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From Gilgamesh to the Moon and Beyond: The Enduring Geekdom of Science Fiction

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“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. …Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.”

― Ray Bradbury

Ask a sci-fi fan or writer to name the most important moments in science fiction and you’ll get a variety of responses, from the moment of invention to the moment we travelled first through time with H.G. Wells. From Isaac Asimov’s vision of robots who think in Three Laws of Robotics to the Manhattan Project and splitting of the atom; from the invention of the magnetic compass to the Industrial Revolution. The radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to the peaceful co-existence created by Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek to the theory of wormhole travel.

cosmos

TV writer and novelist Doris Egan (Reign, Black Sails, House, M.D.)  cites the most pivotal moment in science fiction film and TV as Star Wars and Star Trek. “Before they came along,” she said, “nobody seriously thought of setting events “out there” — it was enough of an uphill job telling the audience, ‘This is a rocket. It might go to the moon. Possibly Mars.'”

Chris Ryall (Editor-in-Chief, IDW Publishing) noted that the “most significant moment in science fiction history is one that became science fact: man landing on the moon. That’s the moment when science fiction went from appealing to the hardcore science geeks, the fans of Flash Gordon and Bradbury, Ellison, and Asimov, to being something that was much more than speculative fiction. Now the average person was also casting their gaze upward, which made them more amenable to the ideas presented in science fiction. Which then led eight years later to the second most significant moment in science fiction: Star Wars. Its importance and appeal probably goes without saying at this point, but that was the moment when the next generation of sci-fi purveyors found their calling, as well as the moment when science fiction really hit the mainstream and became omnipresent.

Jane Espenson (writer/producer Husbands, Once Upon a TimeTorchwood, Buffy the Vampire SlayerBattlestar Galactica) dips a bit further back to the invention of the rocket itself. She also noted the “invention of film, which allowed everyone to share the same visual take on things beyond our everyday sights.” She added that the “realization by the Powers that Be in television that what has worked in movies for years can also work on TV.  This has been made possible, in large part, by another science/tech development, as computer generated images have begun to fit into TV-sized budgets.”

Although Mary Shelly’s 1818 Frankenstein is often noted as the first real “science fiction” novel, the term “science-fiction” wasn’t coined until 1851, when William Wilson noted in his A Little Earnest Book on a Great Old Subject: “Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true.”

But science fiction reaches much further back in time, connecting the 2600 B.C.E. legend of Gilgamesh to with the latest NYT Bestselling sci-fi techno-thriller and next year’s post-apocalyptic summer blockbuster hit? The Gilgamesh story is a quest for immortality, a classic premise for science fiction, whether it centers around the Philosopher’s Stone or cracking the genetic code that unlocks eternal cellular regeneration. And it was the opening salvo in the enduring genre that is science fiction.

 

From Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler’s discoveries of the cosmos, we began to think about what lay beyond our planet, and as technology developed and fundamentally transformed society, the fiction of the time foresaw the potential harm and delight ahead for us. Dystopias with machines overwhelming human activity, the powerful using it to control the powerless were cautionary tales as the world changed.

But at the same time, the fascination with the potential accompanying new science and technology captured the imagination of writers, and in later times, comic-book artists, film makers, and television producers. Scientific advances in cosmology, the invention of the magnetic compass and the technological advances in shipbuilding fueled Renaissance minds, not only to explore the “New World” in the Golden Age of Exploration, but to think beyond the Earthbound to the Heavens, long before we actually reached for the moon:

 

  • 2nd Century A.D.—Lucian of Samosata’s (2nd Century A.D.) fantasy-satire of epic voyages to the moon an interplanetary battle over colonization rights on Venus (the Sun vs. the Moon!).
  • 1517—The industrial advances and societal changes during Medieval and Renaissance Europe led Thomas More to write the prototype for the dystopian staple of science fiction in his classic Utopia.
  • 1627—Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis with its utopian society based on experimental science, and “New Artificiall Metals,” vivisection, genetic manipulation, telescopes, microscopes, telephones, factories, aerial flight, and submarines.
  • 1634—Johannes Kepler himself imagined living on the moon in Somnium.
  • 1638—Francis Godwin describes a utopia on the Moon in his work The Man in the Moone.
  • 1644—Francis Cheynell’s Aulicus: His dream of the Second Coming to London marks the first time fiction looked into the future, describing a London to come in the next century.
  • 1659 & 1687—The solar energy converters and talking machines in Cyrano de Bergerac’s Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon and Sun. 
  • 1726Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift’s parody of experimental science: a terrifying superweapon, a flying island used by its rulers literally to crush any earthly opposition to their tyranny.
  • 1732Voltaire’s Micromégas, with its space aliens who come to our planet to mock the follies of us inferior Earthlings.
  • 1770—Louis-Sébastian Mercier’s The Year 2440 suggests a future world that worships science.

All of this before the word science-fiction had been coined, and decades before Frankenstein. 

I’ve been a proud sci-fi geek for most of my life, since I stole my older brother’s copy of Analog Magazine and dived into the worlds created by Lester del Ray and Fredrick Pohl. I was 10 years old, and about to become a fan for life. I was part of the Tang generation, when all science was possible. We wore our transistor radios close to our ears during the Gemini and Apollo space flights awaiting the “Gulf Oil” hourly updates on our astronauts’ fate up there in the heavens. But it was also a time when we knew by heart the two emergency broadcast radio stations (long before they were used for weather warnings and child abduction alerts). The facts of our lives fuel our imagination both in wonder and occasional fear: the awe of seeing the incredible future of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey come to life on the big screen; the chill of watching Neville Shute’s On the Beach on the small screen late at night with its foretelling of total nuclear annihilation. 

But here in the future, sci-fi has gone mainstream, insinuating itself into the essential fabric of pop culture, the zeitgeist for a complex world: the insanely popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory with its geeky physicists who wax poetic over Trek and Comic-Con, House, M.D.’s Dr. Kutner, whose apartment is a virtual museum of sci-fi paraphernalia and speaks wistfully of being able to speak Klingon, Supernatural with its occasional parodies of fan conventions. And of course there’s the hit film Galaxy Quest, which is so “meta” its entire premise is the sci-fi fandom! Mainstream shows from the classic Dick Van Dyke Show to The Simpsons have paid homage to the genre; even advertising has gotten into the act (who can forget Apple’s seminal Super Bowl homage to Orwell’s 1984?)

Then there’s Comic-Con. Each year, more than 150,000 people descend on San Diego for Comic-Con International. In fact, Comic-Con is so successful that Comic-Cons have sprung up all over this country and all over the world. Superhero mutants dominate the summer film schedule; this season on primetime TV, there are more “genre” offerings than can ever be remembered. Science fiction has captured the heart and soul of the world like never before: its hopes and dreams for a better world; its deepest fears about a technology gone wild and uncontrollable. Science fiction is metaphor for a troubled world and a medium to give expression to the apprehensions we all feel as we advance into the unknown. We have never needed it more than we do now.

So, what do you think are the most pivotal events in the history of science fiction? What was the moment you realized you were a science-fiction fan? Let us know in the comments thread below!

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Rob Price

    I think when the Hunley sunk a ship in /Charleston’s harbor, even though it sank itself on the return, was remarkable, and the mere idea of these underwater ships led to Verne’s 20000 Leagues, which led to more ideas. That and the remarkable similarities of Verne’s space capsule in From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon compared to the modern US space capsules of the 60’s and 70’s, as well as the many other predictions he made such as telephones, etc. showed that science fiction is not just fantasy, but can be real. But maybe that’s too modern an ordinary thinking for you.

    • Victor Lana

      I think Sheldon’s popularity on Big Bang is a culmination of every kid who watched Captain Video in the 50s through 60s kids watching Star Trek and Lost and Space and all those kids in the years since. Sheldon is like a Geek God for all.

      • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett Barbara Barnett

        LOL, Victor! In a way, I see him, though, as a stereotype of uber-smart geeky kids. He sorta makes me cringe.

    • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett Barbara Barnett

      I totally agree with you Rob. I could write an entire book about this topic. It is as vast as all discoveries (especially those we now take for granted!)

  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    The history of the world shows that lots of things once thought to be impractical to build could be designed and implemented given the passage of time.