I’ve made the rather arbitrary decision to start Science Fiction with the publication of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Don’t worry if you disagree with me. No less than Brian Aldiss in his excellent work “The Billion Year Spree” starts chapter one of Science Fiction with Mary Shelley and the change of the Gothic novel. Plenty of works before The Time Machine had some or most of the trappings of the genre, although it would be decades before Science Fiction replaced its more arduous predecessor, the term Scientifiction.
Plenty of people would place the start of the genre much earlier, either with Jules Verne and the French writers Fantastique or even earlier with Shelley and her excellent novel Frankenstein. You could make the argument that Plato’s Republic was a Utopian work with science fiction elements several millennia before that. Other works provide the basis for many of the stock characters and stories found in science fiction, like The Tempest and Gulliver’s Travels.
So why start with Wells?
Because I don’t think you can have Science Fiction without Science. Honestly, this too is a judgment call. Consider this, Mary Shelley justified her modern Promethean story by referencing Dr. Darwin—a serious scientist, right? It turns out, of course, that it wasn’t the famous Charles Darwin that she spoke of, but his grandfather Erasmus.
She admits to disregarding any actual experiments that he may have conducted (which is good, since there weren’t really any) and she mistakes his use of the term vorticellae as a descriptor of the protozoa that exist in every raindrop, think he meant the pasta of the same name—which was thought to be an excellent starting place for spontaneous generation.
All of which leads to the creation of life, at least for the purposes of the story.
But I still don’t consider Frankenstein to be science fiction because Shelley the treats the science as a pure plot device. Yes, Victor Frankenstein the young undergraduate student (so very unlike his modern portrayals) barricades himself away and conducts experiments that challenge the very notions of life and humanity. And yes, in the process he creates a being that, with a later understanding of evolutionary theory, could rightly be seen as supplanting the weaker, stupider, less rugged homo-sapiens. But that is not the point of the story, and neither is the psychology that could explain the rejection of the uncanny monster. The story is about Doctor Frankenstein’s fall from grace and punishment for playing God. Ultimately, the book is a rejection of the proto-science involved as much as it is a misunderstanding of it.
Still, it’s a brilliant work that presages the dangers of technology without understanding much better than so many science running amok—the “B” movies of a century and a half later. There’s some part of me that wonders if a true adaptation of the work will ever be made for the big-screen, because the mirror which it could hold up to us in light of the current understanding of evolution and our gradual acceptance of the dreaded “other” would create deeper fears in modern life than Shelley’s original dire warnings about playing god with nature.
The created being is rejected and becomes an evil force in the universe, but the actual mechanism of his creation has more in common with the creation myths of dozens of cultures in spite of the vague descriptions of science labs. Contrast that with the heroes of Wells, who turn to science after they are rejected or isolated from society (such as the title character of The Invisible Man) and it is the science in the fiction that brings about the illumination of self in the reader.
There’s plenty of room to argue the point. Is Star Wars science fiction or a pirate movie with science fiction trappings? Some kind of science-ish fantasy story? Sword and Sorcery told on the high seas of outer space? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. It can only be lumped into Science Fiction after the genre is created, it would never have defined the genre.