SCIENCE FICTION: A BRIEF HISTORY
(Investigator #195, 2020 November)
In 1935 the first science fiction (SF) serial, The Phantom Empire, became a hit with kids and adults.
In it the singing cowboy-actor Gene Autry (1907-1998) plays a singing
cowboy who with two companions gets taken to the city of Murania
situated deep inside the Earth under his ranch. The city was equipped
with futuristic science including robots.
There, for twelve episodes, Autry put singing on hold and battled evil
Queen Tika. In one episode Autry was even killed but then got
resurrected in the Queen's resuscitation chamber.
In 1936 Universal Pictures debuted SF's most famous hero in a
13-episode serial, Flash Gordon, played by former Olympic swimmer Larry
Crabbe (1908-1983). People sometimes ask, "What did he flash?" The
answer is himself in his rocket-ship, which could cross the solar
system and the Universe rapidly "in a flash".
The first episode, "The Planet of Peril", introduced major characters
as well as the crisis that Flash would overcome. The crisis was that
another planet, called "Mongo", was on a collision course with Earth.
Only Flash and his very presentable girlfriend, Jean Rogers [Dale Arden
(1916-1991)], both of them dressed in little more than beach-wear, and
assisted by scientific genius Dr. Zarkov, can save the world.
The three blast off in their spaceship, land on Mongo, and meet evil
Emperor Ming. Emperor Ming [Charles Middleton] became almost as popular
as Flash and Jean, and survived through three separate serials until
finally killed off.
Fighting with fists, ray guns and ingenuity Flash overcomes all
obstacles including shark men, hawk men, Orangapoids, and of course
Ming, and saves Jean and planet Earth.
The sequel serial, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938), 15 chapters,
finds Ming alive and again raring to rid the Universe of planet Earth.
Of course Ming loses again.
In 1939 Universal introduced Buck Rogers again starring Larry Crabbe,
and a new villain Killer Kane. The action occurs 500 years in the
Buck Rogers was less popular than Flash Gordon who therefore returned
in 1940 in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. Ming, here, is again
malicious and intends to spray Earth with "death dust". Jean, now
played by Carol Hughes (1910-1995, is again very winsome but has a
different hairstyle and a more appropriate costume. After encountering
various monsters and incredible challenges Flash wins again and Ming
finally dies permanently.
SF typically deals with futuristic concepts such as advanced science
and technology, space exploration and extraterrestrial life. Fantasy
focuses more on mythical creatures and supernormal powers. Horror often
involves supernatural themes like ghosts, witches, demons, ancient
gods, reanimated mummies, and vampires, and aims to evoke fear and
The ancient Greek myths are classed as myth or fantasy but include
SF-type material. The Odyssey by Homer is about the Greek hero Odysseus
voyaging homeward after the Trojan War. He and his crew meet Cyclopes
(one eyed giants), Sirens (females who lure men to destruction with
their sweet singing), Circe (an enchantress who changes men into
animals), Skylla (a 6-headed monster), and Laestrygonians (man-eating
In the 18th century Irish author Samuel Madden (1686-1765) speculated
on time travel in Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) which
imagined Europe and Russia in 200 years dominated by the Jesuits.
French writer Louis Sebastian Mercier (1740-1814) in Memoirs of the
Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (1771/1795) has the hero awakening in a
future Paris transformed by science.
Modern SF began in the 19th century as literacy increased and reading for leisure became popular.
The early SF novelists included Mary W. Shelley (1797-1851), Jules
Verne (1828-1905), Robert Louis B. Stevenson (1850-1894), and Herbert
G. Wells (1866-1946):
• Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) Shelley
• Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) Verne
• From the Earth to the Moon (1865) Verne
• 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) Verne
• Mysterious Island (1874) Verne
• Off on a Comet (1877) Verne
• Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) Stevenson
• The Time Machine (1895) Wells
• The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) Wells
• The Invisible Man (1897) H.G. Wells
• The War of the Worlds (1898) Wells
• The First Men in the Moon (1901) Wells
In the 1865 novel the trip to the Moon is accomplished by three men in
a large capsule fired by an enormous gun. In 1901 it's done by two men
in a spacecraft constructed from an anti-gravity material. The
astronauts find the Moon inhabited by people and monsters and even fall
in love with Moon women.
With the discovery in 1877 of supposed canals on Mars, which implied
the presence of intelligent life, many authors chose Mars as their main
setting. Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) began his Mars series of
eleven novels with A Princess of Mars (1917). Burroughs also authored a
Venus series and Moon series.
PROFOUND SF WORDS
Ghastly Beyond Belief (1985) is a compendium of over 2000 quotes
illustrating the thesis that, "ninety five-percent [of SF] is
• Past, present and future. Does it have to be in that order? (page 23)
• From the blackest pits of hell, insatiable evil creeps forth to claim men's minds and souls. (40)
• "My! We're going fast," Emma said… "Ten parsecs per nanosecond of microdotted time," Mercurio replied. (115)
• His expression suggested he was giving birth to a porcupine. (146)
• If this film doesn't make your skin creep… it's on too tight. (175)
• Pray to God it only kills you. (193)
• Attention! There's a herd of killer rabbits heading this way. (214)
• We feed on brains. Unfortunately, they don't last
very long, so we've been reduced to seeking a new world. (227)
• Even the ears of corn are deaf to the torments of the damned. (241)
• I know I'm going to miss her. A tomato ate my sister. (246)
• It shouldn't be too difficult to spot a sixty foot man. (253)
• Heroine: I never spent the night with an invisible man before.
Hero: With the lights out, you'll never know the difference. (267)
• Gammera doesn't mean to step on people. He's just lonely. (301)
MAGAZINES AND NOVELS
In the 20th century came tens of thousands of SF stories in novels,
magazines, anthologies, and comics. They ranged from plausible
extrapolations of current technology to ridiculous scenarios that
ignored or contradicted known science.
Weird Tales (founded in 1923) had occult and supernatural themes
besides some SF. Magazines dedicated to SF began with Amazing Stories
founded in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967). Amazing Stories ended
with bankruptcy but soon had imitators which progressively increased
into hundreds and include:
• Wonder Stories (1929);
• Astounding Stories of Super-Science (1930) renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact;
• New Worlds (1936), Britain's preeminent SF magazine;
• Tales of Wonder (1937) A British SF magazine;
• Fantastic Adventures (1939);
• Science Fiction Quarterly (1940);
• Astounding Science Fiction (1943);
• The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1949);
• Galaxy Science Fiction (1950);
• Imagination (1950);
• Space and Time Magazine (1966);
• Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (1977);
• Wonder Stories (1979);
• Leading Edge (1981);
• Aurealis (1990) Australia;
• Strange Horizons (2000);
• Science Fiction World (1979) China.
My favourite SF novels as a 13-year old, of about 100 in my home library, were:
• Day of the Triffids (1951) by John Wyndham (1903-1965);
• War with the Gizmos (1958) by Murray Leinster
(1896-1965) who was one of the "fathers" of modern SF and wrote 1500
• Space Prison (1960) by Tom Godwin (1915-1980)
Triffids are giant, carnivorous, mobile (walking on three stumps)
plants, cultivated for their oil, which escape their plantations after
most of the human race is made blind by a passing comet. Gizmos are
shape-shifting aliens made of gas whose food consists of vapours.
Gizmos float around seeking animals and humans to envelop and kill by
soffocation. In Space Prison a spaceship carrying human colonists is
intercepted by Gerns, alien rulers of a galactic empire, who plonk the
earthlings onto the inhospitable planet Ragnarok to die.
The greatest expansion in SF novels came after my time. Neil Barron
(1995) mentions: "the great expansion in book publishing of science
fiction and fantasy, from 348 books a year in 1972 to 1,288 a year in
1979…" Barron's book includes: "Concise summaries and evaluations of
more than 3,000 SF titles…"
SF movies began in 1902 and included movie adaptations of the
afore-listed 19th-century novels. SF movies are often distinguished
from monster movies such as The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933) and
Anaconda (1977), unless the monsters are extraterrestrial or created by
scientists or industrial pollution in which case it's SF.
Many 1950s SF movies were "B Movies" — "films intended for distribution
as the less-publicized bottom half of a double feature." (Wikipedia)
They were usually low-budget, quickly-produced, and often combined
silliness, lurid content, and reliable shock effects with horrible
deaths and poor special effects. (The label "B Movie" continued less
precisely after the 1950s.)
The following list is representative of SF movies:
• A Trip to the Moon (1902)
• Metropolis (1926)
• Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
• Frankenstein (1931)
• Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
• Things to Come (1936)
• Dr. Cyclops (1940)
• Mysterious Island (1951) A 15-chapter serial
• The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
• The Thing (1951)
• The War of the Worlds (1953)
• Them! (1954)
• Tarantula (1955)
• This Island Earth (1955)
• Forbidden Planet (1956)
• Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
• The Amazing Colossal Man (1957);
• Attack of the Giant Crabs (1957)
• Invasion of the Saucer-Men (1957)
• Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
• The Blob (1958)
• The Fly (1958)
• The Lost Missile (1958)
• Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)
• On the Beach (1959)
• Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959);
• The Time Machine (1960)
• The Day of the Triffids (1963)
• Quatermass and the Pit: Five Million Years to Earth (1967)
• Planet of the Apes (1968)
• 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
• Soylent Green (1973)
• Rollerball (1975)
• The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
• Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
• Star Wars (1977)
• Superman (1978)
• Alien (1979)
• Blade Runner (1972)
• The Starman (1984)
• Aliens (1986)
• Predator (1987)
• Robocop (1987)
• Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
• Jurassic Park (1993)
• Species (1995)
• Independence Day (1996)
• Mars Attacks! (1996)
• Contact (1997)
• Gattaca (1997)
• The Matrix (1999)
• Eight Legged Freaks (2002)
• I Robot (2004)
• Moon (2009)
Dr. Cyclops (1940) was the only memorable SF movie of the 1940s. It
features evil Dr. Thorkel in Peru who shrinks animals to doll-size with
atomic rays in his secluded laboratory, and does likewise to a group of
visitors. It's all fun and thrills as the miniturized guests escape
confinement and the mad doctor tries to recapture them. Actresses in SF
and horror movies used to be little more than sex objects and pretty
faces — their main function was to scream and run (or faint). When Dr.
Thorkel catches up with fleeing Dr. Mary Mitchell her skirt is well up
her thighs as his foot presses down as if to squash her.
Dr. Cyclops was still exciting decades after its release when I was 12
and stayed up very late, despite school next morning, to watch Dr.
Thorkel die and the little people regain full size.
SF became a university course in Australia in 1991. The Weekend News reported:
Studies in science fiction
SYDNEY: Science fiction freaks now can study their obsession at university.
A new course, titled Close Encounters: Science Fact and Science Fiction, will begin at Sydney University next term.
Students will delve into the portrayal of the genre by discussing movies, television programs, film posters and comic strips.
Celebrated authors Mary Shelley, HG Wells and Jules Verne will be
studied and the students will have access to 43,000 items in the Fisher
Library's science fiction collection.
Brainchild of Dr Michael Shortland, the course is open to science students at the university.
(Friday, July 19, 1991, p. 5)
Dr. Shortland was also joint author of the book Close Encounters?:
Science and Science Fiction (1990). The book examines the development
and history of SF in books and movies including how SF portrays
Many SF novels and movies become dated when scientific progress exposes
their themes and imagined technology as inconsistent with basic
physics, biology or chemistry.
But science and new technologies also produce new ideas. Clones and
human-resembling robots (androids), for example, were rare in old SF
but are now common. Here's a short list:
• Metropolis (1927)
• Westworld (1973);
• The Terminator (1984; 1991);
• Star Trek: Generations (1994);
• Bicentennial Man (1999);
• The 6th Day (2000);
• Artificial Intelligence (2001);
• The Machine (2013);
• Ex Machina (2015);
• Uncanny (2015);
• Morgan (2016);
• Passengers (2016);
• Renaissance (2016);
• Replicas (2018).
Aldiss, B.W. with Wingrove, D. 1986 Trillion Year Spree The History of Science Fiction, Victor Gollancz Ltd
Ash, B. Is too much science fiction a bad thing? Psychology Today, April 1978, pp 20-24
Barron, N. (Editor) 1995 Anatomy of Wonder, R.R. Bowker
Gaiman, N. & Newman, K. Ghastly Beyond Belief, Arrow Books
Gibson, W. Is science fiction dying? New Scientist 15 November, 2008, 46-49
Grant, J. 2006 Sci-Fi Movies, Facts, Figures and Fun, UK
Lambourne, R.J., Shallis, M.J. and Shortland, M. 1990 Close Encounters? Science and Science Fiction, CRC Press
INVESTIGATOR 195 — "VERY NICE"
Very nice issue, lots to enjoy!
I like your piece about sf a lot! I am a keen reader/viewer
myself. Of course we all have our favourites: I myself love
Ursula le Guin, Jack Vance, Isaac Asimov, etc and some individual books
& stories such as Asimov’s much admired Nightfall, Lindsay’s Voyage To Arcturus (now 100 years old; an operatic version appeared), Olaf Stapledon’s Last & First Men (movie now available), etc; and on the fantasy front Tolkien & such.
As a linguist I am especially interested in stories involving language
and I have published quite a lot on this front, including sections of
my 2013 book. You may recall the movie Arrival
and the short story from which it originated, about alien contact; the
main human protagonist is a linguist. I reviewed the movie in the
skeptical press (3,600 words) and would be happy if you were interested
in re-publishing the review.