A Genealogy of Speculative Fiction

nggshow.phpAs speculative fiction writers, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Whatever genre we write, there is an illustrious lineage of other writers who are mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles of the genre.

The lineage is often reflected in the names of awards. The Hugo award, for example, is an award given annually at the World Science Fiction convention for works in those genres. (Worldcon also celebrates the fantasy genre, by the way.) The award (a shiny rocket ship that stands upon its tail fins “as God and Robert Heinlein intended”—according to SF writer Jerry Pournelle—is named after Hugo Gernsback, writer and editor, who penned several scientific adventures. None of these were particularly well-received, but his greatest contribution to the world of science fiction (besides the phrase “science fiction”) was the introduction of scientific fiction stories among the science articles in his magazine Science and Invention, and the founding of the first ever science fiction magazine—Amazing Stories—in 1926.


Hugo Gernsback

I have a huge soft spot in my heart for Amazing Stories because it published three of my stories—three of my favorite stories, in fact. Oddly, none of the three were science fiction, but were from the fantasy side of the spec fic aisle. In his inaugural issue, Hugo published stories by three of my most beloved authors: Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne. This mighty trio, along with Hugo, himself, are considered by many to be the “Fathers of Science Fiction”. And it jazzes me, it really does, to know that I had stories in the same magazine as these gentlemen.

Agatha Christie, circa 1926:  British mystery writer  (1891 - 1976).  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)black&white;formatportrait;female;Roles&Occupations;Fashion&Clothing;Personality;British;English;G1977/078;KEYP/CHRISTIE/AGATHA...AUTHORSTWENTIES

Agatha Christie

Poe, as it happens, is also accorded the sobriquet “Father of the Modern Mystery”—a title he earned for his Detective Dupin stories (i.e. “Murders in the Rue Morgue”) which laid the groundwork and established the conventions for two other giants of the mystery genre—Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Poe has an award named after him, as well—The Edgar—which is given by the Mystery Writers of America annually for excellence in mystery fiction. Of course, there is also an Agatha Award, given by Malice Domestic, Ltd. for crime fiction written in Ms. Christie’s style, which arguably affords the redoubtable Ms. Christie the station: Mother of All Mystery Writers.

Science Fiction is also a genre with two parents. If Hugo Gernsback is one of the fathers of the genre, then its mother is surely Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein (published 1818) over the course of a fateful week in Geneva at the villa of Lord Byron. In point of fact, Book View Café has published two volumes of steampunk stories (Shadow Conspiracy I and II) that grow out of Mary Shelley’s tale of scientific overreaching. I was fortunate to have been able to write the “genesis” story, “The Accumulating Man”, which is an (ahem) imaginative telling of how Ms. Shelley came to write her epic story of science gone terribly wrong (bwa-ha-ha!)


Mary Shelley

But, you may ask, does this not then suggest that Mary Shelley was also the mother of steampunk? Perhaps so, but my research suggests that steampunk, as a recognized genre, is of a more recent vintage. In fact, I’ve heard it asserted that one of my all time favorite writers—Tim Powers—is the “Father of Steampunk”. I’d argue that if Powers is the father of this delightful genre, then Jules Verne is its grand-pere (French for grandpappy).

Some commentators have opined that SF and steampunk are just different shades of fantasy. After all, does not Ray Bradbury refer to “fantasy and its robot child, science fiction” in his beautiful book of essays on the genres, Zen and the Art of Writing? That’s as may be, but I would argue that the title “Father of Epic Fantasy” has to go to JRR Tolkien, whose works have endured for decades and still stand head and shoulders above what those of us following in his pen tracks have produced.

What do you think? I’ve mentioned just a few of the progenitors of the genres in which I write, and leave out magical realism simply because I don’t know who might be considered the root of the tree. There are surely other candidates and other genres that I’ve neglected. Anyone care to weigh in?



A Genealogy of Speculative Fiction — 6 Comments

  1. An easy case can be made that fantasy is what all fiction is (nonfiction is another animal) and that its subsets include SF, romance, literary, and so forth. Certainly the very oldest stories of all are fantasy by any definition. Gilgamesh quests for eternal life, meeting monsters and having sex with goddesses on the way. It cries out for a Frank Frazetta cover, does it not? Zeus visits Danae in the form of a shower of gold, you can imagine the YouTube video.

  2. I have run across the claim that A Midsummer Tempest is steampunk but that’s a little on the joke side. Though it does have anachronistic steam technology.

  3. Maya – thanks for this, and thanks for the homage to Amazing Stories. I didn’t have the privilege of having any stories published under that title, but I did manage to get two letters in and a mention in a Ted White editorial, so I know exactly how you feel. That feeling is why I acquired the trademarks for the name and am publishing an online version (all non-fiction) of that title now – http://www.amazingstoriesmag.com.

    Brenda – taxonomy aside (if nothing else starting the fiction family tree with Fantasy leads the the awkward Fantasy — SF/Horror/Lit/Fantasy), it could also be argued that the goals, wishes and themes found in Gilgamesh were science fiction, at the time it was written (or spoken), so long as we accord the then current belief systems an honorary ‘science of its time’ mantle. SF is extrapolation of the here-and-now real into the future. Since it was obvious in Gilgamesh’s time that the gods were immortal, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that the same ‘technology’ might become accessible to mortal man.

    I realize that’s reaching. In general I place just about everything pre-Shelley into the proto-SF category and everything from Shelley till Amazing’s debut (well, actually 1923 or thereabouts, Weird Tales, Thrill Book and the All Scientification issues of Science & Invention at that time) into the Pre-SF category. They have elements we recognize as SFnal, but couldn’t and weren’t intentionally written as such because, of course, there was no such thing. Does that apply to Wells, Verne and Poe? Maybe, maybe not. It wouldn’t be any fun if there weren’t exceptions.

  4. The other fascinating thing is that it does evolve. (I =like= the idea of old Gil as actually SF, and I am going to use it! But, per the next blog post, not right away…) I bet that when Mary Shelley was sitting in Switzerland writing, she did not see FRANKENSTEIN as the first step in a whole new direction. And that makes you think, what work today is the opening shot in an entirely novel genre? (No, sparkly vampires, not you.)

  5. 1,001 Nights is a compilation of tales from Arabic and Persian countries some of which date back to the ninth century (for those who don’t know). I don’t know when “The Ebony Horse” was written but I would say it counts as SF. Three wise-men craft scientific wonders to give to the King including an Ebony horse that seems to be mechanical in nature which flies to far off lands if one knows how to work the controls.