Like any literary genre, science fiction is a product of its time and place. As author Frank Herbert (as reported in the book The Road to Dune) quipped, “[A]liens don’t buy books. Humans buy books.” Moreover those books are sold in the here and now, not some fantastic time in future. Thus, science fiction must connect to its readers. Good literature does not preach a theme that the author wishes to get across as a message, but its themes will resonate with each reader– some sees one theme and others perceiving even the opposite theme. Literature like any art form is highly individual while at the same time universal, wherein lies much of the fascination of literature.
For now, I am going to skip the obvious but often futile topic of trying to define what science fiction actually is and discuss in broad sweeps where and when it comes from. At this point, science fiction– both original and translations– stories, novellas and novels have appeared in virtually every modern language with a significant literary output. Historically, the dominant languages in which science fiction works originally appear have been English and Russian. Even though the genre started in French with some works of Jules Verne and has some other later notable contributions from authors such as Pierre Boulle, nevertheless science fiction simply had not achieved any
degree of literary respect in French until recent decades. (Even so for example my personal copy of Boulle’s La Planète des singes is packages as children’s literature even though few children or adolescents would understand most of the themes in the book.) At the same time, author Stanislaw Lem has produced classic works of the genre in Polish, and the prolific Perry Rhodan series from German remains a landmark.
While the bulk of Russian science fiction was produced in the Soviet Union and later in Russia, most English (language) science fiction derives from the United States and Great Britain. The Cold War simply cannot be ignored in any meaningful discussion of science fiction as literature. For English science fiction, a couple of good resources are these timelines, first and second. One also has a good timeline for author Jules Verne specifically. Information in English on Russian written science fiction is harder to find, although this Wikipedia entry gives some info.
Yet no discussion of science fiction could be complete without a mention of the fact that science fiction developed from pulp magazines, the “pulps”. The Golden Age of science fiction (in English) is defined by the stewardship of the editor John W. Campbell of the magazine Astounding, who is considered to have demanded a literary standard. His principal competitor, who demanded similar standards, was editor Horace L. Gold of the magazine Galaxy. The plan is to go into more detail in future posts.
- Dear Science Fiction Writers: Stop Being So Pessimistic! (darsword.wordpress.com)
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- GREAT BLACK AUTHORS OF SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY: Past & Present (yamulticulturaljunkie.wordpress.com)
- Penguin Science Fiction #1638, Read by Jimi Hendrix (silverbirchpress.wordpress.com)
- Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach (bellacaledonia.org.uk)