I am very fond of Aristophanes and Cyrano de Bergerac and Edgar Allen Poe, thank you, and everyone else who has been or could be pointed to as a "forerunner" of the SF novel, or an influence. Ultimately, every author is influenced by everything, and you could bog down in listing it all. You have to draw the line somewhere. I draw it at 1890.
Do you know that H.G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895? That's even before the turn of the century. A Jules Verne novel, Propellor Island, was also published in that year. Critical works in the formation of modern fantasy were also published before the turn of the century: The Golden Bough, in which James G. Frazer attempted to present an integrated picture of human cultures with all their myth, religion and folklore, and to lay out the axioms of Magic; William Morris published high fantasies, with elaborate language and mannerisms reminiscent of Morte d'Arthur; Bram Stoker added Dracula to the archetypes of modern fiction.
Those were the main things that I read that were published between 1890 and 1900. One of my favorite books of all time was published in 1904: Green Mansions by William Henry Hudson, the story of Rima the Jungle Girl. In 1905, Rudyard Kipling published With the Night Mail; he published a sequel, As Easy as A.B.C. in 1912. In 1906, Jack London published a prehistoric fantasy, Before Man; in 1907, a dystopian fantasy, The Iron Heel. William Hope Hodgson published The House on the Borderland in 1908; Ambrose Bierce published Moxon's Master; G.K. Chesterton published The Man Who Was Thursday.
The most impressive story to me in this era was The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster. In 1909 he visualized a world-spanning civilization totally dependent on technology, in which human beings live underground, each in individual cells, communicating by videoscreen, all they want brought to them by tube -- until a catastrophe stops the Machine.
I am delighted by P.G. Wodehouse, and he added to my delight by writing the very first science fiction spoof -- The Swoop, published in 1910.
In 1911 Hugo Gernsback wrote Ralph 124C41+: A Romance of the Year 2660, a really terrible story with a lot of fascinating technological predictions. Arthur Conan Doyle published The Lost World in 1912, and Edgar Rice Burroughs started both the Tarzan series and his Mars series.
There were many other seminal appearances before 1920, including James Branch Cabell (even bigger site here), but the authors that I read most while I was growing up, from my father's SF collection, were Arthur Machen, Charles P. Stillson (from the pulp magazines), Abraham Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Murray Leinster, Ray Cummings. I discovered H. Rider Haggard and the sf/fantasies of Jack London later, on my own.
I would like to say that I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's feminist novel, Herland, but I didn't even hear of it until I was putting together this page. I am reading it now, however, having discovered an online copy at the University of Maryland Reading Room. It has recently been reprinted: you can also find a copy at Amazon.com.
In 1921, Karl Capek introduced the term "robot" to world literature in his novel R.U.R..
Edmond Hamilton published his first novel, Crashing Suns, in 1928 -- and E.E. "Doc" Smith published The Skylark of Space. Many others published up through 1930, but the only ones I really read a lot of were Jack Williamson, John W. Campbell, Olaf Stapledon and Philip Gordon Wylie -- the last two didn't publish a great deal, but what they did write was memorable.
Now "science fiction" was picking up speed. All the authors above published more and more, and were joined by others. Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932. Edwin Balmer and Philip Gordon Wylie published When Worlds Collide in 1933 and After Worlds Collide in 1934. Robert E. Howard published Conan the Conqueror in 1935, and Charles Finney published The Circus of Dr. Lao; I discovered Conan on my own, but Dad had a complete Thorne Smith collection. John Wyndham began publishing in 1936; C.S. Lewis published Out of the Silent Planet in 1938; Ayn Rand published Anthem in 1938, a dystopian vision of a communist future. L. Sprague de Camp was published in 1939, as were Eric Frank Russell and Stanley Weinbaum.
In 1940 L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt published The Compleat Enchanter; Robert A. Heinlein published If This Goes On; L. Ron Hubbard published what I still consider to be one of the best sf/war/post-apocalypse novels ever, Final Blackout, and the comic fantasy Typewriter in the Sky; A. E. Van Vogt published Slan.
Other authors I haven't mentioned yet because they primarily wrote short stories: Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, Clifford D. Simak, C. L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, Manley Wade Wellman, George O. Smith, James H. Schmitz. Theodore Sturgeon published his first story in 1939. Robert Bloch published his first story around this time -- and is still publishing.
James Blish published his first story in 1940; so did Isaac Asimov and Fritz Leiber. The rest of the core members of what my Dad regarded as "real science fiction" -- from the well-known Robert Heinlein to the not-so-well-known Curt Siodmak -- began publishing in the 40's. George Orwell published Animal Farm in 1945. Catherine Moore and Henry Kuttner published The Fairy Chessmen, the first of their collaborations under the pen name of Lewis Padgett, in 1946. Ray Bradbury published his first book, a short story collection titled Dark Carnival, in 1947. In 1949, the year I was born: Frederic Brown published a delightful satire, What Mad Universe; Hal Clement published one of his hard-science novels, The Needle; Max Ehrlich published The Big Eye, the story of how observations of an approaching meteor affect human society; George Orwell published 1984; George Stewart published Earth Abides, a post-apocalypse novel. Judith Merrill began publishing in 1950.
With the nuclear age, there was a boom in SF. In addition to all of the above, we now had: Brian Aldiss, Poul Anderson, Alfred Bester, Leigh Brackett, Algis Budrys, John Christopher [Christopher Sam Youd], Arthur C. Clarke, Lester del Rey, Philip K. Dick, Gordon Dickson, Philip Jose Farmer, Jack Finney, Randall Garrett, William Golding, James E. Gunn, Frank Herbert, Fred Hoyle, Damon Knight, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Richard Matheson, Walter M. Miller, Ward Moore, Chad Oliver, Edgar Pangborn, Frederik Pohl, Eric Frank Russell, Robert Sheckley, Nevil Shute, Robert Silverberg, J. R. R. Tolkein, Wilson Tucker, Jack Vance, and Kurt Vonnegut. Just listing the ones I've read.
The bulk of what I read in my childhood, of what set the definitions of "science fiction" for me, was written in the 40s and 50s. It was dominated by Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, James Blish, John W. Campbell, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Fred Hoyle, Murray Leinster -- predominantly rationalists, predominantly men, who wrote of the ability of the individual reasoning human to overcome anything. Chad Oliver, James Blish, Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon got a bit deeper into philosophy and human issues; H. P. Lovecraft introduced a wierd fatalism; C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett and Judith Merrill kept reminding us that women could write like blazes too; and Robert Sheckley, Randall Garrett, and Frederic Brown tried to keep us all from taking ourselves too seriously.
Looking BackwardI realized at the end here that I have left out the whole genre of Utopian/Dystopian novels, which did begin before 1890. Without reaching back too far, I can reach Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, a commentary on the society of the 1880's by contrasting it with a future fifty years from then. As Bellamy said himself, "Looking Backward, although in form a fanciful romance, is intended, in all seriousness, as a forecast, in accordance with the principles of evolution, of the next stage in the industrial and social development of humanity."
And what is that but science fiction?
Lycos has an excellent page covering this and other SF Utopias/Dystopias.
Looking ForwardFor other specific sub-genres (such as Hard SF, or the Apocalyptic novel) and their beginnings, check out my partial list of Formative SF. Eventually I'll extend this history, at least up through the 80's.
More historical SF links:
The Evolution of Science Fiction by Robert J. Sawyer
SF Classics at Amazon
SFFBooks, a discussion list for science fiction, fantasy and horror.
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