On Science Fiction (Part II)
CBC’s new History is Lit series will explore literary history, book lore, ancient storytelling, and any place where stories and yesteryear meet.
In the first part of the history of Science Fiction, we explored the beginnings of the genre from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through Jules Verne and H.G. Wells during the 19th century up to Aldous Huxley and George Orwell in the first half of the 20th century. Through that walk, we saw the many facets of science fiction and how the genre revealed the realities of society, warned of future dangers, or ignited the imagination of what’s possible.
Throughout the Golden Age of science fiction (1938-1950), the genre grew dramatically through mass-market magazines as they featured short stories; however, by mid-century, the audience for these stories had grown in such a way that books started to become more prevalent, as evidenced by the enormous success of George Orwell’s 1984. This interest was spurred and heavily influenced by the events of the two World Wars. The technological advancements that came with and due to warfare, like the atomic bomb and the space race, directly affected literature, storytelling, and the thirst for science fiction stories. We can see this in the work of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and others.
The genre continued to evolve from the exploration of science and technology expanding to include the zeitgeist of the time, notably climate issues, women’s rights, autocracy, psychology, politics, and medical breakthroughs in the 1960s and 1970s New Wave of science fiction. This is brilliantly represented with Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 exploration of politics in which he purposefully suppressed technology and focused on humanity and our interactions and institutions. Dune is a seminal work of science fiction that continues to bring insight to new generations not only in its original format (book) but in new ones as well (screen).
This multi-format vehicle expanded and continues to this day. From Douglas Adams’s 1979 radio show, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to the badassery of Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and the wisdom of Guinan (Whoopie Goldberg) in TV’s Star Trek. Inspired by Monty Python, Adams brought humor to the genre by parodying beloved themes of science fiction and space operas. He expanded beyond the now well-known literary playground, and it was around this time that the genre itself became known as Speculative Fiction —a new arena where fantasy, horror, dystopia, and all facets of the science fiction genre could coexist in themes and formats.
During these late 20th-century decades, other revolutionary authors cleverly delved into society’s issues by presenting them in alternate societies and places. Ursula K. Le Guin explored gender with the Hainish Cycle, in which Le Guin eliminates gender by making the characters androgenous and allowing us to see what is left underneath (Understanding Ursula LeGuin). With her pivotal novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin came to be recognized as one of the seminal trailblazers along with Doris Lessing, Joanna Russ, and Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle brought the science fiction genre to younger readers with A Wrinkle in Time.
In the 1980s came Octavia E. Butler, who explored race in her Xenogenesis novels, and Margaret Atwood, who looked at a plausible post-apocalyptic future in Handmaid’s Tale. Speculative fiction continued to find new avenues, voices, and themes in the 21st century such as Andy Weir’s The Martian, which is an exploration of isolation, human connection, and the self, and N. K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy, where religion and the abuse of power are examined uncomfortably and necessarily close. We continue to see the relevance of these themes, most recently through the pandemic and in our global political turmoil.
The science fiction genre, recognized as such, finds its most prominent moment during the 19th and 20th centuries in the West. This doesn’t mean that the exploration of science, magic, advancement, and technology in fiction has only happened then and there, it just means that other, more ancient societies and cultures had passed through a science and magical fiction moment already (e.g. India), were exploring it in parallel (e.g. USSR), or were beginning to explore it (e.g. Africa).
I’m excitedly following the continued takes on science fiction from diverse voices. A few years ago, the dazzling cover of Binti by Nnedi Okorafor landed in my hands. I found an engaging coming-of-age story that took me to space and echoed humanity’s issues through conflicts between humans and aliens, a story made more appealing by the sprinkled touches of the author’s Nigerian culture. From here the exploration has continued. CBC’s John McCormack introduced me to Marjorie Liu and the wonderfully creepy cyberpunk-ish comic series Monstress. And while we’re on cyberpunk, Marie Lu’s Warcross explored grief and layers by showing that not everything is what it appears to be. Most recently, I found Darcie Little Badger as part of the Indigenous Futurism movement where speculative fiction stories are told by bringing in characters from their Native cultures.
I cannot wait to read these new, inventive, and enriching stories where I’m free to explore diverse societies, cultures, myths, science, humanity, and above all myself. These stories are the fuel we need to continue striving to help make the world kinder, more compassionate, and better for all who inhabit it.
- African speculative fiction is finally getting its due. Let’s talk about books to seek out. (Washington Post)
- Explore Indigenous Futurisms with These SFF Books by Indigenous Authors (BookRiot)
- 36 Science Fiction And Fantasy Books From AAPI Authors That Are Impossible To Put Down (BuzzFeed)
- 25 Universe-Expanding Science Fiction Books for Kids (BookRiot)
- Awe-inspiring visual representation of the history of science fiction (Ward Shelley)
Read Part I of the history of the science fiction genre!
CBC’s resident history and yesteryear explorer, Laura Peraza, takes you back in time. Check out other series on our blog and our Reader Resources for more books and materials.