Tales from Tomorrow: From H.G. Wells to Steven Spielberg, from the Center of the Earth to the Outer Reaches of Cyberspace, Science Fiction Has Kept Fans Enthralled by Combining a Reverence for Science with an Exploration of Future Possibilities

By Gunn, James | Science & Spirit, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Tales from Tomorrow: From H.G. Wells to Steven Spielberg, from the Center of the Earth to the Outer Reaches of Cyberspace, Science Fiction Has Kept Fans Enthralled by Combining a Reverence for Science with an Exploration of Future Possibilities


Gunn, James, Science & Spirit


From H.G. Wells to Steven Spielberg, from the center of the Earth to the outer reaches of cyberspace, science fiction has kept fans enthralled by combining a reverence for science with an exploration of future possibilities. entitled/roundup

So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein--more, far more, will I achieve ... I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation."

When English author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote these words in the early nine-teenth century, she, like Edgar Allan Poe, E.T.A. Hoffman, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, was torn between two attitudes toward the new science and technology of the time: wonder at its power to transform life and thought, and caution about its misuse. Although Shelley's famous novel predates what we now know as "science fiction," that tension between wonder and caution has recurred in science fiction works throughout the decades, whether in mass-market paperbacks, pulp magazines, films, or computer games.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the themes sounded by Shelley and her contemporaries were echoed in Jules Verne's tales of exploration and in H.G. Wells' warnings of the cultural hubris preceding sudden downfall. Electronics entrepreneur Hugo Gernsback saw the new literature, which he termed "scientifiction," as a way of sparking an interest in science and technology among young readers. In 1926, he launched Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted to science fiction. In it (and in the magazine Wonder Stories, which appeared five years later), he published, as he explained in the inaugural issue, "the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story--a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision." The future, in Gernsback's works, belonged to those who could understand science and put it to use--although villains also could twist science to their own nefarious ends.

While there were few science fiction books to speak of until 1946, what evolved through magazines like Gernsback's was a literature of ideas and, more important, a literature of change and anticipation. As a Darwinian fiction that has at its heart a belief in the adaptability of the human species, science fiction itself naturally evolves--and, indeed, science fiction is at its best when it is most innovative. At least for a time, a belief in the power of rationality and the survival--even the dominance--of the human species underpinned most works of science fiction. (This philosophy was most apparent under the stewardship of John W. Campbell Jr., who became editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1937 and attracted writers like Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, who shared his vision.)

Not surprisingly, humanity's explorations of the unknown--usually unknown lands--dominated early science fiction. In 1928, Gernsback serialized Edward Elmer (E.E. "Doc") Smith's "The Skylark of Space," which took readers on an imaginary exploration of the expanding universe. In Smith's story, inventor Richard Seaton applies electricity to an unknown metal in a copper bath, and the metal shoots off into space. Using this knowledge, Seaton and his friends manage to shoot themselves into the cosmos, where they discover new worlds, become ensnared in interplanetary wars, and save entire civilizations. Although a meddlesome villain steals their technology, Seaton and his comrades triumph through their superior scientific prowess and ability to build more powerful machines.

Harry Clement Stubbs, under the pen name Hal Clement, transformed the expanding-range story by imagining the aliens that humans might discover and the environments that might produce and shape them. "Mission of Gravity," which was serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1953, tells the story of Mesklin, a planet where gravity at the poles is 700 times the gravity on Earth, and the Mesklinites, the caterpillar like creatures that evolved under these conditions.

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Tales from Tomorrow: From H.G. Wells to Steven Spielberg, from the Center of the Earth to the Outer Reaches of Cyberspace, Science Fiction Has Kept Fans Enthralled by Combining a Reverence for Science with an Exploration of Future Possibilities
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