In Science Fiction: A Literary History, we are treated to just that, a history of the genre and the most significant titles and themes from each era since its beginnings. In a previous post, I wrote about the various definitions of sci-fi the book delineates.
I’m almost done reading this book and have thoroughly enjoyed it. In my own sci-fi journey, reading through My List of the best sci-fi in chronological order, I’m still in the early days of SF, but it was nice to move ahead a bit and read about later developments in the genre.
In this post, I’d like to discuss one of the many changes/contexts that led to the development of science fiction as we know it today.
In the second chapter of A Literary History, Roger Luckhurst discusses the cultural conditions in Britain and America that led to the rise of what would come to be known as science fiction, starting with what was then known as the scientific romance, in the second half of the 19th century.
The late 1800s were an interesting time in the world. Significant technological changes were changing the way people lived and perceived the world. These changes were part of the critical mass of changes that led to the development and popularization of scientific romance stories.
“Why is the scientific romance one of these emergent genres? The other crucial contexts to consider are the significant shift of the cultural authority of science and the transformation of everyday life by electrical technologies after 1870.”
Luckhurst further notes:
“Perhaps even more significant was the visible transformation of everyday experience by technology. Steamships, newspapers, express trains, telegrams, and telephones compressed time and space, turning the globe into an interlinked network…Contemporary commentators on the late nineteenth century self-consciously regarded their era as one of restless innovation, a modernity that risked spiralling out of control. The future – its promises and cataclysms – seemed to be increasingly folded into the present.”
What stands out to me most about this description of the zeitgeist is that it’s so similar to our current zeitgeist. Indeed, much of A Literary History surprised me in this way.
We are currently also firmly in an era of “restless innovation” in which “the future seems to be increasingly folded into the present.” The explosion of science fiction in our culture in the past decade or so, surrounding us with its techno tales, reflects the same sentiment back to us. One need not look far to see why and how. A gazillion apps exist today to help us with everything from work to sleep to meditation to tracking your menstrual cycle to meal planning and more. Do we even need all of them? The proliferation of smartphones means we all have the entire compendium of human knowledge at our finger tips.
Talk about compression.
And when I see a sentence like “the future seems increasingly folded into the present” I think automatically of shows like Black Mirror. Black Mirror drags the future into our present like Scorpio from Mortal Kombat, showing us that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
A few pages later, Luckhurst states:
“It was one of the key forms of commercial mass literature that turned the bewildering contradictions of this period into narrative form, particularly responding to scientific and technological breakthroughs, but often as much a symptom of processing these rapid changes as an attempt to diagnose them.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the similarity between the cultural surprise at the rapid pace of technological evolution and progress in the late 1800s and the same sentiment we’re experiencing today is uncanny. History is really repeating itself.
And as much as the genre back then helped writers and readers make sense of their brave new world, so it is for us today. We use it to take current trends and extrapolate them to their possible logical conclusions, taking into consideration the tendencies (good and bad) of humanity. We use it as a warning. We use it to show ourselves the way. And as much as it can be a reaction to the compressed nature of time and space in our world, we’ve lately been using it to make space for those who have historically been deprived of it.
So while the genre itself may have, and continues to, evolve, and while humanity and society have, and continue to, evolve as well, it’s clear that this seemingly never-ending pace of technological progress has compressed us to the point of being stuck in a perpetual bewilderment. A sentiment from the late 1800s is just the same today as it was back then. While the reasons for writing sci-fi march on, we remain, barely able to catch our breath and keep up.