Sunday, November 18, 2012

The earliest SciFi?

I've always said that Frankenstein is the first true example of science fiction.* The premise is based on rational advancement or discovery and even features the heavy slant toward social commentary characteristic of good scifi. Its focus on objects and especially ideas as opposed to characters or subjective states is nowadays so intrinsic to the genre as to make the lignified Keanu Reeves an ideal science fiction protagonist.

Turning to the relevant wikipedia page we find of course many more outlandish notions than my own. I doubt many can hear of Gilgamesh as a potential Keanu Reeves role without doing a double-take. Still, some of the more reasonable inclusions in science fiction (pre)history merit consideration. I find myself forced to abandon one of my other proposed scifi precursors, Faust, because the action is entirely supernatural regardless of his status as a scholar. Faust is more of a morality play than a "what if" story.

I'm also unimpressed by the idea of Gulliver's Travels as science fiction. Its various world-shaking notions are not discoveries. They are given "as-is" to support social commentary on a particular theme. It's good stuff, but given that the protagonist, his acquaintances and really all other characters lack any sort of agency and are more or less observers in their own adventures, given that they almost entirely lack meaningful decisions to make, it all feels more like an extended fable or faery tale. The Gulliver stories are no more sciencey than Rip Van Winkle.

Most of the other examples, given that i've never heard of them, i can't comment on. One, however, did throw me for a loop. I've never read Utopia (i know, i know, someone give this man a library card) but i do know the basic precept and it may just have been the earliest true scifi story. The main concern of science fiction (and i mean the good stuff, not just "spaceships and laserguns" fare) is the variety of social and personal implications of new discoveries. 
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea** is greatly concerned with the power a captain of an electric vessel might possess in the steam era. Much of the book discusses Nemo's restraint or lack thereof in carving out his niche with an arc-welder.
H.G. Wells was fairly heavy-handed by comparisson. I wonder if any of today's multibillionaires sleeping on piles of hookers are tormented by nightmares in which these turn into morlocks.
Even The Lost World was half big lizards and half Doyle's poking fun at scientists and their foibles, the blustering or slithering men of learning which clutter academia to this day. It's the human and inhuman attitudes in that novel setting which make it interesting.
In fact, it seems more difficult to find any memorable works of science fiction which have not concerned themselves heavily with social commentary. Even Star Trek had its primitive, simplistic talk of freedom and the pursuit of knowledge in between phaser duels. Journey to the Center of the Earth would be a good example of apolitical scifi, just a nerd's "wouldn't it be cool if" ramblings. Stapledon's Last and First Men, after the first men die off, would also be simply a flight of fancy (it's as if he wanted to get the politics out of the way in the first few chapters.)

Utopia concerns itself with an advanced society. Presumably the various advances were made scientifically, through the effort and ingenuity of thinking beings, and not handed down by supernatural benefactors. From a scifi point of view, the story may be considered rudimentary if it skips much of the details and simply gives a cure for cancer, abundant crops or readily available birth control as part of its premise. These days, authors are expected to put a little more work into gadgets, gimmicks and geekery. Still, new discoveries cue shifts in morality. Science prompted social Darwinism and science debunked it. If Utopia concerns itself with that sort of prompting and debunking, then i'd have to consider it scifi.

I'm reminded of Robert Heinlein's recently released early attempt at writing, For Us, The Living and its blatant use of the scifi setting as a mere soapbox. Aside from a convoluted and shaky economics lesson, the book focuses entirely on finding the best way to live, the individual's coping with new avenues of thought and the difficulty of overcoming atavism when it has become socially damaging rather than an evolutionary tool. The characters do not simply act according to human nature as we'd expect from Gulliver's chance acquaintances. They are instead actively shaping their world and themselves. It's agency in a rational universe that sets them apart, and makes Utopia a valid candidate as the grand-daddy of all laser-gun duels.

*I realized i was lying, for some time i considered 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea the earliest.
**This is where i realized it.

1 comment:


    Does not take much time to read the original.

    - Ter