Science fiction

Posted by R. Berg on January 21, 2002 at

In Reply to: Science fiction posted by Marian on January 21, 2002

: What's the earliest use of the term "science fiction"?

"It was the conscious hope of Hugo Gernsback, the immigrant technocrat who named the genre, that science fiction should be fiction about science. It was Gernsback's aim to publish a literature that would foresee the possibilities of science-to-come, stories of imaginary technology, stories that would be extravagant fiction today, but cold fact tomorrow. [paragraph] To this end, in 1924, Gernsback sent out a circular . . . announcing a new magazine. It was to be called 'Scientifiction.' This was a portmanteau word of Gernsback's own devising, meaning 'scientific fiction.' But the response to Gernsback's circular was so poor that he abandoned his idea for two years. [p'graph] Then, in March 26, Gernsback took a gamble. Without any prior announcement, he issued the first number of a new magazine which he described as 'a magazine of scientifiction.' But this magazine was called 'Amazing Stories.' [p'graph] . . . Gernsback selected the name by which this new literature would present itself to the world-at-large: First 'scientifiction,' and then later the name that would stick--'science fiction.''
"The year . . . 1851 . . . might serve as a key year to illustrate the change in progress. Mary Shelley, the representative of the old Romantic attitude who had argued for science-beyond-science but feared it, died in 1851. [paragraph] This was also the year of the Great Exhibition, the first great international science and trade exhibition. It was housed in Hyde Park in London within a splendid building of glass and iron enclosing twenty acres . . . . [p'graph] Recently, what may prove to have been the first use of the term 'science fiction' has been traced to our same representative year of change. In 1851, in the course of setting down somewhat commonplace reflections on the subject of poetry, a writer named William Wilson made the suggestion of a new form of literature which he called 'Science-Fiction.' In almost Gernsbackian phrases, Wilson wrote: 'the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true--thus circulating a knowledge of the Poetry of Science, clothed in a garb of the Poetry of Life.' [p'graph] As far as anyone has discovered, Wilson's suggestion had no influence on the actual course of development of SF. He made only passing mention of the potential powers of science and technology. His argument was chiefly for the celebration of actual present science. [p'graph] But if Wilson's term was not adopted until the time of Gernsback, and then was used somewhat differently, to refer to stories with 'prophetic vision' and 'the amazing quality,' the seeming parallel of thought between Wilson and Gernsback is no illusion. Wilson and Gernsback are united by their uncritical enthusiasm for science. They represent the beginning and the end of a common attitude. Even though it didn't bear the name during the period, it is precisely during the seventy-five years from 1851 to 1926 that SF might most deservedly have been known as 'science fiction.'' (Alexei and Coy Panshin, "The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence," Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1989, pp. 1-2, 39-40)