Monday, February 25, 2008

The Origins of Science Fiction

Now that Nomi has graciously allowed me to join the staff of her blog, I felt I ought to get things started with a nice, substantial post. In keeping with the literary nature of I Dreamed I Saw Grace P. Last Night, I've chosen to devote this post to the branch of literature with which I am most familiar: science fiction.

As the Wikipedia article on science fiction notes, there are almost as many definitions of science fiction as there are definers. Probably the most accurate definition was made by science fiction editor John W. Campbell, Jr., who said, "Science fiction is what science fiction editors buy." This reflects the reality that science fiction was actually the creation of one man, and that man was a science fiction editor.

If you wanted to, you could go back as far as the seventeenth century and find stories of journeys to the moon by Johannes Kepler and Cyrano de Bergerac that would now be considered science fiction. Certainly by the 19th century there were plenty of examples of fantastic fiction with a technological bent: Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein, about a mad scientist who is able to use science to reanimate the dead; several stories by Edgar Allen Poe such as 1835's "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" and 1844's "The Balloon-Hoax"; Jules Verne's various voyages extraordinaires from 1863 on; H. G. Wells' scientific romances; futuristic utopias such as Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward, and dystopias such as Ignatius Donnelly's 1890 Caesar's Column. The early 20th century saw the introduction of the planetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitators. However, these were all individual productions by particular writers. What eventually tied them all together was the appearance of a single magazine in 1926 called Amazing Stories.

The publisher and editor of Amazing Stories was Hugo Gernsback, who had emigrated from Luxembourg to the United States in 1905. Gernsback was fascinated by electronics, and he started up the first magazine devoted to the subject, Modern Electrics, in 1908. In 1911, he published a work of fiction, Ralph 124C 41+, in his magazine, set in the future and focusing on future technologies. This proved popular with the magazine's readers, and Gernsback went on to publish more works of future-technology fiction in Modern Electrics and his other electronics magazines. Finally, in 1926, Gernsback decided to publish a magazine devoted entirely to technological fiction, and he coined the word "scientifiction" to describe the genre.

Most of the early issues of Amazing Stories consisted of reprints of earlier stories and novels by the likes of Poe, Verne, Wells, and Burroughs (each of the first 28 issues included a Wells reprint). This allowed Gernsback to do two things: first, it let him save money, since he didn't feel the need to pay the authors for the stories he reprinted; and second, it let him define his new genre by delving into a century's worth of fantastic fiction and picking and choosing which examples fit his new concept and which didn't. By the time the last Wells reprint appeared in the July 1928 issue of Amazing, Gernsback had built up a stable of writers such as Edmond Hamilton, E. E. Smith, and Jack Williamson that allowed him to carry on with original works of fiction. And in 1930, Gernsback's new genre received the ultimate accolade: the appearance of Astounding Stories, a rival scientifiction magazine by another publisher.

By the end of the 1930s, Gernsback's genre, under the variant name science fiction, had become a firmly established part of popular culture, spawning more magazines, comic strips, radio series, and movie serials. By 1946, the first science fiction book was published, an anthology of magazine stories called The Best of Science Fiction. Other anthologies followed, and in 1950 a major publisher, Doubleday and Company, established its own line of original science fiction novels.

By this time, the genre Gernsback founded had moved beyond him, and he played no important role in its history after 1936. Nevertheless, his part in founding the genre was remembered, and when an award for the year's best science fiction was established in 1953, it was named the Hugo, for Hugo Gernsback.

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