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 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.
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?
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.”
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.
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”).
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?
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.