Journey Through Time: A Quick History Lesson on Science Fiction

Since the beginning of civilization, people have always wondered about the future. So it’s no surprise that the Sci-Fi genre is nearly as old as literature itself.

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Whether or not you’re a fan of it, you probably interact with science fiction daily. Sci-Fi is everywhere: in popular media like Marvel and Star Wars, getting mixed in with fantasy at bookstores, and walking around the streets during one of the many cosplay conventions that happen every month. It’s inescapable, and the frequency of it in everyday life is no surprise when we consider how old sci-fi is as a genre.

And Sci-Fi is really old. It’s so old that we aren’t entirely sure where and how it originated. There are two main theories to explain how science fiction came to be. But first, we need to establish what exactly science fiction is.

What is Sci-Fi?

Science fiction, often shortened to sci-fi or even SFF when it gets looped in with fantasy, explores how science and technology can impact society. These explorations make sci-fi a genre of speculative fiction, a type of fiction that considers how past and present issues may affect the future. 

Being a speculative genre means that many of the plots or ideas for science fiction books come from reality. Popular examples are The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which Collins got the idea for while channel surfing between reality TV and news stations, and Dune by Frank Herbert, the setting of which came from Herbert’s time in the Oregon Dunes in the 1950s.

An image from the movie "Hunger Games: The Catching Fire."

There are two categories of science fiction. One is soft science fiction, which explores fun, lighter ideas like aliens, superheroes, or highly advanced technology. The other category is hard science fiction, which uses more realistic scientific arguments as its basis and tries to explain how society is being impacted by certain advancements.

All these farfetched ideas seem too advanced to be too old–after all, many scientific discoveries have happened thanks to technology, so sci-fi can’t have been around that long, can it?

Well, the first theory on sci-fi’s origins argues that, yes, sci-fi has been around for thousands of years, even dating back to the first known civilization.

Theory 1: Epics Birthed Sci-Fi

A quick history lesson: one of the earliest known civilizations was Sumer, located in ancient Mesopotamia and the birthplace of some of the oldest surviving epics from that era, including the Epic of Gilgamesh

Epic of Gilgamesh (2100 – 1200 BC) is an epic poem that discusses Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and his friendship with Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh’s oppression of Uruk’s people. The first half of the epic covers Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s relationship, from their initial opposition to their eventual friendship, all the way to Enkidu’s death. The second half of the epic sees Gilgamesh mourning Enkidu and looking for the secret to eternal life.

Book cover for "The Epic of Gilgamesh."

Science fiction writers Lester del Rey and Pierre Versins argue that the Epic of Gilgamesh has the first instances of common science fiction tropes. Lester del Rey argues explicitly that “science fiction is precisely as old as the first recorded fiction. That is The Epic of Gilgamesh.”

In an argument similar to del Rey’s, Pierre Versins points to several tropes in Gilgamesh’s story that are popular within the sci-fi genre. Versins argues that the epic’s exploration of human reason and the quest for immortality are the speculative origins of science fiction. However, other scholars refute this argument by pointing out that the Epic of Gilgamesh lacks any mention of actual science or technology to make it explicitly sci-fi. But there are scenes in the epic that have sci-fi elements. For example, the epic’s flood scene resembles disasters that appear in apocalyptic science fiction.

A host of other ancient texts also include science-fictional elements, like the Ramayana (800 – 300 BC), a Hindu epic that features flying machines able to travel into space or underwater and destroy entire cities, or True History (101 – 200 AD), a satirical text that depicts stories about voyages to outer space and conversations with alien life forms as a way to comment on the exaggerations made in travel literature.

Theory 2: Revolution Birthed Sci-Fi

A second theory proposes that science fiction didn’t become a pattern in literature until the 17th and 19th centuries.

During the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that swept through Western Europe in the 16th century and lasted roughly until the 18th century, several scientific discoveries emerged. These discoveries prompted the creation of new kinds of literature, one of the most recognizable being utopian/dystopian literature, thanks to Thomas Moore’s 1516 book Utopia.

Utopia is about a fictional island with occupants who have perfected every aspect of their society. More’s title now describes science fiction that has the same motif, “utopia” or “utopian,” meaning a perfect society that is unattainable. 

Two hundred years later, as the Age of Enlightenment reached its end, mounting interest in scientific discoveries boosted the emergence of speculative fiction, creating tropes and trends in the genre that would last well into the 19th century. The biggest of these tropes was the “mad scientist” archetype, which was popularized by the release of a little book called Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in 1818.

20th Century Men

No matter which theory you believe, sci-fi saw a huge boom in popularity during the 20th century. Many authors and academics consider the 1940s and 1950s to be the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” because of the amount of crucial sci-fi literature that was published during this time. As with any Golden Age, some figures from that time have remained iconic figures in the genre, including the “Big Three” of sci-fi: Issac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke.

The Big Three are credited with convincing people that science fiction is serious literature with the publication of their novels and stories. Here’s a quick summary of The Big Three’s most important works:

An image of author Isaac Asimov.

The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov: a series about a Galatic Empire, a government body set in the future. As the Empire comes to its end, a mathematician dedicates his life to developing a theory of psychohistory, a newer and better mathematics for sociology. In his work, the mathematician tries to decrease the time between the fall of the Galactic Empire and the rise of a new empire. Asimov’s work is a prime example of how hard science fiction often has political themes. The Foundation is just one of many sci-fi books that use its medium to analyze civilization, society, and the morality of it all, with similar books being 1984 by George Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

An image of author Robert A. Heinlein.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein: the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who was raised by Martians. After being born on Mars and raised by Martians, Valentine comes to Earth and explores Terran (Earth) culture, where he becomes famous and highly sought after by Earth’s elite class. Heinlein uses Valentine’s unfamiliarity with Earth to examine many themes in society from an outsider’s perspective. Heinlein’s exploration of sexuality and free loving even got his book banned in several schools as it was considered too provocative.

An image of author Arthur C. Clarke.

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke: based on Clarke’s previous short story, “The Sentinel”, the novel follows a team of astronauts who go into deep space to explore a recent discovery on the Moon. While on the journey, the ship’s computer system starts acting odd. The computer system’s behavior escalates, culminating in a showdown that takes the crew through time and space. The novel was written concurrently with the production of the movie of the same name, on which Clarke co-wrote the screenplay. Clarke’s novel is one of the most popular examples of sci-fi about space technology advancement, especially the ideas of technology developing its own consciousness and acting on its own accord.

It’s Sci-Fi’s world and we’re just living in it

No matter if you like it hard or soft, science fiction is everywhere. From books to TV to movies to real-life developments in science, science fiction is a part of our daily lives. Although sci-fi is often looked down on for being weird, frivolous, or far-fetched, the genre has deep roots in not just the history of literature, but also the history of civilization. 

Science fiction has served as an important vehicle for social commentary, political critique, and human reasoning for centuries. As easy as it is to think about sci-fi being nothing more than superheroes in tight costumes or silly alien creatures, sci-fi has been crucial in helping us think about our past, present, and future, and how humans fit into it all.

Eager to learn more bookish history? Check out the history of Romantasy here!

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