From The American Interest:
In 1903, the aging Jules Verne—famed French author of the 54 adventure novels in the Voyages extraordinaires series—was asked to compare his body of work to that of his upstart English competitor, H.G. Wells. Verne, who prided himself on the strict scientific accuracy of his tales of exploration and discovery, found the question offensive. “No, there is no rapport between his work and mine,” Verne snapped. “I make use of physics. He invents.” Verne cited his From the Earth to the Moon, which featured characters travelling to the Moon in an aluminum bullet fired from a giant cannon, contrasting it with Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, in which the lunar-bound spaceship is made of gravity-defying “cavorite.” Verne had based his space cannon on the latest technological discoveries of the time, even doing rough calculations on the necessary dimensions of the muzzle. He explained in an interview:
I go to the moon in a cannonball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an airship which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli…. But show me this metal. Let him produce it.
In this put-down of one of the “Fathers of Science Fiction” by another, we see the future of the field. Long before anyone coined the terms “hard sci-fi” and “soft sci-fi” or used them as badges of pride or disparaging slurs, long before the “holy war” between old school pulp and the ’60s era New Wave, we have this demand from the cranky old school to the squishy new school: “Show me this metal.” Wells, whose social activism permeated his fiction, would no doubt claim that Verne was rather missing the point. But what becomes clear from a survey of science fiction’s history is that, if there’s one thing these authors love more than cosmic wonder and terror, it’s petty fights about what constitutes “real” science fiction.
Not, of course, that these science fiction fights aren’t proxies for fights about science or society itself. Science Fiction: A Literary History, recently published by the British Library and edited by Roger Luckhurst, chooses to forego defining the genre in order to discuss the sociopolitical stakes behind some of those “Whose Science? Which Fiction?” debates. Each of its contributors seems to have his or her own position on that definitional question, anyway. The eight chapters by different sci-fi scholars cover topics from “The Beginning, Early Forms of Science Fiction” to “New Paradigms, After 2001.”
. . . .
The best definitions of science fiction are evocative rather than exhaustive. Ray Bradbury, in the introduction to the 1974 collection Science Fact/Fiction, wrote, “Science fiction then is the fiction of revolutions. Revolutions in time, space, medicine, travel, and thought. . . . Above all, science fiction is the fiction of warm-blooded human men and women sometimes elevated and sometimes crushed by their machines.” Bradbury is onto something here: Revolutionary change, often but not exclusively technological, is one of the most vital subjects for science fiction. Confronting that change might be the core of the story, as in first-contact narratives from Wells’s War of the Worlds to Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (the basis of the film Arrival). Or the revolution might have occurred in the narrative’s past, with the story examining how and if people can live in their brave new world. This is often the set-up for novels of utopia and dystopia.
One of the most interesting things Science Fiction: A Literary History reveals is how difficult it is to write utopias. Surely the point of the exercise is to paint a picture of a world readers might want to live in. And yet for every author’s utopia, there’s a coterminous dystopia for the reader with eyes to see. H.G. Wells painted a parallel world called Utopia in Men Like Gods, in which enlightened and technologically advanced humans live in harmony with one another and the natural world, whose climate they have adjusted to a uniform Mediterranean tranquility. The Utopians are intrigued to discover our Earth, in a sister universe “a little retarded in time” compared to theirs. Utopia’s many advances include a eugenics program, for Utopian science can “discriminate among births” to weed out the “defective people” such as the disabled, the criminally inclined, and even “the melancholic type” and those of “lethargic dispositions and weak imaginations.”
Link to the rest at The American Interest