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  • Writer's picturebruce yu

STS - the History of Science Fiction

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

Science fiction novels in our society; this is my research object. This object was first introduced and beloved among the people who understood science at a high level and people who were intrigued by engineering and technology, due to its creativity based on real scientific reasoning, which seems to provide a more “solid” basis to the stories comparing to other fiction novels. As the object gradually moves from entertaining the science enthusiasts to inspiring and guiding our innovations, reflect our daily social practices, and even changing the direction of our future society’s appearance, science fiction novels present science/society relationships.

To investigate and relate science fiction novels to the social practices, we need to use knowledge from the interdisciplinary field of study that we call STS – the study of science, technology, and society (De Laet, 2011, pg 4). STS relates objects to their practices in the social circumstances. To learn more about the sci-fi novels, let’s first look at the prehistory of science fiction. In this section, we will divide the history of science fiction literature according to historical background difference into 3 parts (Arthur B. Evans, 1999): before 1900s (the early era), 1900 to 1950 (the flourishing in social and political criticism), 1950 onwards (the formation of soft and hard science fiction)

Before 1900 – The early era and the sci-fi pioneers

The first science fiction novel appeared in 1634, first in Johannes Kepler’s Somonium (The Dream, 1634), which is referred by both Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan as “the earliest work of science fiction”. It was the first time that humanity had strengthened its imagination and created a story using the narrative of people on the moon. A boy and his witch mother learned about an island called Levania (the moon). The first ever detailed description of what the earth would look like from the people who live on the moon inspired its incoming generations to continue exploring the moon and write millions of stories based on science and our imagination.

In 1726, Gulliver’s Travel was published. It is a story of a boy named Gulliver who constantly looked for adventures. During his visits of 4 different countries in his world, he had visited utopian societies which were filled with giants and horses, dystopian society which was filled with tiny Yahoo (human), and a society which was floating on the sky powered by magnetic forces of reaction. The book was filled with irony about the world politics, discussed about the form and possibility of utopian societies. In the end, we can tell Jonathan Swift, the author, is personally against the utopian society, because Yahoo (human), at the end, exposed their natures throughout the 4 adventures. Gulliver was devastated and would not talk to his families anymore. He raised two “Houyhnhnms” (intelligent horses) and spent his days talking to them, because they are more capable of forming an utopian society, and more civilized. This book was the pioneer of discussing the ideology of our society by comparing 4 different societies. It contributed significantly to the future development of dystopian idea, such as George Orwell’s 1984, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and how authors express their thinking to the public – through a science-based, fictional story.

One of the most innovative creators of science fiction stories arrived in the late 1870s – Jules Verne. His work Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea first started to focus on the details and scientific depictions, and created a craze for science fiction, a new era. People did not know that fiction novels could be this well-written and the technologies he wrote about could be real and commonly used in the future. If Alexandre Dumas was the master of integrating history into his literature, then Jules Vern was the master of integrating science, geography into his fictional stories. Late 18th to 19th century was called the years of reasoning. Directly resulted from the industrialization in the late 18th century, people started to switch their attention from the renaissance, when they focused on creating artifacts using their senses, to logical reasoning and scientific discoveries, when they focused on creating artifacts using their logical reasoning. The 19th century was also a time of war, people went on many different adventures and had seen all kinds of stories that could happen in wars. Jules Verne was a representation and a pioneer of his era, he combined the two aspects of his experience, and created more than 30 inspiring science fiction works. For instance, Simon Lake, one of the inventors of the submarine, referred to Jules Verne as the source of inspiration for designing the submarine (Submarine: The Autobiography Of Simon Lake).

1900 to 1950 – The emergence of social criticism

From 1900 to 1950, science fiction literature started to take shapes. It had been over 250 years since the publication of the first ever science fiction literature. The public had been exposed to this emerging genre of literature for sufficient time, that the public no longer felt hesitate to embrace science fiction’s crazy imagination. In contrast, after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jules Verne’s astonishing number of publications and novels, the public were thrilled about science fiction. People were intrigued about using science and technology to tell stories that no one would be dare to dream about in the real world.

Just at the meantime, science fiction writers, the creator community, found out a new inspiration source for their creative works – the real world. To be more specific, our society. It is not difficult to find out, that most of the science fiction novels, along with their detailed descriptions about the futuristic technologies, reflected the social background at that time, presented deep reflective thinking about the society’s current urgent problems, and our human race, such as using narratives from an alien (Arthur C. Clarke, 1953). This is not difficult to understand. When there emerged an increasing number of science fiction authors, they tended to form social groups of science fiction writers. These people had one thing in common, their persevering habit to think wildly with a wider range of topics. According to a research based on an online survey (Menadue & Jacups, 2018), writers and readers of science fiction novels in the US, tend to have longer time to be alone, and read more books than the rest 87.3% people in the US. One explanation to this is that people who immerse themselves in a broader background in the universe, and in a longer timeline, they start asking bigger “questions”, such as “What Exists Out There?” (Douglas Adams, A The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1979), “What Happens When ‘They’ Come to Earth?” (Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End, 1953), “What Makes Us Human?” (Isaac Asimov, Bicentennial Man, 1977), and the most controversial topic during 1930s “Is utopian society feasible?” (George Orwell, 1984, 1949). From 1900 to 1950, the world had experienced two most brutal, most violent wars in human’s history. Totalitarian and communism started to takeover Europe. Different tragedies happened every day at an increasing pace. Science fiction authors started to express their reflection and criticism about the political system, the social structure, from stories that resonate with millions of people’s experiences. Even though the stories take place in future, people still find them touching and surprisingly like their own experiences. Among all the criticisms, most of the stories were about dystopian/utopian society. From the historical background, and a social constructivist’s point of view, these works reflected the most pressing demand in that era - people at that time dreamed about living in a peaceful world, where everyone is equally wealthy. Food, clothes and resources are equally shared among everyone in the nation. The believers of a utopian society formed a very large social group from 1912 to 1949. among all the novels written in that era, there were three books that had remarkable impacts on the foundation of utopian and totalitarian ideology.

The first dystopian science fiction book in the 20th century called We, completely changed the central focus of science fiction in this era. Written by Russian radical Yevgeny Zamyatin, We was written in 1924, 7 years after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which was a social revolution that directly resulted in Russia adopting a socialist form of government. Under this historical background, Zamyatin decided to depict a dystopian society where men and women are named after numbers, lived in glass buildings with no personal privacy. The chance of technology development may be dehumanizing is fully demonstrated in this novel. Before the publication of this novel, science fiction novels focused on creating stories and adventures based on advanced technologies. Their focus was about the technologies and the excitement the stories created for the readers. We was a symbol of a huge advancement of science fiction literature, it marked the first step when sci-fi authors started to discuss about the impact of technologies to our society, from a pure technology determinism perspective (Kibin, 2022). Not only towards the development of technology, but the public’s view towards our society also started to be influenced by science fiction novels. Science fiction literature became an important STS object to the formation of our social structure and our culture.

Eight years after the first step towards science fiction novels focused on social criticism, We’s successor Brave New World was published. It continued the discussion about the impact of technology towards the solidification of social class, in which the people from lower class spent the rest of their time and energy in a virtual world filled with entertainment. The idea for the word “tittytainment” was first discussed in this novel, which refers to attract 80% of the frustrated population to be immersed in extremely predictable entertainment, also called the Lowest Common Denominator entertainment.

In 1949, along with the end of World War II, the social science fiction novels finally welcomed the most famous, most influential novel, later referred to as the masterpiece, 1984, written by George Orwell. In 1949, people were finally able to embrace peace after about 40-years of war, they became worried about what new social structure and political system should be applied to prevent the tragedies. Socialism, communism, utopian society were considered as a viable option. However, after witnessing the Spanish civil war in 1936, George Orwell came to realize a utopian society is physically impossible to be achieved in the real world. A socialist society is too reliant on the leader. Due to the nature of human being, the society will eventually turn into a totalitarian society, with a pretty camouflage at the first look. George Orwell also felt socially responsible to express his ideas via literature. He imagined after 35 years; the world will become a prison for everyone under the power of the Big Brother. The governments continue to fight wars against each other to impose pressure on their citizens. People are being monitored at every second. Memory hole, double think, thoughtcrime, thought police, room 101…Together they formed the nightmare future. According to the Atlantic Journal, “no novel of the past century has had more influence than George Orwell’s 1984.” (George Packer, 2019)

1950 onwards - The formation of soft and hard science fiction

After the social background was constantly changed for over 40 years, this intense situation had come to an end in 1950. The world finally embraced peace as a precious gift. In the meantime, the development of science fiction had come to a flourishing era. Due to the exponentially increasing amount of SF works after 1950, there seems to be clear traits of different groups of SF novels. It has become clear to us in the 21st century that science fiction has genres: it can be categorized as hard SF and soft SF.

Hard SF refers to the science fictions focused on developing the details of the technology context. Research done by Gulistan State University (Akhmedov, 2020), defines it as the following:

While both hard and soft sci-fi often deal with technology and futuristic elements, hard sci-fi leans more into realism and attempts to base the "science" part of its science fiction in as much fact as possible. Even if the technology or science itself doesn't exist in our world, it has to be plausible and described with as much accuracy as possible in order to be considered hard sci-fi.

Soft SF on the other hand, deals with “soft sciences” such as psychology, anthropology, sociology etc. It is defined as (Akhmedov, 2020):

If hard sci-fi likes to discuss the science itself, soft sci-fi likes to examine the societal implications of that technology or science and how it affects people. Soft sci-fi will still have those scientific and technological elements that hard sci-fi deals with, but it doesn't need to explain the science behind it or base it in as much technical realism.

Both hard SF and soft SF were developed throughout the second half of 20th century. The most influential soft SF writers in human history emerged, such as Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, Philip K. Dick, Anne McCaffrey, and more. Their works together discussed the implications of different kinds of technologies to the cultural, psychological, emotional well-being of human race. The hard SF writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Cixin Liu, Michael Crichton, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Robert Heinlein also contributed significantly to the insights of developing future science.


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