History of Science and Science Fiction

A week ago I asked the poor bastards that follow me on Twitter for any good resources linking the history and philosophy of science with science fiction. I got some very good replies, which I am sharing here. Afterwards, I will spend a couple of paragraphs trying to explain a little more about why I am doing this, and what I am hoping to find by looking at HPS and SF together, as I have not seen this programme stated clearly elsewhere. (By the way, I’m going to be calling Science Fiction ‘SF’ as though I’m an authority. May my ignorance grate against you with its every use.)

One of my favourites.

Andrew Ball (@ehmst) got things rolling by pointing me in the direction of a series of book reviews/commentaries written by students at the University of Kent. Looking at authors including H.G.Wells, Margaret Atwood and William Golding, these short posts are actually the closest things I have found to what I want to read and write more of in the future. More on that to follow. Andrew (if I may?) then gave me the mother lode in the shape of Rebecca Onion (@rebeccaonion)  and her yearly reading lists, which are populated by a large amount of SF. I could be kept happy and busy for a very long time just trying to follow in her footsteps – and will no doubt be using her choices as a guide – but I also want to wax lyrical (fart on and on) about what I think of the books and their wider significance. After a few minutes scouting about her large collection of writings though, it seems Rebecca (if I may?) has resisted that urge (though I’d love to read anything of hers on this that you know of).

Next up, Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh) sent in a bumper list of astronomy related SF, compiled by Andrew Fraknoi, which has been more widely circulated by that renowned HPS/SF mixologist, Dava Sobel.

As for myself, through a chance conversation with Ruth Quinn from the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, I learnt of a blog written by people based at my very own Leeds. From the title alone, ‘SF Forward: Like-minded library types musing on all things science fictional‘, I could tell that they have exactly the same attitude to the topic as I do. Once I stop being so lazy, I might try and offer them some history under that ‘all things’. Finally, I also found The British Society for Literature and Science, which is clearly useful beyond words, and this book on ‘The History of Science Fiction‘ by Adam Roberts, which will be essential. However – and as with much of the above – it doesn’t really meld HPS and SF in the way I want.

This new strand to my blog has come about thanks to a number of influences. Firstly, my social life is increasingly losing out to work. This isn’t a cry for help! It’s simply a fact of the matter that I feel more and more guilty whenever I’m not doing work, or something that keeps that part of my brain stimulated. Increasing my diet of SF books is my way of stopping Jack from becoming a dull boy. Secondly, I’ve always been very jealous of scholars of English literature and literary history, who get to read fiction for work. I’m not blind to the skills that they have, and which I lack, when doing so, but balls to it, I’m going to give it a bash regardless. Thirdly, I found out China Mieville exists thanks to his comments on Steve Fuller’s ‘Humanity 2.0’, recorded here:

This made me want to read his books, and read them properly. That about covers ‘why now?’, read on for ‘what for?’

I’ve always enjoyed teaching those parts of HPS that bleed into literature. To give one charmlessly literal example, I love teaching part of a module at Leeds dedicated to vaccination and vampirism, in which we get to discuss C19th ideas about heredity, disease and social status, with numerous examples taken from literature. Similarly, as I have explained in a previous post ‘Sci-fi, Pornography and Comics‘ (which collects some very strange search terms, I can tell you) I love reading about the ways in which science has influenced literature; those scholars who already explore the territory between literature and science are a real inspiration to me. My instincts tell me there is something to be gained by a focus upon SF, even if this demarcation eventually proves too artificial. To give these general instincts a little more substance, here are the questions I want to be considering when reading SF in the future. I start with some of the more obvious ones, and hopefully get more interesting as I go on:

  • what was going on in science at the time of writing that influenced the author?
  • was the author closely involved with particular scientists or particular perspectives during the period?
  • is there an aspect of the scientific culture of that period reflected in the prose?
  • what do the choices of protagonist and plot tell us about the biases and prejudices of the period?
  • is there a literary tradition in which the author is writing, and which other works (scientific and non-scientific) have they arguably been influenced by?
  • in what ways might these works be said to have influenced science and scientists?
  • to what extent have scientists themselves taken on and written in more literary forms, either to finds ways of extending their research programmes beyond current theoretical boundaries or simply to get more exposure (translated into resources)?
  • what is the epistemological status of SF in these terms? A question that will to some extent depend upon your view of counterfactuals.
  • how much of the language or concepts used by historians and philosophers of science has been shared by the SF world, wittingly or unwittingly? And vice-versa.
  • what would an historian of science’s ‘history of science fiction’ look like? How would it differ from those we already have?

That’s enough to be going on with I think, and I am fully aware of the likelihood that these questions are already being pursued elsewhere. If you could give me  directions to finding this discussion, I would be very grateful indeed. For instance, I would imagine quite a lot of the links between science and SF have been pursued by Science Communication bods, or perhaps I am wrong? The more suggestions the merrier!

Update – 10/6/2013: I was sent some excellent resources after this post was first published, so include them here. Sophia Collins (@sophiacol) sent in Jon Turney’s ‘Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture‘, while the man himself let me know of a couple of very cool working papers on the Nesta website. Both, ‘Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science fiction and Innovation‘ and Turney’s own ‘Imagining technology‘ promise precisely the kind of analysis I was looking for (TOLD you people somewhere would be asking these kinds of questions, TOLD you!)

Rebecca Onion (@rebeccaonion) was kind enough to send in her bibliography of American popular science from 1900 onward, which includes SF but is not limited to it, alongside a couple of blog posts, one on the SF TV programme ‘Fringe‘ and another on different literary visions of childhood after nuclear war.

Moving into more historical territory, Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh) let me know of a couple of issues of Viewpoint with HPS/SF content. In this one from 2006, Patricia Fara writes about science fiction, satire and fantasy travel in the eighteenth century, and in a subsequent edition, Kate Hebblethwaite writes about US future fantasies, ‘Hunting, shooting, straightening and the American Way‘.

Finally, I was very excited to learn of Clarissa Lee’s (@normasalim) PhD dissertation which, if I may quote her tweet, offers “a critical history of current physics and hard SF”. You can access some of her writing on this topic from here.

Please continue adding to this post in the comments below, happy to have found so many people interested in the same stuff.


12 thoughts on “History of Science and Science Fiction

  1. I am not alone! What a great post – thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Not my field of research, but I’ve always been fascinated by the many instances when history of science intersects with SF and vice versa. Thanks for brightening my evening.

  2. A few thoughts, which may or may not be relevant:

    You might want to get in touch with the Science Fiction Foundation, who are a UK-based scholarly society devoted to SF criticism; their archives are held at Liverpool.

    Prof Farah Mendlesohn is one of the authors of the _Cambridge Companion_ to SF; she’s in the English department at Anglia Ruskin (though a former historian!), and may be worth dropping a line.

    Finally, Ken Macleod’s a Scottish SF writer who has done stuff with the ESRC (I think?) on Genomics – he was a writer in residence somewhere.

  3. At a bit of a tangent, but in terms of thinking about what questions are worth asking about the intersection of SF and HoS you might want to cast a glance at another (but not entirely dissimilar) T-junction of crime fiction with HoS. There’s perhaps a bit more written about this,although some of it is dreadful.

    I am thinking about this at the moment because I am currently reading something along these lines and (so far at least) it is indeed dreadful. The interesting bit is picking out precisely why it is dreadful, and I found your list of questions of interest in this regard, because the book I am reading singularly fails to answer any of them, and they are precisely what I think it should have been looking to explore.

    • Sounds very interesting, and if the crimes/solutions are depending upon science then arguably not a tangent at all. Is the author of the thing you’re reading still alive/a friend of a friend? If not, please do post a link here so we can all start weighing the differences between HPS and non-HPS training. I’ll certainly keep crime fiction in mind as I go further in, and I’m pleased to here those questions make sense to someone else!

      • The person is alive, and I am reading it because I am reviewing it (to be honest, I’d have given up/skipped the really turgid bits before now if that hadn’t been the case) so I’d better hold fire until I’ve done that. I’ll post up the details once it’s done. I do think that perhaps reading something that you are convinced is very bad can be quite enlightening, in that it does force you to think about what would be/is better. So to some extent I’ll be able to recommend said book to an HoS audience, although not for the purposes that the author presumably intended.

        On the crime literature front, though, if you do ever find time for non-SF fiction (!), I’d heartily recommend Dorothy L Sayers’s ‘The Documents in the Case’ as possibly the most interesting (on lots of levels) inclusion of science at the heart of a crime novel.

  4. You will want to have John Clute & Peter Nicholls’ Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, it’s very good and particularly invaluable when it comes to early sf. Although the last print edition is a while ago now, I believe they may be updating it online somehow. John Clute & John Grant also did the companion volume, the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. That’s an even better book, and it might be quite useful to you as well. With certain fields like psychology and psychiatry fantastic fiction, rather than sf, will be the first place to look.

  5. Pingback: Giants’ Shoulders #60 Part II: The Present | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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