Science fiction: origins and history
Science fiction, as a literary genre, explores the impact of scientific technologies on societies. Hard science fiction uses realistic scientific arguments and extrapolates to make a logical argument based on science and its impact on society. Soft science fiction, on the other hand, includes wacky stories based on science and the use of futuristic technologies. For example, Star Trek and Star Wars are interesting stories. However, the concept of time travel, space jumping, and human encounters with extraterrestrial civilizations are purely fictional accounts. They are stories carved out of our imaginations and curiosity about whether life exists across the universe and whether humans can travel across vast regions of the universe.
When it comes to science fiction novels, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke are considered the three greats of the genre. Their imaginative ideas, creative flair and storytelling remained unparalleled. Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation series is a literary classic that appeared as short stories in print between 1942 and 1950. The story is about a galactic empire, a government established in the future. Hari Seldon is the protagonist who is a mathematician. It determines a theory of psychohistory and predicts the future of large populations.
Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who was raised by Martians. When he returned to Earth, the planet became a strange place for him as he tried to understand human customs. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke reveals the presence of a monolith in Africa in the year 3 million BC. He is placed there by an invisible alien force. The monolith’s subliminal psychological influence grants humans the power to develop tools. The story takes the main characters from our solar system to the future and to unknown alien worlds. While the science fiction genre was propagated by Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, their predecessors laid the foundation for the genre. They were Jules Verne, HG Wells and Hugo Gernsback.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) by Jules Verne is the story of a geologist, Professor Otto Lidenbroc. He goes on a journey to the center of the Earth to find lost worlds. In 1865, Verne published From the Earth to the Moon, where he talks about three men traveling to the Moon. In 1872, Verne explored the seabed by publishing Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The story is that of Professor Pierre Aronnax who, together with his two colleagues, tries to hunt a sea monster which turns out to be Captain Nemo’s futuristic submarine. HG Wells in his novel The Time Machine (1895) takes its protagonist through different eras. He explores the advances of civilizations and criticizes the social structure of his time which holds firm today. In his other novel, The War of the Worlds (1898), Wells uses extraterrestrial life forms attacking humans on Earth as a metaphor to show how Western nations invaded Third World states for vested interests. It was, however, the Luxembourgish inventor, writer and magazine publisher Hugo Gernsback who first designed a magazine publishing stories related to science fiction. He founded Amazing Stories in 1926. Gernsback is considered the father of science fiction.
The magazine itself facilitated the development of the genre. Through this post, Gernsback put forward a concept he called “Scientifiction” which was “a charming romance intertwined with scientific fact and prophetic vision”. Although considered the most influential writer of science fiction, it was not Gernsback but William Wilson who used the term “Science-Fiction” in his 1851 book on poetry.
Science fiction as we know it today was once a primitive form of writing. Traces of it can be seen as early as the 2nd century. A true story written by Lucian of Samosata has several science fiction elements, including space travel, extraterrestrial life, and interplanetary colonization. In 1420, an anonymous French writer explored the underwater voyages of Alexander the Great. Perhaps the first fictional accounts of a man traveling to the moon were shared by Francis Godwin in his book The Man in the Moone published in 1638 – nearly 331 years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. The story is about Domingo Gonsales who reaches the moon after traveling around the world. The concept of utopia in science fiction stories was first presented by Margaret Cavendish in The Blazing World (1666). The novel is considered a precursor to science fiction. The satirical story explores an ideal monarch, social hierarchy, and various styles of government.
Speculative fiction – a subgenre of science fiction – was first explored in 1733 when Samuel Madden published Memoirs of the Twentieth Century. Madden explores how the world would be in the 20th century and how the realms of politics and religion would function during that time. In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote a major work of science fiction when she published Frankenstein. With themes of ambition, family, and alienation, she brought forward a concept that redefined the genre. She used galvanism with gothic horror-based creativity to create Frankenstein.
A speculative fiction novel of the dystopian era was The Air Battle: A Vision of the Future written by Herrmann Lang in 1859. Lang’s future had remarkable political implications. It showed a time when the British Empire was no more and the United States was divided into small states. He set his story in the year 6900 when African Americans and South American races ruled the world.
In 1979 Douglas Adams published a science fiction novel with comedy elements. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy follows the misadventures of Arthur Dent, the last man to survive the destruction of Earth. Dent explores the universe with a strange team including Prefect, a human-looking alien who is a writer documenting his travels through the galaxies for his electronic travel guide.
In Pakistan, science fiction is still an unexplored genre. The Light Blue Jumper (2017) by Sidra F. Sheikh is a science fiction story set in a time different from ours. Zaaro Nian is an alien who clashes with the Interplanetary Forces (IPF) after a calamity strikes his ship. Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid is a science fiction/speculative fiction story about the refugee crisis and emigration. Seventy Four by Faraz Talat (2020) is a Pakistani science fiction short story set in a dystopian era, in a post-pandemic world. It’s a commentary on how the actions of humans led to their demise. Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan (2021) by Usman T. Malik explores various characters in various settings through speculative fiction. Pakistani writers including Kehkashan Khalid, Nihal Ijaz Khan, Nur Nasreen Ibrahim and Sameem Siddiqui have ventured into the genre of speculative fiction. Over time, the genre of science fiction will develop. We have creative writers; they will tell stories by creating their own worlds – and take readers on wonderful adventures.
The writer is a fiction writer, columnist and author of Divided Species – a sci-fi story set in Karachi