Tracing Science Fiction Trends from the 1300s on

Here is the list that I am working on to base my eventual argument that Science Fiction has genuine medieval roots. I’ve included a few basic notes with each to briefly summarize what the text is and how it fits into the genre.

This list is not comprehensive or complete at the moment, as I’m still working on finding sources. I’ve also include links to the text, but some of the earlier texts are not translated into modern English, and some that are I’ve not had time to track down the original language to verify the accuracy of translation. I also can’t make any promises as to the stability or availability of the links.

Here’s a general outline of the texts upon which my argument so far is based:

1300s- Chaucer “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale”: a skeptical description of both ‘fictional’ and ‘real’ alchemists at work

The Book of John Mandeville: a travelogue to other lands, based on possibilities but not on known facts about real places

1400s- ??? still looking

1500s- Thomas More Utopia: a travelogue as above except that the place itself is also a possibility, not fact

1600s- Edmund Spencer The Faerie Queene Book 5: features Talus the metal man-servant of a star given to a knight as his helper. This text raises a question of fantasy vs sci-fi; I would suggest that while it’s largely fantasy, in an otherwise standard fantasy, this part stands out as different.

Johannes Kepler “Somnium”: describes what life on the Moon is like. This might pass as fantasy save that Kepler was a scientist {astronomer}/ mathematician, and may have believed in the possibility of what he was considering. NB: there is no formal open access translation into English that I’ve found so far.

Francis Godwin “The Man in the Moone”: similar to the above, although with a Utopian emphasis

Francis Bacon “New Atlantis”: full on scientifically based fictional world that also takes a Utopian approach to a world based on experimentation and the scientific method.

1700s- Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels Book 3: the section exploring the flying island of Laputa, inhabited by a bunch of science-obsessed philosophers, is most relevant, although as with other of Swift’s writings, the satirical nature must be kept in mind.

Voltaire Micromegas: visitors from Saturn and Sirius are bemused about Earth customs. This may be the first alien visitation story.

Louis-Sebastian Mercier The Year 2440: the story of a science-worshipping society where science is the religion, and plays a role in all aspects of life.

1800s- Mary Shelley Frankenstein: the classic tale in which a scientist brings to life an artificially created man. Also The Last Man in which the lone survivor on a dead planet wanders around looking at the remains of a civilization.

Edward Ellis The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairie: Eliot, a curious young man, finds a steam-powered robot man and hijinks/adventures ensue.

Jules Verne 20000 Leagues Under The Sea: a submarine adventure that shares qualities with the travelogue. See also Journey to the Center of the Earth in which a crew of explorers discover dinosaurs etc. under the Earth’s crust.

HG Wells: The Time Machine: time travel both to the distant future and speculation as to what society becomes with some commentary on current Victorian England. See also War of the Worlds: an alien invasion and subsequent attempts by humanity to defend Earth.

William Henry Rhodes “The Case of Summerfield”: a mad scientist creates a death ray and must be stopped.

1900s- Arthur Conan Doyle The Lost World: dinosaurs still survive on a remote island, although more time is spent with the local tribe of ape-people.

Arthur C. Clarke 2001: Space Odyssey: space travel and artificial intelligence that goes awry.

Isaac Asimov I, Robot: a series of short stories about the interactions between robots and humans.

William Gibson Neuromancer: cyber world versus reality in which a suspense/action story plays out.

One argument that gets brought up sometimes about the earlier parts of this list is that at the time they were written they were considered fantasy or another genre entirely, and only in retrospect might the stories by the likes of Kepler and Spencer be considered science-fiction. Another objection to some of these titles being true science fiction is that while they might demonstrate very early sparks of what would become science fiction, they don’t really show a building or continuing trend that constitutes genre.

To the first I say while that may be true to some extent like with Spencer (although even then, I would dispute is slightly), the sciences upon which the ideas were based was developing at the time the stories were written, and some of the key research was in fact being done by the authors. This would suggest that said authors, like Kepler, may well have considered what he was doing science fiction although he may not have known the genre term. Similarly when texts might have been intended as travel narrative or utopian fiction, that doesn’t mean that they cannot also have been based upon extensions of current knowledge, which is the basic definition of science fiction. Even in the Middle Ages, the concept of genre was fluid and flexible, far more so than many people realize, or even consider today.

To the second problem, I answer that the list I have compiled does in fact illustrate a trend. In fact, the earliest stories are travel narratives, a popular historical practice and genre at the time, and while satire might apply in some cases, it does not change the fact that such stories remain plausible within the realm of current knowledge. Next comes stories based on the rise of various scientific disciplines including astronomy (space travel and civilizations), then biology (Frankenstein or Hawthorne “Rappaccini’s Daughter”), then physics (time travel), then computers (AI, VR, etc).

A third and final potential problem that I can foresee being held against this list and its argument is that it is pretty thoroughly uninclusive. This is true; however, the purpose of this list is to present the basic historical outline, not the current developments which include increasing attention to gender, race, and a variety of other identities, in terms of both author and story.

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Further thoughts concerning the medieval and modern fantasy

NB: I have yet to do any serious scholarly investigation on this subject; right now, I’m concentrating on working out my own ideas and reasoning.

It seems to me that a lot of scholars who specialize in medieval literature also end up working with fantasy, both as creative writers and as scholars. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, and he wrote (among other scholarly things) a book on Beowulf. Although I haven’t looked for it, I know from other scholars that Tolkien ‘borrowed’ extensively from Beowulf and other medieval literature in his creation of the Lord of the Rings series and its companion works. Perhaps lesser known, but no less important in some ways, Kathryn Hume first wrote a scholarly book on The Owl and the Nightingale. She later went on to write another scholarly work on fantasy literature, Fantasy and Mimesis. One of the founders of the Monty Python comedy troop, Terry Jones, has written several books on Chaucer.

Clearly, you don’t need to be a medievalist as an academic specialty to create good fantasy literature. The late great Terry Pratchett includes medieval elements in his Discworld series, but he himself once said, his learning was broad, not deep. Patrick Rothfuss was an English major who went to graduate school, but I have no idea what he may have specialized in or if he took an advanced degree (his website says “I don’t’ want to talk about it.”). If I had to speculate, if not a specialty, Rothfuss has at least done some in depth study of medieval literature and/or history. There’s too many accurate parallels between medieval realities and the world of The Kingkiller Chronicles to be coincidence. Then again, maybe I’m overanalyzing.

Similarly, successful fantasy does not need to be terribly medieval or academically based. Take The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. This book has a lot of classic high fantasy elements like the unwilling hero, the journey, the band of friends, the elves and humans, the magic, demonic bad guys, etc. The world is generically medieval but there’s not much detail about the world itself; that’s not really the point of this series. It’s more about the characters and the plot. I have to admit, I only read the one and half of the novels, but I could already tell that there was a pattern, and I got bored.

Fantasy also doesn’t need to be medievally-based at all. V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequels hints at some research into the history and culture of Renaissance and Victorian England, but that’s not medieval. Likewise, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire dragon series is built on historically accurate life during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

Then there’s fantasy that’s built on mythologies, which often places them in somewhat medieval times or settings. Again turning to Naomi Novik, Uprooted is clearly based on Eastern European folklore; the Baba Yaga references give that away, as do some of the character names (I’d never heard of the names Agnieszka and Kasia until I met my Polish now aunt). The general time and place have a medieval feel, although not nearly as detailed as the likes of Tolkien and Rothfuss. I love Uprooted for many reasons, but it’s not as detailed in the same way.

Then there’s the fantasy that is based on myth but set at least partially in the modern world. For example, there’s Neil Gaiman’s adult novels, including Anansi Boys and American Gods, which are heavily based in African and Norse mythology respectively, though not exclusively. Then there’s the YA versions, most notably Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson for the Greek myths, and Magnus Chase for the Norse.

Eventually I’m going to need to get into the actual scholarship done on these questions, but for now I think it’s safe to at least say that modern fantasy literature has a serious debt to medieval literature and culture and probably history too.

Medieval with Social Media

I’m a little late with my December post, but better late than never. I decided to look back at the past year and consider what kind of social media and digital things have been most useful to me during 2016.

There are certainly plenty of specialized academic and popular subject websites and pages, but finding the right ones for a given purpose is hit or miss. Many of the best are sponsored by academics via universities or libraries (eChaucer, DIMEV, Fordham Sourcebooks, etc) but even so, you need to get lucky with the right search at the right time to find them. Increasingly, it seems that web searching may not always be the best way to keep track of useful sources. Instead, using other digital resources like social media are becoming more useful for finding and following academic and popular resources.

Twitter is very useful for finding out about academic sources and news. I’ve found more CFPs and useful sites here than any other social media or list-serve. I came to Twitter late. I was at a conference over the summer (NCS July 2016) and ran into someone I knew from graduate school who told me that I should be on Twitter because he’d found some good professional opportunities there. I sign up and within a few weeks I find a promising CFP and a few websites I wouldn’t have known about otherwise (an open access edition of Chaucer for example). Following academic specialist publishers is also quite handy for keeping up with new publications but not getting stuck with a disorganized and overloaded email or mail inbox. I don’t feel at all bad about checking my Twitter account at work, as I use it mostly for professional, academic purposes, although I do follow some entertainment and non-medieval or literary sorts of things.

Facebook is less useful for professional news, but is good for keeping in touch with specific people, and for posing questions-problems to a specific group without the hassle of putting together an email group. I admit I use this more for personal and entertainment purposes than anything else.

Blogs {Blogspot, WordPress, etc} are also proving useful for following the state of the field. A lot of academics are blogging about project ideas or progress, and these are often posted by or re-posted by professional organizations like the Medieval Academy of America or the British Library.

Youtube is useful for in-class demo stuff, but not as much for academic sources. Movie clips and recitations are useful tools, but I haven’t found a good use for the informational videos that are there (and some of them look pretty good).

Google+: I haven’t checked this in a long time, and I don’t know anyone who really uses it for anything other than personal social media interests. Does anyone use Google+ for scholarly or educational networking or resources?

I don’t do Instagram or Pinterest, but I would imagine that these have some limited uses for a medieval literary scholar, particularly for images, and material culture and/or reproduction.

I also am not on Reddit. I suspect it is the least useful for specialist interests, as it relies on user feedback to drive what stories and discussions show up more or less prominently.

Tumblr is also not a site I use. As a multi-media blog site, I suspect this one might be the one that has the most potential of the sites I don’t use. I follow some authors (fiction) through other sites (Twitter and Goodreads mostly) who use Tumblr, but I don’t know of much of an academic presence on this one.

The last 3 social media/ web tools seem to have a greater focus on networking and professional uses.

Skype/Snapchat: I’ve only used Skype twice, and those for professional purposes. Once was during my dissertation defense when one of my committee members was in Norway on a Fulbright that semester, and the other was a first round job interview for the position that I now have. I’ve heard the Skype interview is becoming more the norm, at least for first round interviews as it gives the hiring committee a chance to see the person and interact/react a bit more directly. I also read that when technology problems arise (and they will-there were all sorts of techy issues during my interview) it gives the hiring committee a chance to see the candidate react under pressure. I’ve also seen Skype used during a conference presentation when, due to special circumstances, a presenter was allowed to give her paper via Skype. I was told by an advisor that one of the keys to presenting yourself well in one of these interviews (since first impressions can be important) is to be sure that you are not looking at the screen straight one, because this means that given the likely placement of the camera, that you will be seen as actually looking down at the hiring committee, which is not a flattering angle and also has some associations a candidate would want to avoid. Instead, you want to have the computer or camera above your head a little so it looks like you’re looking at or up to the people you’re talking to.  I’ve never used Snapchat, but I suspect it does not have the same professional type uses. It strikes me as more of an IM or texting app.

Academia.edu: I heard someone describe this as Facebook for academics. I only half agree with that. It’s accurate in that you post your thoughts and ideas, although in this platform they’re articles, publications, teaching ideas, etc, and people can see and comment, or download what you post. This site can be a good way to see what people are up to in terms of publishing and also to get yourself out in public, but then there’s the risk of if you put it on Academia, you may not be able to submit it for publication with a journal. Most journals have pretty strict rules about not taking previously published work. Where I disagree with the Facebook comparison is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of discussion or sharing surrounding posts. It’s possible to comment, but seems to be rarely done. The most interesting feature is that Academia alerts you when someone searches you name on Google. This becomes a little annoying around registration time when students try to research possible instructors using Google.

LinkedIn: I think this site has more use for someone not interesting in pursuing an academic career. I only found one academic posting that I could go for, and most everyone else I know on this site is through non-academic affiliations (family, and some friends who are not looking to be university teachers/scholars). It looks like a good tool for pursuing connections in the professional world, but not as useful for a scholar or post-secondary teacher. The application-profile site that seems to be more popular in academic job searching would be Interfolio which is a for-profit service.