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The Birth of Science Fiction

This article is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of the 676-page opus on the history of science fiction, The World Beyond the Hill (Amazon US and UK), reproduced with kind permission of the authors Alexei and Cory Panshin and publisher Phoenix Pick.


For the first two hundred years of the modern era — from the accession to the leadership of Western society by the philosophy of rational materialism in the late Seventeenth Century to the appearance of techno-warfare in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 — there was no such thing as science fiction literature. Through all this time, writers had no conscious awareness of working in a connected and cumulative SF tradition. Such a thing as science fiction was unthinkable, unimaginable. It didn’t exist.

How very different the situation is today! In the late Twentieth Century, nobody at all would think to doubt that there is such a thing as science fiction. Paperback racks are filled with books labeled “SF.” There is a great visible science fiction industry: writers, editors, critics, magazines, books, films, fans, clubs, conventions, awards, and much much more.

The difference between the situation prior to 1870, when SF could not be said to exist, and the situation we are heir to today, is the general acceptance by the Western world of the plausibility of scientific mystery. This acceptance, this new faith, began to take hold right around 1870.

As we have suggested, in order for myth to be an effective indicator of yet-unrealized possibility, there must be some basis for a belief in transcendence. We must think that there could be mysterious higher states of being and awareness, and we must be able to believe that we might plausibly attain those higher states.

In ancient myth, spirit provided such a groundwork for belief in plausible mystery. After 1870, science became sufficiently developed as a concept and a practice to serve as a new foundation for belief.

But this was not so prior to 1870, which is why we can say that during the first two hundred years of modern Western society, SF literature did not exist. It is only retrospective wisdom that allows us to peer into the past and single out a literary possibility here, a dynamic metaphor there, a subtle argument or an imaginary exploration, and identify these highly separated moments of special creativity as a connected series of advances necessary for the coming into being of SF literature.

It is our awareness of the nature of later science fiction — and our appreciation of the invisible working of the transcendent spirit of SF — that allows us to perceive what these varying bits and pieces had in common: All were attempts at the presentation of plausible scientific mystery.

But SF literature still did not exist as late as the advent of Verne in the 1860s. He was not working in an active tradition, a contemporary literary form. Rather, he was recognized as a marvel, a writer with his own unique product. It was as though Verne were a last solitary Romantic wizard with a formula all his own — like Captain Nemo, that master of his own special brand of electricity.

After 1870, however, in the very moment of Jules Verne’s imaginative retreat, modern Western civilization entered a new phase, the Age of Technology. And immediately, science fiction was born.

The new era was the result of a change in the attitude of society toward science. The consequence of the change was that after 1870 it was possible to set out consciously to write science fiction. No longer was SF a feat that a rare Romantic wildman, lit by inspiration while in some unique state of acute mental receptivity, might aim at once in a lifetime. Science fiction became a form that almost anyone could write, and after 1870 there would always be a number of writers at work producing SF.

The shift in attitude that made the Age of Technology and SF literature possible might be called the final fruit of the Romantic Period. The change was, in effect, the solution to the major problems that the whole Romantic Period had been attempting to solve.

One of these problems was the lack of plausible mystery in the world. Without transcendence, the Romantics felt like orphan children. They mooned after the old spiritual mystery that the Age of Reason had rejected. And they hunted vainly for new mystery everywhere in the hopes of finding it somewhere — and didn’t necessarily recognize it when they had it.

Another problem was the science and applied science that the Romantic Period had inherited from the Age of Reason. This rational activity was beginning to alter life, and the Romantics didn’t know how they felt about that. The Romantic Period looked upon monster science with the same ambivalence and apprehension that Victor Frankenstein felt for his creature.

It was the change in the practice of science during the Nineteenth Century that we have described that finally made it possible for the Romantics to see that one of their problems was the answer to the other. Through the course of two phases in Western society — the Age of Reason and the Romantic Period — the “practice of science” had meant the careful observation of the material world, the gathering and classification of fact. But in the later years of the Romantic Period, this familiar definition was strained beyond its limits.

First to appear were radical new mathematical systems like non-Euclidean geometry and symbolic logic. These systems were self-consistent but, by ordinary standards, irrational. They seemed to apply to something more or something other than the ordinary earthly realm.

These new forms of systematic thinking were followed in the 1860s by strange new scientific theories, all of which pointed beyond the known into the unknown.

There was Darwin’s theory of evolution. This suggested — from current scientific evidence — that both man and nature had once been something different than they now were. And further, that they might alter again in the future.

There was Pasteur’s germ theory of disease. This pointed beyond the new infinitesimal lifeforms that science had discovered to claim that similar living motes that were unknown might have crucial influence on our health and well-being.

There were Maxwell’s equations. These took the apparently separate electrical and magnetic phenomena of longtime scientific study and established them at last as part of a single continuous spectrum which even included visible light. And further predicted the existence of forms of energy then unknown.

There was Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements. Once again a generalization unified an ill-understood chaos of information, and then went beyond the known to suggest the unknown, in this case the existence of hitherto undiscovered forms of matter.

Wow! New powerful forms of life. New energy, new matter, new levels of being. Most important of all, a mutable mankind risen from lower forms and with a destiny that was unknown, instead of the old familiar conception of a fixed mankind specially created and loved by God.

Shifts in attitude had to take place. From being in the background of awareness, one element of society among many, scientific study and its technological application were now recognized as the most superior and advanced aspect of Western society. The leading edge, like it or not.

And science itself was no longer understood to be the practice of looking at familiar material things and taking their measurements. Rather, it was redefined. “Science” was now taken to be the sum total of that which is known and that which might be known. Tripod from The War of the WorldsAnything that man might someday measure or bring under the rule of a scientific generalization, any knowledge that man might master, any possibility he might attain — that was the sphere claimed as its own by “science.”

This new science was no longer just the occasional discoverer of minor unknowns. The new science was mysterious by definition. It was the wisdom of a universe that was more unknown than known.

Oh my! A universe that was more unknown than known. That was a radical new concept indeed. It was this new valuation of science and understanding of its nature that brought the Age of Technology into being and made a literature of scientific transcendence possible. Science fiction in full flower was the post-1870 myth of the limitless unknown powers of science.

As we shall see, this new literature changed and developed all through the Age of Technology, which lasted from 1870 until the onset of World War II — and then transcended itself in the succeeding Atomic Age.

At the beginning of the Age of Technology, SF didn’t even have a name. And even very late in the day, in Hugo Gernsback’s time, it would pass under a multitude of different names. But from 1870 or thereabouts, it is at last possible to say that a literature that we can recognize as science fiction was visible and acknowledged.

After the beginning of the Age of Technology, when an SF novel was published, it would not be looked upon as a unique prodigy. Instead, reviewers might compare it to some earlier story. Writers would consciously answer each other and extend each other’s notions. A literary tradition existed.


To read more, pick up a copy of The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

  1. Origins of scifi
    I think the world’s first scifi is India’s vedic epic, the Ramayana. Indian gods fighting in flying machines with weapons harnessing the power of suns… it’s not just for Erich Von Daniken. 😉

    1. The Dangers of Excerpts
      [quote=JABrown]What about Frankenstein?[/quote]

      Good point. Shelley’s Frankenstein is discussed at length in Chapter 2 of The World Beyond the Hill (the excerpt above is from Chapter 5). The first few chapters of the book discuss precursors and standalone, pivotal moments in the development of sci-fi, including Frankenstein (Poe’s works are also discussed). It points at 1871 as the ‘birth of sci-fi’ because with the popularity of Verne, and the virtually simultaneous release of a number of sci-fi works (including Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race), at that point the literary genre established itself.

      It really is a wonderful book, and though readers may not agree with it all, just the historical insights into the evolution of science fiction are worth the price alone.

      Here’s a short excerpt from the chapter on Frankenstein:

      Frankenstein was the model of SF for the following forty years, until the 1860s and the stories of Jules Verne. It was not quite as singular and inimitable a model work as The Castle of Otranto — but neither was there any clear advance or development of the insights of Frankenstein. With its awakening of life in a creature that almost might be a devil, Frankenstein was the very limit of dareable speculation. The work that followed it was written well within its shadow.

      We should understand that SF at this point had no name and was not a genre. It was not even so much as a story type. It consisted of no more than an argument — the argument for transcendent science-beyond-science. And that argument itself was not taken seriously, so that even Percy Shelley in the original preface to Frankenstein could state on Mary’s behalf, “I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination….”

      Before Mary Shelley, during the Age of Reason of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, there had been no possibility at all of SF literature. This was a time of reaction against the old spirit realm and all its creatures. In a period of “rules, critics, and philosophers” all athirst for rationality, mysterious unknown things were generally not given leave to exist.

  2. Daidalos & ancient Greek robots
    The ancient Greek inventor Daidalos constructed Automatons, mechanical versions of men & animals. The god Hephaistos also made Automatons, although these are a little different to the inventions of Daidalos, being animated metallic statues given life by the god, whereas Daidalos’s automatons were said to have had moving parts (Antikythera Machine, anyone?). It shows that science-fiction, far from being a post-Industrial construct, has its roots in mythical archetypes.

    1. Again…
      [quote=epgrondine]Oops, they missed the birth entirely:

      As I noted in my earlier comment, The World Beyond the Hill discusses Shelley and Poe in chapters before the above excerpt, considering them more progenitors rather than the actual birth of sci-fi (for reasons that form the central thesis of the book). Here’s some short excerpts from the section on Poe (please note the ellipses):

      Of the writers who came after Mary Shelley, it was Poe who wrote most often and most brilliantly of transcendent science-beyond-science. On at least two occasions, Poe made gestures in the direction of the World Beyond the Hill, but then could not follow through. He was not able to pass beyond the limits of the age to actually show us a world of transcendence.

      …As much as any other thing, it is Poe’s tone of exactness and certainty of detail that would affect later SF and give Hugo Gernsback reason to list Poe among the progenitors of scientifiction. In the next generation after Poe, a young Jules Verne would read “Hans Pfaall” and be deeply impressed by it. In Verne’s own From the Earth to the Moon (1865), a character describes Poe as “ ‘a strange, moody genius’ ” and recalls the gas thirty-seven times lighter than hydrogen, and all the members of the Baltimore Gun Club whom Verne has gathered together stand and cry, “ ‘Hurray for Edgar Poe.’ ”

      …Here we are, plausibly transported from our familiar Village Earth into the World Beyond the Hill, arrived in a place where things promise to be endlessly mysterious. But what kind of a world of wonder — or death — is this?

      Is it a transcendent realm? It could be. It should be. But it isn’t. “Hans Pfaall” does not maintain itself as a story. All the plausible reasoning and hinted mystery have not been for the purpose of establishing a realm of transcendence. Instead, we have been set up to have the rug pulled out from under our feet: The mystery, we are told, is not real. The narrative has all been a hoax.

      …The transcendent aliens and realms that were impossible for Fitz-James O’Brien and Edgar Allan Poe to imaginatively sustain in the first part of the Nineteenth Century would become readily possible by century’s end when Charles Darwin’s arguments for evolution, published in 1859, had been absorbed and assimilated. In the meantime, however, SF had another necessary stage of development to pass through, a stage in which SF grew accustomed to the rarefied air of the World Beyond the Hill. In these stories, hysteria was quelled, the nature and uses of super-science were investigated, and transcendent realms were entered at last.

      There are certainly aspects of the book that I’m sure many people would debate, but it’s just plain wrong to say they missed Poe or Shelley. The book is around 650 pages long, and the article above is 3 pages of those 650. As clarification for your comment “Oops, they missed the birth entirely”, here’s the index entry for Poe:

      Poe, Edgar Allan, 48-51, 53, 57-62, 72,
      91, 102-103, 178-180, 185, 191, 253,
      255, 323

      I definitely recommend The World Beyond the Hill for anyone’s bookshelf (Amazon US and UK) – and I’d say it’s almost a necessity for any true science fiction afficionado – wonderful history and insights into the evolution of science fiction, even if I don’t agree with everything they say. Check my original post for a good summary of the book.

      1. I like hard SF, not fantasy
        Thanks for that, Greg, but at 650 pages, I’d rather write than read this review. I like hard SF, not the fantasy that pretends to be SF today. Poe’s first SF piece was the trans-Atlantic balloon hoax, and he was wsriting SF within the context of science as it stood at the time.

        My offer of a free read of my little SF piece on a singularity stands, Greg. Just email me at epgrondine at yahoo dot com.

        RPJ, any comments yet? Not enough adjectives and adverbs, and not using very descriptive verbs, but the plol is pretty good.

        1. My apologies
          I’m a douche, I know. I stuck in the middle of reading your story (what I had read so far I liked), but then other issues distracted me, and then I went on a trip 🙁

          I promise I’ll finish reading it today, and I’ll send you a comment via e-mail

  3. Sci Fi
    Interestingly enough the first photo of a UFO was taken in 1870.
    “Back in 1870 a “stereo” photograph was taken of the skies over Mt. Washington, New Hampshire and when the image was revealed, it contained a cigar-shaped object and since the only flying machines of the time were balloons, which this was not, the photograph had the distinction of becoming the world’s first photograph taken of a UFO.”

    1. Bad news
      I have bad news for you my friend:

      Your cigar-shaped flying machine is nothing more than a train wagon on a snowy mountain.

      Richelle Hawks discovered this after finding the uncropped original photograph from which someone took that image. You should visit her blog.

      1. train wagon
        ROFL! It figures. I posted this very hastily before going
        to work this morning (no time to research validity) so good ole Murphy caught me again!:D Thanks for the Intel.

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