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A Century of Science Fiction

Last week we took a trip through a century of Fantasy stories, exploring the language and writing style as it developed and changed. This week I intend to do the same with Science Fiction. Unlike Fantasy, SF is a relatively modern genre. Science fiction, as a term, evidently appeared for the first time in 1851, in this delightful definition I mean to hold onto.

“Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true.” – William Wilson

From the beginning, then, Science Fiction was to be about exploring the possibilities of science. Along the way it also became about humanity, or to term it scientifically, anthropology and sociology. I am no collector, merely a reader with an adequately stocked library. Working through my shelves for paper books from which to pull yielded a bare century – I currently have no print copies of any Jules Verne books, although I have several in my digital library, for instance.

Researching for this was fun. I had no idea, for instance, that one of my favorite early scientists, Johannes Kepler, had written a SF novel. Somnium, written in 1634, is the story of some alien race, and their trade with humans. (  Here, a description of travel as imagined by Kepler in an era before flight was dreamed of other than Icarus.

“50,000 German miles up in the ether lies the island of Lavania. The Passage to this island from our land, and vice versa, is rarely open, but when it is accessible, it is easy for our kind. However, the transport of men is difficult and dangerous for their lifes [sic]. We do not accept men who are sedentary, corpulent or whimsical in our expeditions. Rather, we prefer those who dedicate their time to ride a fast horse with persistence or those who frequently sail to the Indies, who are accustomed to survive two times a day only by means of bread, garlic, dried fish, and other unpleasant dishes. There are lean elderly women who are particularly suited to our purpose.”

I’m going to leap forward in time here to the oldest print science fiction book in my personal library, which extends back to 1910. Through Space to Mars by Roy Rockwood is a juvenile, written for the amusement and amazement of boys who were growing up in the age of the dirigible and infancy of the aeroplane.

“Instantly there was a trembling though the whole length of the projectile. Would it move? Would it leave the earth and go to Mars?

There was a moment of hesitancy, as if the great machine had not quite decided.

Then came a more violent vibration. There was a humming, throbbing, hissing sound. Suddenly the boys, and all within the projectile, felt it swaying. A moment later it began to shoot through space like a great rocket.

“Hurrah!”cried Jack. “We’re off!”

I’m making another big leap forward, I’m afraid. I think I need to fill in some blanks in my library! I picked up Isotope Man, written in 1957 by Charles Eric Maine,  based on the title, which amused me. But this book isn’t necessarily intended to be science fiction as much as it is a novelization of the early Atomic Age, with all the attendant misinformation and fears, the repercussions of which linger to this day.

Presently he turned to me and said: “Did you ever meet Dr. Rayner, Mr. Delany?”

“Once,” I said. “About six months ago – at the time of the isotope K publicity. I seem to remember he was also interested in some scheme to create elements in the laboratory, apart from his work on rocket fuels.”

“That’s right’

“Is that what he’s doing here?”

“Something of the sort.”

“What the alchemists used to call transmutation?”

From the golden age of SF, the 1960s and 70s, I have rather too many choices, and it was difficult to thin the options out to a reasonable level. I wound up setting on some of our favorites, like Andre Norton’s Galactic Derelict. Published in 1959, it is a tale of time travel and aliens, and a rollicking good adventure story.

“Decided to join us for a look-see into the past?”

“Do you mean you can really do that?”

“We’ve done more than look.” Ashe adjusted a screw delicately. “We’ve been there.”

Travis stared. He could accept the cast of a new and greatly improved Vis-Tex to provide a peephole into history and prehistory. But time travel was something else.

“It’s perfectly true,” Ashe finished with the screw. His attention passed from the tripod to Travis. And there was that in his manner which carried conviction.

“And we’re going back again.”

“After a Folsom man?” demanded the Apache incredulously.

“After a space ship.”

EE “Doc”Smith, whose writing career spanned three decades, is considered the Father of Science Fiction. Sadly, I cannot find my copy of Skylark, so I am inserting a much later work of his, The Vortex Blaster (also published as Masters of the Vortex) which appeared in 1960 with the dedication ‘to Bob Heinlein, with Admiration and Esteem.’ This story is pure space opera, more like a tale of superheroes and comic book characters than extrapolation from existing or dreamt-of science.

“Two now. It’s the new one I’m talking about. It’s acting funny – damned funny.”

Cloud went through the data, brow furrowed in concentration; then sketched three charts and frowned.

“I see what you mean. Damned funny is right. The toxicity is too steady, but at the same time the composition of the effluvium is too varied. Inconsistent. However, there’s no real attempt at a gamma analysis – nowhere near enough data for one – this could be right; they’re so utterly unpredictable. The observers were experienced, I take it, with medical and chemical bias?”

“Check, that’s the way I read it.”

“Well, I’lll say this much – I never saw a gamma chart that would accept half of this stuff, and I can’t even imagine what the sigma curve would look like. Boss, what say I skip over there and get us a full reading on that baby before she goes orthodox – or, should I say, orthodoxly unorthodox?”

Skipping myself, to 1972, and Jerry Pournelle’s King David’s Spaceship, we find ourselves with galactic traders on a distant world. Humans are meeting with a more advanced alien race, and a description of something that wasn’t yet possible in the real world, but Pournelle had to have known was coming, follows.

“They want platinum and iridium, too; those metals seem to be very useful to them, and in short supply. But there isn’t much they can give us in return, because the Navy won’t let them sell us what we really want – technology. The Navy rule is, you can’t trade anything more technologically advanced than what your customer already has without special permission from the Imperial Council. We offered to buy those little devices they all carry around like notebooks. ‘Pocket computers,’ the Navy men call them. They seem to be machines. They can’t sell those.”

In 1986 Baen books published one of my favorite series, or at least, the genesis of it. Shards of Honor is one of the new breed of SF, less about exploring science and outer space, and more about the depths of humanity, and the impact of technology on cultures. Lois McMaster Bujold’s insights into motherhood begin here, with Cordelia Naismith… and after getting sucked into reading for far longer than I intended, I’m doing a quote that has nothing to do with SF.

“Not a visit. Permanently. As – as Lady Vorkosigan.” His face brightened with a wry smile. I’m making a hash of this. I promise, I’ll never think of Betans as cowards again. I swear your customs take more bravery than the most suicidal of our boy’s contests of skill.”

She let her breath trickle out through pursed lips. “You don’t – deal in small change, do you?”

Forgive my indulgence in what are perhaps my two favorite characters. I will wind up this rather lengthy post with the most recently published book on my desk, the shiny new copy of The Chaplain’s War by Brad Torgerson. Released only weeks ago, it is an alternating tale of a man rediscovering his faith after years of war, and the induction into the military that attenuated him to the breaking point. Stranded with only one other human, and a pair of aggressive aliens, they must find an outpost on a lonely planet. In the journey, much is discovered and remembered…

“What we saw was the most improbably beautiful thing I’d witnessed since going to space with Fleet as an older teenager.

The Queen Mother circled lazily around and around in the air, slowly spiraling with her wings spread to their maximum width, each beating in concert with the others, and together making a low rhythm that sounded not to dissimilar to a helicopter

“She’s beautiful,” the captain whispered.

“I didn’t know they could fly,” I said, still astonished.

After a couple of seconds, Adanaho’s lips peeled back from her teeth in a wide, genuine smile. “I don’t think the Queen Mother knew either. Until now.”


  1. Reblogged this on Cedar Writes and commented:

    Explore a century of science fiction with me, captured in a handful of quotes. What is your favorite SF read?

    October 25, 2014
  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    Minor nit, in Jerry Pournelle’s King David’s Spaceship all the characters are human, but yes the pocket computers were an interesting “fore-telling”. [Smile]

    October 25, 2014
    • For Heinlein, For Us, The Living predicted the internet, but then, it actually WAS a series of tubes….

      October 25, 2014
    • Christopher M. Chupik #

      Of course, Pournelle thought it would take a thousand years for such things. A lot of SF inventions either take longer or arrive much sooner than we predict.

      October 25, 2014
      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

        IIRC Pournelle had “pocket computers” in the Co-Domination universe (which King David’s Spaceship is part of) within a century of “current day” when he wrote those stories.

        The planet that King David’s Spaceship begins on had lost much of its technology as the result of a Human Civil War.

        King David’s Spaceship (Pournelle has Prince Samual’s World first visited by the Second Empire in 3013) is set around a thousand years from now but many planets of the “First Empire” had lost technology and the visitors to Prince Samual’s World were from worlds that retained much of the technology of the “First Empire”.

        Note, there were comments in Mote In God’s Eye about technology that the First Empire had but the Second Empire (the visitors to Prince Samual’s World) had lost. Still the Second Empire was in the process of regaining that lost technology.

        October 25, 2014
        • Christopher M. Chupik #

          Ah. I haven’t read all his CoDominium stuff yet.

          October 25, 2014
          • Neither have I, and I ought to. *adds more to list*

            October 25, 2014
  3. Mannheim Steamroller set part of Kepler’s work to music. It’s the album _Fresh Air V_.

    October 25, 2014
    • I”ll have to look for that. I love learning all this stuff. It just never ends.

      October 25, 2014
  4. Angus Trim #

    Poictesme and Storisende anyone? That would be H Beam Piper’s “Cosmic Computer”.

    It’s dated today. The computer revolution made nearly every science part of this story obsolete. However, it’s still a great story.

    “A Passage at Arms” by Glen Cook.

    Mr. Piper died to early. He hadn’t reached the point where he developed the fame of Heinlein and the other greats. Frankly, his fiction probably doesn’t appeal to everyone. But all of his stuff still in print are classics of their time period {early 60’s for the most part}.

    Glen Cook is known today more for his fantasy. But he wrote some very good sf in the 80’s. “A Passage at Arms” is a little dark. But, still very entertaining.

    October 25, 2014
    • Yes, Piper was gone far too soon. 😦

      My collection of Fuzzy books was on the initial pile, which I had to narrow down to keep the post at a reasonable length.

      October 25, 2014
  5. Laura M #

    That scene from Shards of Honor on the audio version I listened to is to die for. Found it in the library some ten years or more after I first read the books. It made me go read them all again.

    October 25, 2014
    • Makes me wish I could do audio. Or at least had time to re-read them!

      October 25, 2014
  6. jic #

    “From the golden age of SF, the 1960s and 70s”

    I’ve never heard anybody claim that the golden age encompassed the ’70s before, although obviously the exact time period is highly subjective. I’ve always thought the one most usually quoted (1938-46) is too early, too short, and too precise. I’d personally say the golden age was roughly mid-’40s to early ’60s. However, I think there’s a good chance that we’ll see another golden age sometime in the next couple of decades, with the explosion of self-published science fiction taking the place of the ‘pulps’.

    October 26, 2014
    • I might be influenced by what I have in my library. I’m not a scholar, merely an avid reader. But a lot of my favorites were published in that era.

      And I agree with you about the new era of publishing and finding authors and stories that are compelling to read, not that we are compelled to read through having no other choices.

      October 26, 2014
  7. About the Kepler extract… by “50,000 German miles,” he’s probably using the Prussian mile then in common use, which came out to about 4.6 English miles. Fifty thousand German miles would be 230,000 English miles, a good approximation of the distance to the moon (usually figured at 240,000 miles on average). The translation from Latin reads a little clumsily, though. Where this quote says: “…who are accustomed to survive two times a day only by means of bread, garlic, dried fish, and other unpleasant dishes…” the translation included with the Mannheim Steamroller Fresh Aire V liner notes has: “…accustomed to subsist on twice-baked bread…” So are men surviving on two meals a day or subsisting on zwieback? One or the other isn’t reading the Latin right.

    October 27, 2014
    • Or Mannheim Steamroller took liberties to avoid ticking off people who like garlic and fish?

      October 27, 2014
      • I cut the quote off a little soon. The Mannheim Steamroller version does refer to “twice-baked bread, garlic, dried fish, and other unsavory dishes.”

        October 27, 2014
        • I wondered! I mean, I like biscotti, garlic, and smoked salmon 😉

          October 27, 2014

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