Three Different Voices
We previously debated whether science fiction needed a progenitor and the criteria for choosing one. Then we narrowed the candidates to Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and Herbert G. Wells. Today, in this post, we end the debate.
The easy way out would be to say all three are the progenitors of science fiction since they each brought out a different aspect of it.
Besides, their styles could not be more different. And they each break rules writers are not supposed to.
For example, Frankenstein is popular thanks to films and television but the novel itself can be challenging to read. Those characters cannot stop talking about the scenery and their inner feelings. Whatever happened to show, don’t tell?
Meanwhile, Verne can go on pages about geographical and technological descriptions. Whatever happened to avoiding infodumps?
And Wells‘ prose was approachable and colloquial but also full of ideas, and will push them without subtlety. Whatever happened to not preaching to the reader?
Conversely, each author represents one of the three types of stories: idea (or theme)-oriented, character-oriented, and plot-oriented.
Shelley‘s Frankenstein (and The Last Man) are about overall ideas like “not playing God” or “is the world better without humans?”
Verne is rich in characterizations, we can name his protagonists, whether it is Phineas Fogg, Michael Strogoff, Captain Nemo, Cyrus Smith, Otto Lidenbrock, Robur, Keraban, Samuel Ferguson, Kin Fo, John Hatteras, and so many more.
Wells was all about the plot. Many of his stories have unnamed protagonists but the premise itself carried the narrative.
Again, three authors and three very distinctive voices.
Three Authors, Three Different Subgenres
Do we have to choose only one? Doesn’t science fiction encompass many subgenres? Why do we need a father of science fiction when we can have three or four?
There is more than one way to look at science fiction but at its center, it must be about science, the future, and our relationship with technology.
Thus, I propose Mary Shelley as the mother of sci-fi horror.
Frankenstein himself has joined the pantheon of the greatest literary monsters. Reanimated corpses by electricity? Mad scientists doing weird experiments? A global pandemic as an extinction event? It sounds terrifying.
Moreover, I propose Jules Verne as the father of hard science fiction.
Scientists as protagonists? A detailed description of technological gizmos and vehicles? Science that is accurate, and possible even if ahead of its time? Even his novels that are not scientific (like The Green Ray, Michael Strogoff, Mathias Sandorf, and Around the World in 80 Days) rely on scientific phenomena as plot devices.
Finally, I propose Herbert G. Wells as the father of soft science fiction.
Yes, his stories are about time travel, alien invasions, and mad scientist, and the science is questionable. But his interest is not in the science but in how it affects humans in all its sociological and political repercussions.
There, three progenitors of three different sci-fi branches–and few would disagree. End of the debate. Except that would be a cop-out.
Indeed, can we agree all three influenced and gave birth to this genre? Do we need to declare a winner? Of course, we should.
Let’s End the Debate
And the winner is… The reader. Sorry, another cop-out. But here is my father (or mother) of science fiction.
Jules Verne, you are the father.
For the general public, and for the literati, Frankenstein is, first and foremost a gothic novel. A novel with scientific elements, but primarily a gothic horror one. And so is The Last Man.
Nevertheless, Mary Shelley was first, and if she would have continued writing more novels like Frankenstein… Except she did not.
Herbert George Wells wrote about 50 novels. Of those, about five are widely read, and about seven are what we would consider science fiction. And I would add, he is not read much outside the Anglo world.
Meanwhile, Jules Verne‘s novels (about 54) had been translated into over 140 languages. Furthermore, Wells’s influential sci-fi novels were published between 1895-1897 (does anyone remember or read anything he wrote after?)
For comparison, Verne was commercially successful from 1863 until 1904 (we can agree Master of the World was his last good novel, and still widely read).
Indeed, notice who it was both, Nemo and Robur, his two quirky inventors and outcasts, the only two characters that got sequels.
Jules Verne himself said while he was alive that he did not invent anything, and that he was interested in travel and exploration, not in technology. He also dismissed those who called him a prophet. He was not in the business of predicting science.
Except he did that, and more. Igor Sikorsky, Jacques Costeau, Yuri Gagarin, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Jack Parson, Guglielmo Marconi, Edwin Hubble… He inspired them and many other authors, scientists, and explorers.
Ray Bradbury said it better, “we are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne.”
To conclude, is Jules Verne the father of science fiction because he was the first? No, that was Shelley or Keppler. Did he give it the tropes we love, and make it acceptable to the literati? No, that was Wells.
But did Verne make it popular around the world, commercially successful, and created generations of readers? That he definitely did and still does. For that, Jules Verne is the father of science fiction. Enough said.
Reader, who is in your opinion the father (or mother) of science fiction? Share in the comments.