Science fiction: origins and history


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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, conversely, comprises far-fetched stories based on science and the use of futuristic technologies. For instance, Star Trek and Star Wars are interesting stories. However, the concept of time travel, space jump, and meeting humans with alien civilizations are purely fictional narratives. They are stories carved out of our imagination and by the curiosity to know if life exists across the universe and if humans can travel through vast areas in the universe.

When it comes to science fiction novels, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke are considered as the Big Three of the genre. Their imaginative insights, creative sense, and storytelling have remained unparalleled. Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation series is a literary classic that appeared in print as short stories during 1942–50. The story is about a Galactic Empire, a government set in the future. Hari Seldon is the protagonist who is a mathematician. He determines a theory of psychohistory and forecasts the future of large populations.

Science fiction: origins and history

Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who was raised by the Martians. When he returned to Earth, the planet became a strange place for him as he tried to comprehend human customs. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) reveals the presence of a monolith in Africa in the year 3 million BC It is placed there by an unknown alien force. The subliminal psychological influence of the monolith endows the humans with the power to develop tools. The story takes the main characters from our solar system into the future and to the unknown alien worlds. While the genre of science fiction was propagated by Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, their predecessors laid the foundations to 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 into the center of the Earth to find lost worlds. In 1865, Verne published From the Earth to the Moon, where he discussed three men traveling to the Moon. In 1872, Verne explored the depths of the sea when he published Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The story is about Professor Pierre Aronnax, who with his two colleagues, tries to hunt a sea monster that turns out to be Captain Nemo’s futuristic submarine. HG Wells in his novel The Time Machine (1895) takes his protagonist across various eras. He explores the advancements of civilizations and criticizes the social structure of his era that holds ground today. In his other novel, The War of the Worlds (1898), Wells uses alien lifeforms attacking humans on Earth as a metaphor to show how the Western nations invaded third-world states for vested interests. It was, however, the Luxembourgian-American inventor, writer, and magazine publisher Hugo Gernsback who first conceived a magazine that published science fiction-related stories. He founded Amazing Stories in 1926. Gernsback is regarded as the Father of Science Fiction.

Science fiction: origins and history

The magazine itself facilitated the development of the genre. Through this publication, Gernsback brought to fore a concept he called, “Scientifiction” which was “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” While regarded as the most influential writer in science fiction, it was not Gernsback but William Wilson who first used the term “Science-Fiction” in his 1851 book about poetry.

Science fiction as we know of today was once a primitive form of writing. Traces of it are seen as back as during the second century. A True Story written by Lucian of Samosata comprises several sci-fi elements including space travel, alien life, and interplanetary colonization. 1n 1420, an anonymous French writer explored the underwater sea travels 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 his foot on the Moon. The story is about Domingo Gonsales who reaches the moon after traveling across the world. The concept of utopia in science fiction narratives was first shown by Margaret Cavendish in The Blazing World (1666). The novel is considered to be a precursor of science fiction. The satirical story explores an ideal monarch, social hierarchy, and various styles of government.

Science fiction: origins and history

Speculative fiction – a sub-genre 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 domains of politics and religion would operate in this era. In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote a major work of science fiction when she published Frankenstein. With themes of ambition, family, and alienation, she brought to the fore a concept that redefined the genre. She used galvanism with creativity based on gothic horror to create Frankenstein.

A dystopian-era speculative fiction novel was The Air Battle: A Vision of the Future written by Herrmann Lang in 1859. Lang’s future had remarkable political implications. He showed a time when the British Empire was no more and the US was divided into smaller states. He set his story of him in the year 6900 when the African-Americans along with races from South America rule the world.

In 1979, Douglas Adams published a science fiction novel with elements of comedy. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy follows the misadventures of Arthur Dent, the last man who survived the Earth’s destruction. Dent explores the universe with a weird team including Prefect, a human-like alien who is a writer documenting his voyages across the galaxies for his electronic travel guide.

Science fiction: origins and history

In Pakistan, science fiction is still an unexplored genre. Sidra F. Sheikh’s The Light Blue Jumper (2017) is a science fiction story set in a different era than ours. Zaaro Nian is an alien who confronts the Interplanetary Forces (IPF) after a calamity hits his ship from him. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017) is a sci-fi/speculative fiction story about the refugee crisis and emigration. Seventy Four by Faraz Talat (2020) is a Pakistani science fiction novella set in a dystopian era, during a post-pandemic world. It is a commentary on how humans’ actions led to their demise. Usman T. Malik’s Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan (2021) explores various characters in diverse 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. With time, the genre of science fiction will grow. We have creative writers; they will tell stories by creating worlds of their own – and they shall take readers on wonderful adventures.

The writer is a fiction writer, columnist and author of Divided Species – a sci-fi story set in Karachi

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