Historical Origins and the Megatext
Origin narratives are always shaped by complex historical and ideological perspectives. Depending on the sf historian’s particular assumptions, the genre can trace its roots back to Lucian of Samosata’s satirical second- century story of a trip to the moon in his True History. Alternatively, the case has been made that sf began with the utopias and tales of great voy- ages of discovery written from the Renaissance through the eighteenth cen- tury—voyages echoed in the nineteenth century by Jules Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires.
Many historians have argued that sf ’s origins lie in the techno-scientific cataclysms of the Industrial Revolution; in this context Mary Shelley’s cautionary tale Frankenstein (1818) is of particular interest. A different reading locates the genre’s origins in Darwinian views of evolu- tion, which shaped the scientific romances of H. G. Wells. Still others would set the starting point in the early twentieth century, arguing that science fiction developed generic coherence only after being popularized in the pulp magazines of the 1920s.
This “new” genre, originally named scientifiction in Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, saw rapid expansion in the pages of pulps such as Wonder Stories and Weird Tales, where Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved” (1931) and Moore’s “Shambleau” (1933) first appeared. While each of these positions about the genre’s “true” origins has its defenders and the debate is unlikely ever to be resolved, these very different accounts, when taken together, offer striking testimony to science fiction’s complex history.
At its core, science fiction dramatizes the adventures and perils of change. Although not always set in the future, sf ’s consistent emphasis on transfor- mation through time demonstrates the increasing significance of the future to Western techno-cultural consciousness. At the same time, sf retains its links to older literary forms and maintains strong generic connections to its literary cousins epic, fantasy, gothic horror, and satire. One of the more interesting developments in contemporary sf is the near disappearance of genre boundaries in such stories as John Kessel’s postmodern “Invaders” (1990). Meanwhile, sf elements are now frequently incorporated into the work of many writers usually associated with the literary mainstream, re- sulting in slipstream fictions by such writers as Thomas Pynchon, Jeff Noon, and Margaret Atwood.
The original subtitle of Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) was “An Inven- tion,” and as the genre’s tangled history suggests, sf is constantly reinvent- ing itself, responding to contemporary scientific and cultural concerns and adapting or challenging prevailing narrative conventions. Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961; trans. 1970), for instance, gains much of its impact from how it revises the assumptions of earlier first-contact stories such as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s optimistic “A Martian Odyssey” (1934).
By stressing the difficulties—indeed, the impossibility—of comprehending the alien, Lem intervenes in sf ’s ongoing generic dialogue, showing that first contact might in the event be more of a non-contact. In contrast, James Tiptree Jr.’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (1972) takes a queer-feminist approach to first-contact conventions, with its dire tale of loving the alien all too well. Perhaps because of its twentieth-century history of publication in spe- cialized or niche formats such as pulp magazines, mass-market paperbacks, and sf digests, writers in the genre maintain unusually strong links with each other and with the community of sf readers. Writers of sf conduct long- distance conversations across generations, cultures, social settings, and his- torical challenges. Like all complex cultural forms, sf is rooted in past prac- tices and shared protocols, tropes, and traditions—all of which contribute to what is often called the sf megatext.
A fictive universe that includes all the sf stories that have ever been told, the sf megatext is a place of shared images, situations, plots, characters, settings, and themes generated across a multiplicity of media, including centuries of diverse literary fictions and, more recently, video and computer games, graphic novels, big-budget films, and even advertising. Readers and viewers apply their own prior experience of science fiction—their own knowledge of the sf megatext—to each new story or film they encounter.
Looking back to one of the earliest novels associated with sf, it is easy to see that the monstrous Creature in Frankenstein is a precursor of both Hawthorne’s Beatrice Rappaccini and the artificial intelligence hal in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Mark Twain’s Con- necticut Yankee informs Wells’s Time Traveller, who in turn establishes the basic template for all the time-travel tales of the twentieth century, including Heinlein’s “ ‘All You Zombies—’” (1959), which nonetheless offers its own original twist. The sf megatext encompasses specific characters (the mad scientist, the renegade robot, the savvy engineer, the mysterious alien, the powerful arti- ficial intelligence), environments (the enclosures of a spaceship, an alien landscape, the inner space of subjective experience), events (nuclear and