The Tree Progenitors of Sci-Fi
Science fiction was not born as we know it today. It took centuries as writers tried to use fiction to explain humanity’s relationship to science and technology through the Industrial Revolution.
Literature always reflects social change. Similarly, social changes influence literature.
Therefore, as the scientific revolution and rapid industrialization, and urbanization of the Western world made people uncomfortable, literature created a new genre to explore these scientific ideas. Hence, we got the scientific romances of the 19th century.
On Monday, we debated the criteria and reasoning for that old debate, who is the real father of science fiction? Here are the three literary giants with a credible claim to the title.
Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and Herbert G. Wells. The whole world knows their names and their creations.
Here are the arguments for each one.
The Case for Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Feminists keep bringing up Mary Shelley as the creator of science fiction. And they might be correct. Shelley’s influence and contributions to science fiction are not feminist revisionist history.
Mary Shelley created Doctor Frankenstein and his monster. The first became the prototype of the mad scientist; the second one of the world’s most beloved monsters in literature.
Although classified as a “gothic novel”, Frankenstein (1818) is not your typical supernatural monster adventure. The monster is the result of scientific experimentation.
Granted, he is a reanimated corpse. Still, the monster is neither a zombie nor a ghoul. There is no magic in his creation, only science, and electricity (which was rare back then).
Furthermore, Frankenstein introduces another trope of science fiction, the ‘science goes wrong’ as a theme. This is a novel about the perils of playing God with nature and abusing science.
Furthermore, when H. G. Wells himself names you as an influence, Mary Shelley‘s stock improves.
Sadly, she has a reputation as a single novel writer. Not true, she wrote six other novels, but in fairness, does anyone care for Mathilda (1819), Valperga (1823), Lodore (1835), Falkner (1837), or The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeek (1830)?
These novels are historical fiction or romances with themes of incest, suicide, family drama, romance, and political philosophy, not sci-fi.
She also published the apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826) about a global pandemic. A novel hardly anyone has read and not as good or influential as Frankenstein.
Nonetheless, thanks to its many adaptations in other media and pop cultural relevance, Frankenstein makes Shelley a strong precursor to science fiction. But one single book does not make someone the father of a genre.
The Case for Jules Verne (1828-1905)
Jules Verne does not get much respect in the Anglo world, mostly due to bad translations. However, he remains the second most translated author in the world after Agatha Christie (I am not counting the Bible).
The French author, who was reigned in by his influential editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel, wrote over 80 novels, including several timeless classics.
Indeed, his Voyages Extraordinaries series are full of adventure, discovery, and exploration. I previously sang his praises. Verne needs no introduction.
He is considered the father of science fiction and the grandfather of steampunk.
The publisher named his novels “scientific romances”. Verne himself classified his stories as “novels of science”. Except they were more than that.
Indeed, his novels were about science and technology but also about geography, physics, astronomy, zoology, botany, chemistry, mathematics, and even cryptography with a large dose of exploration.
Jules Verne spent lots of time researching his novels at the Bibliotheque Nationale du France to ensure his facts were accurate and his predictions were possible with what was known at the time.
So, what did his meticulous research give us?
He predicted weapons of mass destruction, radioactivity, electrical submarines, airplanes, space rockets, television, cars powered by gas, video conferences, tasers, and even glass skyscrapers.
Still, there is more to science fiction than predicting the future. Or a heavy emphasis on technology does not make someone the father of science fiction.
The Case for George Herbert Wells (1866-1946)
George Herbert Wells, or simply H. G. Wells, wrote over 50 novels in many genres. The few that we consider sci-fi today were also called “scientific romances” back then.
Wells did have a background in science, particularly biology. Moreover, he studied it under the great Thomas Henry Huxley, yes, the same biologist that influenced Charles Darwin.
Wells is credited with bringing realism to the fantastical.
He proposed Well’s Law, meaning a story should only have one speculative element. Bringing more than one would mean losing the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Furthermore, H.G. Wells became president of the Royal College Science Association in 1909. He was well-respected and admired around the world.
Not to be outdone by Verne, Wells predicted the laser, telephones, television, audiobooks, email, genetic engineering, and even the atomic bomb.
His novels were the first to deal with social issues such as environmentalism, colonialism, and politics, at least in an allegorical way.
Wells introduced many science fiction tropes that are common today, like the alien invasion, time travel, invisibility, vivisection, alien contact, and anti-gravity.
Nevertheless, out of fifty novels he wrote, only about 6 or 7 were science fiction and of those, only three or four are classics. Still, those three are seminal works of science fiction (and horror fiction).
And yet, are three seminal novels enough to make someone the father of science fiction?
So, who is the real father of science fiction? Check my answer in part three of these blog posts.
Reader, have you read these three authors?