Kurt Vonnegut once called the designation "Science-Fiction writer" a sort of "file-folder label or pigeonhole" and complained that all too often literary critics mistook the file for "for a urinal." Apparently "the way a person gets stuck into this file," Vonnegut went on to say, "is to notice technology." He was referring to the fact that at one time SF was considered a vulgar form of pop entertainment--a robots-and-flying-saucers pulp genre just a notch above (or below) the comic book. What the National Enquirer is to high-gloss journalism, SF was to serious literature.
Fortunately, for Vonnegut and other wearers of the
sci-fi label, that is no longer the case. In the past three decades, not
only has SF stayed enormously popular (in terms of new titles and overall
readership, it's second only to mystery and detective fiction), it has
also achieved a remarkable level of artistic respectability and intellectual
cachet. (It's currently the favorite genre of philosphers, scientists,
and techies themselves.) Furthermore, with the startling array of high-powered
inventions and world-transforming technical developments of the past half-century
(from rockets and A-weapons to computers and cloning), it is hardly possible
for any modern writer not "to notice technology." Consequently,
to be placed in the SF "pigeonhole" today is no longer to suffer second-class
literary status (or serve as a public convenience facility), but to be
recognized as a writer who is interested in imaginative adventure and
The debate over the beginnings of science fiction (When did it start? Who invented it? etc.) is largely a debate over definitions of the genre. For example, if we require that "science fiction" be in some sense fiction about modern science and technology (which seems a reasonable demand), then the genre could not have begun until the late18th century. For it was only then that the idea of science as a special category of human knowledge--disciplined, rigorously tested, and uniquely reliable--began to gain wide intellectual acceptance. Only then that writers began to appreciate the profound, possibly decisive, role that new technologies might play in world economic development and social change. And only then (after the early stages of industrialization) that the full power and potential of applied science (for better or worse) began to be a matter for serious speculation and moral concern.
So if we accept this limited (and nearly literal)
definition, SF is a comparatively recent genre. And the first bonafide
science fiction classic is probably Mary
Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818)--a
gothic tale of technoscientific aspiration, hubris, and retribution that
continues to gain fans not only in Hollywood (five different productions
in the 1990s!) but among contemporary SF readers as well.
Although the label "science fiction" was never actually applied to literary products until the 1920s (when it was used, as Vonnegut implies, to identify exotic tales of imagination and adventure published in juvenile-oriented pulp magazines), the genre can easily be expanded to include some of the oldest and most distinguished works of world literature. It all depends on how much actual science (in our modern sense of the word) we require an SF work to contain. If none--that is, if all we require are certain themes, characters, settings, and plot elements (e.g., an alien monster, a voyage through space, imaginary worlds, contact with a spirit or extraterrestial) then the Bible is science fiction. And Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton are all sci-fi masters.
But this is obviously stretching things too much. If all imaginative literature is science fiction, then the "pigeonhole" becomes worse than stigmatizing or degrading--it becomes useless. A more practical solution is to hold on to our earlier restrictive definition--namely, that SF is essentially fiction about modern science--yet allow for the possibility of various analogs and precursors. Allow, that is, for writing that resembles or anticipates science fiction.
Take the Odyssey, for example. Although no
critic would pronounce the poem a true piece of science fiction, there's
no disputing the fact that it contains elements that are science-fictionlike.
The same may be said for classical works like Plato's Timaeus
(a dialogue on fate and cosmogony) and Republic (a dialogue about
justice that winds up delineating an entire ideal society). Thomas More's
Utopia (1516), Francis Bacon's, The New Atlantis (1627),
and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) are further examples
of early sci-fi prototypes.
A Note on Genre
To recognize some works as precursors of SF makes
sense in any case because literary genres aren't absolute classifications.
They're fuzzy sets. Moreover, individual works of literature--especially
modern ones--are seldom entirely tragedies, or comedies, or satires, or
adventure stories, or SF tales, or lampoons, or any one thing. Instead,
they tend to be complicated amalgums of various genres. Twain's Connecticut
Yankee, for example, combines elements of comedy, satire, parody,
farce, fantasy-adventure, and prophetic nightmare. Vonnegut's Cat's
Cradle offers a similar mix. Yet without question both novels also
qualify as specimens of science fiction.
One final point: The mere fact that a novel or
film deals at length and seriously with science and technology does not
necessarily mean that it's honest-to-goodness SF. The novels of the
British writer C.P.Snow, for example, are largely about science and scientists,
but they're hardly examples of science fiction. In fact these novels are
actually much closer in style and character to standard historical or political
novels than to sci-fi products. That's because Snow's concern is entirely
with character, power, and moral conflict in a realistically rendered present--a
precisely depicted here and now. Traditional SF, on the other hand,
tends toward the hypothetical and has a decidedly more prophetic or apolcalyptic
goal. The SF writer, that is to say, is more concerned with future scenarios
and vivid alternatives, with provocative extrapolations and exciting possibilities,
than with the naturalistic transcription of current circumstances. In short,
true science fiction is visionary writing about science and technology.
We can conveniently sub-divide
SF into a set of modes, sub-categories, or sub-genres, including: