Saturday, September 8, 2018

Shelley, Verne and Wells--especially Wells

When we recount the history of science fiction, it is common to point to some early figure as its founder--for instance, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

The emphasis on identifying a single, founding work by a single author strikes me as unsatisfying for numerous reasons, only one of which I want to go into here right now. That is, namely, that it makes much more sense to credit them with each defining a crucial strand of science fiction, already in place before it coalesced into a genre (in the '20s, on the watch of Hugo Gernsback).

Note that I write defining here, not founding, because it would be excessive to claim that they did something that had never been done before to any degree. Rather they did what others might have done before in a certain way, got noticed for it, and became a model for those who followed in the process.

The Gothic writer Shelley defined the science-based horror story--where the scientific endeavor goes very, very bad. Verne defined the science-based adventure--where a discovery or invention sets us up for a thrill ride to the center of the Earth or the moon or for twenty thousand leagues under the sea which might teach us something along the way, most likely in the way of scientific facts. And Wells defined the science-based story not about some hero or anti-hero, but where, to borrow Isaac Asimov's phrase, humanity as a whole is the protagonist; the story which uses science to think about society, and considers how science, by way of ideas and technology, might change it; the story about a future that is clearly not the same as today, broadly, deeply and densely imagined; the science fiction story which can criticize things as they are, and bear the hope of progress.

Of these the last perhaps accounts for a smaller part of the genre's overall output than the other, older strands. Certainly it is less present in the more popular work than the influences of Shelley or Verne. (Horror stories, adventure stories, are the easier sell.) Still, it is the Wells' strand that seems to me to not only have been far and away the most intellectually interesting, but to have given science fiction a cultural role beyond mere entertainment; to have enabled science fiction to really matter. And it seems to me that the vigor of that particular tradition is, more than any other factor, the determinant of the health of the genre as a whole.

Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
My Posts on H.G. Wells

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