Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Science Fiction: Introduction

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


“Science fiction” may strike one like a rather schizoid term, but although science and literature seem to reside at opposite ends of the academic spectrum, a more intricate relationship between the sciences and the humanities in fact has been operating from the start in Western cultural thought.

Humans existed for millennia without science. During this time the world was generally regarded as the stage for supernatural forces. Myths and religious ideas explained the natural world. (Peters 20)

Throughout its own history, western science regularly has drawn from classical mythology for names and terms, once, that is, it became a distinct field.

Several Greek theorists, most notably Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.), offered a different style of explanation for the events in the natural world. Aristotle taught that explanations of the natural world should be limited to those that could be verified by the facts of experience. (Peters 20)

Centuries later, “St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.) complemented Aristotle’s groundbreaking work by inventing a field of his own, the discipline we now call theology, the systematic study of God and God’s relationship to the natural world” (Peters 21). But this was based on Scripture and is not empirical science.

As its own distinct discipline,

Traditionally, science was considered an art, one of the liberal arts used to train young minds in colleges and universities. According to this perspective, science has more in common with literature than it does with engineering. (Peters 25)

All the better for science fiction,

a distinct kind of popular literature telling stories that arise from actual or, more usually, hypothetical new discoveries in science and technology. The science and technology must be convincing enough to invite a certain suspension of the reader’s disbelief. (Parrinder 23)

One could point to Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or several other works as early science fiction pieces. But science fiction is really “a creation of the later nineteenth century” since earlier fiction involving space travel and such was “presented in a merely fantastic or satirical light” (Parrinder 23). “Most early or ‘proto’ science fiction was the product of writers who stood at some distance from the science of their time and set out to mock, satirize, discredit, or at best to play with it. I am thinking here of Lucian, Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac, Swift, Voltaire, Mary Shelley, and Poe” (Parrinder 24).

Science fiction is often aligned with the horror genre and monsters because of the component of fear, but the source differs: in horror fear is played out psychologically and in private life, whereas fear is played out in social, public ways in science fiction (Staskowski). Since film is narrative gone technological, it is natural that science fiction was associated with film from the start: Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902). Méliès was a French magician who accidentally discovered special effects when in 1896, filming a Paris street, his camera jammed, so that a bus seemed to turn into a hearse wen the film ran later.

First stage of the genre after such proto-science fiction can be called “the mode of literary prophecy” (Parrinder 24). Poe influenced Verne and Wells, but now we have futuristic settings (e.g., Stardate 2378).

The result is prophetic science fiction, not in the sense of an accurate forecast, but of the story’s power to convince us of aspects of the future beyond or behind the ostensible fictional vehicle: it is, in effect, a kind of oracle. (Parrinder 25)

Culturally, this kind of science fiction emerges alongside the time’s positivism and scientific materialism (Parrinder 28). Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), set in 2000, was inspired by Lang’s view of New York City from the deck of a ship.

Arthur Evans divides all Verne’s scientists into four categories: (a) the laudable scientist; (b) the heroic-comic scientist; (c) the narrow-minded and fastidious scientist; and (d) the mad scientist” (Lynch 38); “the Vernean scientist-hero triumphs, returns to the point of departure, then promptly publishes his findings” (Lynch 39).

Naturally, there’s built-in obsolescence in this positivist but futuristic form:

prophetic science fiction will be in trouble once its predictions of scientific and technological advance have started to become respectable and commonplace. (25)

The spaceship became reality with NASA. Also, instead of maintaining a futuristic focus, science itself turned to the past, with the Big Bang speculations, for example. So attention was paid to beginnings instead of just to endings.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, the reaction against prophetic science fiction began in the work of “space fantasists” like David Lindsay and C.S. Lewis [who] wrote that the best sf stories were not “satiric or prophetic” but belonged to what he called “fantastic or mythopoetic literature in general.” (Parrinder 26)

This vs. Heinlein’s conception of it as “Realistic Future-Scene Fiction.” Flash Gordon and other serials involved ray guns and interplanetary travel.

After WWII, concerns about the Bomb dominated science fiction. Science was popular but dehumanization remained a concern. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the scientist listens, unlike the military (Staskowski).

Starting in the 1960s “it became commonplace to speak of science fiction as a ‘contemporary mythology’, a phrase which hints at the hostility to science which is … latent in Stapledon’s writings, as well as being explicit in Lewis” (Parrinder 27). In this way, science is reduced to just another perspective.

Science = contemporary, relevant, believable, impressive.
Mythology = familiar, archetypal, meaningful, human.

Science fiction’s third phase offers parables: “But then in the 1960s, as Brian Aldiss claimed, ‘SF discovered the Present’ … and the future was increasingly regarded as a metaphor for the present” (Parrinder 27). Le Guin agrees, and one thinks of Star Trek:

science fiction as metaphor tends to imply a post-structural ‘conventionalism’ or ‘anti-foundationalism’ denying or downgrading the referential aspects of fiction. (Parrinder 28).

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) displays space travel as boring and empty; the machines have more personality than the humans.

The 1970s saw the start of the academic study of the genre: “it has served a primarily contemplative rather than an active politics” (Parrinder 28). 1970s concerns included overpopulation, ecology, and natural resource depletion.

Cyberpunk in the 1980s was “instantly canonized” (Parrinder 33). Blade Runner (1982) showed urban decay and corporate ubiquity. According to Scott Bukatman in Terminal Identity, “the Space Age has given way to the Information Age in which technology has become largely invisible, and space has been interiorised” (Parrinder 32).

If science fiction serves primarily an interrogative function, “then it is destined to disappear as a separate form, becoming in effect a subdivision of the novel of ideas” (Parrinder 31). Has science fiction already run its course?

Works Cited

Lynch, Lawrence. Jules Verne. NY: Twayne Pub., 1992.

Parrinder, Patrick. “Science Fiction: Metaphor, Myth or Prophecy?” Science Fiction, Critical Frontiers. Ed. Karen Sayer and John Moore. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. 23-34.

Peters, E.K. No Stone Unturned: Reasoning About Rocks and Fossils. NY: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1996.

Staskowski, Andréa. Science Fiction Movies. Minneapolis: Lerner Pub. Co., 1992.