When I wrote Planetary Feedlot, I did not write it with a genre in mind. It was simply the story that I wanted to tell. But as I moved forward in self-publishing the book, I realized I had to pick a genre. I picked science fiction because with what little I knew; I thought it would fit.
I have a passing acquaintance with science fiction. I grew up with Star Wars and Star Trek. I loved Firefly. But I was not what you would call a fan. My reading tastes growing up were much more attuned to magic and dragons. But now with my book written, I became curious as to the depths of the science fiction genre. And like any knowledge journey, the best place to start was with the beginning.
The Scientific Revolution
While some articles I found placed the birth of science fiction in the 19th century, many others place the beginning in the 16th and 7th centuries at the birth of the Scientific Revolution. This is the name given to a period when science as a field split off from philosophy and major breakthroughs not only challenged long hold beliefs but heralded a flood of new ideas, discoveries, and inventions. (3) Many of the scientific theories that were challenged during this period had been held for almost 2000 years since the Ancient Greeks, like the theory that all the planets in the universe revolved around the earth (1,3). As with any challenge to long- held beliefs, these new ideas faced stiff resistance from the church and other establishments (3).
However, this resistance wasn’t total. Many works of early science fiction were written by bishops. One work, The Man in the Moon, was written in 1638 by Francis Godwin who was a bishop in the church of England. This work was the later inspiration for the works The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall (1835) by Edgar Allan Poe and The First Man in the Moon (1901) by H.G. Wells. (1)
During the Scientific Revolution, the very ideas and philosophies of scientific study were changing. It brought in a movement of abstract reasoning, thinking of things more qualitatively versus quantitative and concrete. When thinking of nature, the viewpoint turned from thinking of it as an organism to thinking about it like a machine. This is also where we see the beginnings of the Scientific Method creeping in, asking how versus why. We also see the use of gatherings growing at these times, where scientists would gather to talk about and share theories, rejoice over successes, and hash over failures. From these informal gatherings, formal societies formed, the most famous being the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge founded in 1662 and the Acádèmie des Sciences formed in Paris in 1666. (3)
Many scientists during this time, beyond authoring more serious works, also authored some of the first science fiction works. John Wilkins invented what would someday become the metric system, as well as writing the book Mercury in 1641 about speaking to people across large distances through mentalism. Johannes Kempler was a German astronomer, mathmatician, astrologer, and natural philosopher (the name given to early scientists) who wrote Somnium in 1634 about a voyage to the moon. (1) This tradition kept on through the years with many other notable scientists venturing into the fiction world including Isaac Asimov the biochemist, Fred Hoyle and Carl Sagan (astronomers), Gregory Benford/David Bin (physiscists), and Alice B. Sheldon an experimental psychologist who wrote under the pseudonym James Triptee, Jr. (4)
One of the interesting points of early science fiction is that many satirical writers of the time, many who held their own low opinions of certain sciences (4), used science fiction as a means of highlighting the hilarity of entrenched authority and religions (blind faith giving institutions power) and encouraging free-thinking in the populace. (2) One of the most well-known of these early satirists was Saviniene Cyrano de Bergerac who not only satirized other science fiction works such as Man in the Moon, which he satirized in his 1657 work The Other World. (1) However, even though his works were more about using science to awaken people’s minds, he also predicted many future theories and technologies like the phonograph and atoms. (2) Many of the scientists who went on to make these fantasies reality say that they were inspired because of works of science fiction.
The Impact of Science Fiction
One of the most interesting things that I found even in this brief exploration into science fiction is how intertwined it is in our lives. Early science fiction served to introduce new ideas into a world that was entrenched in old views. That same science fiction that introduced ideas that people thought impossible, inspired people to ask questions and experiment until they brought those ideas to life. While many genres provoke abstract thinking, curiosity, questions and other emotions, it was a lightbulb going off in my head about how science fiction has not only provoked abstract thoughts and emotions, but has in some small way driven the growth of technology, our understanding of the world, and our advancement as a species.
Look at the world around you. The smartphone in your hand? It’s ancestor was the flip phone, inspired by the communicators in Star Trek. The satellites that it sends data to and from, allowing you to access the world of knowledge? Described in 1945 by Arthur C. Clark long before the first one was ever launched. In fact, this connection has even inspired its own study from Philipp Jordan along with others and the University of Hawaii. This study found out that not only is there a strong influence of science fiction on science, but that the impact of it might be increasing. The study found out that scientists use science fiction for theoretical design research, ‘refer to and explore new forms of human-computer interaction’ and human body modification. (5)
After just this brief foray, I too am feeling the pull of the science fiction bug. Science fiction, while a part of my TV and movie viewing, has never been a large part of my reading life. But after this week, I think that it should change. Not just because I am writing in the genre and I want to pay appropriate homage to those who have come before. But because, like so many others, understanding just how much this genre impacts our lives has awoken my own curiosity. Curiosity as to these works that have been built upon, curiosity about the people who had the imagination and the drive to create the works in the first place.
This year I want to explore not only these early works but the people that created them. To understand more about curiosity, imagination, and what makes someone think so far outside the box, that the impossible seems more than probable.
So, join me on the journey of exploration. Who knows, we might discover something new together.
- Simon, Edward (November 18, 2016) “The Science Fiction That Came Before Science” The Atlantic, retrieved from theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/11/the-science-fiction-that-came-before-science/508067/
- Brittania.com “Cyrano De Bergerac” retrieved from brittania.com/biography/savien-cyrano-de-bergerac
- Brittania.com “Scientific Revolution” retrieved from brittania.com/science/Scientific-Revolution
- Wagar, W. Warren (Summer 1989) “H.G. Wells and the Scientific Imagination” VQR retrieved from vqronline.org/essay/hg-wells-and -scientific-imagination
- Emerging Technology from the arXiv (April 5, 2018) “When science fiction inspires real technology” MIT Technology Review retrieved from technologyreview.com/2018/04/05/67057/when-science-fiction-inspires-real-technology