The Popularity of Science Fiction in Literature
The popularity of science fiction in literature has grown over the years. Books like The War of the Worlds, Brave New World, and 1984 have gained a literary reputation, as well as the Hugo and Nebula awards.
However, not all critics think that sci-fi is literary. This could be due to a belief that science fiction is merely a series of odd metaphors for the human condition.
The exact origins of science fiction remain contested, with scholars and devotees holding a wide variety of theories. Some argue that science fiction has roots in ancient fantastical works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, while others trace its development to the 17th and 18th centuries, following the scientific revolution and major discoveries in astronomy, physics, and mathematics.
The first major science fiction work was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), a novel of the creation of man and its disastrous aftermath. Soon after, H.G. Wells published a story of air flight in 1895, nearly a century before the Wright brothers took off into the sky.
Wells’s novel is notable for its use of scientific imagining to explore the future of society. This genre-defining technique, also known as social extrapolation, is the basis for most science fiction writing to this day. It is the lynchpin of verisimilitude and, in many cases, opens up new trains and channels of thought in the reader.
While many science fiction stories do focus on inventive technologies and futurism, the genre can also explore a variety of other themes. A common one concerns the potential for a dystopian society, often based on some type of government control or technology that takes over human life. These dystopian societies can be benign, like the computer-controlled world in Star Trek or Brave New World, or a more sinister example like the one depicted in The Stand.
Likewise, sci-fi stories involving aliens and other creatures from outer space can explore our fear of the unknown and our desire to understand other cultures. Additionally, a large number of science fiction works examine the limits of the human mind. Some of these stories portray characters with abilities like telepathy, which can be used for good or bad. Themes like this have a long history in literature, spanning back to Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Frankenstein and earlier. Other popular science-fiction themes include time travel, first encounters with alien species and alternative universes.
As a literary genre, science fiction lays its cards on the table when it comes to social commentary. Its premise is that human beings are able to project what they see around them into the future and extrapolate into multiple scenarios.
This enables sci-fi writers to present their work as prophetic warnings, utopian aspirations or extravagant scenarios for entirely imaginary worlds. It also allows them to display every conceivable attitude toward the process of techno-social change from cynical despair to cosmic bliss.
Other techniques commonly employed by sci-fi writers include describing alien creatures and planets, incorporating futuristic technology, depicting space or time travel and imagining life on other planets. They often rely on a set of rules to establish the setting and to make it plausible for their characters to operate within it. These rules may vary, but many of them are grounded in real scientific principles and advancements. These include the laws of physics and biology.
Whether science fiction’s authors are intentionally prescient or are simply channeling the whispers of innovation that surround us in our daily lives, many of their ideas become reality. Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward extrapolates a future society, for example, while Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land envisions an interstellar civilization.
Other works that have influenced science fiction include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which depicts a mad scientist’s attempt to create life; Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which describes underwater exploration; and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which features a voyage to the center of Earth.
Modernist literature developed techniques that are now a hallmark of science fiction, including alienation (settings and behaviors commonly seen as normal appear strange to the characters in the story). In addition, modern science fiction often tackles controversial social and political issues such as overpopulation, apocalypse, and environmental degradation.