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2006.11.19 · 18-min read · Tags: academic

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Art Tosborvorn
Dr. Corinne Arráez
PWR 1 – The Rhetoric of Popular Science
November 16, 2006

A Brief History of Science Fiction

"Why does history repeat itself?" A teacher asked the class.

Everybody was still laughing and chatting. No one answered.

"Why does history repeat itself?" the teacher asked again, this time slightly louder.

The class quieted down a bit, and a student in the back replied, "Because nobody was listening to it the first time."

Perhaps this is exactly why we study history—because we can learn from it; if we are willing to listen to it, that is. Humans inherit and possess certain characteristics which do not vary with time. The natural course of mankind, then, is circular. History tends to repeat itself, unless we study our path—our past—and through a careful analysis and speculation we can choose a path other than this circle for our future. President Hu Jintao of the People’s Republic of China once commented, "The past, if not forgotten, can serve as a guide for the future" (qtd. in Shangwu 1). And indeed, like an inspection of infinitesimal DNA strands that can map the whole body, a thorough historical contemplation of a small part of human culture can also map a larger context such as the progress of mankind.

Of all facets of culture, perhaps the best element in studying the development of our history is science fiction, largely because of its intertwining relation to science, education, and imagination—the major domains in human advancement. First coined in the early twentieth century, science fiction is considered to be a major variety of popular science, which is, by definition, an "interpretation of science intended for general audience" ("Popular Science"). From The Epic of Gilgamesh written around 2000 B.C. to Michael Crichton’s Prey in 2002, more than four millenniums later, science fiction has never ceased to serve its role as a form of popular science with its entertainment elements while also marking turns in science and education throughout the course of history. Science and education have changed, and so has science fiction—in the very same direction towards reality. The development in science and education has assuredly made our understanding of science more comprehensive and accurate. Nonetheless, as the discussion will show, the concurrent transformation in the domain of art and literature, especially of science fiction, does not necessarily imply such a result. Written merely as a fantasy due to the limited scientific understanding of the public, science fiction in the early ages envisioned great futuristic ideas, and many of these visions have inspired the creation of numerous innovations. As science fiction comes closer to reality to conform to the public’s expanding understanding in science, however, an imaginative element is gradually disregarded. Instead of understanding the unlimited possibilities that can be achieved through science, the evolvement of science fiction shows that humans slowly employ scientific advancement to construct a wall against imagination.

Although science fiction as a literary genre did not emerge until Hugo Gernsback coined the term in 1929 in his magazine Science Wonder Stories (James 8), it is still noteworthy to look beyond that point in order to see the major transformation in science fiction. In his book Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction, Mellon Professor of Humanities at Columbia University Karl Kroeber observes that the origins of science fiction and fantasy are closely connected (9), entertaining the audience with fantastic elements. According to Edward James, a noted academic writer on science fiction and a professor at the University College, Dublin, the oldest style through which science fiction and fantasy was presented in the early ages was an "extraordinary voyage," an account of a journey to a far off place, which allows the author to fully express his or her imagination (13). Written in 160 A.D., Lucian’s Vera Historia (English, True History), a story about an expedition to the Moon and a battle to colonize Venus, is among the early fantasy novels. Centuries later, many authors still employ this theme of "extraordinary voyage" to stage their imagination, and perhaps no author is more competent in this discipline than Jules Verne who began the series Les Voyage Extraordinaires (English, The Extraordinary Voyages) in 1863 for his publisher Jules Hetzel "one or two [novels] a year for over forty years following" (James 15). Some novels in this series became a huge success, but still the public took into consideration very little the various scientific components. In May of 1869, Appleton‘s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art reviewed Verne’s book To the Centre of the Earth:

Monsieur Verne makes travelling companions of wit and erudition, and, while satirizing the wild vagaries of mere theorists, manages to convey a vast amount of practical instruction and adorn his pages with some of the most vivid and striking descriptions of things known and unknown, possible and impossible, that the imagination can depict. (qtd. in; italics mine)

Aside from the purely entertaining purpose, many authors in the nineteenth century also devised their scientific fantasy work as a means to communicate more subtle ideas. Edward Bellamy, for example, wrote his utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), to call for social movement towards equality and decided to include futuristic details only to embellish the main storyline. Writing in 1898 in response to Bellamy’s work, "I am sure that one cannot acquaint one’s self with his merely artistic work, and not be sensible that in Edward Bellamy we were rich in a romantic imagination surpassed only by that of Hawthorne" (qtd. in Roberts), William D. Howells, a critic of The Atlantic Monthly, beautifully captures the general views the people had on works of science fiction. They regarded these decorative scientific elements only as an "artistic" fantasy.

This, then, raises the question of "why." Why did the majority of people in the nineteenth and the early twentieth century never look into scientific aspects of literary works? As we shall further explore, the answer to this question might lie in the history of science education.

The study of science roots as far back as the history of mankind, and to say that mankind originates form science would not be much wrong. Through science, we became more aware of ourselves as well as our surroundings, which more or less translated into our ability to create a number of primitive tools and our ability to control other living beings. This idea is also suggested in the first chapter of Author C. Clarke’s award-winning novel 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).1 We began the study of science through communal observation of natural phenomenon such as lightning and fire—cavemen would gather around the lightning-stricken tree and exchange among them questioning glances and hypothetical explanations of the happening. Nevertheless, this slowly changed as the structure of the society became more complex. Unlike a prehistoric society, the more complex civilizations from Mesopotamia to those in the Middle Ages all adopted class systems. In this system, each person belongs to a certain class and performs a specific function in society respective to the class, and the task of education generally belongs exclusively to religious practitioners. The scheme was passed down from civilization to civilization, and it was still very much evident in the Middle Age. Brian C. Vickery, Professor Emeritus at the University of London suggests in his book Scientific Communication in History that the feudal system of the time effectually restricted the group privileged to science education to only a small number of nobles, and the education was still done entirely through the Christian church (32).

The exclusiveness of science education was carried on throughout the descent of the class system, the Renaissance and the so-called Scientific Revolution Era of the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. Although Latin was no longer a common language in the seventeenth century, it was still the instructing language in many major universities throughout Europe (Vickery 76). Although Vickery views the foundations of many scientific academies around that time (such as The Royal Society of London in 1660 and The Académie Royale des Sciences in 1666) as a sign of scientific development (76-77), they were by no means intended to promote scientific understanding to a wider public. As declared in the Society’s admission policy, a candidate shall be restricted to persons who "have made a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge including mathematics, engineering science and medical science" (The Royal Society). Instead of bridging the gap between all the people towards a greater understanding of science, these institutions furthermore symbolized an immense void between the ordinary people and the "learned figures" admitted to the societies. The Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries indisputably witnessed numerous advancements in the understanding of science. This course of this progress, however, was in depth rather than in breadth. Scientific concepts became more accurate, but the number of people exposed to this increasingly complex knowledge remained small.

So by an analysis of the history of science education, we come down to a conclusion about the question posed earlier regarding the history of science fiction. The public never looked into the scientific aspects of science fiction simply because they were not able to. There was little, if any at all, effort by the scientific community to publicize scientific knowledge to a wider public, and science remained a fantasy to most people. As a consequence, authors of early science fiction found no necessity to fully develop the scientific elements and based their novels more on their imagination rather than on rationalization.

By comparing the world in which a particular novel was written and the fantastic components in the novel we can see how imagination played a key role in science fiction pieces. In a science fiction novel From the Earth to the Moon, an author describes a story of the attempt of the Gun Club to create a rocket and land a man on the Moon. Quite frankly, this is a story that any ten-year-old could have written, not to mention the fact that he would have been criticized by his parents: "They use liquid fuel, dear, not gunpowder." Nonetheless, the fact that this famous novel was part of the Les Voyage Extraordinaires series written by Jules Verne in 1865 makes all the difference. At the time of writing, horses and wagons were still the means of transportation; the First Continental Railroad was being built across the United States; and the first automobile would not be invented until some twenty years later.

The accepting environment in science fiction community in the days of exclusive science happened to be of great help to new innovations and scientific concepts. Many scientists have claimed to have their inspiration for their works from science fiction. Ronald J. Riley, an "independent inventor, entrepreneur, consultant and advocate of American invention" (Lemelson-MIT) who is also presently featured on MIT’s "Inventor of the Week" website, wrote in a letter to pulp magazine Analog in 1998:

[Science fiction] helped create the mind set that makes me a prolific inventor across multiple disciplines. I firmly believe that science fiction is a great educational tool that allows concepts to be taught in a setting where the readers or contemporary prejudices are not immediately triggered, allowing them to learn to look at problems from different perspectives. (238)

Inventions and technologies that emerged by inspirations from works of science fictions are numerous. In the novel The World Set Free (1914), H.G. Wells describes the way an immense amount of energy can be released by expediting the decaying reaction. More than thirty years later, a Hungarian-American physicist Leó Szilárd came across the story. He was inspired to explore the possibility of such a reaction and patented nuclear chain reaction process in 1934, two years after he first read the novel. A tributary website to science fiction innovations currently lists over 1,100 such entries, from credit cards2 and automatic doors3 to radios4 and televisions.5 All these are unintended consequences of early works of science fiction when it was considered as fantasy.

Science fiction continued to amuse its audience with ornamental scientific details and retained its fantastic element until the early twentieth century, when another revolution emerged from the accumulated scientific advancements. As it has been mentioned earlier, scientific progress before the twentieth century occurred in depth; that is, the understanding of science of mankind had increased (partly with science fiction as an inspiration), but the access to that growing knowledge was granted only to a handful elitist scientists and members of scholastic societies. It was during the turn of the century that the mounting knowledge, like a jar filled with water, began to overflow and some scientists slowly recognized the way their knowledge could be converted to money. Thomas A. Edison, one of the greatest American inventors, is probably the most notable example. After Congress declined his first patented invention, an electric voting machine, Edison declared furiously, "Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success."

With a number of people of Edison’s mindset, society in the beginning of the twentieth century witnessed a substantial change. Technological developments rushed past what was in many ways the beginning of modern technology. Henry Ford founded his commercial automobile company in the summer of 1903, and the Wright brothers’ Flyer II ascended the Kitty Hawk sky in December of that same year. The advancement of electrical technology in the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century also led to numerous inventions such as a phonograph and the Photostat machine. These inventions constituted a connection between the then exclusive science and the public and raised the awareness about the potential of science. The revolution that transformed science fiction and would eventually deprive it of scientifically unrealistic elements—and imagination in all—was the popularization of science.

The first and foremost movement during this revolution to disperse science to the public was an improvement of science teaching in school curriculum around the world. Before the twentieth century, the sole purpose of the public education system was to provide its citizens with sufficient knowledge so as to work productively in the society. Owing to the exclusiveness of the scientific community in the nineteenth century, science and personal curiosity were not among the priorities in the system. Perhaps this concept of education is best reflected through the criticism in Charles S. Parker’s essay "Questions for a Reformed Parliament" (1867): "The Government now wishes to move ahead at a faster pace … to secure for all pupils in maintained schools a curriculum which equips them with the knowledge, skills and understanding that they need for adult life and employment" (qtd. in Crick 10).

It is true that by the nineteenth century, natural science and mathematics had long been included as a part of curricula in most parts of the world (Kamens 144). However, due to the technological advancement over the turn of the century, science education at the time was, according to Herbert M. Kliebard, Professor of Educational Study Policies at the University of Wisconsin, "no longer sufficient to initiate the young into a complex and technological world" (16). As a response to the changes in social circumstances, various institutions for the improvement of education were founded around the world. A charter was signed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, transforming the National Education Association from a small teacher organization to a national level educational institution (National Education Association). This improvement can be clearly visualized in Figure 1 showing a rapid increase in high school graduation rate from 1900s onward. In Sweden, the Commission of National Education was appointed in the same year and, according to Agneta Linné, a professor at the Stockholm Institute of Education, natural sciences were given "greater scope" in the years that followed (440). The outcome of this improvement in education of the twentieth century securely affirmed science’s place in the society.

Along with the progress of the educational system, the development in information systems also accounted for this revolution to popularize science. New inventions, which were, of course, fruits of scientific advancement in the early twentieth century, allowed better methods of distributing information. A considerable number of popular science magazines emerged over that period, and according to Brian C. Vickery of the University of London, the overall number of scientific publications published during the twentieth century was estimated to be fifty times more than accumulated publishing before the year 1900 (147). Initially founded in 1848 with the goal to promote "the advancement of science and technology across all disciplines and to the public understanding of these matters," the American Association for the Advancement of Science is noted by Andrew Aplin to have become particularly vigorous in its effort to promote science when it was officially linked to the journal Science in 1900 (E78; AAAS). Moreover, the formation of "industrial libraries," a joint effort by local libraries in sharing documents which allowed more fluidity in the circulation of books and periodicals in the early twentieth century also caused scientific understanding to be more readily available to the public (Vickery 154).

During that revolutionizing movement in education, the progress of the same direction can be observed in the domain of literature. As in any forms of art, a work of literature should allow the author to freely express his or her idea and imagination. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that in reality, arts must conform to the audience as well. Critics of literature possess a large influence on the course of literature and science fiction in particular. Early science fiction, with its scientific elements regarded only as decorations of literature, was not criticized for its implausibility but instead was praised for its imagination. However, as the educational revolution generously sprinkled society with seeds of science, the "knowledgeable" readers found it hard to resist the impulse to assess various scientific flaws in a story. A number of comments can be found, for example on and other websites, criticizing how "unreal" some science fiction novels are. Hal Clement, a renowned science fiction writer, once reported in an interview on his science fiction novel, Mission of Gravity (1953): "I was a little unhappy when the MIT science fiction people buckled down and analyzed Mesklin and found that I was wrong, that it would actually have come to a sharp edge at the equator" (qtd. in Westfhal 195).

Trying to accommodate public interest in science, many authors resorted to a "harder" form of science fiction—a style that employs more realistic speculation and interpretation of accepted scientific knowledge. Over the second half of the twentieth century, this subgenre which is called "hard science fiction" enjoyed a much greater popularity from the public and gradually became a mainstream science fiction. Through this transformation, a number of famous writers at the time tried to change their writings and base their stories more on the presently accepted scientific facts in spite of their earlier successful "softer" pieces. James Gunn, the director of the Center of Study of Science Fiction as well as a strong advocate for hard science fiction himself,6 remarked that Isaac Asimov’s 1950 work, I, Robot, is noticeably more realistic than his 1942 best-selling series The Foundation (78). John K. Campbell, one of the most influential editors at the time and a good colleague of Asimov, remarked the ascent of hard science fiction when he wrote in his 1947 symposium Of Worlds Beyond: "To be science fiction, not fantasy, an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation of the known must be made" (qtd. in Parrinder 16).

With strong currents brought on by both readers and the community of writers, science fiction authors found themselves floating along the mainstream of hard science fiction. Consequently, the majority of contemporary science fiction media including novels and movies adhere largely to established scientific facts, and most inventions featured are ones that are based on technologies that are readily available. In George Lucas’s first episode of Star Wars Trilogy which was released in 1977, two of the most remarkable technologies are light saber and spaceships. Despite their futuristic styles, both technologies had already been in use for decades before the movie. Lasers were first invented and demonstrated in 1960, and Yuri Gagarin completed his mere two-hour mission around the Earth in 1961. In a more recent example, Michael Crichton’s novel The Jurassic Park (1990) presents his idea of recreating dinosaurs using the DNA extracted from a mosquito fossil. Nonetheless, the process of genetic engineering roots back to the early 1980’s, a decade earlier, and the FDA approved the first genetically engineered drug in 1982 ("Genetic Engineering"). The educational revolution accomplished its task of publicizing an understanding of science, and as a consequence, science fiction was forced to transform accordingly—to be more realistic, more logical, and less imaginative.

So let us now take a step back and try to, as Steve Jobs would say, connect the dots. So far, we have seen the progress in science education from an exclusive field of study to a popular knowledge, and we have seen the similar evolvement in science fiction from a purely fantasy form of art to "hard" science fiction. But what are the pending consequences of these changes? How is this "historical study" of any relevance to us?

Back in 1905, a physicist Albert Einstein introduced in his paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" the special theory of relativity, a theory regarding the behavior of light under the influence of gravity. Although the immense impact on the fundamental physics founded by Newton over 250 years ago accounts largely for the wide recognition of this theory, the fact that the theory was purely imagined brought the theory to the spotlight. "[Relativity] may be the biggest leap of the scientific imagination in history," wrote an MIT physicist Alan Lightman in his article for NOVA, "Unlike many previous scientific breakthroughs … relativity had little foundation upon the theories or experiments of the time." In 1919, well after Einstein had established his theory (which was later expanded into the general theory of relativity in 1907 and completed in 1915), the first observational confirmation in his theory was provided by Sir Arthur Eddington during the solar eclipse, and many more experiments were conducted, each more complex, and all testify Einstein’s theory. Basing his thinking on imagination rather than accepted rationales, Einstein was able to develop a critical concept which is a key to the field of quantum mechanics in present day. "Imagination is more important than knowledge," Einstein is often quoted, "for knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand" (

Throughout the history, major improvements in the society have been marked not by reason but imagination, for it allows us to look at the world under a different light and approach a problem differently. When it was still regarded as a fantasy, science fiction publishes the authors’ colorful imagination to a wide public, and as it has been mentioned earlier, a considerable number of these ideas have merged into the way of life of human in the twenty-first century. Because of those ideas expressed through science fiction we are able to listen to music at home; because of those ideas we are able to send a man to the Moon; and because of those ideas we are able to progress. L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote in his book The Lost Princess of Oz:

Imagination has brought mankind through the Dark Ages to its present state of civilization…. Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking machine and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams … are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization. (qtd. in Loui 208)

Our little historical exploration of science fiction, then, brings us to our final question: With an ever-increasing scientific understanding, are we becoming less imaginative? Perhaps we are. Relentless scientific logic and reasoning which are the essential consequences of scientific advancement seem to draw a firm boundary around the world, prescribing what is possible and what is not. Science fiction writers are being criticized for, in many ways, their imagination. While fantasy novels two thousand years ago describe things that are happening today, science fiction novels of today are forced to report barely what happened yesterday. Science should encourage imagination, not discourage it, for imagination is the key to its progress. Perhaps we need to allow our science fiction writers some room for their imagination. Perhaps we need to look over some flaws in the novels. Perhaps we need to become children who see the world not as right or wrong, but as a place where anything is possible once again.

Works Cited

AAAS. "AAAS and Science: 1900–1940." 150 Years of Advancing Science: A History of AAAS. 10 Nov. 2006.

Aplin, Andrew. "Science for All." Nature Cell Biology 3.3 (2001): E78.

Crick, Bernard. "The National Curriculum and Civic Education." History Today May 1988: 9–11.

"Genetic Engineering." Wikipedia. 12 Nov. 2006.

Goldin, Claudia. "Education." Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Gunn, James. "The Readers of Hard Science Fiction." Hard Science Fiction. Eds. George Edgar Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

James, Edward. Science Fiction in the 20th Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. "First English Review of a Trip to the Centre of the Earth — May 1, 1869." 10 Nov. 2006.

Kamens, David H., and Aaron Benavot. "Elite Knowledge for the Masses: The Origins and Spread of Mathematics and Science Education in National Curricula." American Journal of Education 99.2 (1991): 137–80.

Kliebard, Herbert M. "Education at the Turn of the Century: A Crucible for Curriculum Change." Educational Researcher 11.1 (1982): 16–24.

Kroeber, Karl. Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Lemelson-MIT. "Inventor of the Week." Inventor of the Week Archive. (Jan. 1998).

Lightman, Alan. "Relativity and the Cosmos." Einstein’s Big Idea. NOVA. 12 Nov. 2006.

Linné, Agneta. "Morality, the Child, or Science? A Study of Tradition and Change in the Education of Elementary School Teachers in Sweden." Curriculum Studies 31.4 (1999): 429–47.

Loui, Michael C. "Teaching Students to Dream." College Teaching 54.1 (2006): 208.

National Education Association. "NEA: Timeline, 1857–1965, Historical Events in NEA’s History." 8 Nov. 2006.

Parrinder, Patrick. Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching. New Accents. New York: Methuen, 1980.

"Popular Science." Wikipedia. 9 Nov. 2006.

Riley, Ronald J. Letter. Analog July & Aug. 1998: 232-38.

Roberts, Eric. "Second Bellamy Lecture." IHUM 58 — Technological Visions of Utopia. Stanford University. 6 Nov. 2006

Shangwu, Sun. "Japan Urged to Face up to Its War History." China Daily 5 Sep. 2005: 1.

The Royal Society. "Election and Admission of Fellows, Foreign Members and Honorary Fellows." About the Society. 14 Nov. 2006. "Albert Einstein Quotes." 15 Nov. 2006.

Vickery, Brian C. Scientific Communication in History. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000.

Westfahl, Gary. "Hard Science Fiction." A Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. David Seed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

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  1. The first chapter of 2001: A Space Odyssey titled "The Dawn of Man" relates a group of ape struggling with their everyday lives competing with other groups for food and water until one day a black monolith (supposedly sent to earth by an extraterrestrial intelligence) appears and teaches them how to use tools like bones and rocks, and thus they were able to drive out the opposing groups.
  2. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888)
  3. H.G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)
  4. Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+ (1911)
  5. E.M. Foster’s "The Machine Stops" (1909)
  6. Aside from holding positions at various science fiction-related organizations, Gunn is also an accomplished science fiction writer with over fifty published novels and numerous writings in different pulp magazines, mostly hard science fiction. On his Birthday cake from 2004, his motto was written: "The uninspected belief is not worth holding" (CCSF).