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I have just read, with great pleasure, the chapter on Early SF by Arthur Evans in Roger Luckhurst’s Science Fiction: A Literary History. It reminded me of this piece which I wrote a few years back for a book that, in the end, never happened. My contribution was way too long, but we hadn’t got around to the editing stage when the project collapsed, so this is my piece in all its wordy glory.


It is possible that the origin of science fiction is lost. It is known that, at some point during the second century CE a Greek writer, Antonius Diogenes, produced The Incredible Wonders Beyond Thule which apparently included a voyage to the Moon. That much is known, and no more; the work is lost, we know of it only from asides in the work of others. It would seem that the rather better known True History by Lucian of Samosata, which has survived, may have been a response to the work of Diogenes.

Whether either of these works, which both include a visit to the Moon, might count as a source for science fiction is open to interpretation. Where we place the point of origin for science fiction depends very much on how we define the term, and identifying Lucian’s True History as a starting point would necessitate defining science fiction as a form of myth[1]. Other than its placement on the Moon, the story told by Lucien and, presumably, by Diogenes, is indistinguishable from the encounters with gods and monsters in strange lands that had been a part of ancient literature since at least Homer’s Odyssey.

Nor did either of these works inspire anything in the way of a literary tradition. After Lucian it would be getting on for 1,400 years before we come to another work that could be claimed, with somewhat greater justification, as a point of origin for science fiction.

Utopia, published in 1516, was the work of a young lawyer who had already attracted attention in court circles, and whose whole life was devoted to a quest for order. Thomas More had grown up during the chaotic later stages of the Wars of the Roses and worked always to promote a safe and ordered society structured on hierarchical and strictly Catholic lines. He was a close friend of Desiderius Erasmus and an intimate of the leading humanists of the day, and wrote Utopia as a work of humanist political philosophy, at the heart of which was the notion that mankind was inherently rational and so would benefit materially and spiritually in a society organised rationally.

That the book was intended to be at least partly satirical is indicated by several things within the text. The work is structured on the same lines as Erasmus’s own satire, In Praise of Folly (1509), beginning with a colloquy, a discussion in which More is introduced by his friend Peter Gilles to the traveller Raphael Hythloday. Hythloday’s stories include a savage attack on the church hierarchy in England as well as the first remarks about the land of Utopia, but we are signalled to discount his tales because his name means “purveyor of nonsense”. Yet against this satirical edge to the book, the second part is a long and detailed account of life in Utopia that is surely meant to be attractive and convincing. Everybody works, but far fewer hours each day than anyone in More’s England would have experienced; there is no poverty, no war, no famine; health provision is a hundred years in advance of what was then available in England; religious tolerance (for everyone except atheists) would have ended one of the major causes of internal strife. Daily life is communal, on the model of the monasteries, with everyone’s work being performed joyously because it brings collective happiness, harmony and order. There is an emphasis on the dignity of everyone, whatever their status in society, and, from an author who was unusual in Tudor society for the education he gave to his daughters, women had status as much as men. No matter how much nonsense Hythloday spouts, there is no doubt that this is an earthly paradise; one, moreover, that is not dependent on the second coming of Christ, or set in the fanciful realm of Cockaigne, but achievable here and now by human ingenuity. Despite the comedy of More’s picture of Utopia, from the punning title that merges “no-place” and “good-place” to place names such as “waterless river” or “phantom city”, he was at pains to stress the reality and accessibility of the state. Hythloday, for example, is identified as one of the 24 men that Amerigo Vespucci reported he had left at Cape Frio in his widely-read Four Voyages of 1507.

It is this insistence that the world can be remade by human endeavour, and that this new world is not fanciful but somewhere familiar that can be reached here and now, that encourages me to think of Utopia as science fiction. Certainly it had a tremendous influence on literature and politics throughout Europe, and the utopian thought that has been a distinct and important strand of science fiction to the present day had its origins here. Written in Latin, the common language of scholars at the time, and widely distributed among humanists, Utopia quickly established itself as a model for all works advocating a better world. These took many forms; there was the religious utopia (Christianopolis by Johann Valentin Andreae, 1619; Civitas Solis by Tommaso Campanella, 1623), the medical utopia (a tale of Taerg Niatirb incorporated into A Godlie Regiment against the Fever Pestilence by William Bullein, 1574), and the political utopia (The Law of Freedom in a Platform by Gerrard Winstanley, 1652). The fact that More made no effort to institute any of the ideas presented in Utopia when he became Lord Chancellor in 1529 suggests that he did not regard the work as a political blueprint. But with Winstanley and others, such as the educational reformer Samuel Hartlib, that is exactly what later utopias would become, eventually being incorporated into actual political systems such as that of Karl Marx. In science fictional terms, however, the most influential development in utopian literature was probably the scientific utopia, most notably New Atlantis by Francis Bacon, published posthumously in 1627.

There is disagreement on when New Atlantis was written; Brian Stableford[2], for instance, dates it as c. 1617, others put it even earlier, yet the fact that it contains a reference to the cause of his own fall from grace in 1621 suggests that it was at least being revised immediately before Bacon’s death. Certainly New Atlantis was incomplete (a continuation of the book was published anonymously by “R.H. Esquire” in 1660, turning it into a pro-Royalist tract), but it reflects the novel scientific ideas of experiment and theory that Bacon had espoused throughout his career. Salomon’s House, the institution devoted to the study of nature and the invention of technology that is at the heart of New Atlantis, had a major impact on scientific thinking during the 17th century, and was the model for the Royal Society when it was formed by Bishop John Wilkins in 1660.

The 17th century was a time of great scientific excitement, inspired by the major discoveries and theories of the latter part of the 16th century such as the Copernican Revolution, Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, Gilbert’s work on magnetism, as well as the continuing explorations of the New World. These ideas found their way in to the literature of the time, in parallel to and often incorporating utopian thought. Thus another possible point of origin for science fiction, as espoused for instance by Adam Roberts[3], is the beginning of the 17th century. Roberts, curiously, specifies the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno in 1600, Bruno having advocated the notion that there are many worlds in the universe, each with their own life form; though a more reasonable suggestion might be 1634 when Johannes Kepler’s Somnium was published.

The first drawing of the moon seen through a telescope was produced by Thomas Harriott in 1609, followed by the more detailed drawing by Galileo that appeared in Siderius Nuncius (1610). These established the notion that the moon was a landscape that might bear mountains and valleys, seas, forests and cities. The first literary work that was set upon the moon as a landscape was probably Ben Jonson’s masque, News of the New World Discovered in the Moon, first performed in 1620, though this was primarily used to extol King James I for staying out of the Thirty Years War then beginning in Europe. Even before Jonson’s masque was written, Kepler had been circulating the manuscript of Somnium to certain friends, although it wasn’t published until four years after his death in 1630. Somnium recounted a dream in which demons transport the dreamer to the moon which is used as an allegorical vehicle to explain Kepler’s own astronomical views and discoveries.

Probably of more interest in science fictional terms is another posthumous work, The Man in the Moon by Francis Godwin (1638). Again it is impossible to say exactly when this was written, though references to Queen Elizabeth in the text suggest that a draft at least may have been written as early as the 1580s, when Godwin may have heard Bruno teaching in Oxford. The Man in the Moon is a picaresque adventure in which the antihero, Domingo Gonsales, is trapped on the island of St Helena. In an effort to escape, he makes a carriage for himself which he harnesses to a flock of wild geese, but the geese, in keeping with a popular belief at the time, fly not to other land but to the moon. Godwin’s description of the journey to the moon displays an acute awareness of Copernican science, including, at the mid-point of the voyage, a period of weightlessness.

This is the first voyage to the moon by mechanical means in the history of science fiction, and as such it proved incredibly influential. In the same year that Godwin’s book appeared, John Wilkins had published a scholarly essay, Discovery of a World in the Moon (1638), detailed what was then known about the moon. Inspired by Godwin’s book, Wilkins republished his essay two years later with an additional chapter exploring the different ways that men might travel to the moon, the first scientific treatise about journeying to another world. Godwin’s book would remain pretty well constantly in print for the next couple of centuries, and led directly to stage plays such as Emperor of the Moon by Aphra Behn (1687) and The World in the Moon by Elkanah Settle (1697), and Thomas D’Urfey’s comic opera, Wonders in the Sun (1706), which was presented as a sequel to the novel. The major influence, however, would be felt in France. Cyrano de Bergerac incorporated Domingo Gonsales into his own L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (1657) and its sequel, Les États et Empires du Soleil (1662). In a nod to Godwin, Cyrano also devised extravagant means of travelling into space, including the use of firecrackers and evaporating dew. In fact, so popular was Godwin’s anonymously published The Man in the Moon in France that by the time it became a major influence on Jules Verne, it was commonly assumed that the author was French.

Two other threads that would come to play an integral part in the warp and weft of science fiction over the coming centuries also saw their origin in the middle years of the 17th century. I.F. Clarke has identified as the first fictional vision of the future a pamphlet by the puritan firebrand Francis Cheynell that first appeared in May 1644.[4] Aulicus his Dream, of the Kings Sudden Coming to London was a propaganda piece warning of the terrors that would unfold should King Charles win the Civil War. It is not a work of future fiction that significantly explores the changes wrought by the passage of time. But Clarke misses a far more notable work of future fiction that appeared only four years later. Nova Solyma (1648) by Samuel Gott, a Presbyterian MP excluded from Parliament in Pride’s Purge, is a romantic adventure set some 50 years in the future. Although the story features pirates and bandits, kidnappings and mistaken identity, duels and cross-dressing and two heroes falling for what appears to be the same girl, it is also set in a Jerusalem from which the Turks have been ejected, where the Jews have converted to Christianity, and the Second Coming is at hand. At the time, it was a common belief among Britain’s Puritans that the conversion of the Jews was imminent and that this would herald the heaven on Earth of Christ’s return, an event that was confidently predicted for any time between 1650 and 1695. Setting his story in the future, therefore, is a natural choice for a writer trying to lay out the reality of these predictions. Nevertheless, Nova Solyma is the first substantial work of fiction to present a future that is noticeably different from the present.

Nova Solyma was hardly an inspirational work; it would be many years before writers again set their fiction in the future, and even the fact that Gott was the author was forgotten: when the book was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century it was initially ascribed to John Milton. The other key work of science fiction from this period fared somewhat better, though it would not be until the rise of feminist criticism late in the 20th century that its worth was appreciated, earlier male critics having tended to dismiss it as unreadable if they mentioned it at all.

Margaret Cavendish was one of the first women writers to publish openly under her own name, and is certainly the first woman to have written a significant work of science fiction. Part of the entourage of Queen Henrietta Maria who had fled to France just ahead of the Parliamentarian fleet during the Civil War, she spent well over a decade in exile. In Paris she met and married the Marquess (later Duke) of Newcastle, and through her brother-in-law, the scientist Charles Cavendish, was introduced into a circle that included Thomas Hobbes, John Evelyn and Rene Descartes. She was particularly drawn to the atomist ideas of Epicurus which were just then becoming widely known in Europe, ideas which she incorporated into her essays and poems. Indeed it is possible that her collection, Poems and Fancies, published in 1653 formed the first atomist theory of nature to appear in England, preceding the work of William Charleton by at least a year.[5] Returning to England on the Restoration of 1660 she tried to parlay her interest in science into membership of the new Royal Society, but she was antagonistic towards the experimental method of Robert Hooke, arguing that you needed a combination of observation and reason to properly understand what was going on beneath the surface of things. She was especially critical of Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), and though she was a guest of the Royal Society on occasion, she was never invited to join. Nevertheless her sense of what goes on beneath the surface informed The Blazing World (1666) which she wrote as a reaction to Micrographia.

The story, originally published as an appendix to Observations on Experimental Philosophy, tells of a lady who discovers another world joined to this one at the North Pole. She then journeys into the interior of that other world (it is a “blazing world” because of the jewels that stud it) where she becomes the Empress. At one point, while engaged in putting down a revolt against her rule, the Empress enters into communication with the Duchess of Newcastle in our world, so that Margaret Cavendish thus becomes a character in her own novel. The trope of another world joined to this one at the poles, while not unknown, is not exactly common in science fiction and what there is probably owes little to Cavendish. However, stories set in the interior of the Earth would become particularly common during the next century, and Cavendish does seem to be a starting point for this trope. While the recursive self-reference of the book might even mark it out as a distant ancestor of postmodernism.

During the latter part of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, two strands of fantastic literature became popular, both of which would feed into but be transformed by the science fiction of the late 19th century. The first and far and away the most important of these was the extraordinary voyage. We have already seem precursors of this in Utopia, New Atlantis and The Man in the Moon, but now such stories multiplied. In Britain in particular, where they were especially common, they often involved remote islands, as in The Isle of Pines (1668) by Henry Neville, in which a man and four women are shipwrecked and breed so many children that they divide into four warring tribes. This was an inspiration for the most famous work of the type, Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe, not itself science fiction but in its description of a competent man able to turn the most unpromising of circumstances to his own advantage, it became the model for much of the science fiction that would follow.

Of equal importance was Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift. Swift was a savage satirist who turned his fire upon a wide variety of targets in this book. It is now, perhaps, best known for the first two voyages in which Gulliver encounters the tiny people of Lilliput and the giants of Brobdingnag, though in science fiction terms the third voyage, which introduces us to the savants of the flying island of Laputa (a satire on the Royal Society), and the fourth voyage, an encounter with the other in which humans are shown to be brutish in contrast to the civilised Houyhnhnms, are of greater interest.

While such adventures would continue to find wonders in the remote parts of the world right up to the novels of Jules Verne, a number of writers would pick up on the work of Godwin and Cyrano and send their travellers outward to other worlds. Examples include Voyage au monde de Descartes (1692) by Gabriel Daniel, Cosmotheoros (1698) by Christian Huygens and Iter Lunare (1703) by David Russen. These works often used the cosmic voyage as a way to present or examine philosophical ideas. The most successful example of this is Micromégas (1752) by Voltaire, in which a 23-mile-high philosopher from Sirius is exiled to our solar system, where on Saturn he encounters a scientist only one-twentieth his size, the two travel on to Earth where they decide the tiny humans are too small to be intelligent.

In parallel with these outward voyages, another strand of science fiction was going inwards. Almost at the same time that Margaret Cavendish was describing one journey to the centre of a world, the Jesuit philosopher Athanasius Kircher wrote a treatise, Mundus Subterraneus (1665), which suggested that the interior of the Earth consisted of a sequence of interconnected cavities. At this time it was problematic for Catholic writers to present other worlds. Church doctrine had not only put the work of Copernicus on the list of banned books and burned Bruno at the stake for advocating the idea of an infinite universe, it also held that the Earth was unique because no other world could have known Christ. To imagine another planet with anything resembling a civilization was therefore to risk the interest of the Inquisition. If they could not turn their imaginations outwards, however, writers in Catholic Europe were happy to turn inwards where a hollow Earth meant that the world they envisaged was definitively within a world that had known Christ. The 18th century, therefore, saw a rash of such stories, including the anonymous Relation d’un voyage du Pôle Arctique au Pôle Antarctique par le centre du monde (1721), Fieux de Mouhy’s Lamékis ou Les voyages extraordinaires d’un Egyptian dans la terre intérieure (1735-38), or Giacomo Casanova’s huge, sprawling and incoherent utopia, L’Icosameron (1788). However, the idea of a hollow Earth quickly spread throughout Europe, and before Jules Verne completed the sequence with the best and most celebrated example of the form, Le voyage au centre de la terre (1864), the more significant hollow Earth stories came from northern Europe or America.

The first of these, which was published throughout Europe and which helped to establish the author, Ludvig Holberg, as the best-known Scandinavian writer before Ibsen, was The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground (1741). Modelled on the outlandish encounters in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Klim meets intelligent trees on a planet within the hollow Earth, then on the underside of the Earth’s crust travels from a realm of mercurial apes to one of warring birds to yet another of subhuman humans. A mixture of utopia, satire and outright fantasy, The Journey of Niels Klim made more of the hollow Earth setting than any of Holberg’s predecessors. Another variant on the theme came in The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1750) by Robert Paltock, another work which took Gulliver’s Travels along with Robinson Crusoe (1719) as its starting point. Wilkins undergoes a variety of picaresque adventures before being shipwrecked on an inaccessible island, where he encounters and eventually marries a flying woman, and is later transported to the subterranean world of her people in the polar regions where he brings the benefits of true religion and decent clothing.

The poles seemed to be a popular location for gateways to the underworld. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Unparalleled Adventure of one Hans Pfall” (1835), for instance, the traveller glimpses what appears to be a hole at the North Pole, while in his more substantial The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) a colourful tale of shipwreck, mutiny and cannibalism ends abruptly at the South Pole as Pym and a companion approach an entranceway guarded by shrouded human figures.

Around the middle of the 18th century there was a renewal of interest in fictions about the future, though in most cases the social and technological status was unchanged from the year of composition, the only difference being in one usually political issue that the author wished to raise. In Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) by Samuel Madden it was a warning about the power of the Jesuits; in the anonymous The Reign of King George VI, 1900-1925 (1763) it was how a wise monarch is superior to a weak parliament; and in L’an deux mille quatre cent quarante (1771) by Louis-Sébastien Mercier it was how much better the world would be if the Enlightenment ideas of Rousseau were followed.

Yet even as this new strand of future fiction was gathering pace, another literary development was beginning that would, temporarily at least, have a more profound effect upon the development of science fiction. Starting in 1764 with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, gothic fiction was a popular, backward-looking form of literature that emphasised the baleful influence of the past, the gloomy, the mysterious, the supernatural. The aesthetics of the gothic tied it to contemporary ideas of the sublime, as defined by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, which in turn linked it to the romantic poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. It was an aesthetic of wild places, of overwhelming scale, of mankind made small by their surroundings, all of which fed in to yet another starting point for science fiction.[6]

Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley began in a dream, and in a contest to write a new ghost story, a contest that also produced John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819). The sense of dread that runs through Frankenstein, the settings amid alpine peaks or arctic wastes, all situate the novel squarely within the romantic tradition (and explain why it is also one of the ancestral texts of modern horror fiction). What marks the novel out, however, is its awareness of science. Around the end of the 18th century science had begun to enjoy the sort of popular interest it hadn’t had since the middle of the 17th century, an interest reflected in the poems of Erasmus Darwin and the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby. The radicals, in whose circles Mary Shelley had moved all of her life, held it as an article of faith that they should keep themselves informed of the latest scientific ideas, and experiments (as in Wright’s “An Experiment on a bird in an Air Pump”) were staged as popular entertainments. One such public entertainment occurred in 1803, when Giovanni Aldini demonstrated Galvani’s ideas of animal electricity on the body of a newly-executed criminal at Newgate, forcing an eye to open and a fist to clench. Galvanism was the guiding principle behind Frankenstein, in which the young student animates a creature made of corpses but then abandons it, so that his creation subsequently becomes his nemesis.

The novel was an immediate critical and popular success, more importantly it was quickly adapted for the stage. The earliest of these adaptations was perhaps Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake (1823), but variations on the story, often melodramatic and with only tenuous connections to the original, became a theatrical mainstay, leading up to the innumerable cinematic versions throughout the 20th century. It is probably these more than the novel itself that fixed the story in the popular imagination, so that even today the name is invariably invoked whenever someone wants to alert the public to what might be seen as the unwanted meddling of science, as in the use of Frankenstein Foods to describe genetically modified crops. Of all the works of science fiction, it is perhaps only More’s Utopia and Karel Čapek’s Robot (R.U.R., 1920) that have entered the language to the same extent.

Regardless of whether the source was the original novel or its many theatrical offspring, the inspiration of Frankenstein flowed through subsequent science fiction. One relatively early example is The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827) by Mary Webb, but two of the most important variations on a theme of Frankenstein came late in the 19th century. Long before the ideas of Sigmund Freud had become widely known, they both located the monster within the self. In Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson (which also drew inspiration from the psychological doubling that runs through The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by Stevenson’s fellow-Scot, James Hogg) tells of a man of science, Jeckyll, who concocts a potion that suppresses the civilised part of his character and unleashes the violence of Hyde. A parallel story is told in The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (1897), in which Griffin renders himself invisible and, freed from the watchful eyes of others, finds he is also freed from civilised restraint and embarks on a terroristic rampage. The Frankenstein theme would continue in 20th century science fiction, though there the creature would more often be transformed into the other of an alien or, following Čapek, a robot.

Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s first novel; her third, The Last Man (1826), also set in train a popular theme, particularly in British science fiction. Shelley wasn’t the first to touch on this theme. Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville had published his prose-poem, Le Dernier Homme, in 1805, presenting a vision of the Earth ending in sterility. But though a poor translation of Cousin de Grainville’s book had appeared in Britain in 1806, without the author’s name, it would be Shelley’s novel that had the greater effect. It is worth noting that two of the authors who picked up on the theme, Richard Jeffries with After London (1885) and W.H. Hudson with A Crystal Age (1887), were naturalists who seemed to view the collapse of civilisation with some approval, an attitude that may have contributed to the way the theme would be transformed into one of the characteristic modes of British scientific romance, the so-called “cosy catastrophe”.

The popular interest in science, that provided the context in which Frankenstein was written, continued throughout the 19th century, a great age of technological innovation and development. It was in 1833, for instance, that the word “scientist” was coined by William Whewell; in 1851, thousands flocked to London’s Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition, a monumental display of new technologies and the consumer goods they produced; and in the same year, 1851, William Wilson coined the term “science-fiction” in A Little Earnest Book Upon a Great Old Subject. Wilson’s “science-fiction” bears little resemblance to what we might understand by the term today, it was closer to a lyrical form of popular science (one of the works that gave Wilson the idea was The Poetry of Science (1848) by Robert Hunt), and the term disappeared from view almost immediately until it was reinvented in the late-1920s. But the fact that there was such a term is suggestive of the extent to which the ideas of science interpenetrated the literary and artistic milieu of the time.

Sir Humphrey Davy, who had done much to popularise scientific experiments as entertainment at the Royal Institution, presented a cosmological vision based on current knowledge in his posthumously published Consolations in Travel (1830). There is a similarly poetic view of the cosmos as revealed by astronomy in Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848). Poe was, of course, one of the three forebears of “scientifiction” singled out by Hugo Gernsback in his editorial for the first issue of Amazing Stories (April 1926),[7] and much of his work did include scientific elements. “The Facts in the case of M. Valdemar” (1845), for example, about a mesmerist who puts a man into a trance at the moment of death, was presented as a factual scientific paper. But Poe was far from alone in his use of science. In “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844), Nathaniel Hawthorne imagined a chemist whose experiments with poisons rendered his daughter deadly to all who approached her; in “The Diamond Lens” (1858), Fitz-James O’Brien invented a microscope so powerful it revealed a beautiful woman in the world inside a drop of water; in The Brick Moon (1869), Edward Everett Hale created an artificial satellite in orbit about the Earth; in Lumen (1887), Camille Flammarion used his knowledge about evolutionary theory and astronomy to write convincingly about other worlds.

Many of the familiar strands of science fiction were clearly coming together at this time. It is significant, for instance, that the most important science fiction writer in the second half of the 19th century always insisted on the scientific accuracy of his work. However, the best and most lasting of the works of Jules Verne, the second of Gernsback’s triumvirate, took the form of what he termed “voyages extraordinaires”, in which the scrupulously researched technological aspects took second place to the vivid exotica of the journey. These highly colourful adventures took his heroes to a world underground (Voyage au centre de la terre, 1864); to the moon, aboard a space ship fired from a cannon in Florida (De la terre à la lune, 1865, and Autour de la lune, 1870); aboard an extraordinary submarine (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, 1869-70); off on a comet that has struck the Earth a glancing blow (Hector Servadac, 1877); and aboard a massive flying vessel (Robur-le-conquérant, 1886). Those stories that were confined to one location or that concentrated on the technology more than the colour, such as his account of a war between the dystopian and utopian effects of technology (Les cinq cents millions de la Bégum, 1879) or the posthumously published novel of invisibility (Le secret de Wilhelm Storitz, 1910), are noticeably less successful works.

Verne had his rivals, of which the most interesting was probably the Belgian writer Joseph Henri Honoré Boex, who wrote under the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny aîné. Rosny wrote a very varied range of science fiction, whose freewheeling invention and sometimes cavalier approach to scientific plausibility made his work closer to that of Wells than to Verne. In Les Xipéhuz (1887) primitive men find themselves confronting enigmatic aliens; in Un autre monde (1895) a strange child in contemporary Holland sees a parallel world; and in La morte de la terre (1910) the last human civilisation gives way to a machine future. Like his German contemporary Kurd Lasswitz (Auf zwei Planeten, 1897), Rosny was a vigorous and engaging writer but his work was neither as widely translated nor as widely known as that of Verne. In fact Verne would not have a serious rival in contemporary science fiction until the emergence of H.G. Wells at the end of the century.

Meanwhile, even as Verne’s career was gathering pace, political events in the real world were having a profound effect upon science fiction. For half a century after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, while European armies had seen plenty of action elsewhere in the world, there had been no serious conflict in Europe itself, and an easy balance of power had developed between Britain and France. But both the peace and the balance of power were disturbed during the 1860s when Prussian wars against first Denmark then Austria led to the establishment of a new German Confederation, with Prussia as a new European power. This shift in the European status quo became particularly alarming in 1871, when Prussia invaded and defeated France. It was in direct response to these events that a new strand of alarmist fiction began to appear, first in Britain with The Invasion of England (1870) by Alfred Bate Richards and, more famously, “The Battle of Dorking” (1871) by George T. Chesney. Such stories would become a common feature in British newspapers right up to the outbreak of the First World War, indeed the constant drumbeat of dread and military unpreparedness that they sounded may have contributed to the febrile atmosphere that led to war. There were certainly stories that newspapers found their circulation increased in those towns that were named as part of the invasion route. But such future war stories, while popular in Britain (The Invasion of 1910 by William Le Queux, 1906; The Swoop! Or, How Clarence Saved England by P.G. Wodehouse, 1909; When William Came by Saki, 1913), also spread to France (La guerre au vingtième siècle by Albert Robida, 1887), to America (The Battle of the Swash by Samuel Barton, 1888), and even to Germany (the anonymous Der Ruhm; or, The Wreck of German Unity, 1871). Such was the interest and fervent invention tied up in these stories throughout the half-century between the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War that they mutated very quickly. M.P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger (1898) located its threat in the Orient and initiated a rash of “yellow peril” stories. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903) was the hinge point that saw the future war story transmogrify into the spy story. And, most famously, H.G. Wells undermined the assumptions of cultural superiority found in so many of these future war stories by making London, the centre of Empire, crumble before alien invasion in The War of the Worlds (1898).

Wells, the third member of Gernsback’s triumvirate, was unquestionably the most influential of all the writers of science fiction before the genre. However, as the way that The War of the Worlds responds to earlier future war stories suggests, it would be wrong to present him as arising out of nowhere. He was, in fact, part of a tradition of scientific romance that was already well established when he arrived on the scene. The logical and mathematical games of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884) had paved the way by showing a popular taste for complex ideas presented as light fiction. H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) was a highly successful example of the sort of colonialist fiction that Wells would react against. The Angel of the Revolution (1893) by George Griffith portrayed future aerial warfare, while The British Barbarians (1895) featured a time travelling anthropologist from the future casting a satirical eye on Victorian society. All of these fed into the work of H.G. Wells, but what came out was startling in its originality and vigor.

His first novel, The Time Machine (1895), was a harbinger of what was to come. Time travel stories before this point, such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1888) by Mark Twain, had tended to rely on magic or dream or some other sleight of hand to whisk their protagonist into another era; Wells was the first to treat time as a dimension that could be crossed by a machine. (In fact the Spanish writer Enrique Gaspar had devised a time ship in his novel El Anachronópete (1887), but the novel seems to have been little known even in his native Spain and had no influence on subsequent science fiction.) The seeming pastoral utopia visited by the time traveller that hides a canker born in Victorian class divisions is a direct response to the pseudo-medieval utopia envisaged by William Morris in News from Nowhere (1890), which was itself a response to the socialist utopia of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) which had inspired a host of Bellamy Societies across the USA. And at the end of the novel, when the time traveller goes forward to see a dying sun hanging over a lifeless beach, Wells made explicit the evolutionary ideas he had learned from T.H. Huxley at the Normal School of Science.

The Time Machine was followed over the next few years by The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) in which a vivisectionist attempts to transform animals into humans; The Invisible Man (1897) with its cinematic devices in which invisibility turns a man into a monster; The War of the Worlds (1898) which built on the idea of Mars as an older civilisation propounded by Percival Lowell for a tale of alien invasion; and The First Men in the Moon (1901) in which explorers find a dystopian hive mind society below the surface of the moon. Wells would continue to write occasional works of science fiction throughout his long and prolific career, some of which (The Food of the Gods, 1904; The War in the Air, 1908; The Shape of Things to Come, 1933; Star Begotten, 1937) are worthy of note, but after those five early novels he would never again display the same invention and power. In those five novels, however, he effectively laid out the template for 20th century science fiction.

All of the strands of science fiction we have traced through this chapter, from More’s utopian ideals to Bacon’s scientific invention, Godwin’s voyage to another world, Shelley’s man-made creature, and more, all came together in Wells and established the vocabulary of ideas and approaches that science fiction would employ thereafter. But one final strand needs to be considered. In 1868, Edward S. Ellis, the prolific author of Western dime novels, wrote The Steam Man of the Prairies in which a boy-inventor creates a man-shaped steam engine as a vehicle for adventures in the West. This paved the way for a series of highly coloured, quickly written, melodramatic dime novels by various hands that usually featured boy inventors like Tom Edison Jr or Frank Reade. These have been christened “Edisonades” by John Clute[8], and one of the more notable examples was Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898), a rapid response to Wells’s The War of the Worlds by Garrett P. Serviss. Cheap, crude and popular, dime novels such as these were the precursor of the pulp magazines in which science fiction as a genre would be born.


[1] Though Alexei and Cory Panshin, who do define science fiction as “the literature of mythic imagination” – The World Beyond the Hill (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989), p1 – still locate its origins in the 17th century.

[2] Brian Stableford, “Science fiction before the genre” in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p15.

[3] “Science fiction was reborn in one year, 1600, the year that the Catholic Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno the Nolan at the stake for arguing in favour of the notion that the universe was infinite and contained innumerable worlds.” Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p36.

[4] I.F. Clarke, The Pattern of Expectation, 1644-2001 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1979), p15.

[5] Katie Whitaker, Mad Madge: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Royalist, Writer and Romantic (London: Chatto & Windus, 2003), p160.

[6] Brian Aldiss’s definition of science fiction as “characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould” – Brian Aldiss, Billion Year Spree (1973; London: Corgi, 1975), p8 – effectively excludes any earlier work from consideration.

[7] Scientifiction is “the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision,” quoted in Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint, The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), p6.

[8] See the online SF Encyclopedia: http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/edisonade.