Machine-age stories for our brave new world

From a lecture given by Edward James, the professor of history at Reading University for the British Association History of Science Fiction series
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The 1890s were a starting point for serious speculation about the future, the origins of what came to be called, in the United States at the end of the 1920s, "science fiction".

The 1890s were a starting point for serious speculation about the future, the origins of what came to be called, in the United States at the end of the 1920s, "science fiction".

HG Wells was undoubtedly the most important and imaginative of these early writers. But there were dozens, even in the 1890s. By the 1990s we were bombarded with images of science-produced futures. Whole books have been written defining science fiction, so I could stick to the simplest possible definition, proposed by the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson: "science fiction stories are those set in the future", although I would have to modify that to "science fiction is historical fiction in a setting which no one has experienced" to allow for the fact that such writers often write about alternate pasts.

But even if stories are set in the future, they are really about the present: expressing the imagination of a writer firmly rooted in her 19th or 20th-century context. Since the time of Mary Shelley, the major theme of science fiction has been the possible impact on individual human beings, and on humanity as a whole, of anticipated scientific and technological change.

The genre had a mixed and changing relationship with science. In its early days, with its share of missionaries for science. One of its founders in America in the 1920s, the editor Hugo Gernsback, saw the reading of science fiction as a way of teaching science to young men - and women, notably - and inspiring them to follow a life in science. He also believed that science fiction could inspire and inform working scientists.

For him, and other writers and readers from the 1920s into the '50s and beyond, science fiction writers should help create the future: prepare the populace at large for future shock, and help and advance the cutting edge of science and technology. The visit by the US Army's Counter-Intelligence Corps to the offices of magazine Astounding Science Fiction in 1944 to investigate possible leaks, after it had published a story about an atomic bomb, has entered science fiction mythology as proving these claims.

If one wants to look at the futures portrayed by recent writers, one needs to do it in a scientific way. Each year the magazine Locus, the newsletter of the science fiction field, published in California, asks its world-wide list of subscribers to nominate their favourite books of the previous year. I have looked at the 10 top books each year, for the last 10 years, as a sample. It is interesting to see what was not addressed in these novels.

Earth's environmental problems, the possible impact of global warming, or the depletion of energy sources hardly figure at all. Writers often assume that these environmental problems would be solved, and get on with their own plots.

Some people might be surprised that cloning and genetic engineering are also rare modern themes. This is largely because most science fiction writers know the history of their genre quite well. They know that many of the possibilities of these themes had already been played out by the late 1970s, but also because they accept them as part of the inevitable long-term improvements in health and longevity.

They did not, however, anticipate the personal computer. Back in 1984, William Gibson's Neuromancer began the fashion for stories about near futures dominated by multinationals, in which free spirits could survive by exploiting their computing skills in cyberspace - a word that Gibson popularised. Cyberspace is seen as a real alternative universe, in which personal interaction can take place.

But probably rather more important to science fiction in the 1990s was a continuation and development of another concept that Gibson had used in Neuromancer - artificial intelligence. This has been ubiquitous in Nineties science fiction. Homo superior is one thing; but machina superior seems rather more possible and imminent.

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