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History of SF

Entry updated 19 December 2022. Tagged: Theme.

Sf is an impure genre (see Definitions of SF) which did not finally take shape until the late nineteenth century, although all its separate elements existed earlier. If the labelling of any earlier story as sf depended only on the presence of sf elements there would be many such. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, has a Fantastic Voyage and a great world-flood (see Disaster) and the devastation of an old-growth forest for fun and extractive profit (see Ecology), and in those respects it qualifies; but such retrospective labelling is not very useful, since there is no sense at all in which we can regard sf as a genre conscious of being a genre before the nineteenth century (see Fantastika). Sf proper requires a consciousness of the scientific outlook, and it probably also requires a sense of the possibilities of change, whether social or technological. A cognitive, scientific way of viewing the world did not emerge until the seventeenth century, and did not percolate into society at large (see Futures Studies) until the eighteenth (partly) and the nineteenth (to a large extent); a sense of the fragility of social structures and their potential for change did not really become widespread until the political revolutions of the late eighteenth century. These questions are discussed further under Proto SF, in which entry a number of early scientific fictions, from Margaret Cavendish via Johannes Kepler through Cyrano de Bergerac and Jonathan Swift, along with even earlier writers, are treated.

The main elements which eventually, in varying proportions, became melded into sf are as follows: (1) the Fantastic Voyage; (2) the Utopia (along with the Anti-Utopia and the Dystopia); (3) the conte philosophique, or Philosophical Tale (see Satire); (4) the Gothic; (5) the Technological and Sociological Anticipation, especially as it developed into the US tradition of the tale of Invention in the dime novels (see Dime-Novel SF; Edisonade). As with sf, these constituent genres are not generically pure: for instance, the Fantastic Voyage is combined with the Dystopia in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735); the Gothic is combined with the Anticipation in The Mummy! (1827) by Jane Loudon.

The two figures most important to sf in the early nineteenth century were Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, both of whom wrote Gothic romances informed with a degree of scientific speculation, standing out in this respect from isolated, freakish speculations such as Captain Adam Seaborn's Symzonia (1820), one of the earliest of the many novels based on the idea of a Hollow Earth, and A Voyage to the Moon (1827) by Joseph Atterley. By the middle of the century a number of US writers, in particular, were making use of sf elements in their work, notably Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Fitz-James O'Brien, as was Lord Lytton in the UK. In the 1860s Jules Verne began to publish something more strongly resembling modern sf than anything written by his predecessors. His books were described as "Extraordinary Voyages" by his publisher; many of them deal directly with the impact of Near-Future technology. After Verne, and to some extent because of his success, the sf trickle became a torrent.

The next figure whose work had a truly transformative impact on early sf was H G Wells, in many of whose stories – which began to be published in the 1890s – the Gothic, the Utopia and the Anticipation are closely bound together and reworked into a form which all readers today recognize as inarguably sf. Most sf since Wells's has adhered more or less closely to the Wellsian balances between abstract speculation and characterization and between scientific and sociological speculation.

Though Wells's achievement was great, it is too simple by far to imagine – as earlier accounts of the genre did to a greater or lesser extent – that sf jumped straight from Verne to Wells and then exploded into the form we know today. Many contemporaries of Wells wrote sf, and many predecessors; between the publication of Verne's first sf novel, Cinq semaines en ballon (1863; trans as Five Weeks in a Balloon, or Journeys and Discoveries in Africa, by Three Englishmen 1869), and Wells's first, The Time Machine (1895; rev 1895), the genre had been consolidating and expanding. Notable titles from the period are, in chronological order: The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) by Edward S Ellis, "The Brick Moon" (October-December 1869 The Atlantic Monthly) by Edward Everett Hale, The Battle of Dorking (May 1871 Blackwood's Magazine; 1871 chap) by George T Chesney (see Battle of Dorking), The Coming Race (1871) by Lytton, Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler, Récits de l'infini (1872; trans as Stories of Infinity: Lumen 1873) by Camille Flammarion, Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains (as "The Steam Man of the Plains" 1876; 1892) by Harry Enton (see Frank Reade Library), She (October 1886-January 1887 The Graphic; cut 1886; full text 1887) by H Rider Haggard, Across the Zodiac (1880) by Percy Greg, Flatland (1884) by Edwin A Abbott, After London (1885) by Richard Jefferies, L'Ève future (1886; trans as The Eve of the Future 1981) by Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson, "Les Xipéhuz" (in L'Immolation ["The Sacrifice"] coll 1887; 1888; trans as "The Shapes" in One Hundred Years of Science Fiction, anth 1968, ed Damon Knight) by J-H Rosny aîné, The Time Ship (in coll 1887; 2012) by Enrique Gaspar, A Crystal Age (1887) by W H Hudson, Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) by Edward Bellamy, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) by Mark Twain, A Plunge into Space (1890) by Robert Cromie, News from Nowhere (1890) by William Morris, Olga Romanoff (23 December 1893-4 August 1894 Pearson's Weekly as "The Syren of the Skies"; rev 1894) by George Griffith, A Journey to Mars (1894) by Gustavus W Pope, and The Call of the Cosmos (1895; trans 1963) by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. The above list is highly selective; it is only as a result of recent bibliographical research – carried out by many scholars including Thomas D Clareson, I F Clarke, Lyman Tower Sargent, Darko Suvin and pre-eminently Everett F Bleiler in Science-Fiction: The Early Years (dated 1990 but 1991) – that we have become able to see how radically incomplete it is. Bleiler lists 618 sf works (stories and novels) for this same period 1863-1895. Despite the comparative lack of well-remembered names among the authors of sf in that period, it is now clear that the last three decades of the nineteenth century were the seed-bed for the modern genre. Wells did not spring from nowhere; he refined an existing tradition.

In the 1880s and after, many new and inexpensive Magazines appeared, and quite a few of them published sf stories, as did the dime novels (see Dime-Novel SF) in the USA and the Boys' Papers in the UK a little later, and with the advent of the Pulp magazines (as opposed to the Slicks) in the late 1890s the market for magazine sf expanded still more. These changes meant that sf was for the first time finding a truly popular audience, but one whose expectations of literature were often crude; the prime demand was for an action-packed story. By Wells's time a rift between the Scientific Romance and pulp sf was beginning to open.

Several of the pre-Wells titles listed above initiated subgenres which were to prove popular. The Steam Man of the Prairies inaugurated sf in dime-novel format, usually featuring boys involved in the creation and use of marvellous inventions (these were the years when Thomas Alva Edison was becoming a national hero in the USA; see Edisonade). Sf dime novels continued until the 1900s, at which time they were gradually replaced by such Juvenile Series as Tom Swift and by the stories in the new Pulp magazines. H Rider Haggard's She, a great success, led to the massive popularity of the Lost-World romance; this continued with some vitality into the 1930s, and is not quite extinct even today. George T Chesney's The Battle of Dorking ushered in the era of the Future War story, which often featured Invasion, perhaps the most popular of all the fringe sf genres in the late nineteenth century. Wells's The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) popularized the extraterrestrial invasion. Future-war stories remain popular today, especially in interstellar venues, but their great era ended with the start of World War One, which so devastatingly failed to fulfil future-war writers' expectations of a vivid and rapidly concluded conflict.

The earlier potted histories of sf that jumped from Verne in 1863 to Wells in 1895 tended to do the same for the years between Wells and the launch of Amazing in 1926, as if the intervening years were comparatively empty. Yet the period 1895-1926 is considerably more packed than even 1863-1895. There is not space here to give titles; authors whose sf largely appeared in the first instance in magazines include Frank Aubrey, Edgar Rice Burroughs, William Wallace Cook, Ray Cummings, George Allan England, Ralph Milne Farley, Homer Eon Flint, Austin Hall, Murray Leinster, A Merritt, Victor Rousseau and Garrett P Serviss; those primarily remembered for book publication include Edwin Lester Arnold, J D Beresford, Karel Čapek, J J Connington, Arthur Conan Doyle, E M Forster, Owen Gregory, Will N Harben, Milo Hastings, William Hope Hodgson, Fred T Jane, Rudyard Kipling, Kurd Laßwitz, David Lindsay, Jack London, John Mastin, E V Odle, Max Pemberton, Maurice Renard, M P Shiel, Guy Thorne (see Cyril Ranger Gull), E Charles Vivian, Edgar Wallace, S Fowler Wright and Yevgeny Zamiatin.

From an sf point of view, the most important magazines before the arrival of the specialist sf magazines were those published by Frank A Munsey in the USA and, in the UK, Pearson's Magazine and Pearson's Weekly. Many reputations were made in the magazines, the most influential being that of Edgar Rice Burroughs; his first work was "Under the Moons of Mars", which appeared in February-July 1912 in Munsey's All-Story magazine as by Norman Bean and later in book form, expanded as A Princess of Mars (1917), under his own name. Burroughs's great popularity did much to skew magazine sf away from scientific and social speculation towards the Planetary Romance – adventures in colourful and usually primitive other-worldly landscapes – in effect creating the genre which would later become known as Science Fantasy.

By 1926 the split between mainstream and genre sf was becoming pronounced; mainstream sf is explained in detail in Mainstream Writers of SF, but here we can briefly say that it is sf by writers (often already established as authors of non-sf novels and stories) working outside the traditions of magazine sf, and who often (though not always) appear to be ignorant of the very existence of those traditions. At worst, this leads to an inordinate amount of re-inventing the wheel; at best, writers like Olaf Stapledon or John Gloag or Aldous Huxley or André Maurois have been free to write serious books for adults without the constrictions imposed by Pulp-magazine editors aiming at a predominantly juvenile and not especially literate readership. But it is only with hindsight that we can refer to these authors as mainstream: because "science fiction" as a marketing label was not a term widely used in the USA in the 1930s and was hardly used at all in the UK before the 1950s, we can hardly be surprised if writers in the UK failed to adhere to sf's generic protocols. Is there any point in calling a river the main stream before the tributary exists?

However, Olaf Stapledon did not write in a vacuum, any more than had his predecessor H G Wells. Brian M Stableford, in Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (1985; much exp as New Atlantis 2016 4vols) makes a powerful case for the Scientific Romance, a term especially useful perhaps to describe work written during the long aftermath of World War One: tales characterized by a moderate gloom (see Optimism and Pessimism), long temporal perspectives (see Evolution) and a paucity of Heroes. Arguably many Scientific-Romance authors – who tend to be regarded by modern critics (especially in the USA) as mainstream – were in fact conscious of writing in an sf tradition, but one rather different from that developing in the US magazines: it was UK-based, and it was nurtured in hardcover books rather than magazines, but for all practical purposes it was indeed an sf tradition. In the UK it is only since the 1940s that the magazine Genre-SF tradition and the Scientific Romance tradition have really merged, in the work of Arthur C Clarke, John Wyndham and others.

Genre SF was usually published in the first instance in magazine format (at least until the paperback book revolution of the 1950s). The first English-language magazine devoted wholly to sf was Amazing Stories, founded in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback; it was subtitled "The Magazine of Scientifiction" (see Scientifiction). Many SF Magazines followed, although not in large numbers before the 1940s. The usual modern term "science fiction" was hardly used before the early 1930s, and did not pass into general parlance before John W Campbell Jr took over the editorship of Astounding. But genre sf was becoming readily distinguishable as a separate entity. Until the 1960s the perception of middle-class readers was that sf by authors like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and George R Stewart was "respectable" (they would probably not have described it as sf) while genre sf was not. Perhaps to rectify this sort of prejudice, most of the earlier books about sf heavily emphasized genre sf, and in so doing distorted the history of sf as a whole. A high proportion (although less than half) of the authors represented in this volume are not genre-sf writers, and those who published before, say, 1955, might not even have understood the "sf" label had it been applied to their work, which it almost invariably was not (and in many cases is not today). The standard histories usually give a passing nod to Huxley and Orwell, but the sheer scale of sf publication outside the magazine tradition is still not generally realized – works by writers as diverse as John Collier and L P Hartley, William Golding, C S Lewis, Oscar Lewis, Sinclair Lewis and Wyndham Lewis, Vladimir Nabokov and Rex Warner and Herman Wouk; it is a list which expands hugely over the first decades of the twenty-first century.

In the 1930s, indeed, magazine sf was at rather a low ebb, though at this time the new subgenre of Space Opera was being developed almost entirely within the magazines. The extraordinary growth in sf publishing since World War Two has caused us to forget its relative unimportance up to the end of the 1930s. Out of many hundreds of specialized pulp magazines, only a few were devoted to sf; it is unlikely that, in those days, sf had more than 2-3 per cent of the pulp market. Many magazine-sf writers turned their hand to any of half a dozen pulp genres. It was not until a generation of sf specialists began publishing in the magazines at the end of the decade that the so-called Golden Age of (magazine) sf began. There were specialist forerunners of course, notable among them being John W Campbell Jr (often writing as Don A Stuart), Edmond Hamilton, E E "Doc" Smith, John Taine, Stanley G Weinbaum and Jack Williamson; but little of it is as enjoyable to read now as once it was. Magazine sf of the 1930s is important mainly for what it led to, especially when Campbell took over the editorship of Astounding in October 1937 (for the detailed story see Astounding Science-Fiction and Golden Age of SF), and magazine sf began to become mature; during 1938-1946 many of its most celebrated writers – Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, James Blish, Arthur C Clarke, Robert A Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, A E van Vogt and many others – made their debuts.

The sf that was published in the magazines during the Golden Age was to be the basis of the sf book-publishing boom which – in both hardcovers and paperback, first by specialist Small Presses and then by mass-market publishers – was a phenomenon of the 1950s and has continued unabated ever since. At first the majority of these sf books reprinted their material directly from the magazines. The gradual shift of emphasis from magazine to book publication (until the late 1960s, unlike the case in any other branch of literature, prior publication in a magazine was still the rule rather than the exception) won genre sf a much larger readership than ever before; by the 1970s sf constituted around 10 per cent of all English-language fiction published, and with the growing readership came a greater public acceptance of sf as "respectable". Sf book publishing is discussed under the rubrics Publishing and Anthologies.

The increase in maturity of genre sf during the 1940s was only relative. Most sf publishers from 1926 seem to have assumed that their main readership was made up of teenage boys, as is obvious in both editorial and advertising material right through the era of the sf Pulp magazines at least to 1950 – and after. The publisher Donald A Wollheim is on record as believing this, and we can see confirmation in the remarkable but adventure-story-oriented sf lists he edited from the 1950s, first at Ace Books and later at DAW Books. A similar targeting of the young readership has been adopted successfully by Del Rey Books. On the other hand, Jim Baen, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction in the mid-1970s, believes surveys support him in showing that the readership reaches its median age in the mid-20s. No market surveys yet carried out have been extensive or reliable enough to prove the point one way or the other, though it has long been obvious that there is actually more than one sf market. Whatever the truth of the matter, the belief that the readership was young and primarily male was sufficient to discourage genre sf from including complex or experimental writing; the vocabulary of the pulp magazines, while vigorous, was mostly undemanding. Before the cultural shifts of the 1960s, which affected all fiction publishing, genre sf normally observed Taboos about Sex, bad language and Religion. Even in the 1970s these taboos were ingrained deeply enough to cause some able writers to abandon sf altogether, or to talk publishers into printing their books without the ghettoizing "sf" label on the cover.

The domination of Campbellian sf within the genre began to falter with the inauguration of two important new magazines, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1949 and Galaxy Science Fiction in 1950. The former emphasized literacy and style to an extent unprecedented in sf-magazine publishing, and the latter specialized in witty Satire, often sociological rather than technological, written by such important writers as Alfred Bester, C M Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl, Robert Sheckley, William Tenn and, occasionally, Philip K Dick. During the 1950s and 1960s, the emphasis of genre sf shifted from the hard sciences (engineering, astronomy, physics, etc.) to the Soft Sciences (sociology, psychology, etc.). Stories of Psi Powers and ESP had been popular ever since the first appearance of A E van Vogt's Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946; rev 1951), but they absolutely boomed in the 1950s; the market eventually became saturated (as it did at about the same time with flying-saucer stories; see UFOs), and the psi story subsided to a lower though constant level in the 1960s. The 1950s were also notable for the first real sf boom in the movies (see Cinema; Monster Movies), though the films were rather different from most written sf of the period. The most obvious change in 1950s sf is surprisingly seldom discussed: the shift in protagonists from highly trained, self-reliant and in control of events to baffled, ordinary and subject to manipulation by the powerful in society.

As worries about Politics, Ecology and Overpopulation grew in the 1960s, an already perceptible shift away from simple optimism began to accelerate (see Optimism and Pessimism). This move is much connected in readers' minds with the advent of the New Wave, though this was never an easily definable movement – indeed, it was not an organized movement at all – and its outward signs lay as much in a greater willingness to adopt more complex narrative strategies as in any generally downbeat attitude. But pessimism in sf certainly did increase in the late 1960s, reflecting massive cultural changes taking place in Europe and the USA, as did left-wing political attitudes; most previous genre sf had either been dead to Politics or had adopted a stance interpreted by many as right-wing (see Libertarianism; Social Darwinism). The late 1960s were also notable for seizing on the idea of Entropy as a useful all-purpose metaphor.

Isaac Asimov, looking back from 1981, described magazine sf of 1926-1938 as "adventure dominant", that of 1939-1950 as "technology dominant", and that of 1950 on as "sociology dominant". James E Gunn preferred to describe the Campbell years as "science-dominant", and added a fourth category, "style dominant", for the period beginning in the mid-1960s. John Clute's shorthand account, given in 1992, is rather different: "In 1942 ... the inner tale of sf was a tale of empire ... in 1952, it was hubris ... in 1962, solipsism ... in 1972, retribution ... in 1982, memory ... in 1992, the inner tale of sf is a tale of exogamy." (see Exogamy) This, though an initially cryptic-seeming formulation, is one for which most readers would find it surprisingly simple to provide supporting examples.

By the 1960s sf was being read so much more widely than before that its ideas, and its iconography generally, had begun dramatically to feed back into mainstream fiction – previously the intellectual traffic had been mostly the other way. While some writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut Jr, J G Ballard and Michael Moorcock, succeeded (to varying degrees) in shrugging off the sf taint, other writers were embracing sf, so that, although it might be controversial to claim some of the works of Angela Carter, Romain Gary, Russell Hoban, Thomas Pynchon and Angus Wilson (and many others) as pure sf, there is little question that their thrillers, romances or fabulations drew on sf among their more obvious sources.

Since 1960 there has been a complex cross-fertilization of genres. While, at the intellectual end of the spectrum, Fabulations have been making more and more use of sf images and themes, at the popular end fantasy, horror and Disaster novels have borrowed heavily from sf, as has the bestseller (itself now a definable genre). As an example of the latter, The Crash of '79 (1976) by Paul E Erdman is pure sf extrapolation, though it uses the conventional narrative strategies of the bestseller in its tale of Near-Future disaster in Politics and Economics. Barbara Hambly and David A Gemmell are only two of the writers who import sf elements into their fantasies. At the beginning of the 1990s, generic labelling is less insistent than it was a decade earlier, and bookshops regularly place sf on the same shelves as fantasy and horror (as, indeed, they have for a long time); in some cases the books are by the same authors.

With hindsight, it might seem that sf as a separate, definable genre was a phenomenon of, say, 1926-1965. By the 1990s hard sf, arguably the heart of the genre in an earlier era, had shrunk to a comparatively small section of the overall sf market. A significant cultural change took place in 1992 when Science Fiction Writers of America officially agreed to admit fantasy and horror writers to their ranks (in practice, many had been there for years), the organization changing its name to Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Many of the stories in Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies are so far removed from their generic roots that they would not appear out of place in, say, The New Yorker. At the same time, a Postmodernist (see Postmodernism and SF) nostalgia for sf of an earlier, simpler period became apparent from the number of pastiche works published by sf writers in the 1980s and 1990s that referred selfconsciously and often to the genre's own history. (Three early examples are Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time sequence, Brian W Aldiss's Frankenstein Unbound [1973] and Christopher Priest's The Space Machine [1976].) The ages of development and consolidation have passed, it sometimes seems, to be replaced by an age of rococo decoration.

While these developments have been more obvious since the late 1980s, they are no more than a culmination of a genre-mixing process that has been continuing since the New Wave of the 1960s. An important strand in this has been the commercial success of sf, largely catalysed by films, notably 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). The result of this success was a much greater awareness in the 1980s of sf as a commercial "product" to be packaged like any other, and aimed at the juvenile end of the market. The 1980s rapidly became a bibliographer's nightmare, with the proliferation of various Braids and Ties, many of them Sharecrops: television and film novelizations and spin-offs, Series, Shared Worlds, Game-Worlds and so on. Most of these categories had existed earlier, but never on the massive scale of the 1980s and the present. Though patient readers could find good work within them, the commercial imperatives generating them led all too obviously to an absolute deluge of hack work, far greater than had been visible in sf book publishing previously. Many sf authors have argued that this mass of "product" is drowning out the individuality of what publishers call the midlist: that portion of their booklist that sells reliably if not in huge numbers, and without much in the way of promotion – the portion to which books by most of the better sf authors belong. Fortunately, apocalyptic premonitions of sf's imminent death by drowning seem (as usual) premature; if anything, greater numbers of exciting sf writers emerged in the 1980s than in the 1970s. Sf, by marrying outside the genre (one of the meanings of Exogamy in Clute's terms), is more likely to disappear by a generalized cultural absorption than through neglect. At the beginning of the 1980s Locus was listing about 180 new English-language genre-sf novels each year; by the end of the decade the figure was about 280 (the Locus figures are likely to be on the low side). This is not necessarily a proof of the genre's health, but it certainly does not look like a symptom of terminal illness.

By the end of the 1980s the sf-film boom was wavering and, as ever, sf on television was still not having the good fortune that eager producers – intending to ride on the film boom of the early 1980s – kept (and still keep) hoping for, generally destroying all hope of real success by playing it safe and producing programmes of staggering banality. The few surviving professional sf magazines had dwindling circulations, even Asimov's Science Fiction (founded 1977 as Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine), which could be regarded as the only new US sf magazine to approach the high quality of what had been the big three: Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy. In another part of the sf landscape the news was more cheerful: as desktop publishing, using comparatively cheap home computers, became possible, there was in the mid-1980s a proliferation of Semiprozines, some containing fiction, some containing criticism, and some both. These magazines, even though usually of quite small circulation, soon proved something of a nursery and a debating ground for many young writers; this compensated, to a degree, for the shrinking of the professional-magazine market.

The most exciting sf event of the 1980s was the advent of Cyberpunk (with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling cast as its prophets); despite the obvious hyperbole with which it was greeted by the media publicity machines, cyberpunk certainly represented a real invigoration of the genre – and came closer than anything else in the period to revitalizing hard sf as well. [PN]

further reading

A very much fuller account of sf's history can be gained by following up the various cross-references in the above entry. Many Anthologies of sf from specific periods are available, and book reprint series have brought older works back into the light. Numerous books on the history of sf are discussed under Critical and Historical Works About SF.

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