The Oxford English Dictionary defines science as “a branch of knowledge involving the systematized observation of and experiment with phenomena.” By definition, therefore, early man must have been a scientist, carefully observing and experimenting with the world around him merely to survive. But man, by nature, is also a story-teller. We may never know which story was the first to be told, but it’s fairly safe to assume that as long as there has been fiction, there has also been science fiction of one sort or another.
Across the globe, many myths have science fiction elements, including flying machines, fantastical devices and time travel, although the line between fantasy and technology often becomes blurred. This is by no means limited to ancient stories; more modern creations such as Frank L. Baum’s Oz books and Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber also blend elements of outright fancy with scientific elements to great effect.
What many might consider to be true science fiction began to emerge during the Enlightenment in the early 16th Century as the Western world’s understanding of science blossomed. Others identify Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818 as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, as the first true science fiction novel. Today it tends to be seen very much as gothic horror, but it relies heavily on extrapolating then current scientific understanding to extreme fantastical ends.
There are many sub-genres of science fiction; it may even be classified as “hard” or “soft”. Soft science fiction is that which emphasises character and story over technology (or focuses on the so-called “softer” social sciences), whilst hard focuses very much on the detail and intricacies of that technology (and therefore has a strong physics and engineering bent).
In terms of sub-genres, probably the first to develop clearly in the mid- to late-19th Century was that of the scientific romance, typified by the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. These tended to be sweeping adventure stories or commentaries on society with science acting very much as a supporting character or means to an end. The term is occasionally used to refer to a much newer sub-genre, that of steampunk, usually set in the Victorian or Edwardian era and having at its core steam-powered equivalents of modern technological devices (making them, effectively, alternative history stories).
Space opera, like its predecessor scientific romance, also tends to the sweeping and melodramatic but with a definite view to the stars. It became massively popular through the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s, although to a modern audience its most famous examples would have to be George Lucas’ Star Wars saga and the Star Trek franchise (although the latter does sometimes stray into the occasional bit of hard science fiction with its techno-babble).
Hard science fiction stories are underpinned by accurate science or that which can be logically extrapolated from our current understanding of the world around us. Often these stories are criticised for their lack of characterisation and some can be a little dry. The term itself came into use in the 1950s as our technological expansion once again gathered pace and for the first time it looked as if we truly would be able to reach out and touch the stars. Arthur C. Clarke is one of the most famous proponents of the field.
Just as scientific romance has steampunk, modern science fiction has cyberpunk, a branch that emerged in response to the technological advances in computing in the 1980s. Invariably the settings are bleak, dystopian futures where hi-tech rules the roost, even if the methods by which that technology works in some cases are far removed from science fact. One of the most famous cyberpunk authors, William Gibson, could also be credited as the father of steampunk, at least in its earliest modern form.
In some cases, science fiction has itself been the inspiration for science fact: submarines, satellites, mobile phones, e-books and robots to name but a few have all taken their inspiration from story-telling. Or have been predicted by it, the line between prediction and inspiration being as hazy as that between science fiction and fantasy in some places. In fact, the word robot comes to us from science fiction, first appearing in the 1921 play Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Čapek.
However, for all their ability to engage us as readers or viewers, science fiction stories as discussed here require us to be passive participants in the narrative. There is another medium, that of interactive story-telling, that has been just as heavily influenced by science fiction and we will look at that in the second part of this article.