In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Science Fiction

  • Introduction
  • References
  • Anthologies and Collections of Victorian SF
  • Critical Discussions of Key Writers and Texts: Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells

Victorian Literature Science Fiction
by
Elana Gomel
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0206

Introduction

While the genre of science fiction (SF) has already achieved academic recognition and amassed a significant and growing body of research, its history is still debated. Some critics, especially those who tend to conflate SF and fantasy, trace the origin of the genre to antiquity. Others situate the origin of the genre in the long nineteenth century, arguing it mutated from the Gothic via the singular birth of Mary Shelley’s “hideous progeny,” Frankenstein. The latter view is gaining prominence, despite the fact that the term science fiction was not used until the early twentieth century. However, it is evident that the Victorian interest in science and technology and belief in scientific progress generated a unique literary genre, distinguished from the supernatural ghost story on the one hand and the realistic novel on the other. SF’s position as a harbinger of modernity was evident in the way it tracked important developments of the Victorian Age, from Darwinism to imperialism; from the rise of metropolises to class division; from industrialization to militarism. In the mid- to late-Victorian age, SF often manifested as an element within the oeuvre of realistic writers, such as George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, or Thomas Hardy. Moreover, the dividing line between SF and other forms of speculative fiction was unclear. The influence of spiritualism, with its desire to develop the “science of the supernatural,” meant that ghost stories occasionally used the rhetoric of science. However, toward the end of the 19th century, such popular writers as Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, Richard Jeffries, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others created a corpus of writing that manifested specific narrative and thematic feature we today ascribe to SF. Translations of the Frenchman Jules Verne’s “Voyages Extraordinaires,” popular in Victorian England, also influenced the development of the genre. However, the writer who is justly credited with making SF into a self-aware genre with a distinctive set of conventions is H. G. Wells. Wells called his early novels “scientific romances” and they have left an indelible imprint on the future development of what later became known as science fiction. His five great scientific romances written between 1895 and 1905 are credited with the invention of such central topoi of modern SF as time travel, space exploration, and alien invasion. Victorian SF is profoundly important in understanding contemporary culture. Popular genres of steampunk and retro-SF revive and reinterpret its conventions for the modern world.

Theoretical and Historical Overviews of Victorian SF

In order to understand Victorian SF, it is important to have a working paradigm of the genre as a whole in terms of its history and narrative conventions. This section offers a brief overview of the seminal works of SF theory in its first subsection, and of the history of the genre in the Victorian Age in the second. In genre theory, it is common to define a genre either historically (in terms of its diachronic development) or theoretically (in terms of its repertoire of structural and thematic conventions). This section does both—a selection of theoretical works in the first subsection and a selection of historical overviews of Victorian SF in the second. Since many theoretical works include an overview of the genre’s history, it is impossible to differentiate fully between theoretical and historical studies of the genre, so there is a significant overlap between the two subsections below.

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