I began my lifelong love of science fiction in 1963, when I discovered books by Madeleine L’Engle, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. I was twelve. The genre probably imprinted on me because of movies and television I had seen as a child during the 1950s. I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Twilight Zone before I understood the concept of science fiction. If you read interviews, memoirs and biographies of science fiction writers, they often relate their wonder at discovering science fiction in their formative years. It seems there is a legacy to science fiction – we have to inherit it.
For example, Robert Heinlein often wrote about his early love of H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, David Lindsay, and Olaf Stapledon. Those writers lived during my parents and grandparents lifetimes. What if we go further back?
Were there science fiction writers that inspired Jules Verne as a child? Verne was born in 1828, a time we assume produced little science fiction. Verne is often called the Father of Science Fiction, which suggests he got the genre rolling. Did he? Many scholars who write about the history of science fiction like to think the genre began in 1818, with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Could Verne have read it?
What frustrates my efforts to understand the history of science fiction is society forgets popular culture quickly, and history seldom focuses on such small events. We do know that Verne was sent off to boarding school where his teacher believed her long missing husband was stranded on an island like Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe, the 1719 novel inspired a whole sub-genre called Robinsonades. Verne wrote three of those, the most famous of which was The Mysterious Island. I read it in 1964, and ever since had a passion for stories about people stranded on islands or distant planets. Science fiction has embraced the Robinsonade whole wholeheartedly. The immensely popular book and film, The Martian by Andy Weir, is a Robinsonade. For a history of the literary impact of Daniel Defoe’s classic tale, read In Search of Robinson Crusoe by Tim Severin.
Trying to discover which popular books and magazines Jules Verne might have read in France during the 1840s is difficult. Besides the distance of time, I’m blocked by the language barrier. What did young Verne read in his early teens that led him to write his Voyages extraordinaires? Did he read Le Dernier Homme by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville, published in 1805? It’s a poem about the last man and a dying Earth. It probably inspired Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, who also wrote about the theme. Then what books inspired de Grainville?
The more we read of the History of Science Fiction, the more we discover the stories we call science fiction today have been told for centuries, long before the label was established. Creating the Classics of Science Fiction list shows our cultural memory is a bubble in a sea of forgotten knowledge. As we move forward through time, we forget what previously inspired us, so it feels like we’re constantly discovering new ideas. That’s an illusion. So many far-out ideas we think of as original to 20th century science fiction were pondered centuries ago. The deeper I look, the more I realize humans haven’t changed all that much. Our technology changes, but do we?
In earlier versions of the Classics of Science Fiction lists, there were many more novels that were published from 1850-1950 that have dropped off the latest version of the list. We are forgetting the books that inspired the writers who wrote the 1950s science fiction novels we now think of as the classics of our genre. Just study the table Versions 1-4 and look for the titles in red.