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

Share

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing