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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 post-nuclear-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); Brian Aldiss's Greybeard (1964), in which nuclear weapons have created a world without children, and Helliconia trilogy (1982–85), concerning a planet where seasons last more than 2,000 years; 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 (1979–83) that explores the possibilities of a feminist utopia; the writing of Ursula Le Guin, who imagined ecological utopias in works such as Always Coming Home (1985) and The Word for World Is Forest (1986); and Gene Wolfe's works, which range from bleak to comic, including the series The Book of the New Sun (1980–83).
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.
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).
a special genre of fantasy literature that arose at the same time as modern science, in the 17th and 18th centuries, and took on its final form in the 20th century.
Like other genres of fantasy literature, science fiction deals with the “realization of the nonexistent” through fantasy images. However, unlike other genres of fantasy literature, science fiction includes the psychological, social, and intellectual (socio-philosophical, cultural, and moral) consequences of realizing the potentials of nature and society—potentials that, because of their specific characteristics (universal and diverse tendencies and abstract scientific concepts), cannot be conveyed in traditional art forms.
In conformity with the laws of science, science fiction makes use of the techniques of extrapolation and model-building. Such techniques make it possible to examine intellectually the relationship of the scientifically valid and probable consequences of such a “realization of the nonexistent.” The use of fantasy images to transform reality into any shape whatever makes it possible to represent this “model of potential reality” as a unified world—fantastic with respect to reality and realistic and typical in its fantastic concreteness.
Thus, the uniqueness of science fiction consists in the subordination of the literary imagination to the logic of scientific prediction. However, this scientific prediction is expressed not in the form of a concept but in the form of an artistic image. Therefore, science fiction may be defined as a scientifically organized form of the artistic imagination.
Unlike fantasy, a work of science fiction retains its scientific validity, at the same time providing a sensory and visual depiction—not possible in purely scientific literature—of the potential conflicts between man and his altered natural and social environment. The specific nature of science fiction—the reflection of reality in a sharply unfamiliar, estranged form—helps to reveal the meaning of this altered environment and, as a result, discloses the underlying mechanism of reality that is inaccessible to everyday, empirical perception. Understanding an imaginary world thus becomes a means for understanding contemporary life.
As a phenomenon of contemporary culture, science fiction satisfies society’s essential need for a graphic, artistic assimilation of the “extra-empirical” reality of the contemporary world. Science fiction counterposes a rational, scientific understanding of the world to the “myths” of mass consciousness.
The unique features of science fiction account for its complexity as an art form. Its exact nature remains open to debate. The contradictory definitions of science fiction—as a genre, literary device, dream literature, or technical and scientific forecasting—obviously do not embrace all aspects of the subject. It seems more appropriate to regard science fiction as a new literary method that combines science with imaginative writing.
Science fiction arose at the same time as modern science. Early examples may be found in the works of T. More, J. Kepler, and J. Swift. As a literary genre, it acquired form in the works of H. G. Wells, who combined technical and scientific and social Utopian writing (J. Verne, W. Morris) with the techniques of the realistic novel and the scientific “mental experiment.” Science fiction underwent further development in the works of K. Capek, A. N. Tolstoy, O. Stapledon, and other writers of fantasy literature of the 1920’s and 1930’s. During the scientific and technological revolution, science fiction became a mass phenomenon, most widely represented in prose. However, world science fiction has developed unevenly and is concentrated in only a few countries.
In the USA, science fiction developed in the 1920’s along the lines of scientific and technical predictions (H. Gernsback) and space adventures (E. Smith, E. Hamilton, and E. Burroughs). The best works of American postwar science fiction, foreshadowed in the 1930’s by the works of J. Campbell, rose to the level of serious social criticism and philosophical generalization (for example, the works of R. Bradbury, W. Tenn, F. Pohl, C. Kornbluth, R. Heinlein, R. Sheckley, and K. Vonnegut), paralleling, as it were, the literature of critical realism and the political-warning novel. However, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, this trend was replaced by a “new wave” of science-fiction writers (S. Delany, R. Zelazny) who reflected the modernist concern with innovative forms. The works of these writers have fantastic descriptions of the “inner space” of the human mind.
The most significant science-fiction writing in Great Britain before World War II was by H. G. Wells, A. Conan Doyle, O. Stapledon (Last and First Men, Star Maker), and A. Huxley, whose somber works, such as his Brave New World, significantly influenced Western antiutopian writing. After the war British science fiction experienced an upsurge with the comprehensive social writings of J. Wyndham, the scientific and technical Utopias of A. Clarke, and the beginning of a new wave with D. Ballard and B. Aldiss.
Original postwar science fiction in Japan (S. Komatsu, R. Mitsuse, S. Hoshi) has developed in reaction to the influence of American science fiction. A major representative of original Japanese science fiction is the realistic writer Abe Kobo, whose works include The Fourth Ice Age.
In France, prewar science fiction (G. Toudouze, J. Rosny aine) continued in the tradition of J. Verne. In the postwar years, interest in sociophilosophical themes (Vercors, R. Merle) and the new wave (N. Hennebert) has developed.
In the contemporary “mass produced” literature of the West, escape literature predominates (the “space opera,” comics); it is often mistakenly identified with science fiction because of an external similarity. Such pseudoscientific escape literature usually expresses philistine ideas and serves to propagandize bourgeois ideology.
In the USSR, science fiction dates from Russian works of the 19th century, including novels by V. F. Odoevskii (The Year 4338) and N. G. Chernyshevskii (What Is to Be Done?) as well as the prerevolutionary works of K. E. Tsiolkovskii, A. A. Bogdanov, A. I. Kuprin, and V. A. Obruchev. An important step in the evolution of social criticism in science fiction was made by the novels of A. N. Tolstoy (Aelita and The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin), A. Orlovskii (The Machine of Horrors), and I. Vinnichenko (The Sun Machine).
In the late 1920’s, A. Beliaev played a significant role in Soviet science fiction. In his best novels, such as The Amphibious Man and The Head of Professor Dowell, the realization of a bold biological hypothesis develops into a social conflict. From the 1930’s through the early 1950’s, Soviet science fiction confined itself to the popularization of the most imminent future technical innovations. The works of this period took the form of adventure and spy novels (A. Kazantsev, V. Nemtsov, G. Adamov).
I. A. Efremov’s comprehensive social space novel, the communist Utopian work Andromeda Nebula (1957), opened new perspectives for Soviet science fiction. Sharp social and ethical conflicts of contemporary life receive great attention in the works of the brothers A. Strugatskii and B. Strugatskii, whose works include Hard to Be a God and Predatory Things of the Age.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Soviet science fiction saw the development of the scientific and technical and the social Utopian genres (G. Al’tov, M. Emtsev and E. Parnov, G. Gurevich), the lyrical and philosophical novella (G. Gor, V. Shefner), and the sociopsychological novella (A. Gromova), as well as satirical (I. Varshavskii), children’s (G. Martynov, A. Mirer, A. Polishchuk), and adventure science fiction (A. Abramov and S. Abramov).
Postwar science fiction has attained noteworthy development in Czechoslovakia (J. Weiss, J. Nesvadba), Poland (K. Fialkowski, K. Boruri), Hungary, and the other socialist countries. The multifaceted work of the Polish writer S. Lem, including his philosophical novels Solaris, Eden, and Return From the Stars and his grotesque novels Stellar Diaries and The Cyberiad, occupy a special place in world science fiction.
In the USSR and other socialist countries, science fiction counterposes gloomy Western antiutopian writings with writings inspired by social optimism.
Science fiction is also represented in 20th-century theater, including K. Çapek’s R. U.R. and Power and Glory and V. Savchenko’s The New Weapon; in radio and television plays, for example, O. Welles’ War of the Worlds (based on H. G. Wells’ novel), F. Dürrenmatt’s Operation Vega, and S. Lem’s Black Room; and in screenplays, including L. Leonov’s The Flight of Mr. MacKinley and H. G. Wells’ Things to Come.
Science fiction in films began with the development of motion pictures; science fiction movies were especially popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Early science-fiction films were largely adaptations of books (Aelita, directed by la. A. Protazanov, USSR, 1924; The Island of Lost Souls, directed by E. Kenton, USA, 1932); social Utopias (Metropolis, directed by F. Lang, Germany, 1926; Things to Come, directed by W. C. Menzies, Great Britain, 1936); and scientific and technical projections of the future (Space Flight, directed by B. N. Zhuravlev, USSR, 1936) were popular themes. In the postwar years, along with depictions of technical Utopias (2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by S. Kubrick, USA-Great Britain, 1969) and sociophilosophical models of society (Alphaville, directed by J.-L. Godard, France, 1965), the antiutopian film (On the Beach, directed by S. Kramer, USA, 1959; Fahrenheit 451, by the French director F. Truffaut, 1966) and the satirical fantasy also developed.
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