Frankenstein and the history of SciFi


Robin Roberts writes: “Modern science fiction begins with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Shelley’s work began the modern fascination with the scientist and (usually) his works. One of the most popular novels and ideas of the past two centuries, Frankenstein has the distinction of being the only single-authored text to become a myth. The word ‘Frankenstein’ has become a part of the English language and is frequently [-p.16] used to describe the monster, or any creature created by science that is out of control of its creator. Subsequent science fiction was popular throughout the Victorian era in both England and the United States. For example, a belief in science and its ability to improve human existence marks such works as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), a utopia set in the future that was so popular that there were even Looking Back clubs. At the same time, pessimism about social change and industrialization defines such works as Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), which ends with the threat of a new species usurping humanity’s rule of the Earth. At the end of the nineteenth century, H.G. Wells looked toward the immense changes that science would bring and used science fiction to criticize British colonialism in novels like The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898).

The twentieth century has seen the flourishing of science fiction magazines. The production of cheap paper from wood pulp made magazines inexpensive – such journals were known as the pulps. Especially in the United States, such magazines flourished, in part because they pirated works by European and English authors. Both art and fiction were commissioned for the pulps at very cheap rates. Sometimes an artist would create a cover and then a writer would pen a story that fit the artwork. In the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction magazines helped create what many critics and writers call the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction. Writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke began their careers writing for these magazines.

Many female science fiction writers, like C.L. Moore and Leigh Bracken, used male or genderless pseudonyms (false names). …More recently, science fiction has experienced other trends, such as the New Wave movement of the 1960s, which stresses that science fiction should be taken seriously as literature, and includes elements of 1960s counterculture – drugs, sex, and the media. Cyberpunk, a school of science fiction writing that became popular in the 1980s, focuses on futures in which large global industrial and political units control society and rely on computer networks. In this future, humans are altered to interface with and become part of computer technology.” (15-16)

Ref: Robin Roberts (1996) Anne McCaffrey; A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT


2 thoughts on “Frankenstein and the history of SciFi

  1. Yael Maurer

    Can you relate Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race to a critique of colonialism? In H. G Wells’ War of the Worlds, that is certainly one of the possible readings. I’m now preparing a course on Postcolonial SF and would like to include Bulwer Lytton’s novel. I would appreciate your suggestiosn. I have not yet read the text, and was wondering whether if you’d recommend it.

    • Hey – I honestly haven’t read it myself… I’m quoting someone else above (only just realised I didn’t make that real obvious – fixed it, I think). …dominion of one group over another? exploitation? different ways of looking at and using – and stealing – the land’s resources? misunderstanding on a grand scale? … colonialism generally looks like that to me, but I’m kind of thinking about the dominance of this view (and the dominance of the colonisers in it)…

      It’s one reason I really liked Andrea Levy’s book The Long Song – I heard an interview with her saying how she wanted to write from the point of view of the slaves; celebrate their strengths and beauty, not just focus on their appalling conditions and victimhood. It’s a very powerful thing to reclaim even that notion of victimhood. (She has an essay on this on her website: which might interest you and offer other perspectives on the victimhood generally associated with empire and colonialism?). Of course, it’s not SF, but I thought revisioning the standard approach to empire and slavery like that was a wonderful idea. I’ve heard echoes of her idea in political discussions here in New Zealand (with regards to the agency of the Maori, that is – we never had the slave trade) – but it’s not a common thread in the literature that I have read (I do have a couple of books waiting on my shelves which may go there (again, not SF, though, so not so much help here). Do you know – are there any SF texts that explore colonialism or empire by showing how agentic the colonised were? You just got me thinking.

      Sorry I can’t help on the text! Sounds like an interesting course

      BTW are you doing the historic texts? What about space westerns? Our attraction to revising and revisiting ‘the frontier’ is interesting in itself. There is some work done on Joss Whedon’s Firefly I haven’t read yet, but want to so you put me in mind of it:
      Investigating Firefly and Serenity : science fiction on the frontier / edited by Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran London ; New York : I.B. Tauris, 2008
      The philosophy of Joss Whedon / edited by Dean A. Kowalski and S. Evan Kreider Lexington, Ky. : University Press of Kentucky, c2011

      All the best

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