Science Fiction and Empire

By Patricia Kerslake | Go to book overview

6. Exoticising the Future:
American Greats

While the history of SF may arguably stretch back to the fables of the ancient Greeks, one of the first conventionally recognised speculative narratives was Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516), which describes the travels of a Portuguese sailor, Raphael Hythloday and the controversial but wondrous socio-political climate on the island of Utopia in the New World. Following this, but written for different reasons, came a work by the pantheist martyr Giordano Bruno, De l'Infiniio universo e mondi (1584), which argued that the universe was infinite and that it contained an infinite number of worlds, all inhabited by intelligent beings. Bruno's text is credited by Frances Yates1 as being the origin of Hermetic influence on science, since it involved magical interpretations of nature and of humanity's ability to conjure and understand the world, philosophical aspects that dovetail pleasingly with some perceptions of today's science and technologies.

More's and Bruno's works maybe considered an excellent genesis of a genre unlike anything that had been experimented rath before: not conventional literature, not scientific or parable, nor yet historical or plainly political, but a creative amalgam of all, a blend of the rational and the extrapolative, bound together with a touch of sixteenth-century optimism. Following the production of Galileo's telescope in 1609, and the then heretical notion that the Earth was not, in fact, the centre of the universe, many notable authors launched their writing into the genre space of speculative fiction, of which SF has become the leading and most popular element: Tommaso Campanella's Civitas Solis (1623); Cyrano de Bergerac's posthumously published Histoire comique des états et empires de la lune (1656) and Histoire comique des états et empires du soleil (1662); Voltaire's Micromégas (1752); and, of course, the magnificent opposing talents of Jules Verne and FI. G. Wells in the latter part of the nineteenth century. But the Idealistic vision of More has not been the only one forthcoming, with contemporary SF depicting not necessarily Utopia ahead but also a variety of Insane futures, prone to atavisms and socio-political structures which drive humanity outwards, to experience enmity without respite in the midst of abundance.

It is against such an extensive background of possibility and uncertainty of Utopia and dystopia, that modern SF authors have sought to illuminate

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