In Defence of the New York Times: The Origins of Science-Fiction

I’m rather late to the party here, but I thought I would offer my proverbial twenty cents worth anyway. Back in November 2021, the New York Times got a fair bit of blow-back, after putting out a tweet about H.G. Wells inventing the genre of science-fiction:

Numerous very angry people responded by screaming about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which predates Wells by a good seven decades. Others, more pedantically, cited the likes of Lucian of Samosata, or Edgar Allan Poe, or various other, more obscure, candidates.

Let me say that I can see where the objectors are coming from. There are many, many pre-Wells texts that, were they written today, would be considered science-fiction (or at least science-fantasy). But I can also see where the New York Times is coming from… and in genre terms, I actually agree with them. Horror of horrors.

You see, at the heart of this is a paradox, and a truism about publishing:

  • You don’t invent a genre by writing something yourself. You invent a genre by writing something yourself, and then having other people consciously write (and publish) within the territory you first staked out – until the genre is recognised as a matter of course. Strange as it sounds, no-one deliberately creates a literary genre, while shoe-horning in ‘predecessor’ works becomes both tempting and dangerously anachronistic once a genre has become established. A ‘genre-inventor’ is thus less about the characteristics of a work, and more about the tipping-point when such works reach the critical mass of recognition.
  • Genres are not defined by writers. They are defined by publishers. The notion of genre is really a short-hand way of communicating to readers that they might like a particular book, on the basis of its similarity to another one.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein only looks like science-fiction because we now have a designated genre of science-fiction. Viewed purely in terms of the early nineteenth century, Shelley was operating within the pre-existing genre of Gothic Horror, itself descended from Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764). Frankenstein is unquestionably an ancestor of science-fiction, but the commercial market realities that now cause works to be labelled ‘science-fiction’ did not exist yet, and would not exist until the time of Wells. This is also why Gothic Horror itself – or even George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll – tends to be differentiated from the likes of William Morris and Lord Dunsany, in terms of looking at the invention of modern fantasy literature.

The same phenomenon applies to other cited candidates. Edgar Allan Poe was particularly keen on literary hoaxes, and his proto-science-fiction needs to be seen in that context. Johannes Kepler’s Somnium was certainly what TV Tropes would consider an ‘ur-example’, a work that predates the genre it can now be categorised as, but it did not birth a distinct genre, not when the likes of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia had already mixed travellers tales with speculative ideas. Or even Dante’s Divine Comedy. We are talking the soil from which science-fiction eventually sprang, and I dare say the latter could not exist without the former, but one should not confuse tree and soil. And as for Lucian of Samosata, I have already argued that his satirical vision – while speculative – does not constitute science-fiction, even of the Douglas Adams variety:

So yeah. I do not think the New York Times is erasing Mary Shelley in its reference to Wells. It is merely pointing out that after Wells, there existed a conscious and distinct genre of science-fiction, whereas previously things had been a good deal murkier. Wells, not Shelley, was that strange tipping-point moment when publishing conventions crystalised. Genre is not simply a matter of what one writes, but also when one writes, and what comes after.

3 thoughts on “In Defence of the New York Times: The Origins of Science-Fiction

  1. I also find people tend to be overeager to project modern genres into the past. Every now and then, I see some fantasy fan claim that the genre goes back to The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Illiad, which to me sounds as bizarre and anachronistic as similarly common claims that Plato’s Republic or the Inca Empire were “communist.” Fantasy seems to me a nineteenth century English genre in its origin, quite distinct even from French fantastique or Spanish magical realism, even though anglophone cultural hegemony has spread fantasy to other languages.

    There might be an argument for placing Alice in Wonderland in the fantasy genre, though, if only because its influence on the genre is comparable to that of the Conan stories or TLotR. Ultimately, isn’t Carroll responsible for the enduring popularity of portal fantasy? Oz, Peter Pan, Narnia, The Neverending Story, even Harry Potter or adult works like Thomas Covenant, The Fionavar Tapestry, and The Magicians go back to Alice. Sure, there’s folkloric precedence for Otherworld stories that is no doubt the ultimate origin of the subgenre, but I think Caroll was, as you name it, that strange tipping point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The standard objection to counting Alice is that it does not present Wonderland as a real secondary world in its own right, or something fantastical purporting to be real, merely a dream on the part of our protagonist. Dream Literature, if you will, rather than recognisable modern fantasy. And if you’re including Carroll, you kind of need to include George MacDonald – though, to be fair, many people do consider Phantastes to be the first fantasy novel. With Morris and Dunsany, of course, you do get secondary worlds, the latter even with its pantheon of gods.


      • You reminded me of my favorite story from a Chinese collection of zhiguai or weird anecdotes dating from the Six Dynasties (c. 200-600): a traveler lays his head in a chipped pillow (this is a wooden East Asian pillow) and dreams he enters it and arrives in a wondrous Otherworld where he lives for years before waking up. The implication to me seemed to be that the experience was real, even if it was accessed through a dream. The collection was titled Hidden and Visible Realms, in case you are interested.

        Liked by 1 person

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