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Proto SF

Entry updated 10 July 2023. Tagged: Theme.

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Meaningful use of the term "proto science fiction" obviously depends on one's Definition of the term "science fiction"; indeed, the quest for sf's literary ancestry and "origins" is as much a dimension of the problem of definition as a backward extrapolation of the History of SF. If by sf we mean labelled or Genre SF, everything published before 1926 would become proto sf; but Hugo Gernsback clearly believed that he was merely attaching a name to a genre which already existed – he considered H G Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe to be "scientifiction" writers, and reviewers of the 1890s seeking to characterize the kind of work which Wells was doing had already identified a genre of Scientific Romance, which included Verne, his UK imitators, and such writers as George Griffith. Brian W Aldiss argues in Billion Year Spree (1973; exp vt Trillion Year Spree 1986 with David Wingrove) that one can trace a coherent literary tradition of sf to its point of origin in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831) (see Gothic SF). Darko Suvin's study of Victorian Science Fiction in the UK (1983), on the other hand, states that "if ever there was in the history of a literary genre one day when it can be said to have begun, it is May Day 1871 for UK sf", that being the day on which Lord Lytton's The Coming Race and the magazine version of George Chesney's The Battle of Dorking (May 1871 Blackwood's Magazine; 1871 chap) appeared, and on which Samuel Butler handed in the manuscript of Erewhon (1872). Other writers, including Peter Nicholls, have argued that sf is merely a continuation, without any true hiatus, of a much more ancient tradition of imaginative fiction whose origins are lost in the mythical mists and folkloric fogs of oral tradition. If this were accepted there would be no proto sf at all, and sf's history would begin with, say, Homer's Odyssey and continue with such works as Cicero's Somnium Scipionis ["The Dream of Scipio"] (51 BCE) and Lucian's True History.

It seems reasonable to argue that we cannot sensibly define something called "science fiction" until we can characterize both "science" and "fiction" with meanings close to those held by the words today. Raymond Williams's study of shifts in the meaning of certain important words, Keywords (1976), reveals that "science" came into English in the fourteenth century, but with a meaning virtually interchangeable with "art". A more modern definition did not appear until 1725, and the notion of science as the theoretical and methodical study of nature was not generally established until the early nineteenth century. The same source states that "fiction" first acquired the literary sense in which we use it today in the late eighteenth century. Before that time the distinction (which we nowadays find very easy to make) between "fiction" and "nonfiction" was not recognized as a basic category distinction. The main forms of prose discourse – the dialogue, the history, the meditation and the imaginary voyage – were all more or less amenable to the incorporation of nonfictional commentary in concert with descriptions of events both "true" and "imaginary". It was largely due to the rise of the novel – which made a formal attempt to counterfeit real experience – that it became appropriate to draw a basic distinction between the types of discourse used for nonfictional commentary and the types used for "fiction". The standardized nonfictional forms of today – the essay, the treatise and the scientific paper – were still in the early stages of their evolution in the late eighteenth century.

Logically, therefore, it seems inappropriate to describe as "science fiction" anything published in the early eighteenth century or before, though it would be manifestly procrustean to insist that texts before 1800 only rarely could seem to offer models for later centuries; it would in that light be unduly easy to think of (say) Nostradamus's The Prophecies (1555; exp 1568; best trans Richard Sieburth 2012) as irrelevant to the understanding of apocalyptic Fantastika in the nineteenth century and later. However, so intimately connected is our sense of the word "fiction" with the growth of the novel that it would seem most sensible to begin our reckoning of what might be labelled "science fiction" with the first speculative work which is both a novel and manifests a clear awareness of what is and is not "science" in the modern sense of the word. Willem Bilderdijk's A Short Account of a Remarkable Aerial Voyage and Discovery of a New Planet (1813; trans 1987) and Frankenstein both fit this definition well enough, although sceptics might argue that the supposed tradition which extends from them is very tenuous, and that no obvious precursor of Vernian and Wellsian scientific romance appeared before Chrysostom Trueman's History of a Voyage to the Moon (1864).

There are, of course, pre-nineteenth-century works which, with the aid of hindsight, we can now unequivocally locate within the literature of the scientific imagination, notably Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (bound in with Sylva Sylvarum 1626; 1627 chap), Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1634) and Gabriel Daniel's Voyage to the World of Cartesius (1692). These would have been considered by their authors to be works of philosophy, although they are cast in a form (the imaginary voyage) which we now consider to be a species of fiction. Some Satires also referred to contemporary scientific endeavours, most notably the third book of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735), which also co-opts some of the techniques of formal realism associated with early novels; but such works usually extrapolate scientific ideas only to deride their follies. The quasisatirical contes philosophiques of Voltaire include Micromegas (in Le Micromégas de Mr. de Voltaire ..., coll 1752; trans anon 1753), which might also be considered an apt point of origin for sf if one were to embrace the common theory that it is the short story rather than the novel which is sf's natural form. On balance, however, it seems more sensible to consider all these as significant works of proto sf. The question as to which other works may be identified likewise, and the extent to which they might be considered important in defining the literary influences and patterns of literary expectation which have contributed to the shaping of sf, is a difficult one – and possible a sterile one, since we could argue that literary influences have contributed little to the effective shaping of Genre SF. Other influences – historical and social – have certainly been important, and very probably more important, but the influence on sf of earlier traditions in fantastic literature should not be minimized: much sf, even the roughest-hewn Pulp-magazine sf, has been written with much earlier literary models in mind.

The species of proto sf which has exerted most influence on sf and on attitudes towards it is undoubtedly the imaginary voyage (see Fantastic Voyages). Those generally identified as being the closest kin to modern sf are the lunar voyages whose history is chronicled in Marjorie Hope Nicolson's excellent study Voyages to the Moon (1948). Many attempts have been made to incorporate the history of sf into this tradition, including Patrick Moore's Science and Fiction (1957), Roger Lancelyn Green's Into Other Worlds (1957) and Russell Freedman's 2000 Years of Space Travel (1963). This view makes Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moone (1638), Cyrano de Bergerac's Other Worlds (1657-1662) and other interplanetary satires the key works of proto sf, although the methods of travel employed are calculatedly absurd. The cynical incredulity of many such stories, however, commends them to the sceptical scientific worldview, and we must remember that scientific fidelity in speculation is only one of the characteristic demands made of modern sf (see Definitions). Sheer invention – the bolder the better – has always played an important part in sf, and to a large extent the effectiveness of sf derives from the pretence to scientific fidelity which asks that wild flights of the imagination be considered as if they were serious hypotheses. On this basis we can find a close kinship between sf and the traveller's tale, which attempts to make interesting fantasies palatable by reference to exotic distant lands; Lucian's True History is important as a sceptical reminder of the tendency of such tales to exaggerate wildly. Understandable difficulties arise with those travellers' tales whose apparatus is concerned with the religious imagination rather than with secular fabulation: Emanuel Swedenborg's cosmic visions – which include some interesting descriptions of Life on Other Worlds – are not frequently cited as examples of proto sf, although Larry Niven and others have argued that the cosmological speculations in Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy entitle it to be considered a highly significant work in the proto-genre. It should perhaps be remembered that the distinction between scientific thought and religious thought, like the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, has not always been nearly as clearcut as it seems today; moreover, the classics of the religious imagination were frequently echoed in sf, not always with the intention of subverting their messages. Although such works as Milton's Paradise Lost (1667; rev 1674) and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678; exp 1684) can hardly be said to take much account of scientific knowledge, they have established literary archetypes of considerable importance, and analogies may be drawn between the kinds of fantastic environment which they establish and those used in many sf stories.

It is worth noting that the literary tradition of Utopias – which are also usually cast as imaginary voyages – is not as intimately connected with sf as it might seem. Utopian speculation is echoed in contemporary sf primarily because sf writers have adopted a stereotyped "utopian scenario" as one of the standard environments for futuristic adventure; there is less actual utopian philosophy in modern sf than one might expect. Contrastingly, there is far more transplanted Mythology than any widely accepted definition could lead us to expect. If any one imaginary voyage has had a far more than appropriate share of influence on the genre it is Homer's Odyssey, of which there are at least five straightforward sf transmogrifications. Of course, the Odyssey is not only an imaginary voyage: it also incorporates two literary forms which more or less died out in the later historical periods under consideration here: the hero-myth and what was then its corollary, the Monster story. Both forms have been revived within sf, and there are clear structural and ideative links between many sf stories and legendary constructions of these kinds. There are sf stories explicitly based on the story of the Argonauts, the labours of Hercules and such early literary exercises as Beowulf, although sf's Heroes are characteristically conceived in a rather different way from those of the ancient hero myths.

There still remain for consideration the other prose-forms current in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whose status as "fiction" or "nonfiction" is not so easy to establish with hindsight: the dialogue, the meditation and the history. The dramatic dialogue was quite popular as a medium for imaginative literature in nineteenth-century France, its most flamboyant product being Edgar Quinet's Ahasvérus (1833); Poe's "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" (December 1839 Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine) is a notable work of early sf cast in this form. Dialogue is now subsumed within ordinary narrative form, but there are numerous notable sf stories which are basically contes philosophiques cast as dialogues; genre sf, despite the priority which the pulps put on action-adventure, has been reasonably hospitable to such exercises. Even though we now classify them as nonfiction, we should be prepared to concede an important role in the history of proto sf to the basic strategy employed in Plato's dialogues and later works in the same vein by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and David Hume (1711-1776). Socratic debate and interrogation are extensively used in sf, not merely as a means of exposition but also as a way of developing ideas and exploring their implications; any genre which attempts to develop speculations logically and rigorously must, obviously, depend to a considerable degree on the Socratic method of examining ideas.

The meditation seems much less important to the form and development of sf, but the history is a different matter. The construction of a history, which necessitates connecting events into a coherent narrative, requires both a creative and an orderly imagination (thus combining the essential requirements of the imaginary voyage and the dialogue). Imaginary histories must be considered alongside imaginary voyages as works which belong to the literary tradition of which modern sf is one product. Many of the early works which attempted to get to grips with the future, described in the early pages of I F Clarke's The Tale of the Future (3rd edition 1978), are cast as histories. Mention must also be made in this context of the pioneering exercises in Alternate History described in the essay "Of a History of Events which Have not Happened" (circa 1800) by Isaac d'Israeli (1766-1848).

Imaginary voyages and imaginary histories may be formulated in Poetry as well as in prose – several of the works referred to above are verse epics rather than prose discourses – and a case might obviously be made for including many poems and plays in the literature of the scientific imagination; but the most important links we can draw between classical literature and sf pertain to the settings in which the stories take place and the apparatus deployed there. With the exception of epic poetry, neither poetry nor drama is strong in this sense. This is not to say that sf cannot be adapted to poetry or to the Theatre (there are some classic sf plays), but the importance of poetry and drama to any sf tradition is restricted, and it is difficult to argue convincingly that Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (1820) and Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) are significant works of proto sf – though the latter's case is stronger, in view of its influence on Forbidden Planet (1956).

The attempt to identify a coherent tradition of proto sf is vain, in more than one sense of that word. Without a doubt, individual works of classical literature can be shown to be ancestral in certain respects to occasional themes of sf, but we devalue the word "tradition" if we use it to describe a series of isolated juxtapositions. To say that an assembly of illustrious literary works constitutes such a tradition is a form of self-congratulation on the part of the sf writer/reader/critic akin to that of a prostitute who claims to be operating in the tradition of Cleopatra and Madame de Pompadour, even though in an obvious respect she is correct. Sf is a form of literature and can lay claim to all of literary history as its background if its adherents so wish, but this does not mean that we can turn the historical sequence on its head and claim that sf is the logical culmination of the "great tradition of proto sf", or the sole beneficiary of its heritage. Nevertheless, going back into literary history with the intention (however eccentric it may be) of classifying literary works according to their various similarities with modern sf is not a complete waste of time. It may serve as a reminder that sf, like prostitutes, is not a mere accident of circumstance, and that it is not – either in the literal or in the commonplace sense of the word – inconsequential. [BS]

see also: Anna Laetitia Barbauld; Anders Celsius; Lord Byron; Thomas Lyttelton.

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