Is There a 'True History' of Science Fiction? Or Why Do We Need More Sf Histories? (2003)

* This is my mid-term course essay for Genre Definition Module of 2003/4 MA course in Science Fiction Studies in the University of Liverpool
* For the translated version of this essay in traditional Chinese, please refer to

'To understand sf, therefore, one is forced to be a historian.'[1] Hence, sf history is extremely important for those who want to know science fiction. However, even though the texts are out there, and the writing/publishing facts are fixed, it still seems impossible to achieve a consensus of sf history. Almost every 'historian' insists on her own approach to interpret these facts, that means, to understand one's version of sf history, we must consider her definition of science fiction and which aspect(s) of sf she emphasises or concentrates on. After evaluating various sf histories, we might choose one side to follow, or compile in mind our own 'true history' of science fiction.

The first interesting question every sf history has to answer is 'Which story did science fiction begin with?' It could be traced back as early as Lucian the Samosata's The True History, Homer's Odyssey, the epic of Gilgamesh, or even 'before the invention of writing'[2] 'if we accept the body of known and hypothesized facts of the world as the equivalent science of the day'[3]. It also could be as late as 1926, when Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of Amazing Stories, if we believe in that sf is a genre 'consisting of a body of texts related by a shared understanding of that genre as recorded in contemporary commentary'[4] and as the genre we know nowadays. The rest historians emphasise more on the concept of 'science' and argue that there should not be any science fiction written before the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. They respectively pick up one significant author or piece of work and then 'prove' her/it to be the first science fiction writer/story along with introducing their definitions of science fiction. Brian Aldiss's argument of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein being the first science fiction story, though well-known both inside and outside the field, is based on his definition: 'Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in out advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode'[5], and is attacked by some other scholars. One of the attackers, Thomas M. Disch, argues the genre should be established with an extensive general readership, and regards Edgar Allan Poe as the founding father of science fiction[6]. John J. Pierce, who also disagrees with Aldiss's assertion, claims 'the atmosphere of Frankenstein remains one not of science, but of sorcery'[7] and gives the credit of 'the father of science fiction' to Jules Verne because 'only by stripping his fiction to the bare essentials of the adventure story motivated by scientific discovery or invention could Verne lay the groundwork for sf to evolve on its own terms'[8]. Brian Stableford's Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950, though does not explicitly point out the origin of science fiction, still has done an excellent job in providing a history of a mature but older genre started with H. G. Wells and his contemporaries on the eastern coast of the Atlantic. But whatever their arguments are, all these along with other opinions I have not mentioned are part of my 'true history' of the science fiction.

I completely agree with Gary Westfahl and some other researchers that there was no sf genre before Hugo Gernsback. It is Gernsback's campaign that makes people be aware of science fiction. Writers know what they are writing; readers know what they want to read; publishers know what to be printed for profit; critics know how to establish a standard to judge the texts... All these are working under a banner called 'science fiction', thus the genre appears and lives on. However, while discussing the history of science fiction, we should pay attention to not only the texts, activities, and movements inside the genre but also those 'related to' it. We cannot chronicle the history of the United States of America just right from 4th July 1776 but go back to earlier events, maybe as far as thousands of years ago, when the Indians had started chasing buffalos or wild horses on that land (though it sounds absurd). In a similar way, we have to look backward to those previous writing or publishing which had influenced Gernsback's definition or categorisation of sf, whether directly or not, with or without concrete evidences, even if it is ridiculous to see these works as science fiction. After analysing Gernsback's various blurbs and essays, Westfahl points out six sf models/traditions in Gernsback's theory: melodramatic adventure in Luis Senarens and other contemporary pulp writing, Gothic novel and satire in Edgar Allan Poe's stories, travel tale and utopia (also by explicitly listing Bellamy) in Jules Verne's, tale of transcendence in H. G. Wells's and other scientific romances[9]. Westfahl admits these authors 'filtered through the mind of Gernsback, actually influenced the emerging genre of science fiction'[10]. Even though Westfahl also argues their influence is indirect and 'mediated by Gernsback'[11], the influence still exists, so it is adequate to give them a position in the sf history. Taking them as another starting point, we can trace further back according to the themes. And then it is not so awkward to say that earlier texts from the epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey are related to science fiction. Texts after the Renaissance, even the Industrial Revolution suit better. The point is: while talking about the sf history, we should consider not only the texts in the genre, but also those from outside or written before, i.e. to treat sf as a writing mode. If the label is crucial, we always can call the texts before 1926 'proto science fiction'.

While focusing on later periods after the establishment of the science fiction genre, this argument still seems to work well. Scientific romance is an earlier British genre independent of science fiction, but no sf history would be complete if it excludes the development of scientific romances in the first half of the 20th century. As the genre evolves on, more and more non-genre authors write in sf themes or take the approaches similar to sf in their creation, that is why we have so many jargons like 'mainstream', 'slipstream', 'fabulation', 'magic realism', 'postmodern sf'. Some of them are even recognised and get a high reputation in the genre although the authors may deny that what they write is sf. These works should be included in the sf history, too. Besides, we still have to add in the chronicles of genre publishing, criticism, and fan activities, which are also critical in a historical approach to understand science fiction. However, the disappointing thing happens. After all these efforts, this 'true history of science fiction' looks like Edward James's 'sad muddle'[12]. Maybe, what we need is not the 'one true history' of science fiction, but a great number of historical studies on specific topics of sf.

Frankly speaking, the bulky sf history book, like Trillion Year Spree or the Panshins' The World Beyond the Hill, spanning all the periods of sf development, chronologically listing brief biographies of important authors, discussing their famous works, describing the publishing situations and/or fan activities in short, along with the compiler's criticism and ideology (thus contains almost everything to form a 'sad muddle'), is quite informative for newcomers to this field. Yet, however abundant contents it supplies, it still cannot play the role of encyclopaedia, nor can it depict all the details of a period in one chapter, which occupies dozens of pages at most. Instead of building such a huge volume, we can take two different approaches: first, to work on only a period in the sf history or a special subject. We have several successful examples already, such as Everett F. Bleiler's Science Fiction: the Early Years, Brian Stableford's Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950, and Mike Ashley's great efforts in The History of The Science Fiction Magazine. Each of these has become the authoritative research in its own field. The second approach is to deduce a model or a theory depicting what science fiction is or how science fiction changes or evolves by thoroughly analysing the texts and related information such as criticism, publishing or market situation and readers' reactions. I think this is the ultimate goal and the most useful function of the studies in sf history. Westfahl made such an attempt at the end of The Mechanics of Wonder. His 'description of science fiction', which in my opinion provides the most complete vision of the sf genre, covers all the materials which could appear in an sf publication: 1) what we traditionally call 'science fiction' (with all three aspects of story plots, scientific facts/ideas, and prophetic/(retrospective?) features), 2) fantasy (without scientific languages), 3) scientific novels (without prophecy/(retrospection?)); 4) prophetic scientific nonfiction (without a story), and 5) criticisms, commentaries, introductions to previous four categories of texts or sf genre itself[13].

However, I am more interested in his historical model of the sf genre evolving, the main idea of which is the principles or proposals of what sf should be submitted by a certain critic with authority could not affect her contemporaries but will influence writers/readers of the next generation[14]. He successfully shows that Gernsback's sf theories breed the 'Golden Age' writers and John W. Campbell Jr.'s ideas about sf raises the writers in the 1950s; while he continues asserting this model works properly on later periods, I think there might be some problems. First, it is easy to point out Gernsback and Campbell as the most influential figures in the genre before the end of 'Golden Age', but for later periods, we need a thorough research to look for who is/are in charge. Second, after the World War II, there have been obvious influences from outside the genre, both literal and socio-economical, thus makes the situation more sophisticated to analyse. Furthermore, if we apply this model on later periods, a series of questions would arise as a result from the lack of satisfactory sf history specific to the periods after 1950s. Does the cause/effect relationship still apply to the period after New Wave? What do sf critical theories of the New Wave directly influence? Cyberpunk, or the nameless period of 1970s in which the sf writing is catching up the wave? If it is cyberpunk, how about those retrospectives of space opera and other works filled with traditional sf themes? Who affected them? Not to mention the variety of sf texts in the 1990s and the first decade of 21st century is difficult to be tagged.

We need more sf histories. Not the big ones briefly browsing from the epic of Gilgamesh or Frankenstein or Ralph 124C 41+ to Ken MacLeod's Marxist political space opera but those extensively, systematically analyses of a certain period in the sf history or a subject of the field in detail. We need descriptions and models that can help us to understand science fiction, not just the meaning of the term 'science fiction', but how 'science fiction' has evolved from the trivial past to its present status. (I dare not predict what it will become.) This is especially true for a non-Western reader who desperately wants to know sf better, such as myself.
[1] Edward James, Science Fiction in the 20th Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 2.
[2] Lester del Rey, The World of Science Fiction: The History of a Subculture (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979), p. 12.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Gary Westfahl, The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998), p. 8.
[5] Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, reprinted edn. (London: House of Stratus, 2001), p. 4.
[6] Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World (New York: The Free Press, 1998), pp. 37-38.
[7] John J. Pierce, Foundations of Science Fiction: A Study in Imagination and Evolution (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1987), p. 22.
[8] Ibid, p. 34.
[9] Westfahl, op. cit., pp. 79-83.
[10] Westfahl, op. cit., p. 83.
[11] Westfahl, op. cit., p. 91.
[12] Brian Aldiss, Brian Stableford and Edward James, 'On "On the True History of Science Fiction"', in Foundation: the Review of Science Fiction, 47, (1989), pp. 28-33 (p. 33)
[13] For further analyses, see Westfahl, op. cit., pp. 291-307.
[14] For a complete description of this model, see Westfahl, op. cit., pp. 281-283.

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