It is a more difficult question than it seems. We all know what science fiction is, right? Ray guns and space ships and aliens? So we just go back in time, look for the earliest instances of these elements, and presto! We have the first literary work of science fiction.
But what about a totalitarian regime using technology that was but a stone’s throw away at the time it was written? Or a sexist dystopia with identical technology to the present day? What if the people with the ray guns, space ships and aliens can move things with their brains? Is this still science fiction, or are we going someplace else entirely?
All three of the works I reference (1984, The Handmaids Tale and Star Wars) are frequently categorized as science fiction. But the classifications are far from unanimous. While Orwell’s novel seems to be in little danger of being considered anything other than social science-fiction, especially as it still involves technology not yet used at the time. Yet Margaret Atwood considers her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, to be speculative fiction, but not science fiction, as it has no future technology. (Wikipedia, 2013) Star Wars, of course, takes its fantastic elements so far that many consider it science fiction in name only.
How we define science fiction has profound implications on how we understand its history. If Star Wars is science fiction, then we may consider all of the myths and legends of years past—of which its creator intended it to be a modern analogue—to be a form of science fiction. This would include the oldest recorded tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which some indeed consider to be, at least in part, a work of science fiction. (Wikipedia, 2013)
But if we accepted the definition of science fiction used by the magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact, that science fiction consists of “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse,” we would read the situation much differently. Star Wars would still be science fiction because—despite its fantasy elements—it still relies on future technology, but it would not confer that status upon The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh’s tale, though fantastic, lacks any element of scientific thought as we know it, and is thus disqualified.
Analog’s definition would also confirm Atwood’s assertion that her work is not science fiction, and we could even question 1984’s status as science fiction. Although it does involve “future” technology that was not quite available when Orwell wrote it, one could argue that the plot could remain intact without it. The novel would lose quite a bit of its punch, but it could survive.
If 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t science fiction, however, then much of what we might consider prototypical science fiction in the Western canon may not be. Thomas More’s Utopia (written all the way back in 1516) is considered a precursor to what we now call science fiction, on account of it using a fictional society to comment on contemporary issues. (Wikipedia, 2013) If the use of speculation to critique modern society in 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale are not hallmarks of science fiction, one may question whether Utopia had any influence on the genre at all. Of course, a more solid argument would be that even if 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t SF, that doesn’t mean Utopia was any less influential. Huxley’s Brave New World is truly difficult to see as anything other than science fiction by Analog’s definition. The ability to create humans by a factory process is one we still lack today, and is critical to the plot. The novel also works in the dystopian vein of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, which, as a whole, is a distortion of Utopia’s apparent portrayal of a perfect world, and thus owes its existence to its influence.
So, given the disagreement on exactly what constitutes science fiction, when did it begin?
The simplest answer is: very recently. In his essay “Science Fiction: The Early History,” H. Bruce Franklin asserts that science fiction, as we know it, is a direct outgrowth of the industrial revolution:
It is an expression of only modern technological, scientific, industrial society, appearing when preindustrial societies are transformed by an industrial revolution. Indeed, industrial society creates not just the consciousness characteristic of science fiction but also the very means of physically propagating science fiction in its various cultural forms, even before it was beamed as images on movie and video screens. For science fiction, like other forms of literature typical of industrial society, is propagated in mass-produced magazines and books, which require advanced manufacturing and distribution as well as a large literate audience.
Franklin’s argument makes sense for a number of reasons. For one, the Analog definition of science fiction does resonate with many of our expectations of science fiction: that something that can only be explained by science or technology be involved in the story. The industrial revolution, as Franklin says, creates the conditions for us to see the world through the lens of science and technology. Secondly, the term “science fiction” is a recent invention. Franklin cites its first use as happening in 1851—however, the Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that this was an isolated example, and first entered regular use even more recently in 1929.
The use of the word indicates that, at the very least, awareness of this kind of tale as a distinct form of fiction did not exist until the 19th or 20th century. Even if such stories did exist before the 1800s, they did not reach enough of a critical mass to earn recognition as a genre. While we may debate over when the first science fiction story was told, it would appear that the genre did not exist until the 1800s.
But again, there is the question: what is science fiction? What is this genre which we first recognized nearly two centuries ago? With everyone using their own definition, it can be difficult to come to an agreement on the subject. But Franklin’s essay, I believe, offers an insight. In describing the effect of the late Renaissance on human consciousness, he writes:
During the 17th century, technological and social change were accelerating so rapidly that they could be experienced within a person's lifetime. It would soon become possible to imagine an historical future qualitatively different from the past or the present. Prior to this, there had never been a fiction set in a future period of human history. The closest had been millennial imaginings that had pictured the replacement of human history by God's kingdom.
Here, Franklin asserts that a change in our perception of time as a driving force in the development of science fiction. Now that we knew the future might be different than the present, we became able to imagine it. Since that future was driven by discoveries in science and the development of technology, our minds opened to those possibilities.
But this change, I believe, masks an even more fundamental development. Scholars generally say that the acceptance of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory cast the Earth from its throne at the center of the universe. However, on an inner level, humanity appears to have assumed the throne at the center of its own soul. As Franklin’s quote indicates, the prevailing myth of the pre-industrial world was that our fate lay in the hands of divine providence. When we became aware of the possibility of tomorrow being different from today and yesterday, and that tomorrow changing on account of human progress, I suspect that it also became apparent that we, ourselves, are the drivers of our own destiny. It makes sense, in this light, that some consider Frankenstein, whose subtitle is The Modern Prometheus, the first true science fiction novel. (Franklin, "Science Fiction: The Early History") With the realization—still incomplete—that we hold the key to our own future, it seems humanity replaced God as the center of our own existence.
So, while it is not the most complete definition, we can describe science fiction thusly: science fiction is that genre of stories which operates on the notion that humanity is the agent of its own destiny, and that humanity alone is accountable to itself for the consequences of its actions.