before science fiction: romances of science and scientific romances

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  • 8/12/2019 Before Science Fiction: Romances of Science and Scientific Romances


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    BeforeScience Fiction: Romances of Science andScientific Romances (

    The origin of science fiction stories is well-known to both critics and the public: by

    consensus, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein(1818) was the first SF novel. But the

    origins of "science fiction" as a concept are neither well-known nor agreed-upon.

    The phrase "science fiction," meaning the genre of scientifically-oriented fantastic

    fiction, was popularized in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback. But "science fiction" had a

    19th century predecessor: "scientific romance," a term used by H.G. Wells.

    However, as we'll see, science fiction started decades before that, as did many of

    the terms describing science fiction.

    Before 1849 and the Death of Poe

    Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is generally recognized as the first significant

    American author of science fiction. Gernsback himself, in defining "scientifiction"

    (Gernsback's predecessor term before "science fiction'), said in 1926 that "By

    'scientifiction,' I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of

    story." Poe was not the only writer of science fiction during these years, however,

    nor the best-known to his contemporaries.


    Science and entertainment from the world of tomorrow.


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    Before Science Fiction: Romances of Science and ...

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  • 8/12/2019 Before Science Fiction: Romances of Science and Scientific Romances


    Mary Shelley's lesser-known follow-up to Frankensteinwas The Last Man(1826),

    set at the end of the 21st century. In it a plague destroys much of humanity, and

    conflict in Great Britain and between the United States and Europe takes care of

    the rest. While not the most famous work of science fiction up to that point -

    Frankenstein, Rudolf Erich Raspe's Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His

    Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia(1785) and William Godwin's St. Leon

    (1799) were all better-known than The Last Man it attracted a great deal of

    attention in Great Britain and the United States and was described as "a favorite

    with admirers of the German school of romance." This reference to the German

    genre of gory supernatural stories known as the schaeurroman, or "shudder

    novel," indicates an understanding that The Last Man, with its futuristic settingand winged balloons capable of long-distance flights, belongs to a different

    category of fiction from the usual genres of the time. However, "the German school

    of romance" would become used primarily for works of emotional or narrative

    extremity rather than just the fantastic.

    The "Great Moon Hoax" grew out of six articles published in the New York Sunin

    late August, 1835. Most likely written by Richard A. Locke, a reporter for the Sun,

    the articles described aliens and unicorns living on the moon. The articles

    attracted a great deal of attention, and though the Sundid not admit that they

    were fictional for six weeks, others recognized them for what they were


    On September 9, the Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiserwrote this about

    Locke and the Hoax articles:

    Mr. Locke, the very ingenious author of the late story of the Moon and

    the wonders, animate and inanimate, there to be seen, promises to

    figure-if we are to believe the New York Herald-as an author of no little

    celebrity. To explore new fields in science, has been quite a frequent

    thing in the present age; but a new walk in literature, it has been

    thought, almost until now, impossible for the shrewdest mind to

    discover. This distinction seems to have been reserved for Mr. Locke;

    who, in the intelligence he has brought us nether mortals from our

    Earth's Satellite, has opened to us sources of the marvelous, the

    delightful and the comic, which were never before so much as dreampt

    [sic] of by either the genius of Swift or Fielding, of Scott or Bulwer. Mr.

    Locke, we are given to understand by the Herald, has in preparation, or,

    in the Herald's phrase, is putting on the stocks the frame of a new novel

    on a subject similar to that of his recent able invention in Astronomy.

    His peculiar and original talent will then be brought out in full relief.

    As Sir Walter Scott was the author of the historical Novel of which he

    had many imitators, so Mr. Locke is the inventor of an entirely new

    species of literature, which may be called the "scientific novel." He, too,

    may expect a few, not, like Sir Walter, many imitators; very few will be

    at the pains, even supposing they should have the capacity to add totheir diversified literary acquirements the requisite scientific

    attainments. Mr. L. possesses both. He and the very few who may soar

    to the heights and sound the depths of science, who may delightedly

    repose in the bowers of literature, who, to a masterly knowledge of

    books, may join the vigor and raciness of immediate observation of

    living characters and manners, he and those few only may hope to excel

    in this new species of fictitious history.

    Locke never finished his novel (if he began it at all), and "scientific novel" never

    caught on as a descriptor of science fiction, most likely due to the comparative

    lack of science fiction over the next ten years. Instead, "scientific novel" was

    applied to books like Harriet Martineau's Illustrations of Political Economy(1832),

    which use fiction to explore the ideas of science, and to the works of Zola, with

    their "scientific contemplation of human corruption." Nonetheless, its use here

    marks the first known occasion when science fiction was recognized as something

    nce and entertainment from the world of tomorrow.


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