Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Origins of SF

Since the "defining SF and fantasy meme" is running rampant this weekend, and since the "Advertising Watch" post I wanted to write has been stymied by the fact that I can't find the thing I want to complain about online, and since I still want to post at least once a day, please find below some scribblings originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 9/7/02, slightly cleaned up and with something like a conclusion added:

My theory is that "science fiction" (the thing that, as Damon Knight put it, we're pointing at) was invented by Hugo Gernsback in the '20s. He assembled it from pieces cobbled together from existing parts of literature (especially the scientific romance) and from journalistic science non-fiction (hence the hallowed Infodump), but he did set out to build something specific and I believe that he did succeed.

Now, mind you, much that can be called "science fiction" (or, even more widely, "speculative fiction") does not have the same origin. British writers in general are less influenced by Gernsback and his tradition, for example, and the non-Anglophone parts of the world have even stranger relationships to this specific tradition.

But I do think a reasonable distinction can be drawn between "everything that has fantastic elements" and "things that know they're Gernsback's descendants, and act or react in specific ways." The latter is reasonably definable; the former isn't. And, if you want to talk about the history of "science fiction," it's best to start with Gernsback (though you probably need to work backwards as well as forwards -- precursors are very important, even if they're not within the main tradition).

But every fantastic voyage does not necessarily have anything to do with modern SF -- Lucian of Samosata and his buddies (I think) get dragged into a lot of "origins of SF" discussions to perk up the pedigree and keep the pulpy genre roots under the carpet.

I've said elsewhere that "science fiction" really means two things -- first is the larger set of stories that can profitably be read as science fiction, which contain some measure of speculation, or consideration of alternative world-possibilities, whatever their source; and second is the specific Anglo-American marketing category that generally ends up putting little rocket ships on the spines of books. What Gernsback invented was the latter; the former would have existed, in one form or another, to a lesser or greater degree, anyway. But the mere existence of the Gernsbackian marketing category alters those works in the larger category as well, since even if the writers of those books aren't aware of the ways of genre SF, at least some of their readers are.

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