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Science fiction is a form of fiction which deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals. Sometimes the characters involved are not even human, but are imagined aliens or other products of Earth evolution. The term is more generally used to refer to any literary fantasy that includes a scientific factor as an essential orienting component, and even more generally used to refer to any fantasy at all.

Such literature may consist of a careful and informed extrapolation of scientific facts and principles, or it may range into far-fetched areas flatly contradictory of such facts and principles.
In either case, plausibility based on science is a requisite, so that such precursors of the genre as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Gothic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) are plainly science fiction, whereas Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), based purely on the Supernatural, is not.
There are, of course, many borderline cases of works using outer-space settings and futuristic-looking technology as little more than window-dressing for tales of adventure, romance, and other typical dramatic themes; examples include Star Wars and many Hollywood Space Operas. Fans of hard science fiction would regard such films as fantasy, whereas the general public would probably place them squarely in the science fiction category.

Science fiction was made possible only by the rise of modern science itself, notably the revolutions in astronomy and physics. Aside from the age-old genre of fantasy literature, which does not qualify, there were notable precursors: imaginary voyages to the moon or to other planets in the 18th century and space travel in Voltaire's Micromégas (1752), alien cultures in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), and science fiction elements in the 19th-century stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Fitz-James O'Brien. Science fiction proper began, however, toward the end of the 19th century with the scientific romances of Jules Verne, whose science was rather on the level of invention, as well as the science-oriented novels of social criticism by H.G. Wells.

The development of science fiction as a self-conscious genre dates from 1926, when Hugo Gernsback, who coined the portmanteau word scientifiction[?], founded Amazing Stories magazine, which was devoted exclusively to science fiction stories. Published in this and other pulp magazines with great and growing success, such stories were not viewed as serious literature but as sensationalism. With the advent in 1937 of a demanding editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., of Astounding Science Fiction (founded in 1930) and with the publication of stories and novels by such writers as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, science fiction emerged as a mode of serious fiction. Ventures into the genre by writers who were not devoted exclusively to science fiction, such as Karel Capek, Aldous Huxley, C. S. Lewis, and Kurt Vonnegut, also added respectability. Magazine covers of bug-eyed monsters and scantily-clad women preserved the sensational image for many, however.

In 1954, Forrest J Ackerman combined science fiction with hi-fi, resulting in the term sci-fi - a term that many science fiction fans loathe to this day despite its general usage.

A great boom in the popularity of science fiction followed World War II. Some science fiction works became paperback best-sellers. The increasing intellectual sophistication of the genre and the emphasis on wider societal and psychological issues significantly broadened the appeal of science fiction to the reading public. Science fiction became international, extending into the Soviet Union and other eastern European nations, where it was frequently used as a vehicle for political commentary that could not be safely published in other forms. (The Polish author Stanislaw Lem is one of the non-English science fiction writers who has become widely known outside his native country.) Serious criticism of the genre is now common, and science fiction is studied in colleges and universities, as literature and in how it relates to science and society.

One of the unique features of the science fiction genre is its strong fan community, of which many authors are a firm part. Local fan groups exist in most of the English-speaking world, as well as in Japan, Europe, and elsewhere; these groups often publish their own works. Many "fan" magazines (and a few professional ones) exist that are dedicated solely to informing the science fiction fan on all aspects of the genre. The premiere awards of science fiction, the Hugo Awards, are awarded by members of the annual Worldcon, which is almost entirely volunteer-run by fans.

Science fiction writers' work have included predictions of future societies on Earth, analyses of the consequences of interstellar travel, and imaginative explorations of other forms of intelligent life and their societies in other worlds.

Science fiction has also been popular in radio, comic books, television, and movies; it is notable that about three-quarters of the top twenty highest grossing films, (source: IMDB June 2002) are based around science-fiction or fantasy themes.

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