through the origins of science fiction. People were writing it long before they knew it was science fiction.

      The timeline was not intended to be an exhaustive list of authors, but rather just a smattering of samples from each decade. Alas, if I included all the worthy authors and works in this post, I would still be writing it.

      I wrote a few articles earlier this year that outlined my appreciation of the authors you mentioned. You can find them in the archives on the site.

      Thanks again for the input. All great points.


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