Why an SF Centennial When SF Has Been Around For Centuries – Except It Hasn’t

When the SF100 Centennial Celebration of Science Fiction and Amazing Stories was first announced, I was asked why we were celebrating 100 years of Science Fiction because, according to what my interlocutor had heard, the genre has been in existence since the tale of Gilgamesh was first recounted around a camp fire somewhere in the Mediterranean.

I responded with the following, which I will be elaborating on here, but since this response received the first ever positive reception that I’ve ever received publicly for this argument, I wanted everyone to be able to read the original.  I usually get serious pushback on the suggestion.  And yes, its a Facebook post and so not as rigorous or as substantiated as a formal declaration should be, but I think it gets at the gist of the argument.  Here’s the question (author redacted for privacy):

“But hasn’t science fiction been around for more than 200 years? Frankenstein was published in 1818 and Brian Aldiss argued that it was the first SF novel.”

My initial response:

“the genre was formalized, by definition and presentation, with the publication of Amazing Stories’ first issue.
Personally, I adhere to the theory that you can’t intentionally write “science fiction” until you have a definition for what it is you intend to write. It’s then refined by critique…this story meets the definition, that one doesn’t. You assemble a body of work, etc.
I think Aldiss was largely motivated by attempting to find classical literary roots for what would become defined as SF, largely to argue that genre should be given the same respect (at universities, by “literary” critics, ) and that his examples like Lucien and de Bergerac don’t really meet the full definition of the genre. They’re precursors, at least in the sense that authors “made stuff up” about foreign places or environs beyond the earth, but many of them predate the definition of the scientific method, let alone the definition of SF, so how could they be involved with doing any kind of reality-based “speculation” or “extrapolation”? And many, if not all of those earlier works do meet the definition of other genres, such as parable, fairy tale, political sarcasm, etc., but not that of SF.
Yes, there are works that contain elements of what would become defined as SF, but that’s the equivalent of saying that Basketball has its origins in the Mayan culture because they used a ball and a hoop for their game Pok-a-tok.
James Gunn called his series “The Road to Science Fiction”, not “Science Fiction Sprang Forth From the Head of Zeus”, because, like all literature, it has evolved. The Odyssey has SFnal and Fantasy elements in it, yet we mostly refer to it as an Epic Poem, because it doesn’t meet the majority of SF elements.
I refer to such works as “proto-SF”. Close, but no cigar, though elements of them would be instrumental in shaping the definition of the genre.
Frankenstein is held out as an exemplar because it has all, or almost all, of the elements to meet the definition, but, again, Mary didn’t sit down and tell anyone she was going to write a Science Fiction tale. If anything, she said she was going to write a Gothic romance, and used some recent scientific revelations to spice things up.
Yes, she is deserving of the title of “Mother of Science Fiction”, and that fits, because it’s the progeny that express the new genetic mutations.”

The evolutionary nature of literature (and its genres) should not cause any argument, as the concept is well established.  It is eloquently echoed by the oft stated mantras of “standing on the shoulder’s of giants” and the Heinleinian “Pay it Forward”.  But like the identification of species in an evolutionary context, there are criteria by which things are measured when determining if something new has come into the world and can be identified as something unique.  The Science Fiction genre is one such thing.

The Science Fiction genre became a unique species with the publication of Amazing Stories magazine on March 5 or March 10th of 1926, with a cover date of April 1926 and an editorial declaring the identification of a new literary species, a species that can be identified through the combination of three unique elements, those being an entertaining story, one whose  elements are based in contemporary scientific understanding* and which engages in speculation on the impact of future extrapolations of that understanding.  (*Contemporary for the author at the time of writing.)  In other words, fiction that is well-written enough to engage a reader, one that is essentially based in contemporary reality and which examines the impact of future scientific and technological developments.

In order to understand this, at least two elements need to be expounded upon.  The first element is an examination of what is meant by genre as it relates  to “Science Fiction” and the methods by which such a thing can be defined and explored.  The second element are the circumstances, the context, within which Aldiss developed his historical theory on the evolution of the genre.

For the former, I will once again rely on Gary Westfahl’s The Mechanics of Wonder:

“In fact, I would go much further and argue that, in the case of a literary genre which emerges as a widely acknowledged historical fact, major works of contemporary criticism constitute far more than an interesting accompaniment to or alternate source of information about the genre: they are in fact parts of the genre themselves.  From this perspective, A Defense of Poesie is an essential component of Renaissance literature…criticism functions as the necessary binding force that creates, sustains, and preserves the integrity and identity of the genre. Thus a study of science fiction that does not take into account its own accompanying critical tradition is not only weakened by that omission, but it is fatally flawed.”

It should be noted that it is historical record that Gernsback spent many years prior to publishing Amazing in collecting and analyzing stories that served as examples of the definition he was developing.  Identifying commonalities, selecting works that mostly fit, rejecting others that didn’t – and determining why they didn’t” – was the “critique” Westfahl identifies that is used to refine the definition.  Many of those stories would go on to be published in the magazine’s first year as examples of the kind of thing he was looking for, and it is also worth noting that by the end of that year, when submissions increased and new fiction, written within the boundaries of the definition that he had provided were available, the reprints were largely curtailed in favor of the new fiction.  Not necessarily because they were better, but because they fit the definition of what Hugo was looking for.

This is another way of demonstrating the idea that you can’t write a story in an undefined genre.  During the first year potential authors were given examples and a definition, during the second year, the stories that appeared were written to the genre’s specifications.

Prior to Amazing Stories, fiction that could be identified as adjacent or “proto” was referred to as “Scientific Romance” (there were numerous “romance” genres, the word almost synonymous with “tale” or “story”), stories in which an element of science featured in the tale – Wells’ Martian tripods, for example.  Gothic tales, epic poetry, fables, parables, fairy tales, even political satire have all been identified as forms of fiction that have some elements that carry over to Science Fiction, but we’d generally not include Aesop’s fable   as a science fiction story, despite sharing some elements.  Fables have their own definition – ” a short story, typically with animals as characters, conveying a moral”.

Just as we can see that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The New Prometheus is a Gothic story, while holding many attributes similar to modern science fiction.  But don’t trust me on that.  Read  what Samuel R. Delany had to say on the subject:

JP: So that makes Frankenstein not science fiction?

SD: No.

JP: Making The Time Machine not science fiction.

SD: With all due respect, I think that’s a crock of shit. They’re gothic novels. And the gothic novel is a perfectly good and reasonable genre. There’s no point in snatching it out of one genre. The gothic novel has enough problems maintaining its own dignity.”


…and in case you didn’t know, Mr. Delany is considered to be quite the critic of the genre.
In basing his theory on the idea that critique of a genre is part of what defines that genre, Westfahl states that critique must accomplish three things:  it must “suggest criteria” by which a work can be identified as belonging to that genre (without referencing external context), it must identify the readers and authors and how they value works within that genre and it must identify the literary history of that genre.  He then identifies Gernsback as being the first person to meet  these requirements when it comes to the SF genre.

In this way, critique helps to continuously re-define the genre, if only by identifying additional works that meet or fail to meet existing definitions.  This is how, for example, we can have a discussion about whether or not Star Wars is science fiction.  At  first, it was clearly identified as such (its in space, it has advanced technologies and shows how that technology impacts their civilization).  Later (especially following the introduction of “Midichlorians”) it was found to lack strength in various elements and/or aspects of it (The Force) were identified as magical, rather than technological elements and it has been more clearly identified as “Science Fantasy”, a genre quite adjacent to SF, though, again, not meeting all of the criteria.

Shelley’s Frankenstein comes close, though it lacks in the extrapolation department:  instead of asking (as an SF story would) how the technology to create life might affect a society, it uses its one primary technological element to ask a moral question:  should we or shouldn’t we?  Science Fiction doesn’t ask the  question, it shows us the results.   Frankenstein would have been a very different story if, instead, it had proposed that re-animated corpses could replace serfs and tenants working the land…what impact it might have on indentured servitude, or how the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars might have been different if the French possessed the ability to resurrect dead soldiers.  Frankenstein portrays the single usage of a new technology in service to a moral dilemma, not the consequences of the introduction of that technology.

On the other hand, Frankenstein does possess all of the elements of Gothic Horror/Romance:  “…characterized by an environment of fear, the threat of supernatural events, and the intrusion of the past upon the present.”  “…  the specific theme of the present being haunted by the past.” ” The atmosphere is typically claustrophobic, and common plot elements include vengeful persecution, imprisonment, and murder.”  (All from Wikipedia.)
And so it is for all works that have been identified as SFnal written prior to the introduction of the genre in 1926.  You can go through each one and identify both the reasons why readers think they belong in the genre, as well as identifying the reasons why they  don’t fit the definition.  In large measure, we identify pre-1926 works as SFnal because they evoke the same feelings that we seek from SF, the suspension of disbelief and the sense of wonder.  Neither of those, however, are contained within the definition of the genre – they are the effects of all three elements of the definition coalescing in a (good) finished work.
So why did Aldiss (and others) seek to undermine and supplant the origins of the genre?  There are essentially two reasons.  The first is that some folks in the genre were displeased with Gernsback for a variety of things and, while I admit that at least some of them had reason to be, the why’s don’t really affect this argument.  Sufficient to say that past experience made him a convenient scapegoat.  The second is that a bunch of well-established authors in the field were becoming tired with getting short shrift from both the hoi poloi of the literary world (something still on-going today) and the lack of inclusion of SF in academia.

The reaction to this displeasure took two forms.  One form was  the creation of the New Wave and publications that supported its development (New Worlds in the UK and Dangerous Visions in the US, for example).  Authors were feeling restricted by the “formulaic” requirements of the genre (as largely enforced by Campbell and Astounding – and it should be noted that many magazines found success in the early to mid 1950s by either expanding upon or ignoring Campbellian strictures – Galaxy, If and The Magazine of F&SF among them) and/or felt the need to “experiment” with different forms, themes, methods of writing, not to mention finding an interest in examaning the “soft” sciences, such as sociology, history, psychology.  Ironically, Campbell’s rejection of stories not meeting his definition(s) eventually led to expansions of the definition.

The second was to find ways to make Science Fiction more acceptable to its detractors by attempting to play in their own backyards. Which they then attempted to accomplish by identifying historical antecedents for the genre that would either force the genre to be accepted as being on par with “literature” (and therefore deserving of similar consideration and respect) or cause them to have to reject the foundation upon which all of their literary theories were based (the one that still divides “literature” from “genre literature”).

This attempt was finalized in Aldiss’ Billion Year Spree (now published in revised form with the title Trillion Year Spree), and, among other things, the establishment of the  J. Wayne & Elsie M. Gunn Center for the Study of SF, established by James Gunn at the University of Kansas.  (And yes, there is other academic support for SF in the academic fields, some quite notable, but the idea that SF should be studied and taught was hard fought and still dismissed to this day.)
Notably, One of Gunn’s major contributions to the field was a series of anthologies titled “The Road to Science Fiction” and not “The History of Science Fiction”.  That title echoes the evolutionary nature of the genre, unlike Aldiss’s argument that SF “has always been with us”.
In Billion Year Spree, Aldiss argues that a variety of fantastical elements found in ancient literature – from the Cyclops and Sirens in the Odyssey to spacecraft powered by Geese in deBergerac’s A Voyage to the Moon – are essentially the same thing as Niven’s description of the mechanics of the Ringworld (both right and wrong versions) or Weinbaum’s Martian Tweel from A Martian Odyssey.
However, every single one of those works, like Shelley’s Frankenstein, hew more closely to the definitions of genres other than Science Fiction – genres such as Fable, Political Satire, Allegory, Myth, Parable.  You can certainly say that each of them contains a fantastical element and things not of the real world, but in the absence of at least some degree of scientific rigor and any real, coherent extrapolation, if those stories are to be included under another genre’s definition, it would be that of Fantasy.
In terms of literary classification, Science Fiction is generally considered  to be a genre within the Fantasy family.  Its one of the higher level domains, incorporating all manner of fiction that contains things not present in the real world (while “literary” fiction generally sticks to things that happen “in reality”, even if they happen to fictional people).  Science Fiction is a sub domain of fantasy which is delineated by the RESTRICTIONS of its definition.  You want “magic” in your SF?  To fit the definition, you’ll need to give that magic a scientific underpinning.  Or at the very least, some fast and plausible hand-waving (such as an alternate universe wherein the laws of physics are different, such as those presented by Brin’s The Practice Effect or Chalker’s Soul Rider series).

Those restrictions (the requirement for a direct connection to the knowledge and understanding of the real world while positing something new within it that does not violate the known) are essentially meaningless if they are applied in an era in which there is no real understanding of the difference between reality and non-reality.  If you are unaware of the vacuum of space, of the friction caused by an atmosphere, of the operation of the force of gravity, of aerodynamics, of the laws of motion, not only can’t your write about a trip to the moon that takes place in a plausible manner, you can’t begin to speculate on how that task might be accomplished in a plausible manner.  You don’t even know what “plausible” is.

If you can’t base a story in factual reality (as the atmosphere thins, birds can’t generate enough lift to reach beyond a certain altitude, let alone get enough oxygen) then you can’t begin to extrapolate a method by which that real-world restriction might be overcome.  You aren’t even aware of the need to do so.  How then could you write a story, whether its called “science fiction” or not, that requires the extrapolation of current theory?

Many of Aldiss’ examples take place well before the concept of a “Scientific Method” was established.  There was plenty of groping towards what would become formalized as the Scientific Method, but apparently no one ever thought of formalizing an “Atomism” genre.  Which serves as another strike against them.  Far easier (and far more familiar to the then contemporary mind) to posit the action of Gods, or simply state that something occurred without offering a basis on which it did so.
“Science Fiction” could not be defined as a genre until after the concept of “Scientific Inquiry” had become established.
I am sure that Aldiss’ intention was a positive one:  at the time that this concept of SF always being present in Literature was developed, Science Fiction was dismissed almost  completely out of hand as an acceptable subject for study and inquiry.  In much of  society, it wasn’t even considered something positive.  We’re all familiar with the dismissive “That Buck Rogers Stuff” (implying something that is so fantastical as to be laughable).  Young readers were warned that reading “Sci Fi” would “rot their brains”, or divorce them from reality.  Men walking on the Moon?  Hah!  But I think that his theory ultimately has a negative impact, as those works just aren’t SF, and claiming that they are undermines the argument that SF is a literature worthy of study.
And, beyond that, there is intention.  As noted in my original Facebook post on the subject, I am quite sure that Mary Shelley did not announce to her fellow vacationers that she was going to spend a gloomy, rainy night writing a “Science Fiction novel”.

Others have scoffed at my contention that the author’s intention is part of this mix, but I maintain that it is, because, at the very least, when identifying the type of fiction they are writing, the author, unconsciously or implicitly accepts the restrictions of that genre’s definition.  Or, at the very least, thinks that they have found a plausible way around them.  Wells may very well have intended to write a “Scientific Romance” when he first penned The Time Machine, because “Romance” novels were a known thing in his time, but not a novel in a genre that did not yet exist.  (And further, like all proto science fiction, the Time Machine meets only most of the requirements for the genre.  He introduces the concept of Time Travel, based on no then-current scientific understanding, and, rather than showing how this new technology might affect things or be utilized, he shows us an adventure story displaced into another time.)

It is for these reasons (as well as further elaboration of the same concepts) that I firmly believe that the genre, as a genre, was first identified, defined and codified by Gernsback with the publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories and, hence, the Centennial for Science Fiction will take place in March of 2026.

Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure. https://www.patreon.com/amazingstoriesmag

Previous Article

Amazing Stories Reader’s Choice Award – 2nd Quarter Winners!

Next Article

The Big Idea: Jennifer Estep

You might be interested in …

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.