science fiction

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

science fiction

science fiction, literary genre in which a background of science or pseudoscience is an integral part of the story. Although science fiction is a form of fantastic literature, many of the events recounted are within the realm of future possibility, e.g., robots, space travel, interplanetary war, invasions from outer space.

Science fiction is generally considered to have had its beginnings in the late 19th cent. with the romances of Jules Verne and the novels of H. G. Wells. In 1926, Hugo Gernsback founded the pulp magazine Amazing Stories, devoted exclusively to science fiction, particularly to serious explorations into the future. Good writing in the field was further encouraged when John W. Campbell, Jr., founded Astounding Science Fiction in 1937. In that magazine much attention was paid to literary and dramatic qualities, theme, and characterization; Campbell "discovered" and popularized many important science fiction writers, including Isaac Asimov, Frederic Brown, A. E. van Vogt, Lewis Padgett, Eric Frank Russell, Clifford Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Murray Leinster, Robert Heinlein, Raymond F. Jones, and Robert Sheckley.

Science fiction has established itself as a legitimate branch of literature. C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet (1938) used science fiction as a vehicle for theological speculation, and works such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Cat's Cradle (1963) demonstrate the particular effectiveness of the genre as an instrument of social criticism. Science-fiction literature anticipates and comments on political and social concerns, and a variety of science-fiction subgenres have emerged: feminist science fiction; disaster novels and novels treating the world emerging from a disaster's wake; stories postulating alternative worlds; fantastic voyages to "inner space" ; and "cyberpunk" novels set in "cyberspace," a realm where computerized information possesses three dimensions in a "virtual reality."

The rich variety of notable science-fiction writing to emerge since the "classic" work of Asimov, Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury includes Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) and its sequels, which conjured up a desert world where issues of ecology, ethics, and human destiny and evolution were played out; Philip K. Dick's satirical and philosophical vision of postnuclear war southern California in novels such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Valis (1981); the apocalyptic disaster fiction of J. G. Ballard, including The Crystal World (1966) and Vermilion Sands (1971); the rigorously science-based works of Poul Anderson, such as Tau Zero (1970) and The Boat of a Million Years (1989); Michael Crichton's best-selling science-fiction suspense novels, particularly The Andromeda Strain (1969) and Jurassic Park (1990); William Gibson's evocations of urban "cyberpunk" desolation in novels such as Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988); Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos: Archives, a series of four novels (1979–83) that explores the possibilities of a feminist utopia; and the writing of Ursula Le Guin, who has imagined ecological utopias in works such as Always Coming Home (1985) and The Word for World is Forest (1986).

Over recent decades, science fiction has become popular in the nonliterary media, including film, television, and electronic games. Star Wars (1977) and its sequels and prequel, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) were among the most financially successful motion pictures ever produced.

Bibliography

See H. Harrison and B. W. Aldiss, ed., Astounding-Analog Reader (1973); B. W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1973); B. Stableford, Masters of Science Fiction (1981); N. Barron, ed., Anatomy of Wonder (1981); E. Rabkin, ed., Science Fiction (1983); J. Gunn, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1988); E. James and F. Mendelsohn, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003).

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