Welcome to Origin Stories, a new special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the origins of popular Sci-Fi concepts.  For this inaugural episode of Origin Stories, we’re going to get kind of meta and look at the origins of:

SCIENCE FICTION

Many people will tell you that Mary Shelley was the first science fiction writer.  When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she took much of her inspiration from the recent discovery of galvanism: the discovery that electricity can stimulate muscles contractions, even in dead animals.

When people label Shelley as the first science fiction writer, a lot depends on what you mean by science fiction.  If science fiction means fiction inspired by contemporary science, fiction that extrapolates from contemporary science to build its plot, then yes: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published in 1818) is the earliest clear example of that.

But does that mean Shelley invented the whole science fiction genre?  I’m not so sure.  I don’t feel like Frankenstein is truly a genre-defining work.  I mean, I wouldn’t look at Dune or Star Trek and say, “Oh yes, this is just like Frankenstein!”

In 1926, Hugo Gernsback launched a new magazine called Amazing Stories.  In this editorial from the first issue of Amazing Stories, Gernsback explains that he wanted his new magazine to focus on “the scientific type of story” or “scientifiction,” as Gernsback wanted us to call it (not sure if that’s pronounced scienti-fiction or scientific-tion).

Gernsback defined scientifiction as “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision,” and he cited Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe as the great luminaries of the genre. To quote from this paper published in Science-Fiction Studies:

While the importance of Hugo Gernsback in SF may be debated, critics of all schools can accept him as the first person to create and announce something resembling a history of SF.  Some critics before Gernsback discussed earlier works now seen as SF, but they did not treat SF as a separate category and did not distinguish its texts from other forms of non-mimetic fiction […]

If someone were to ask who invented science fiction, I don’t think I could give credit to just one person.  Mary Shelley wrote what we now recognize as the first science fiction novel; Hugo Gernsback was the first to identify science fiction as its own distinct genre.  Any origin story for science fiction would be incomplete without mentioning those two names, at least!

But there were many other writers writing science-inspired tales between 1818 and 1926.  Science fiction was not invented all at once; it grew and evolved slowly through the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Which is a good thing for me!  It means we’ll have plenty more to talk about in future episodes of Origin Stories!

P.S.: Special thanks to @MaxN2100 over on Twitter for suggesting I do a series like Sciency Words, but with Sci-Fi concepts. Now you know the origin story of this Origin Stories series!

18 responses »

  1. Kate Rauner says:

    Later in the grand history of scifi but worth a mention too: the 1950s, Golden Age of pulp. One of those mimeographed ‘zines was saved by Bob Riddle – read about the zine and its publisher here (and scroll to the bottom for links to some rescued editions) http://currentsky.com/peon/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The beginnings of science fiction blend into fantasy and mythology. But it feels like the genre as a publishing category begins in the 1920s and 30s pulps. It’s worth noting that Weird Tales was publishing science fiction (mixed in with a lot of fantasy) before Gernsback’s editorial.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      I hadn’t heard about Weird Tales before, but I knew the “Gernsback was the first” narrative was not universally accepted. The history of science fiction is a very murky subject.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Definitely. One of the things I find interesting about early pulp science fiction, is how slapdash the science is in them, not to mention how awful most of the writing is. Some of that is seeing things from 90 years distance, but some of it shows the later effect that John W. Campbell would have on the literary part of the genre. (Campbell right now is condemned for his racist and pseudoscientific views, and rightly so, but he also raised the quality of stories in the genre substantially.)

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  3. I completely forgot that Frankenstein was so old, relative to even Verne’s novels by a half century.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sci-fi has been around a while! I guess we could say science fiction was an exercise of human imagination and creativity, framed by whatever society each writer is working in. What intrigues me is the way it’s been mainstreamed of late – thanks, I suspect, largely to Star Trek and Star Wars being so popular.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      You’re probably right about that. I’ve noticed a lot of academic studies of science fiction tend to overlook Star Trek and Star Wars. But those two franchises really have done a lot to shape the genre. I think that’s undeniable.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. alanj2 says:

    I’ve just caught up with this through your guest post on Fiction Can Be Fun (which btw was excellent) In the 1960’s my English teacher when critiquing the genre called it scienti-fiction; he also advised us to read C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ – so of course I didn’t! At least at the time – I might slip it into my TBR Everest at some point. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed the Fiction Can Be Fun post. I’m surprised scientifiction was still in use in the 1960’s, or was your teacher merely talking about Gernsback’s use of the term?

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      • alanj2 says:

        No, he was railing against our reading ‘pulp’ as against ‘good’ science and fiction. I recall that C. S. Lewis’s ‘men with chests’ was another frequent quotation and I think (but at this distance of time I can’t really remember) that he was commending Lewis’s Narnia output – or maybe ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ series.

        Too long ago to be sure 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • J.S. Pailly says:

        I still have to read Out of the Silent Planet. A lot of people tell me I’d like it.

        Personally, I think there’s a perfectly valid place for pulp fiction. As Stan Lee once said, there’s nothing wrong with mindless entertainment. If you can entertain someone, if you can help someone forget about their real life problems just for a little while, then you’ve done that person a valuable service.

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  6. alanj2 says:

    “Personally, I think there’s a perfectly valid place for pulp fiction”.

    I quite agree, and I am delighted that so much of the early output is now available online and FREE! I have accumulated some very interesting stories on my tablet.

    But, you have to remember that this was England in the 1950’s and 60’s and there was a lot of meretricious material coming across the Atlantic alongside the good stuff with competent authors, most of whom were unknown to the British audience. Some of it was pretty hard-core, and you couldn’t always rely on the publisher’s name. It wasn’t until people like Bradbury, Vonnegut, Asimov started getting published in the UK alongside the British authors like Wyndham that the ‘class’ pulps were recognised as being ‘respectable’

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