Whence Science-Fiction?

Ever asked yourself why science-fiction came about in the 19th century?  Recently I listened to a series of interviews that Bill Moyers conducted with science-fiction wizard Isaac Asimov.1  Asimov gave a description of the origins of science fiction that really grabbed me:

“The fact is that society is always changing, but the rate of change has been accelerating all through history for a variety of reasons. … It was only with the coming of the industrial revolution that the rate of change became fast enough to be visible in a single lifetime. So people became aware that not only were things changing, but they would continue to change after they died. And that was when science fiction came into being (as opposed to fantasy and adventure tales) because people knew that they would die before they could see the changes that would happen in the next century so it would be nice to imagine what they might be.”

Sounds pretty dead-on, if you ask me.  If you want to watch the whole interview, click the link below:


  1. Asimov Fun Fact: he is one of the only authors in history who has published books under all ten major headings of the Dewey Decimal system!

4 Comments Leave a Comment

  • JWA says:

    Your cartoon of Verne and Wells reminded me of what the Steam Punk Bible said regarding the difference between Well’s engineering based science-fiction and Well’s more conceptual/romantic approach. Both are present in today’s sci-fi stream.

  • kerry says:

    Having just read and taught Around the World in Eighty Days for the first time, I’m particularly amused by the cartoon. After prowling the internet for what felt like aeons in search of *useful* commentary on Verne, my primary conclusion is that he’s not considered so much the science-fiction guy; sci-fi, so they claim, depends on not-yet-extant technologies. Verne only uses ones already in existance – he might ratchet them up a smidge, but he doesn’t go far beyond present-day inventions. Also, contrary to popular belief (and brought up independently in each of my classes), there are NO hot-air balloons in Around the World in 80 Days. None. There are, however, far more than twenty-one hot-air balloons in William Pene duBois’s Newbery-winning (and utterly wonderful) The 21 Balloons, which references Around the World.

  • JWA says:

    I think your observation is spot on about Verne, Kerry.

    Verne is all about the engineering and extrapolating what might grow out of existing technology. Hence, when he writes about submarines, he writes about a further development of a long existing invention in the here and now–but taking it to fantastic levels. The same is true of his Earth to the Moon novel, which proposes to shoot a capsule from an enormous gun to reach orbit around the moon.

    Wells, in his early work on the other hand, writes about stuff like invisible men, time machines, Martian tripods, which are have no technological basis whatsoever in his own day, giving Wells perhaps a more romantic style or using science-fiction as a vehicle for speculative fantasy. The difference with Verne is well illustrated by Wells choice of transportation to the Moon in his version of lunar exploration (First Men in the Moon): not a capsule exploding from a gigantic gun, but a trip enabled by a fantastic substance called “Cavorite” which mysteriously suspends gravity. Wells ideas would not stand up to an engineer’s evaluation–which would have irritated Verne to no end, as the progenitor of “hard science-fiction”, and whose successors include guys such as Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven and others.

    On the question of flight and Verne, while not in Around the World in 80 Days, his take on this was of course in the story of Robur the Conqueror (with a mighty airship playing a parallel role to the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues), and the Mysterious Island opens with an out of control balloon flight that crashes in the middle of the ocean. I suspect in the cartoon it’s a model of Robur’s vessel…but the point is all about an engineer’s vision versus more a more speculative/fantastic style.

  • Morgan says:

    Thank you for coming to De Anza for Battle of the Books. Your information on blogging was very useful as I have never heard of a blog before. I checked out your blog–as you can see– and I think it is pretty cool. I might just start one myself. Thank you for being such and inspiration.

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