Science Fiction Reality

a geek girl's look at 100 years of science fiction and beyond

By Una Fritz fr SciFi Review 2000

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century the world was in a time of movement. It seemed that the technical innovations, which had just started to blossom, would open up all doors and gates to mankind's advancement.
Everything seemed possible - inventors imagined fantastic things like moving pavements, cars with atomic engines and many more things.
These were only a few which had been in the minds of people at the turn of the last century. Unlike television, telephones, rockets, space flight and submarines which are now part of our every day life, many ideas produced during that time have not been realised till now. From our late 20th century point of view, it is both amazing and sad that all those fantasies and visions of the future were made in a time when technology was seen as a good thing, that technology would improve our lives rather than make it more miserable with pollution and the atomic threat. It was an escapist view of a future which was golden, happy and peaceful. No one of the early futurists would have thought that our quick advancement in technology would lead us to two world wars and mass unemployment and global pollution. How happy to live in the year 2000, they must have thought.

In literature, it is not easy to discern where and when science-fiction starts, one can argue that science-fiction started with Jules Verne (1828 - 1905), and a lot of people see him as the father - or better the great grandfather - of modern science-fiction. His ideas brought forth a multitude of like-minded authors who presented us their vision of a possible future.
But when we take a look at some other works especially in the English literature, it becomes clear that science-fiction was started earlier and, in fact, by a woman.
Yes, some of you might now argue - the writer of this article is a woman - perhaps even a feminist, so it is no wonder, she tries to persuade us that a woman actually invented science-fiction. As an answer to that doubt I have only three words: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
All right, I give you that it is more horror than science-fiction but Frankenstein has all the facets of true science-fiction: Victor Frankenstein, a scientist, obsessed with the death, creates life by using bits and pieces of dead bodies and uses electricity (at a time when electrical concepts were still considered impossible) and overall the apparatus described in the story sounds outlandish and fictious science. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the early 19th century poet and friend of Lord Byron, wrote the story of Frankenstein after a nightmarish stay at a villa in Switzerland with Shelley, Byron and her half-sister.
Looking at the book from our 21st century point of view, one can consider the creation of life as an early attempt of clone technology which also became a great subject in 1930 to 1980 science-fiction literature.

Keeping in mind that Mary Shelley was the first, Jules Verne truly was the second and most renown visionary of science-fiction. His classics like De La Terre La Lune (From The Earth To The Moon; 1865), where he describes the first landing on the moon with all technology possible at that time, and his posthumously published Paris Au XXe Ciecle (Paris In The 20th Century) show what an accurate and imaginary writer he was and that he was aware what kind of influence technology would have on mankind.
In his book, Paris In The 20th Century, he portrays life in the 20th century quite accurately, complete with subways, computers and other modern gadgets, but the people living in those big tower-like houses in Paris, are emotionless and unhappy. Art is only something for museums and technology is triumphing over life itself.
No wonder, Vernes' publisher stubbornly refused to publish the book as it did not fit the more positive outlook on the future of that time.

Unlike H.G. Wells (1866 - 1946) (The Time Machine), who also used technical innovations in his books and like him many other European writers, the American writers of the 1920's and 1930's had other intentions: they wanted to entertain. The most popular magazine at that time was published by Luxembourg native Hugo Gernsback (1884 - 1967) who in turn invented the term Science Fiction when he called the articles and stories published in his magazine scientifiction. He especially wanted to draw young adolescents towards scientific based literature and filled his magazines with a mixture of classic science-fiction of Verne and Wells, as well as newer authors. With the newer authors there came a new facet of science-fiction, that of space operas. There was no interest in the relevance to the near future as the US was amidst a very bad recession and the readers were interested in escaping their miserable day to day life. They wanted the ultimate adventure, without care of scientific knowledge and accuracy. A zeal which was fulfilled by Gernsback's magazine as well as many others.

This trend towards entertainment rather than scientifically based science fiction was changed when John W. Campbell (1910 - 1971) started to publish his Astounding sf-magazine. He especially took care that the stories he published were possible and plausible rather than adventurous. From 1937 onward he published as yet unknown authors like Lester Del Rey, A.E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov who later became the great masters of science-fiction. One of Astounding's authors, Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988), influenced technology so much that the first robot hands were named after one of his books, Waldo.
Heinlein's visions are nowadays called future histories and he is up till today one of the most influential authors of military science-fiction.
Isaac Asimov (1920 - 1992), a scientist himself, became one of the most popular authors of all times in the budding genre of science fiction. His robot stories (I Robot) are still seen as the very foundations of robotics in science and although his outlook on robotics for the 20th century might not have been met, his books advanced the technology never the less. Lester Del Rey (*1915) described in his book Nerves (1942) the biggest possible nuclear accident - already foreseeing the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1984.
Albeit unimpressed by the magazine publications in the US, Aldous Huxley (1894 - 1963) published his Brave New World in 1932. Huxley was the first to use the ideas of British scientist J.B.S. Haldane on gene manipulation.

After the end of the second world war, with the beginning of the Cold War, science fiction turned towards a much more mundane genre. The rising of Communism and the Soviet nuclear threat led to space operas and open black and white writings. Vicious Aliens, representing the communists, invading Earth and the brave USA defending Earth and therefore the Western world. One can argue that George Orwell (1903 - 1950) and his book Ninety-Eighty Four (1948) was one example of the many propagandistic literature but that is not true. Ninety-Eighty Four was intended as a warning, a warning not to let the threat of communism take over the personal freedom of each individual.
Authors of the late 1960's and 1970's turned towards a different outlook on mankind's future. Authors like Joe Haldeman (*1943), influenced by the Vietnam War, created space operas with militaristic background The Forever War (1974).
There are also technologies which have not been thought of in science fiction literature, like the capacity of computers in our world as well as its influence in every day life. Only recently, the genre of cyber punk picked up these influences and put it into something completely new. In 1984, the most influential book of cyber punk, albeit the foundation thereof, was published. William Gibson (*1948) and his Neuromancer and all the other authors that followed, like John Shirley and Tom Maddox used the computer technologies to portray a dark and somewhat desolate outlook on the future. Computer will have the power and even mankind will only be part of a computer based cyber world.

Some of the technical inventions portrayed in all those books mentioned have been already realised or will be realised in a not so distant future, like manned space flight to Mars or a space colony in the orbit of Earth. Even women's voting rights have been established (and good-riddance to that) a fact which caused an outrage when Jules Vernes mentioned it in one of his books.
Additionally, the visions of military science fiction are becoming increasingly true, as we have seen during the Gulf War in the early 1990's and the Kosovo War.

What will the new millennium bring us in science-fiction? More cyber punk influenced books and films a la The Matrix and Johnny Mnemonic because we already have survived almost all prognosis of authors of the last century? Or will it be more militaristic orientated science fiction like Starship Troopers or The Forever War? Or perhaps intergalactic space operas like Star Wars with a science fiction setting but with different genres, like Fantasy, thrown in?

We don't know. Hopefully though, we will see more talented science fiction writers, perhaps even more female ones with kick ass heroines. We might never know if we do not dream it.

© Una Fritz This is the short version of my PhD. thesis