What do you think was the first work of science fiction? Did the genre start with Hugo Gernsback and Amazing Stories? Can it trace its history to H.G. Wells or Jules Verne? Was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein an SF story? Or can we go even further back, perhaps to Thomas More's Utopia?
All of these works have, in fact, been suggested by different pundits as the start of science fiction. Each time some sort of literary argument is presented as to why that particular choice is correct. But I would like to suggest that one's choice of the first SF work has little to do with literary theory. It is much more a question of mythology.
In ancient times tribes and cities would construct myths about themselves that expressed a view of their history that was important to them. The Greeks liked to trace their histories back to gods and heroes. Athens was said to be founded by the hero, Theseus; Sparta by Lacedaemon, a son of the god Zeus. The Romans, to show how rugged they were, claimed that their founding fathers, the brothers Romulus and Remus, were abandoned as babies and reared by a wolf. But just for good measure they made the boys the son of the god Mars as well. In Genesis Jehovah lures Abraham away from Ur with the promise that the land of Israel shall belong to his descendants forever after. The effects of that promise are still with us today.
In the Middle Ages origin myths shifted from emphasis on gods to emphasis on classical history. Roman history, as written by the likes of Caesar and Tacitus, suggested that the British people were a bunch of savage barbarians before Caesar arrived to civilize them. This wasn't good enough for English kings, so Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain in which he claimed that the country was founded by one Brutus, a follower of the Trojan hero, Aeneas. That would show those Romans who had the more impressive cultural lineage.
Even today myths of origin reflect current preoccupations. In the original Spiderman comic, written back in the days of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear bombs, Peter Parker got his powers by being bitten by a radioactive spider. When the story came to Hollywood decades later it was updated to reflect modern concerns. In the movie version of the story the spider is genetically modified.
And so it is in science fiction. Hugo Gernsback had a particular view of what SF should be. It must be educational, and it must include rigorous, believable scientific extrapolation. Those who claim Gernsback as the Father of Science Fiction are therefore saying that they wish SF to be defined in Gernsback's terms. Earlier works, they will argue, were neither educational enough nor rigorous enough, and therefore cannot be SF. Clearly this also allows them to exclude much of what is currently written as science fiction from the canon of approved works.
It is often said that Gernsback invented the term "science fiction" as a justification for choosing him as the founding hero of our legend. However, this too is something of a rationalization. To start with Gernsback's original term was "scientifiction." He stuck with that for many years before realizing that it was a marketing disaster and coming up with something more pronounceable. In any case, Gernsback was not the first person to coin the term. An Englishman named William Wilson used it back in 1851 (in A Little Earnest Book Upon a Great Old Subject), but it failed to catch on.
Brian Aldiss, in his classic work, Trillion Year Spree, makes the case for Mary Shelley. Clearly Aldiss wants to choose a British founder for the genre, but the case is more complex than that. Aldiss is a hugely respected writer working in what most of the literary establishment in the UK regards as a junk tradition. By choosing Shelley as Founding Mother, Aldiss places science fiction firmly in the center of British literary orthodoxy. Mary Shelley might have hung out with a rather disreputable and dissolute gang of poets, but no one dare doubt their literary quality, or hers.
Another British critic, Brian Stableford, takes a different approach. Unlike Aldiss he is less concerned with nationalistic and literary themes. His primary interest is still with science. Nevertheless, he doesn't wish to leave the honors with Gernsback. He therefore concocts a clever argument that links the development of science fiction with the development of the modern scientific method. Without the latter, Stableford claims, the former clearly cannot exist. Stableford's essay, which appears in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, does not pinpoint a specific work as the primal piece of SF. However, a novel by the astronomer Johannes Kepler seems to be a likely claimant. Who would have thought it: score one for Germany.
On a more nakedly nationalistic level, claims of foundership have been made for H.G. Wells (by Britons) and Jules Verne (by Frenchmen). Americans may respond with reference to Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain. But what happens if your country has no great literary figure at whom you can point? The objective then must be to discount the claims of all of your rivals and place the origin with someone that few people can claim as theirs.
One of the more interesting books on the subject of SF's origins is The Halstead Treasury of Ancient Science Fiction, by Matthew Richardson. Richardson is an Australian. His country has a fine recent SF tradition, but no one of the stature of Wells, Verne, or Poe to look back upon. Therefore he focuses his attention on the ancient world. His book looks at a number of science fictional stories that predate anything we have looked at so far by a considerable margin.
The oldest SF story that Richardson can find is the True History of Lucian of Samosata, a Syrian living in ancient Rome. The book is essentially a parody poking fun at people who believe in the literal truth of the works of Homer and Virgil. However, close examination of the text shows many parallels with Gulliver's Travels. It is likely that Jonathan Swift was aware of Lucian's work, and if Gulliver is SF (talking horses, races of giants and midgets -- sounds plausible to me) then Lucian's work must be as well. After all, Lucian has his heroes visit other worlds.
Just to make sure that this doesn't give the Italians ideas above their station, Richardson also prints a translation of a 10th century Japanese legend in which a princess of the Moon People travels to earth and is adopted by a humble bamboo cutter. Illustrations accompanying the original text show very clearly that the Moon People travel in flying saucers, albeit not terribly wisely engineered ones.
For the feminists amongst us, Richardson also stakes a claim for that great Arabian storyteller, Scheherazade. Most of the Arabian Nights is clearly fantasy. But one tale, "The Ebony Horse," very clearly features a robot horse. It is a machine, with control knobs on its neck. That sounds like science fiction to me.
All of which goes to show that the question of "what was the first SF story?" is not merely one that can keep a convention panel going for ages. It is also one whose answer is very much dependent on what you want science fiction to be. Doubtless there are many more such myths that can be devised by people in the field. After all, who better to write myths of origin than a bunch of science fiction and fantasy writers?
Copyright © 2004 Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan's native habitat is the U.K., but the species has also been found in Australia and California. Naturalists believe that the species is migratory and that it follows the publication patterns of science fiction novels. Ms. Morgan is also the editor of the Hugo-nominated online science fiction and fantasy book review magazine Emerald City and is an occasional reporter for Locus and reviewer for Foundation. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.