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a brief history of science fiction

19 luglio 2012 at 10:24 By


The very beginning

The first examples of science fiction stories can be found in the remote past, considering what Greek and Egyptian peoples had already discovered in the fields of science and technology.
As far as to literature is concerned, ancient references are the Odyssey by Homer and some mythological legends. In The Island of Dr. Moroe H. G. Wells could have taken the idea from the episode of Circe’s island in the Odyssey where the witch casts a spell on Ulysses men turning them into pigs. The myth of Dedalus that built the labyrinth and then tried to escape from it by flying has influenced a lot of writers afterwards.
Plato’s Republic (427-347) is an example of Utopian novel in which an ideal state is described. The population is divided into three classes and every one is respectful of the authorities and of the other people.
In Timeo and Crizia, Plato describes a place beyond Hercules’ Columns, Atlantis, about the legend of the great-lost civilisation that afterwards will supply an inexhaustible source for further stories.
About 165 A.D. Luciano from Samostrata, a Greek philosopher wrote on his travels in Athens. His Icaromenippus describes a journey through the clouds to the moon. He wanted to demonstrate that the Earth was round and to make a satire about his world. His most ambitious book was Vera Historia in which he spoke about fifty Greek athletes that leave to see other populations.
In the Middle Ages the reports of travels become a sort of legend in the Arthurian Cycle and in Parsiphal’s adventures.
In the first half of the 16th century Ludovico Ariosto spoke about a journey to the Moon in his Orlando Furioso. The Moon was a place where all the things lost on Earth could be found, also Orlando’s brain.
In 1608 Hans Lippershey invented the telescope and a year later Galileo Galilei wrote his observations of the sky.
Many of these books about journeys and observations of other planets were just an excuse to evidence the faults and the evil of the societies and to present ideal ones. Thomas More’s Utopia and Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis gave important examples of this sort of fiction.
Cyrano de Bergerac actually lived in the 17th century and wrote the Moon criticising his society. He had a great influence on Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the author of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) that can be considered an example ante-litteram of Science Fiction Novel, even if its purpose was the satire.
The second half of the 18th century marked the beginning of the Gothic Novel with The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole.
This novel was successful in that period and was followed by other stories of the same sort: Vathek by William Beckford; The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliff; The Monk by M. G. Lewis. These works mingled the horrors and the mysteries with scientific explanations.
These experiments led to the creation of the first real science fiction novel, Frankenstein by M. Shelley (1817).
P. B. Shelley and his wife Mary together with Lord Gordon Byron and their friend, the Italian doctor Polidori, had read Fantasmagoriana and so decided to write each a story about ghosts. Mary is said to have had a vision of a man on a table that, by means of an engine, took life. In the preface Mary wrote that the book was not about supernatural events but on the power of science.
This was the first time that the theme of creation had been touched with the support of a scientific explanation and giving a moral judgement at the end: Man was punished for his presumption.

Only recently robots and androids do not succeed in punishing their creators, but a sort of moralism at the end still exists. An example is 2.001: A Space Odyssey, the film by Stanley Kubrick (1968).
Meanwhile new technical invention were shocking and changing the world. After the discovery of the printing machine by Johann Guttemberg, in 1753 the steam engine marked the real beginning of the Industrial Revolution with its improvements and its evils.
The rhythm of the inventions fastened. Just think about the balloon (1783) and the first railway (1825) with new philosophies and ideas they introduced even in the world of literature.
In 1835 some articles entitled Discoveries in The moon lately made at the Cape of Good Hope by Sir John Hershel appeared on The Sun of New York. They described years of observations of the Moon and the discovery of life on the satellite. These articles attracted the public attention, but at the end the magazine revealed a journalist, a Richard Adam Locke, had written them and the series took the name of The Moon Hoax.

The 19th century
During the 19th century other inventions and innovations shocked England and the rest of the Western countries. Also political revolutions were changing the social and the economical situation. New philosophies put under discussion old ideas and rooted beliefs. These were The origin of the Specie by C. Darwin and The Manifesto by K. Max.
In this situation science fictions novels developed very quickly.
In America Nathaniel Hawthorn (1804-64) a meditative puritan author, started writing fantastic stories. He gave natural and scientifically explanations to what was happening around him. An example is the story Young Goodman Brown where N. Hawthorne gives a plausible explanation of the Sabbath of the witches and of other supernatural phenomena under a psychological point of view.
These reports reveal his thoughts and ideas about mind and moral illnesses. His stories were the product of speculations taken from experiences of every day life or from scientific discoveries.
E. A. Poe (1809-49) was a very important figure in poetry and short stories and contributed in moulding the detective and the science fictions of the first half of the 19th century. He wrote stories permeated by terror and horror (The Fall of The House of Usher; The Tell-Tale Heart; The Pit and The Pendulum) and also story with more scientific elements (A Ms. Found in a Bottle; A Descend into the Maelstrom; Hans Pfall; The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym). His life was a sequence of tragedies and disillusions and he was re-evaluated only after his death at forty years old.
A Ms. Found in a Bottle (1833) deals with a navigator whose sailing ship is destroyed in a storm. He finishes on a mysterious vessel whose very old crew goes on working, without even noticing his presence until the shipwrecks in a huge whirlpool surrounded by the Antarctic Ice.
In Hans Pfall (1835) Poe describes a journey to the Moon in a balloon that is launched by an explosion and solves the problem of the atmosphere by means of a condenser. The story is ironical: creditors haunt Pfall and at the end the reader doubts if the journey really occurred. Probably Poe ‘s intention was to write a follow to this story but he did not.
The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym is an adventurous story on the sea. Pym is a clandestine on a ship and the story is rich in adventures, crimes, tempests, attacks and also cannibalism. At the end Pym shipwrecks in the South Pole. Poe was influenced by the theories of an Adam Seaton (pseudonym of John Cleves Symmes) that stated that the Earth was open at the Poles.
As to the scientific theories, Poe’s ideas about the nature of the Universe were unique. He published them in the essay Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848) and explains them in a letter. For him the universe began from nothing and there it tends to return. The force of gravity is but a way of the things to return to their original unity. These ideas were criticised by the scientists, but Poe did not care their opinions: for him they were unable to define and understand the facts that they experienced.

Other authors followed E. A. Poe, but none of them reached the ability of fusing a great imagination with a high style.

The second half of the 19th century
It can be defined as the age of engineering because of the great many inventions such as the cinema (1822) and the telephone (1876). The process that permitted to make paper out of wood supplied the means to have paper at low prices. This made it possible to develop press.
In 1899 The World Fair in Paris presented the Eiffel Tower (about 300 m. high) and to show the first car, a Ben.
In this atmosphere, the genius of Jules Verne was born (Nantes, 1828). Verne was influenced by E. A. Poe’s imaginative power for the originality of the situations and of the characters.
The list of his books is long and well known. For the French author the task of a writer of science fiction stories is to imagine and describe things in details to shock the reader. Cinq Semains en Balloon (1863), Voyage on Centre de la Terre (1864); Vingt-mille Lienes Sons les Mers are few examples of the novels he wrote in which he describes events that could happen or are already going to happen.
Verne is important because he gave vent to the pleasure of inventions and showed the various possibilities of science fiction. With him the public began to take part in the science fiction world and to exchange opinions with writers.

The beginning of mass magazines
At the end of the 19th century the mass-magazines were born. This evolution in journalism was due to an on sequence of inventions in the field of printing began with J. Guttemberg and developed an in 1886 with the mezzotint.
Meanwhile there was a great development of education that became compulsory at the end of the century.
The USA were the most developed country as to technology and communication in the world. The population was doubling and the weekly work diminished from 12 to 10 hours a day; most of the people had Saturday off. The “reddito pro capite” (income per head) augmented to 50%.
Magazines and newspapers already existed but the price was high and the tirade was low because the distribution was by post.
A first step towards the popular magazine was the dime novels. They derived the name from their value was about 10 cents (even if it was often sold at 5 cents). Usually they dealt with long short stories or short novels and had a fine illustration on the cover. The period of the dime novel was between 1880-90n and Irwin Beadle was one of the greatest publishers of this genre.
The most important themes were, at first, the independence War, the Civil war and the Wild West. They started dealing with detective stories or adventures for young people. The dime novels were written to attract and entertain the adolescents. Then, the subject matters shifted to science fictions stories, a raw sort of science fiction about strange machines and appealing to the primitive instinct of man.
The dime novels stopped being produced because of the censorship: some religious groups did not approve stories about robots, aliens and aeroplanes.
The new ways of communication made it possible to spread the magazines all over the country and the prices of them diminished. The first pulp magazine was printed: Golden Argosy, then simply Argosy. These magazines were cheap and dealt only with literature. Most of the founds to publish them were due to advertisements.
These magazines launched writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, father of Sherlock Holmes, Mark Twain and Rudjard Kipling. All of them wrote science fictions stories in their career.

On the Pall Mall Budget appeared short stories such as The Stolen Bacillus or Aepyornis Island. Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) signed them. The English author at first wrote stories about the impact that the new inventions had on man. He published, for example, The Time Machine (1895) that appeared in instalments on The New Review and was a great critical success. In 1897 Wells wrote The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau; The War of the Worlds; After 1900 Men like Gods; All Aboard for Ararat; The Country of the Blind; The Man Who Could Work Miracles.
Well’s main themes are concerning the struggle against the logic of profit and the inner fears of Man. His stories are based on realistic pictures of the present time so that the events that follow can be easily accepted; then he introduces an element that concerns science and puts in evidence the faults of the society in which he lives.

In this period America is looking with optimism at the future while Europe is beginning to feel the crisis of the old governments. In the USA inventions, new way of communication, the growth of population, everything brings hope and trust in the future. The pulp magazines, created in 1846 with Golden Argosy begin to be successful thanks to the growth of alphabetisation and, as a consequence, of the reading public. For the first time it is used the word robot, taken from Robota, that means working unwillingly.
In Europe people wanted to find ways to escape the problem that everyday life presented in the congested cities and demanded distraction. They needed adventures of invincible heroes that faced, and solved, problems of the present time. One of the authors that best responded to this need is Edgar Rice Burroughs that started writing for the pulp-magazines All Story and that became famous for Tarzan of the Apes (1912).

After the First World War
After the 1st world war the magazines became more and more specialised. A great influence in production was due to Henry Ford who introduced the assembly lines. Other basic factors were the inventions of the radio and the development of the cinema.
In 1926 Hugo Gersback published Amazing Stories, the first science fiction magazine in the world. The term was invented by Gernsback himself and it limited a new genre: a fascinating way of writing about scientific inventions and prophetic visions. In the first numbers of the magazine the stories by J.Verne, H.G. Wells and E.A. Poe dominated. Gernsback thought that these three authors were the fathers of the science-fiction novels. Then he looked for new writers and for the first time he tried to get in touch with the public. In his magazine there was a page entitled discussions where he asked the readers to intervene and give their opinions. In this way the fans of science fiction stories could communicate, creating a fansdom. In 1928 Gersback started to broadcast the stories he edited on radio programs.
With the depression, the market of specialised magazines grew with detective, crime and police stories based mainly on a character. The hero of the science fiction novels was Captain Future.
In the thirties authors like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell published books in which they foresaw a terrible future for humanity. But their subject matter belonged to the genre of Distopian novels, as their aim was to put in evidence the evil of a society. Science fiction stories are instead based on serious speculations.
In this period Astaunding stories passed under the direction of John W. Campbell and had to face the Second World War period. On one side the war caused a crisis in printing, while on the other it gave a new hint to find new arguments as the development of nuclear weapons.
To this period belongs the work of Isaac Asimov.

After world war second
The lethal nuclear weapons had been a theme of the science fiction novels since H.G.Wells and with the world war second they became realistic. This brought to a further development of these stories: the magazines founded and carried on by fans and fan club. They created meeting that called conventions where groups of fans from every part of the world, periodically, met to discuss their common passion. These clubs were called Fandom and each of them appointed their leader.
In the forties also the cinema started being interested in the science fiction world. John Baxter’s book Science Fiction in the Cinema dates back the first film of this genre to the documentary movie Destination Moon.
But the films do not respect the rules of this genre completely: they underline the negativity of machinery and the scientist is usually a mad man that endangers people and nature.
Also TV movies follow the same principles. Moreover they fall into another mistake: the ripetitivity of serials and repetition is a mortal enemy for science fiction.
Thanks to these influences of other arts as means of communications, however, the term science fiction became wider and involved other genres.
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction started trying to cover the gap between Science fiction and fantasy as it considered the former a form of literature.
Then in 1950, Horace l. Gold created Galaxy that published stories based on a hero, the tormented scientist as in Frankenstein, the sensitive man as in E.A.Poe or the engineer as in J.Verne, the adventurer of Burrogh for the eminent technician of Gernsback. The focus was now on the middle class man, a man who accepts his situation and adapts his life to it. Usually the rebel or the outcast opposes him.

Science fiction films
Science fiction film is a genre that uses speculative, science-based depictions of imaginary phenomena (alien worlds, and time travel), often along with technological elements such as futuristic spacecraft, robots, or other technologies. The genre has existed since the early years of silent cinema, when Georges Melies’s A Trip to the Moon (1902) amazed audiences with its trick photography effects. In the 1920s, European filmmakers tended to use science fiction films for prediction and social commentary, as can be seen in German films such as Friz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and Frau im Mond (1929).
From the 1930s to the 1950s, the genre consisted mainly of low-budget -movies.
Starting in 1934, a number of science fiction comic strips were adapted as serials, notably Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. These serials, helped fix in the mind of the public the idea that science fiction was infantile and absurd, and, after 1936, no more big budget science fiction films were produced until 1950’s Destination Moon, directed by Irving Pichel, the first colour film.
There were relatively few science fiction films in the 1960s, but some of the films transformed science fiction cinema. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) brought new realism to the genre, with its realistic portrayal of space travel and influenced the genre with its epic story and transcendent philosophical scope. Other 1960s films included Planet of the Apes (1968) * by  Franklin J. Schaffner, Fahrenheit 451 by François Truffaut (1966), which provided social commentary, and Barbarella (1968) by Roger Vadim, which explored the sillier side of earlier science fiction. Jean-Luc Godard’s French “new wave” film Alphaville (1965) described a futuristic Paris commanded by an artificial intelligence which has forbidden all emotion.
The era of man on  the moon in the 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in the science fiction film. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) had visuals and a philosophic purpose. Science fiction films from the early 1970s explored the theme of paranoia: humanity is under threat from ecological or technological adversaries of its own creation, such as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange which showed the fear for  brainwashing. The science fiction included also  comedies oin the 1970s included Woody Allen’s Sleeper and John Carpenter’s Dark Star.
Star Wars created by George Lucas and Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Steven Spielberg,  both released in 1977, brought a huge increase in science fiction films. In 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Robert Wise, brought the television series to the big screen for the first time. Ridley Scott’s films, such as Alien and Blade Runner, presented the future as dark, dirty and chaotic. In contrast, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial presented aliens as benign and friendly.
The adaptations of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Arthur C. Clarke’s sequel to 2001, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, were box office flops while a strong contribution to the genre during the second half of the 1980s were James Cameron’s  The Terminator and Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. In the 1980s, animation began being used for science fiction films, such as the Japanese anime film Akira (1988) and the French animated science fiction film Light Years (1988).
In the 1990s, the emergence of the world wide web and the cyberpunk genre produced several movies on the theme of the computer-human interface (Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven,1990; The Matrix, Andy Wachowski and Wachowski, 1999), disaster movies (Armageddon by Michael Bay and Deep Impact by Mimi Leder, 1998), alien invasion (Independence Day, Roland Emmerich, 1996) and genetic experimentation (Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg, 1993). Parodies do not fail to exist even in this genre and Men in Black by Barry Sonnenfeld (1997, 2002) is one of the most popular examples together with Mars Attack by Tim Burton (1996).
Developments in software also enabled filmmakers to enhance the visual quality of animation, which was used in the science fiction films Ghost in the Shell (1995) from Japan and The Iron Giant (1999) and Titan A.E. (2000) from the US.
During the 2000s, fantasy and superhero films abounded: the Star Wars sextet and the Matrix trilogy were completed and science-fiction returned as a tool for political commentary in films such as A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, and Children of Men. The year 2005 saw a remake of King Kong.
* remade in 2001 by Tim Burton.

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