As far I can remember I have always loved Science Fiction.
In the beginning
I do not recall one single moment in my life where I was not always aware of the genre and loved it. As far I can tell, it has always been there in my life.
I was born in the early 1970s. It was a time when most imaginative children had a sense of wonder about space and advanced technology.
The space race was still going on the last legs of the Apollo Program, Skylab, the first permanent space station, was orbiting Earth, and Russians and Americans had met in space when an Apollo and Soyuz capsules rendezvoused in orbit (a grand gesture of peace and collaboration happening during the Cold War).
Space exploration seemed like the way of the future and there were the possibilities of adventure in space. In a way, it was quite a romantic era.
In my mind, there was no distinction between Science Fiction and the still ongoing vigorous space exploration projects or the constant advances in technological breakthroughs. They all seemed linked to me. Science Fiction had a very definitive futuristic element for me. Science Fiction was a window to a future that would happen just a few years forward.
Like many children of the time, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. Science Fiction showed me glimpses of what my future job was going to be like, and it was all great.
Naïve? Yes. But those were the times. It all seemed about to happen just around the corner. Futurism literature and art was all the rage back then and they seemed to give us windows to the future that would be. Art, like the examples below, abounded in the books that caught my attention and led me to dream of a great future full of possibilities and adventure.
Even reality seemed to have been going Science Fiction at the time, with things like architecture and urban planning showing inspirations or intentions of futurism.
What great times the future was going to be!
As such, Science Fiction was an extension of the possibilities of the future. What had not been invented yet was imagined as fiction. The present reality, projected possibilities and Science Fiction were very much different sides of the same thing.
There was a lot of Science Fiction going on back in the 1970s. But television from time is my biggest reference. My parents were low middle class, and they couldn’t afford trips to the cinema as other pressing matters from daily living took precedence.
This might have been for the better, as in hindsight much of the Science Fiction made for cinema at the time was very adult-oriented (something later I came to appreciate). But as a child back then, it would have gone over my head. Televised Science Fiction was able to connect better with children.
Shows like “The Tomorrow People”, “Space: 1999” and reruns of “Star Trek: The Original Series” filled my imagination. Especially “Space: 1999”, which I watched on a black & white Telefunken television since colour transmission only started in 1980 in my country. Imagine my surprise when I later discovered that Star Trek was actually a colour series!
Of all these shows, the most emblematic was “Space: 1999”. This might sound strange to an American, as it’s more of a European thing. This was our big SF hit show. It was my greatest reference in the genre, especially the first season. While the premise of the show was ludicrously fantasist to a laughable degree, the presentation was inspired by a great degree of realism to which the showrunners took great efforts to present in a believable fashion. They would reserve their more fantastical things to the depiction of mysterious aliens the Moon Base Alpha crew would meet on a weekly basis, representing the alien technologies that the humans would rarely (if ever) understand. But on the human side, things were presented in the most believable manner possible, often surpassing the limitations of the television format, budget and the technology of the special effects of the time. The special effects on this show are epochal and still a reference in the genre. The stories presented are fantasy, sometimes ludicrous, but it also presented, on the human side, a type of technological world (namely the moon base itself and the spaceships that served it) that just screamed, “This has to become true”. In was inspirational and enthralling. And yeah, the girls were hot too.
Few things were more iconic in that show then the Eagle, a jack-of-all-trades space shuttle which featured in every episode of the show, much to my and fellow regular show-watchers delight. Probably the thing that drove watchers like me to watch the show, more than the stories themselves, was to see more of these cool designed ships, mixing believable practical design with an industrial coolness, very reminiscent of the type of design that went into the American Space Program crafts.
Science Fiction is also about the music of the spheres, and the 1970s was when music inspired by the genre entered the public consciousness and became popular.
Prog Rock is emblematic of that era and very often it had songs or even entire albums dedicated to a Science Fiction theme. Of those, the great exponent of the Prog Rock genre is the group “Yes”. They not only didn’t hide their influences but they unabashedly boasted it, including their famous covers.
But nothing said Science Fiction music more than electronic music, which came into its own at during the decade. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t like it either. It was often played on the radio and its electronic produced sounds and melodies instantly took me to imagined future worlds of cool and awesome.
The most iconic representatives of this sound, and the first I was aware of, were the German group Kraftwerk. Taking their name from the German word for “power station”, their music represented a world quickly evolving in new technological discoveries, an optimistic vision of a rich technological future, with some occasional cautionary worries about dehumanization.
But if they were the first I was aware by name, there was many other electronic groups which I listened to and loved, yet had no idea who the authors were. Later in my teens I discovered who they were: French composer Jean-Michel Jarre and Greek composer Evangelos Oddysseas Papatanassiou, better known by his artistic name Vangelis.
There was an abundance of art inspired by Science Fiction, many of those that served as covers for the literature of the genre. I knew nothing of the name of the authors at the time, but I saw the covers of SF books and admired their imagination. Often times they had little or nothing to do with the story, but their function was to captivate the buyer. Mission accomplished.
There were also a lot of Science Fiction comics at the time. But due to my own particular local circumstances of living in a European country, my references are not so much the superhero comics from the USA like Marvel, but more the crazy French and British comics of the time. French author Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) is the best known, but there were others as well.
I would be remiss to talk about the influence of Science Fiction on me without making a passing mention of the particular political situation my country lived through in the 1970s. From 1928 to 1974 my country lived through a right wing, conservative, repressive dictatorship, until it was overturned by the Carnation Revolution in April 1974 by the left-wing progressive democratic elements of the Portuguese society. This brought democracy to my country and opened the country to internationalization and to progressive ideas and mores. One thing that gained with this newfound freedom of press and push to progressiveness was Science Fiction. Publication of the genre boomed and at least half a dozen publishing houses were solely dedicated to publish not just contemporary stories but also classics of the genre and even more obscure authors from around the world, from the USA to USSR.
But with all this, one thing was all too painfully obvious to me: Science Fiction was a boy’s club. At the time you couldn’t find a girl who would admit to like it. It was an artifact of the recently conservative society of my country, where the gender roles were still very strongly enforced. I always resented this division, which didn’t make much sense to me. There were boys’ things and girls’ things. I can only imagine those poor girls who had interest in Science fiction but had to keep their interest locked in the closet for fear of ridicule by their parents and peers, for that was unbecoming of ladies. The mentalities gap between my generation and the one before me, my parent’s generation, due to the closed society the country used to live in and the sudden openness, was (and still is) bigger than what somebody living in such countries as the USA or UK can imagine. This was my Gen-X experience. Fortunately later generations had this gender gap closed so much so that now I can find boys and girls discuss geeky stuff like videogames, Fantasy or Science Fiction on equal footing.
One final word on the influences on my love for Science Fiction would be to mention something that was not Science Fiction, but instead, Science Fact. This show enthralled a whole generation into discovering the wonders of the universe: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
How can a science television show have anything to do with Science Fiction? A lot, actually.
For starters, Carl Sagan was himself a fan of the genre and in one episode (dedicated to planet Mars) he tells a story of how much he was influenced by the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “A Princess Of Mars” to imagine space traveling and increase his interest in space, other planets and alien life forms. Sagan himself later authored a work in the genre, “Contact”.
And in the show, Sagan used a narrative device, which he dubbed the “Ship Of The Imagination”, to free him of the constrains of physics to explore the universe and take the viewer to sights unseen by our normal daily experience on Earth – a true SF literary device.
As I said before, in my mind as a child, science and Science Fiction were joined and indivisible. Both fed each other and my own imagination. And Cosmos provided me vistas and information about a vast universe beyond mine or anybody else’s imagination. The grandeur of the universe, both from the very small to the very large, was awe-inspiring. The universe being was presented in all its awesome (in the classic definition of the word) majesty – thanks to then state of the art special effects (of the kind never seen before on television and which has still retained their charm and magic).
To journey in the stories of Science Fiction or to travel through the universe with Prof. Sagan were just two sides of the same coin. Sundays were never better.
This is just a small summation of my more direct influences on my love for the genre. Other factors counted in as well, but they were larger than life social and historical movements of which I was not aware as a child. Today I can recognize them and rationalize their importance and meaning, but I (like most children) lived through that period of my life not realizing that bigger events were shaping me. I lived my earlier years in the 1970s, one which seems to have been perfect to shape my preferences of style and story and mood for the genre, later augmented by other later works of the genre (or discovering the thing I had missed out, especially literature and films, for obvious reasons of my tender years). Much could be said about my discoveries of authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson and Philip K. Dick.
Confession time: Interestingly enough, and unlike so many other SF fans, especially the Americans, my major SF reference is not “Star Wars”, a movie which I only got to watch much later in my teen years on VHS in 1987. To put it in perspective, I watched “Robocop” first, and in the theatres. My true and major SF reference is, and always will be, “Blade Runner”.
To be fair, I watched “Blade Runner” at the perfect time in my life while I didn’t watch “Star Wars” at that time. By then, I was too old for it to have the same sway it would have had if I were a child. Too many other movies already existed that I had seen which had showed amazing special effects – so Star Wars was no longer unique in that regard, no matter how technically achieved it was.
Story wise, other films and SF stories had already captivated my imagination that had already consolidated my personal preferences in the genre.
And “Blade Runner” just filled my own sensibilities and interests in the genre completely. It was not so much the SF movie I wanted, but the SF film, nay, THE film I needed to have in my life. The themes and mood complemented perfectly to that time in adolescence where we are reaching out to wider horizons beyond childish things, past the disappointment of the broken promises given to us as children and never made true due to the pettiness and small-sightless of those responsible for the world’s destinies. “Blade Runner” spoke directly to that, while also showing something I had never seen before on film, or could imagine it could be done on film.
For some, their definitive film music moment was the opening fanfare of Star Wars; for me it was the moody opening title track of “Blade Runner”. To each their own, but I wouldn’t trade mine for all the tea in China. This is my Science Fiction. This and so much more. Even Star Wars has a place there, just not the throne. Yeah.
A definition of the genre
How to define Science Fiction? Believe it or not, there is in fact no one single definition. Science Fiction is one of those things that we can append intuitively what it is, but defies a descriptive explanation that is complete. Many have tried to provide a specific definition to this genre, but they all have come short of being inclusive to all the examples of stories the genre provides.
It started simple enough with stories in which were based on existing and extrapolated science. But the genre grew very fast and soon other elements beyond hard science. There was no simple answer to this dilemma. Still, it hasn’t prevented many to try to find a definition.
To my knowledge, the best description of the genre was provided by author Brian Aldiss, which reads something like this:
Science Fiction is any literary work in which the relation between technology and science and mankind is fundamental to the story and without which the story can’t be told.
This seems to leave such type of stories as the post-apocalypse subgenre outside, but actually it doesn’t, since these types of stories are characterized by the absence of technology or stunted development or stagnation. Technology is still important to the story by its notorious absence.
So far this has been the definition of the genre that has satisfied me the most.
Another subject is which is the proper shortened version of the name? SF? Sci-Fi? Sy-Fy? I personally favour SF, but Sci-Fi also has its charms and can sometimes be easier to immediately identify the genre, especially for those who are accustomed to see the acronym SF to refer to the city of San Francisco. Sy-Fy is just an attempt by the Sy-Fy channel to invent a trademarkable name, so that doesn’t even count.
Genesis of the genre
When did Science Fiction began? This is another thing about Science Fiction that’s still debated to this day, with no easy answer.
Some like to project the origins of the genre way back to the 1st Century AD with Lucian of Samosata’s “True History”. While tempting to give the genre such an illustrious far back origin, it falls short in the fact the story is a pure work fantasy, the only Science Fiction element, so to speak, being it’s a story about traveling to other planets of the Solar System. But it’s not just planetary travel that defines SF.
So, the most popular and contested literary works that serve as the birth of the genre are Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus” and H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”.
Shelley’s work precedes Wells’ by almost 80 years, so it has the edge. “Frankenstein” (1819) was the first known work in which something like creating life from lifelessness was done not through means of magic but by the use of then current scientific knowledge. Shelley provided an attempt at giving a plausible technical procedural to how it could be achieved by science. However successful that story was, it didn’t create an immediate precedent, it didn’t create a new school of literary genre that was followed by others, and the story remained unique and alone.
“The Time Machine” (1895) by H. G. Wells is the first story in which uses the then technological advances or speculation for near future applicability, like in the works of Jules Verne, but also goes beyond that in talking the new concept of time as a 4th dimension and exploring the implications to bend and use time to one’s. Remarkably, the story was not made to be a fun, ripping, yarn adventure but a cautionary tale mixed with literary and historical references and a not-so-subtle social commentary. With Wells, one could say that SF not just started as an adventure, but a cerebral adventure with an intention of social commentary as a parable to modern times.
But to name H.G. Wells in lieu of Jules Verne, who preceded him in authoring works that today are clearly classified as Science Fiction seems to be too dismissive. It can depend on how one’s reference is attached to the Anglosphere. It is a good argument that Verne might have not gone fully in to Science Fiction because all his works are set in the present and never went that step ahead of setting his stories in a different future time…
Except that one of his earliest works was indeed a story set 100 times after the writing of his work: “Paris au XXe Siècle” (Paris in the Twentieth Century, 1860). However, this work was only first published in 1994, since Verne’s publisher found the story to be too pessimistic. Verne put the manuscript in a safe and it was forgotten, only found by Verne’s great-grandson in 1989. Verne created, but left unpublished, his opportunity to have truly created the first obvious Science Fiction story set in a future time. Still he is often called the father of Science Fiction by his fans and devotes to the genre.
So, when did Science Fiction really begin and who did it first? This is a subject that will be debated well into the future. Now that’s a pun! But if you ask me, I kinda like the notion that the genre had a mother.
Terminus: A statement
The ending is also the beginning. The end of this article is also the beginning of my participation on The Supernaughts. My mission, which I chose to accept, is to provide content on the Science Fiction genre in all its latitude and what interests me and what I believe might also interest others who visit the site. My self-imposed challenge is to be interesting. My yardstick is what interests me, in the hope that what does to me also interests others to some extent. In the end, this will be for me as much as what Science Fiction itself is for me, my own personal experience. And I look forward to you all joining me.
I don’t claim to be an authority of the genre. I’ll make my words the words of Carl Sagan, later repeated by the author and astrophysicist Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss: There are no such things as authorities, only experts. And even they can be wrong. I’m an enthusiast and a student of the genre, and I often times find myself thinking about it and debating it with others and ever evolving my knowledge of it. It’s a vast discipline that never exhausts its subject and that’s how I like it.
I can’t promise to have consensual or even popular opinions or to be in tune with the day’s zeitgeist. I’m not interested in that. Rather, I will be true to sensibilities, my own intellectual interests, convictions and myself.
Sometimes I’ll be controversial.
So be it.
I don’t deliberately court it, but I also don’t run from it either.
Let’s travel to the stars, for I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
This is AsimovLives, signing off. Have a better one.