Ever since I’ve been reading 19th-century science fiction I’ve wondered what were the reactions to those stories by readers of the day. The term science fiction applied as a unique category of fiction didn’t exist before Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories in 1926, and even then it took a number of years to get the label we have today. At first, Gernsback called the type of stories he wanted for his magazine scientifiction, but within a few years it was changed to science-fiction, and then to science fiction. (See “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”)
Before that according to Brian Stableford in his 4-volume New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance, the French called stories like those written by Jules Verne roman scientifique, and the British called stories like those written by H. G. Wells scientific romances. I’ve yet to find what Americans called such stories. It’s doubtful in any country if the reading public thought those kind of stories represented a distinctive branch of literature.
During the 1930s American admirers of the science fiction story in pulp magazines began to communicate via letters, then meeting in person, eventually creating clubs and holding conventions. The first Worldcon was in 1939. Those organized science fiction readers called themselves fans, and collectively called their activities fandom. During the period 1930s-1950s is when the genre of science fiction slowly emerged — finally to be recognized by book publishers who marketed science fiction by that label, and libraries and bookstores began shelving it separately under that term too.
However, the kind of stories we now call science fiction existed well before the label, and I’m sure those stories resonated with a tiny segment of the reading public. How soon did those readers begin to seek out stories we call science fiction? We know this began for sure when Gernsback started publishing them together in a magazine, but when did publishers, editors, and readers recognize there was a type of fiction that wasn’t about what was but what could be? Stableford cites reviewers using the term scientific romances and roman scientifiques but how universal were those labels? Did readers intentionally track down those stories because of those descriptive phrases?
We’ve always had fantasy, but fantasy is fiction about events and places that could never be. When did readers start saying to themselves, “I like those stories about what could happen in the future?” Can I find published accounts of reader reactions to science fiction stories published before 1926. Starting in the 1930s fans of science fiction began publishing amateur magazines they called zines. There are several histories of these, and they do document how readers felt. What I’m looking for is pre-fandom documentation.
My first hunch was to wonder about book clubs. I found, “The evolution of American book clubs: A timeline” by Audra Otto that suggests Americans liked getting together to discuss books and have been for at least four hundred years. The kind of stories we call science fiction didn’t really begin to appear regularly until the 19th-century with tales like Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley and “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) by Washington Irving. Did any reader in those days claim they were a different kind of fiction? When did readers who liked those kind of stories start noticing they were different?
And when did readers start saying to one another “I want to read more stories about traveling in time” or “I want to read more stories about amazing inventions” or “I love stories about traveling to other worlds?” Wouldn’t that be the first seeds science fiction fandom? For example, we know hundreds of Nationalist clubs were formed over Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward. That represents a kind of fandom, and they also had a national magazine. Could other book clubs have formed for fans of Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Fitz-James O’Brien, Edward Page Mitchell, or H. G. Wells?
What I would like is to find documentation of early interest in science fiction. I have no idea of how to go about it. Fanzines from the 1930s are the documented proof of fandom as we know it, but were there amateur publications before then that dealt with science fiction stories even though they didn’t have a universal label yet for those kinds of stories? There was amateur press associations in the 19th century, but can I find copies their publications online?
Conversations weren’t recorded in the 19th century, so letters and diaries should be the first kinds of lasting evidence. Did Jules Verne get fan letters? Are there any published diaries whose authors secretly wrote about their fondness for stories we’d now call science fiction? When did the letters to the editor columns begin? Did fans of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories ever write to the periodicals where his stories were published? I can’t believe readers of in 1895 couldn’t have been silent after having their minds blown with “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells.
Here’s my problem. There are vast reservoirs of 19th-century publications out there, even on the net, but I’m not ready to devote the rest of my life to systematically sifting through them to answer this one idle question that keeps intriguing me. First, I’m going to look for books, probably scholarly books, that document science fiction back then. By blogging this essay, I hope readers that might know of books or articles that cover this topic will post a comment.
I’ll use the New Atlantis: A Narrative History of Scientific Romance by Brian Stableford to outline the main works that should have generated reviews and then begin to search for those reviews. Maybe reviews inspired letters to the editor or even counter-reviews or essays. I’ll also see if any of those authors had collected letters, memoirs, autobiographies, or biographies. A lot of this depends on finding periodicals and books online from 1830-1930.
After that I have an anthology The Rivals of H. G. Wells that collected short stories similar to H. G. Wells published in magazines from late 1800s to early 1900s. If I can find scans of those magazines online, I’m going to see if I can find any reader responses in later issues. I’ll also use the list of stories I generated for my essay “19th Century Science Fiction Short Stories” as starting points for similar research.
This will be a long term project. It’s doubtful I’ll find much evidence, but I’ll keep a subprogram running in the back of my head to interrupt me for when I do. And if anyone reading this finds any, please post a comment.
James Wallace Harris, 8/24/20
Update: 8/24/20 – SFFAudio pointed me to Vril, a concept in a science fiction like novel The Coming Race (1871) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that led to legions of fans, mostly occult, and its implications in novels and works of occult beliefs. This inspired some science fiction writers, even Heinlein had his occult moments. I’m thinking both the Bellamy and Bulwer-Lytton followers and their organized activities might have been precursors to 20th-century fandom.