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A Brief History of Science Fiction

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

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A friend asked me to write a summary of the history of science fiction. The idea intrigued me, so I embarked on the quest. What I learned astonished me. I’m still recovering from it because, after having done this exercise, I cannot escape the conclusion that the human race hasn't changed in 4,000 years. The stories people told each other millennia ago are the same that we tell each other today.

This makes me think that if I met someone who lived 4,000 years ago, aside from language, the person would be identical to me in every respect.

What has happened to human beings in 4,000 years? Apparently, nothing.

A Brief History of Science Fiction

I don’t provide here the full history of science fiction over the course of humanity. Instead, I offer only the fun bits: enough for you to be popular at parties, but not enough for you to pass a college course in literature.

The following is a representative sample of notable science fiction works published over the past four thousand years. I suspect that if you had never heard of these works and I told you they were written this year, you'd probably believe me.

Author Unknown (c. 2000 BC): Epic of Gilgamesh

  • Written on several series’ of stone tablets, the story is about Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and about Enkidu, who the gods created to stop him. Gilgamesh wins the contest between him and Enkidu, and they become friends. Later in the story, Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh, in grief, begins a long journey to discover the secret of eternal life. He eventually learns that “Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his snare….”

  • Gilgamesh meets Uta-napishti (the Biblical Noah) who provides Gilgamesh sufficient information to restore his land to its antediluvian wonder, which included advanced techniques in irrigation, mathematics, medicine, and astrology—“sci-fi” for that time period. The post-diluvial world in Epic of Gilgamesh is like that in many post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories of today.

  • The god Ea asks the Mother Goddess to alter mankind’s biology so it can't reproduce so easily, greatly shortening the lifespan of human beings. Genetic engineering?

  • The story explores the fear of death, and what it means to be human.

  • Note that Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest surviving significant piece of literature in the history of humankind. And it's considered to be science fiction!

Author Unknown (8th Century AD): Urashima Taro

  • One version of the story is about a fisherman named Urashima Taro who saves a small turtle from being tortured by children and puts it back into the sea. Days later while fishing on his boat, a large turtle visits him and gives him gills as a reward for saving the turtle. The small turtle that Urashima Taro saved turns out to be a princess. The large turtle takes him to an undersea palace where he is treated like a hero for three days. Princess Otohime gives Urashima a box, which is meant to protect him, but one he is never to open for any reason. He returns home, only to find that three hundred years have passed during his three-day absence and that according to tradition, Urashima Taro is said to have vanished mysteriously into the sea long ago. In distress, he opens the box, which turns him into an old man.

  • One of the morals of the story is that helping others does not always bring a reward or good fortune.

Author Unknown (8th to 14th Century AD): One Thousand and One Nights

  • The tale is a compilation of a number of stories, featuring (among other tales) the protagonist Bulukiya and his quest for the herb of immortality. He journeys to the Garden of Eden and ultimately across the universe to different worlds. Along the way, he encounters jinn (genies), mermaids, talking trees, talking serpents, and other creatures. Another protagonist is able to breathe underwater. Other tales deal with advanced civilizations. In another story, explorers crossing northern Africa find robots and seductive marionettes that dance without strings. They also find a brass vessel that was once used to trap a jinn. Another story features a mechanical flying horse.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626): New Atlantis

  • The crew of a European ship, after being lost in the Pacific Ocean, discovers a land called Bensalem, where "generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendor, piety and public spirit" are held by the people. The society is Christian due to a copy of the Bible and a letter from the Apostle Bartholomew having mysteriously arrived there.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745): Gulliver's Travels

  • Gulliver's Travels is a four-part tale. The story of Gulliver coming across the six-inch-tall Lilliputians is only part one. The second part tells of Gulliver discovering another land where grass grows as tall as a tree. Gulliver comes across a people who are over seventy feet tall. The third part tells where Gulliver is marooned yet again, and is this time saved by people living on a flying island. These people never die--but don't stay young either. They just get older and older and are considered legally dead when they reach eighty years of age and are pushed off the island. In part four, he is abandoned by his fellow shipmates again and comes across a race of talking horses that rule over a deformed race of humans called Yahoos.

Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville (1746-1805): Le Dernier Homme (“The Last Man”)

  • In the far future, the son of the King of Europe sees in vision the last fertile woman in the world, who happens to live in Brazil. He travels there in an airship and returns with her to Europe. Adam (yes, the original Adam) convinces the two not to prolong humanity. Eventually, the two main characters die, ending the human race. God then initiates the Rapture and other events described in the book of Revelation.

  • Le Dernier Homme is the first modern novel to depict the end of the world.

Jules Verne (1828-1905): Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

  • Ships of various nationalities sight a mysterious sea monster. The United States commissions an expedition to find and destroy it. Upon confronting the monster in the South Pacific, the creature damages the ship’s rudder, throwing the protagonists onto the creature's back, which they then discover is an advanced submarine. The submarine’s captain (Captain Nemo) explains that his ship’s existence must be kept a secret, and therefore he will not let the protagonists go.

  • For interest, a “league” is three nautical miles, or 3.452 statute miles (1 statute mile = 5,280 feet). Thus, the title of the novel does not refer to a depth of 20,000 leagues, as that would be 69,000 miles down—deeper than eight times the diameter of Earth. Instead, it refers to the distance traveled while underwater, or nearly twice the circumference of the Earth.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851): Frankenstein

  • Captain Walton and his sister Margaret set out to explore the North Pole. On their way, they come across an emaciated man named Victor Frankenstein, who was in search of a huge man that Walton and Margaret had spotted previously. The rest of the novel is Dr. Frankenstein telling Walton and Margaret his woeful story about his life’s miseries. He tells of developing a scientific method that gives life to non-living matter, and that he created an 8-foot-tall man. The creature is intelligent and articulate but is nevertheless hated by everyone around him. The creature, in turn, hates his creator for abandoning him. Before dying, Victor Frankenstein tells Walton and Margaret to seek “happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910): A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

  • The protagonist is sent back via “transmigration of souls” to the fabled time of King Arthur. Published in 1889, the novel seems to predict World War I, when chivalry in warfare is replaced by weapons and tactics.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988): Stranger in a Strange Land

  • The story is similar in many respects to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, except the protagonist, Valentine Smith, is raised by Martians instead of wolves. Some of the writing techniques in the novel are similar to Kipling’s.

George Orwell (1903-1950): 1984

  • Published in 1949, the novel portrays (in the year 1984) the world divided into three “superstates” (Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia), which are intentionally kept in a permanent state of war. This provides an excuse for the governments to control every aspect of life. Oceania's dictatorial government employs Thought Police who arrest people suspected of even thinking about promoting individuality or possessing independent thought. Many terms used in the novel are now used in modern speech, such as “Big Brother,” “Thought Police,” “Thoughtcrime,” and “Doublethink.”

I could make this list three times as long, but I don’t want it to lose its charm and become a posh, academic essay. Only so much happiness can be stuffed into one moment.

I believe this summary is sufficient to show that the science fiction genre deserves more respect than it gets. I think the truth is that non-science fiction writers are jealous of their more imaginative, resourceful, and intelligent counterparts.

It's said that “history repeats itself.” I would say this is true for science fiction literature, except I don’t think science fiction has ever changed. Something can’t be repeated until it changes to something else and then changes back again. Maybe a more applicable phrase is, “You can’t improve on perfection.”

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