Science fiction is arguably one of the most popular genres spanning across most media. From its origins in novels, it has infiltrated deeply into movies and television, music, and very importantly, academia, technology, and actual science! History has played an incredibly important role in developing science fiction as a deeply compelling genre, propelling it into the limelight time and time again with revolutionary ideas and tropes. Science fiction is fundamentally about exploration, but also about the human condition: how people deal with the unknown through the known, sort through problems large, small, silly, or serious, and find a place within the universe. What better way to figure out the self, than with literary devices?
Tropes are some such literary devices, defined as themes or clichés, and are used in such a way to sketch the outline of a genre. Romance, for instance, has themes such as soulmates, forbidden love, and friends-to-lovers. While not shown in every book, these examples are in so many romances that they begin to define the shape of the genre, and when a reader sees a work that includes those, can reasonably expect a certain kind of beat to the story. Science fiction, sci-fi, has its own sort of clichés and recurrent tropes that help define it. Many, if not all, of those tropes have been influenced by events in history, and in turn, have become influences on history as well. Aliens, time travel, crazy physics, space exploration, and disasters in the deep sea all are themes created in pretty direct response to socio-political movements, tragic or exciting events in war or exploration, and even moral, religious, and ethical ideologies.
Science fiction has many precursor genres, found in many novels and books about adventure and exploration, but truly begins in the middle of the Industrial Revolution with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus in 1818 (“Writing”). The book was revolutionary at the time, approaching ideas about religious morality, and becoming a commentary on the ethics of scientific advancements at the cost of human life. Controversial such as it was, steeped in the middle of vast technological advancements and the Protestant pre-Victorian era, her works set a precedent for how science fiction would push boundaries and develop into the rich genre it is now.
Progressing through the decades, science fiction continued to be at the forefront of the literary scene, churning out new worlds and technologies, exploring old and emergent ideologies together, and most importantly, influencing science. The genre was and is “A platform [that] inspires curiosity through stories [and] demonstrate[s] what could be created and what could become of society” (“Science Fiction’s”). It’s a fantastic cyclical movement of real innovation and fiction writing, that with hindsight, is easy to see. With the writing of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne in 1870, and the fascination that the novel wrought of the deep sea, submarines were propelled from their inefficient infancy into new depths of discovery (“Writing”). With the invention of steam engines, electricity, and telephones in the real world, time travel machines began to show in fiction as another means to explore. Further, with the space race in the fifties and sixties, sci-fi exploded with tropes of deep space exploration, aliens, and robots. New everyday conveniences and luxuries brought by new tech and the economic boom in America following the second world war further inflated the genre, and the cycle of fiction and reality continued spectacularly. One reason today there are cell phones, driverless cars, artificial intelligence, among countless other common items, and so many science-y terms is because sci-fi has inspired, excited, and incited so many people into new advancements in so many fields (Cavendish).
It is important to address the influence of increasing world tensions before and after WWII that saw an interesting response in all fiction, and perhaps especially in science fiction. Disquieting themes such as government omnipresence, fascism and communism, and direct parallels to then-current atrocities were common heavy-handed tropes that showed plainly the worries of an uncertain future. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley in 1932 and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell in 1949 are very popular and influential dystopian science fiction novels depicting frightening societies and bleak warnings. Technology advancement and reliance thereon without ethics, or with misguided morals are very stark themes that follow through the subgenres of post-apocalyptic and dystopian works. It is interesting to see these and other science fiction works become common in schools, as mandatory reading; to think that such novels have a wide influence, and can be referenced so readily in topical current events is a testament to the durability and longevity of science fiction. History and everything contained within really is recurrent and cyclical.
Other global events inspired science fiction further, reaching new climes in metaphor and allegory: socio-political movements of the sixties and seventies brought sci-fi to explore themes of race and sexuality more thoroughly and blatantly, challenging ideas of racism and gender within the realms of fantasy (“Writing”). Aliens, androids, and other characters and caricatures were stand-ins in made-up societies with the same issues as the real world, posed for approachability, and at the same time, became synonymous and inextricable from the genre. A popular sci-fi trope, another later wave of humanitarian and environmentalist movements were ushered in by space exploration. In particular, these movements were encouraged by astronauts experiencing the “orbital perspective”. Much later, in 2008, astronaut Ron Garan explains in his book of the same name, that when he was on the International Space Station, he was able to look back at the Earth, “this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space [...] and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction” (Garan). Though this was a quote that came much later, historically it is very likely that early space-farers experienced this similar phenomenon, and had a “realization that we are all traveling together on the planet” and thought deeply enough about “the serious inequity [that] exists on the apparent paradise we have been given” (Garan). This surge of environmentalism brought with it new themes in sci-fi depicting “eco-tastrophes” and different perspective to real disasters and human’s responsibilities regarding them.
Much of the science fiction genre is rife with caution about letting technology take over, be it rogue AI, evil governments, or corporations using omniscient tech, or using forbidden knowledge to create technology. Those tropes bear importance on how we view science fiction, science, and technology in the present. Undoubtedly, society has benefited immensely from new technology, allowing for accessibility, vast abilities to pursue new knowledge, and a multitude of other conveniences. At the same time, very important concepts to consider - incredibly similar to Shelley’s points - are the morals and ethics of advancement. Heeding certain warnings found in most science fiction that are based in reality, about putting human empathy and well-being ahead of material and scientific expansion at all cost, is crucial to continuing to have wonderful beneficial advancements. It’s the whole idea that “With great power, comes great responsibility” (Owsley). Science fiction is a fascinating microcosm of societal problems and triumphs that undoubtedly will continue to thrill audiences, scientists, writers and everyone in between for ages to come - who knows what the next trope brought on by historical events will become the next big thing?
Cavendish, Lee, and All About Space magazine. “Welcome to the Future: 11 Ideas That Went from Science Fiction to Reality.” Space.com, Space, 25 Mar. 2020, www.space.com/science-fiction-turned-reality.html, Accessed 24 Feb 2021.
Garan, Ron, and "The Orbital Perspective". “ASTRONAUT: Here Are All the Sad Things I Realized While Floating through Space.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 2 Feb. 2015, www.businessinsider.com/the-orbital-perspective-excerpt-2015-2. Reprinted with permission from the book The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles by Ron Garan – 2015 Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Accessed 22 Feb 2021.
Owsley, Jim. “High Tide.” Spider-Man Versus Wolverine, 1st ed., vol. 1, Marvel, 1987, Accessed 24 Feb 2021.
“SCIENCE FICTION'S INFLUENCES ON MODERN SOCIETY.” Unsolicited Press, Unsolicited Press, www.unsolicitedpress.com/blog/science-fictions-influences-on-modern-society, Accessed 24 Feb 2021.
“Writing the Future: A Timeline of Science Fiction Literature.” BBC Teach, BBC, 27 Aug. 2019, www.bbc.co.uk/teach/writing-the-future-a-timeline-of-science-fiction-literature/zjfv6v4, Accessed 21 Feb 2021.