Lesson 1: In the Beginning

Lesson 1: In the Beginning

Created by James Gunn and Thomas Seay

This course is available for online enrollment as ENGL 506 through the Continuing Education department of the University of Kansas. To take this course for academic credit, click here.

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the emergence of science fiction as a genre distinct from other types of literature, such as utopias and fantasies; and
  • Identify precursors to science fiction in earlier literature.

From A True Story, by Lucian of Samosata

The Road to Science Fiction #1, pp. 1-12

From Utopia, by Thomas More

The Road to Science Fiction #1, pp. 22-30

"Somnium, or Lunar Astronomy," by Johannes Kepler

The Road to Science Fiction #1, pp. 63-78

From Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

The Road to Science Fiction #1, pp. 146-58

Science fiction could not exist before the creation of a new world by invention and technology, a world in which change is apparent, a world in which people believe in progress. Neither could it exist without form, without a medium in which to relate its dreams and describe its visions.

The novel and the short story are of comparatively recent origin. Some literary historians find their sources in fourteenth-century Italy (Boccaccio wrote his Tales in 1339 and his Decameron in 1347), in fifteenth-century France and England (Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur appeared in 1470), and in seventeenth-century Spain (some critics insist that Cervantes' Don Quixote, first printed in 1605, was the first novel). Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and Moll Flanders in 1722, but traditional scholarship points to Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) as the first English novel.

Before there were novels and short stories, however, men had the same human instincts and desires: to entertain and to be entertained, to instruct, to explain, to illuminate, to invent, to imagine things that are not. Conditions may change, but people's instincts and desires remain the same, and contemporary social conditions determined the ways in which those instincts and desires that ultimately created science fiction expressed themselves.

Those instincts and desires could not create what we know as science fiction before the Industrial Revolution brought the general realization that science and technology were producing irreversible change and were altering the way people lived, even within their lifetimes.

This is not to imply that the ancient world had no scientists. The Greeks produced great philosophers of science, but they expressed their instincts and desires through means other than science fiction: in philosophical speculation, sometimes framed as dialogues, such as Plato's; in natural history; in history itself; in criticism; in tragedies and comedies for the Greek amphitheaters; and in the epic literature epitomized in the two works attributed to Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which look back toward a more heroic past.

Plato (c.427 - c.347 BC) exhibited some of the speculative and model-building characteristics of the science fiction writer in The Republic, the first of the utopias that figure prominently in the history of science fiction. In The Republic Plato describes an ideal state, a self-contained, independent city whose population is divided into three fixed classes, each member of which knows his place, minds his own business, takes orders from above, and never answers back: husbandmen and craftsmen, military protectors, and guardians. In setting up his ideal, Plato dismisses, as increasingly removed from it, the military state, the dominance of merchant princes, democracy, and tyranny. His one scientific proposal, if we exclude his concern with the science of government, is eugenic breeding.

Among Plato's later works is the first mention of the legend of Atlantis. In the "Timaeus" and "Critias" Plato tells of a land of fabled strength and wealth, which existed in prehistory beyond the pillars of Hercules--an island larger than Libya and Asia together.

"But at a later time there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled down." (Plato. Timaeus. Trans. Donald J. Zeyl. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.)


Something that more closely resembled science fiction was written about AD 165 by the Greek writer, rhetorician, philosopher, and satirist Lucian of Samosata. Lucian traveled widely, settling in Athens at the age of forty and ending his life in Egypt, where he was appointed to a post by the Emperor Commodus; but his imagination carried him even farther. In Icaromenippus Lucian wrote the first accounts of what would become typical of the later utopian and then science fiction theme of far traveling, the voyage to the moon.

In 1609 Galileo built his first telescope and began his observations of the heavens, and voyages to the moon began to incorporate the realities of scientific observation. The first such book was written, appropriately enough, by a German astronomer, Johannes Kepler. Somnium was published posthumously in 1634 and cast in the form of a dream, perhaps as a means of self-protection, since Kepler's method of getting to the moon was witchcraft. Once the narrator and his mother have reached the moon, the story becomes a means of describing conditions on the moon as Kepler believed them to be, which included air and water, and burning days and frozen nights equal to fourteen Earth-days each. Kepler's purpose was to deliver an exposition of the new Copernican-Galilean-Keplerian system of astronomy.

Other literary journeys to the moon followed. For example, John Wilkins, an English bishop, wrote a book called A Discourse Concerning a New World (first edition, 1638; third edition, 1640) arguing that the moon may be inhabited and men may learn how to reach it; the book expressed his belief that men someday will learn to fly and place colonies on the moon. Others followed: Cyrano de Bergerac's Voyages to the Moon and the Sun (1657; in English, 1659 and 1687); Gabriel Daniel's A Voyage to the World of Cartesius (French, 1691; in English, 1694); Voltaire's Micromegas (1752), in which a giant from Sirius and a smaller companion come to Earth; and George Fowler's A Flight to the Moon (1813), among others.

Many of these were vehicles for criticizing contemporary society or presenting an ideal society, that is, a utopia. Intermixed with them in time were more typical examples, beginning with the work that gave the genre its name, Thomas More's Utopia (1516), and continuing through Campanella's The City of the Sun (1623), Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1627), and the first such work published in America, Louis Sebastien Mercier's Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (1771).

In 1764 the gothic romance entered literature with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and brought with it generations of frightened heroines, unseen horrors, and ghostly visitations in gloom-ridden medieval architecture. Gradually semi-scientific explanations for all the midnight carryings-on became part of the genre, as in Charlotte Dacre's Zofloya (1806).

The union of science and the gothic romance brought forth a creation that has some right to be called the first science-fiction novel: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1817). In the book's preface, Shelley said that she did not want her novel to be considered a story of the supernatural; if not the supernatural, then the events of the story had to rely on the power of science to work miracles.

Thus, the theme of man's creation of artificial life--and the inevitable retribution that comes to him for his presumption--entered science fiction. One of the book's side effects was to shape the concept of the "mad scientist" and his punishment for more than a century, in spite of the fact that Frankenstein's monster is born with natural goodness and is soured only by the repulsion it meets from everyone, even its own creator. Frankenstein had other important attributes; it was, for instance, the first truly outstanding science-fiction success, not only in print but on the stage and in motion pictures. The story was an early motion-picture favorite, first reaching the screen in 1910 through Thomas Edison's company; again as Life Without Soul in 1915; in an Italian version in 1920; and then in the definitive version, which made a star out of Boris Karloff, in 1931.

What had happened in the world to make possible Frankenstein's creation? While speculations about ideal systems and imaginary voyages for sport or satire were produced by writers from Homer on up through Plato, Lucian of Samosata, and the travel and utopian writers of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, during the centuries in which empires rose and fell the modes of life and warfare remained virtually unchanged. But slowly, then with increasing rapidity, like a flywheel gathering momentum, changes began to occur: the invention of the spinning wheel, the printing press, the knitting machine, the microscope, the telescope.

At first it was only the scientists themselves who were influenced, as they read about the work of their contemporaries and were inspired to new work of their own. But the telescope destroyed the medieval universe and rocked the Catholic Church, and gradually Gutenberg's invention spread the written word among the growing middle class and eventually to the lower classes as well.

By the late eighteenth century, people were beginning to look ahead, to see if they could guess what the future might be like, how it could be changed for the better, or how it might get worse. Extrapolations--a kind of crystal ball made up of observation, imagination, and logic--became the tools of seers as well as mathematicians.

There had been earlier prophets with unique powers, who could predict what others could not foresee by means they could not describe. Their methods were beyond analysis and imitation, even discussion. But the ability to extrapolate--to observe a series of events, to connect them in sequence, to discern their trend, and to continue that trend into the future--was a product of people’s realization that their lives were changed, and could be changed, through their own efforts; and that humankind’s logic could determine the course of this change and possibly influence it.

Writing Assignment

Complete and submit a 500-word essay on the following topic. This essay need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science-fiction genre.

Before Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, many stories contained elements of science fiction--predictions of the future, novel ideas, alien worlds--yet these are not generally considered to be science fiction. Consider the readings assigned for this lesson, and discuss whether and to what extent they qualify as science fiction. If you do not consider a story to be science fiction, what elements of science fiction is it lacking?