Science Fiction offers readers opportunities to explore the possibilities of the universe, often through time and space. We feature Sci-Fi Masters, Quotes, Sci-Fi in History, Discussion Questions, and Useful Links.
Science Fiction is all about speculative science-- imagining future technological advances, often portraying space and time travel, alien invasions, major environmental or societal disruptions. The genre originally required accuracy of scientific concepts or theories in order to ground its stories, but the genre became split into two types: Hard Science Fiction featuring "real" science (Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke) and Soft Science Fiction, social science and structures of human society (H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and Ursula Le Guin).
Dystopian Stories, depict situations where outcomes have gone terribly wrong and often serve as warnings. Those that are fond of centralized power and social engineering efforts would do well to contemplate rather than ignore this particular genre.
Related genres include Gothic Fiction, which features supernatural, rather than scientifically-based elements, exemplified by Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley. High Fantasy offers fantastic imaginary worlds requiring the reader to suspend their believe, exemplified by J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia.
Dystopian Fiction (the opposite of Utopian) is considered a sub-genre of Science Fiction in which imperfect societal forces spin out of control in dehumanizing ways. The Handmaid's Tale; I, Robot; Never Let Me Go; Brave New World; and 1984, are all fine examples of futuristic doomesday scenarios where oppressive governments or all-knowing technologies destroy individualism.
Jules Verne is considered one of the first science fiction writers, a master of hard science fiction, whose works describing fantastic technologies: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Around the World in Eighty Days. He is the second most translated author in the world, after Agatha Christie.
George Orwell is a master of soft science fiction, for his works 1984 and Animal Farm. His works inspired the adjective, Orwellian, which describes a situation, idea, or societal condition which is destructive to the welfare of a free and open society.
Ray Bradbury, perhaps best known for Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, wrote a poem rich in metaphor, Thought and Space, whimsical sci-fi satire including A Little Journey and The Fight of the Good Ship Clarissa.
Isaac Asimov, whose insightful and provocative works include I, Robot, and numerous other science fiction stories, explores the role of technology as a force impacting human free will. Though few of his works are in the public domain, we feature his novella, Youth (1952). We encourage you to explore his broad ranging stories, particularly his Robot Series, adapted for the movie, I, Robot.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known for his Tarzan of the Apes series, wrote numerous inter-gallactic sci-fi thrillers set on Mars and Venus, such as The Gods of Mars and A Princess of Mars. His "lost world" book, The Land That Time Forgot, is featured in Dystopian Stories.
Ursula Le Guin is one of the best living science fiction writers, blending soft science fiction with young adult fantasy to create futuristic worlds exploring gender, identity, religion, and the natural environment. She went to the same high school as sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, though they didn't know each other. We encourage you to read Le Guin's stories in the Hainish Cycle and Tales from Earthsea.
"Nothing in the history of mankind has opened our eyes to the possibilities of science as has the development of atomic power. In the last 200 years, people have seen the coming of the steam engine, the steamboat, the railroad locomotive, the automobile, the airplane, radio, motion pictures, television, the machine age in general. Yet none of it seemed quite so fantastic, quite so unbelievable, as what man has done since 1939 with the atom ... there seem to be almost no limits to what may lie ahead: inexhaustible energy, new worlds, ever-widening knowledge of the physical universe."
-- Isaac Asimov's Worlds Within Worlds, The Story of Nuclear Energy, volume 1 (1958)
"You have carried out your work as far as terrestrial science permitted you. But you do not know all--you have not seen all. Let me tell you then, Professor, that you will not regret the time passed on board my vessel. You are going to visit the land of marvels."
-- Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Part 1, chpt 10)
"It is still a matter of wonder how the Martians are able to slay men so swiftly and so silently...This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a light-house projects a beam of light. But no one has absolutely proved these details.”
-- H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (Book 1, chpt 6)
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” -- Robert Heinlein
"We keep looking for contact, a trigger in the pseudopodium. But more likely we're witnessing a psychological phenomena, a decision without any physical correlative. We're watching for something that isn't there. The mine decides to blow up. It sees our ship, approaches, and then decides." -- Philip K. Dick
-- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
“... you just can't differentiate between a robot and the very best of humans.”
“Postulates are based on assumption and adhered to by faith. Nothing in the Universe can shake them.”
-- Isaac Asimov's I, Robot
“We're each of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?”
-- Ursula Le Guin
"BUT LIST! One weapon have I stronger yet! Prepare Infinity! And Gods regret! Thought, quick as light, shall pierce the veil, To reach the lost beginnings Holy Grail."
-- Ray Bradbury's Thought and Space
"My name isn't Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it's forbidden. I tell myself it doesn't matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter." -- Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Cavendish may have published the very first science fiction novel in 1666, The Blazing World. It features animal-human hybrids, an empress of a parallel planet, and time and space travel, at a time when such speculation was still considered heretical.
Inspiration for sci-fi writers often stemmed from their fascination with science and space exploration. Incredibly, some authors were spot-on forecasted technologies way before their time, particularly Jules Verne. He offered space travel, tunneling through the earth's core, and deep sea exploration. Sci-fi provides a welcome form of escapism, too. During World War I, the Tom Swift series described wartime technologies that were desperately needed in real-life (aerial warships, surveillance cameras, and tanks that could cross trenches). These stories appealed to readers' optimism in the midst of loss.
Dystopian Fiction has regained popularity during these times of uncertainty in political, technological, global economic, and human rights infringements. The Handmaid's Tale and 1984 are prime examples due to recent changes in governmental leadership and debates about global immigration policies. As long as people dare to dream about the future, science fiction will remain popular.
1. Identify the characteristics of Science Fiction. How is "hard" science fiction different from "soft" science fiction? Provide an example of each
2. Describe the meaning of Dystopian and discuss an example of a work that resonates with current events or concerns (intrusive governments, loss of individual freedoms), such as 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale drama series.
3. Though the genres share some common elements, what is the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction?
4. Explain why certain sci-fi stories (particularly movies with great spaceships and special effects, such as Star Wars) have sustained long-term appeal across multiple generations. What are their elements that give them staying-power?
5. Jules Verne (1828-1905) was one of the first science fiction writers. Choose one of his well-known works and identify a specific scientific invention in his story that remained plausible for generations before the science actually caught up.
6. Robots overthrowing human control is a popular science fiction theme. Contrast I, Robot, a dystopian sci-fi story by Isaac Asimov (and a great movie!), with Philip K. Dick's Mr. Spaceship, about a human brain-powered spaceship.
8. Aldous Huxley was gravely concerned about the power of mass media, the potential manipulation of humans with mood-altering drugs, and the misapplication of sophisticated technology. After reading a summary of his Brave New World, compare it to modern trends (e.g., fake news and the opioid epidemic). Was he right on, or did he miss the mark in his predictions?
9. A popular juvenile science fiction series during WWI, Tom Swift was a boy-wonder who invented fabulous wartime technology, some closer to being invented than others: airships, tanks that could bridge trenches, photo telephones, air scouts (predicting drones?). Explain how this type of science fiction could boost morale during wartime.
10. Your choice: read one of the sci-fi stories referenced above, analyze its characteristics as a work of science fiction. Describe if it shares any qualities of a Fairy Tale, Fantasy, or Gothic Fiction.
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