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The Eras of Modern Science Fiction. A good deal of the resources for this PowerPoint are from Agatha Taormina’s Beyond: A Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy at http://

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The Eras of Modern Science Fiction

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The Eras of

Modern Science Fiction


A good deal of the resources for this PowerPoint are from

Agatha Taormina’s Beyond: A Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy at


Isaac Asimov, one of the most famous of science fiction writers, divided the history of modern science fiction (works written after 1926) into four types:

1926-38 -- adventure dominant

1938-50 -- science dominant

1950-65-- sociology dominant

1966-present—style dominant


adventure dominant

dominated by Hugo Gernsback

Amazing Stories science fiction magazine

the first pulp magazines

Early Modern Science Fiction

hugo gernsback
Hugo Gernsback
  • Wrote the first pure science fiction novel, Ralph 124C41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (which was apparently very bad)
  • Coined the term “science fiction” [after his first choice – “scientification” --bombed]
  • Launched Amazing Stories in 1926, the first magazine devoted completely to science fiction
  • Sponsored the SF League, one of the first fan organizations
  • The science fiction annual awards the Hugo Awards is named after him
  • Is known as the “Father of Science Fiction”

was the editor of Amazing Stories magazine for 37 issues until 1929. The magazine at first reprinted Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.G. Wells, but later published new science fiction writers.

Although Gernsbackbrought science fiction to the public’s attention, his influence on sf was not all positive. He insisted on scientific accuracy in all stories he published, often at the expense of publishing an actually good or interesting story. Even though he was the editor, he had no real literary understanding. As a result, many of the stories often read like instructions.

pulp fiction
Pulp Fiction

Who would have thought that cheap paper could have had such an influence on science fiction?

Made from the leftovers of paper making (known as pulp) in 1896, pulp magazines influenced the development of science fiction in two major ways.

  • More people were exposed to and began to read science fiction.

Because pulp magazines were so inexpensive (initially 10 cents compared to the 25 cents for regular magazines), more people could buy them. In a time where there wasn’t even TV, reading was a favorite form of entertainment. Thus, once science fiction was printed in this format, many more people began to read science fiction.

  • It gave science fiction a bad rep.

The cheap paper in combination with the often graphically frightening or violent covers [nothing like what we see at the movies or on TV today!] gave science fiction a bad name. It was considered to be for juveniles or low-level people. As a result, science fiction has long fought the perception that it has no literary value. [Gernsback’s choice of stories didn’t help this perception much!]

typical pulp cover with a helpless woman threatened by a menacing man


Hard Science Fiction

Early science fiction (up until the 1950s) often was what is called “hard science fiction.” Hard science fiction stories use a lot of scientific and technological detail while character development is often non-existent. A common theme and plot of hard sf has science identifying the problem and solving the problem.

“Hard” sciences – physics, chemistry, astronomy (those which are mathematically verifiable) and sometimes biology were essential to these stories.

Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke are hard sf writers.

other notables during this period
Other notables during this period . . .
  • The introduction of the word “robot” occurred in 1920 in a Czechoslovakian play by Karl Capek titled R.U.R.
  • Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World (1932) set six hundred years in the future. In this world, genetic engineering creates classes of people who are suited to specific kinds of work; recreational drugs, which are freely and legally used, are dispensed by the government as a way to keep people in a state of happiness so that they will not question the government.

No Science fiction

At the movies?

Science fiction movies were not very popular prior to the 1950s, mainly because during the grim Great Depression, people wanted to go see happy movies. One of the few, however, that remains today a classic is the 1927 silent film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang. Metropolis takes place in a dystopian society of the future where wealthy intellectuals rule from vast tower complexes, oppressing the workers who live in the depths below them.


The Golden AGe

  • 1939-50
  • science dominated
  • influenced greatly by John W. Campbell
  • Astounding Stories science fiction magazine
  • the era that produced some of the greatest science fiction writers
the first astounding stories magazine cover created an instant stir among sf readers
The first Astounding Stories magazine cover created an instant stir among sf readers.

It is commonly accepted that the Golden Age of science fiction started with the July, 1939 issue of Astounding whose cover story was "Black Destroyer" by A. E. Van Vogt. The story was eventually turned into one of four connected stories in Van Vogt’s novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle, published in 1950.

The novel, which involves scientists exploring space in order to gain knowledge (and not to conquer alien worlds) is credited with inspiring Gene Rodenberry to create Star Trek. “Black Destroyer” and another of the novel’s stories, “Discord in Scarlet,” are also credited as being the inspiration for the movie Alien.

john w campbell
John W. Campbell

Like Gernsback, Campbell had a huge influence on the development of sf. Unlike Gernsback, his influence was virtually all positive.

Educated as an engineer at M.I.T. and Duke University, Campbell shaped the Golden Age of sf. He became the editor of Astounding (formerly Amazing Stories) in 1938 when he was 27.

campbell s hierarchy of sciences
Campbell’s Hierarchy of Sciences

Since Campbell was a trained scientist, he insisted that the science and technology in a story be accurate (and eventually possible) given the laws of science as we know them. He had a hierarchy of the sciences that were acceptable . Therefore, to him, physics was more scientific and reliable than biology, but both are sciences that can be used in sf.

  • Sciences in which laws are mathematically verifiable -- physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics
  • Disciplines which are in part descriptive or impure because they deal with living creatures -- biological sciences
  • Social sciences – anthropology, economics, political science, and experimental psychology
  • Humanities – theology, philosophy, clinical psychology
campbell s beliefs affected the kinds of stories he would publish
Campbell’s beliefs affected the kinds of stories he would publish.

Space travel was possible

Aliens existed

The universe was not essentially hostile to mankind

Human action and decisions counted in the universe

No sex allowed in the stories

Could be racist, elitist, and psychologically unaware


Campbell wrote under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart. His most memorable short story, “Who Goes There?”, is about an alien who crashed a million years ago in the Antarctic and was frozen until it is revived by a scientific research team. The team, isolated in their compound, discover the creature is not a single organism, but is made up of individual living cells that can replicate anything the alien touches, including the scientists themselves! The story was translated to the screen in 1951 as The Thing from Another World and again in 1982 as John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is truer to the original story than the 1951 version is.


Campbell’s Famous

Golden Age authors

  • Isaac Asimov (1920-92) --
    • His story “Nightfall” is considered by many to be the best science fiction story of all time.
    • Wrote a series of short stories about robots called I, Robot. The movie of the same title is a combination of some of these stories and his sf detective novel TheCaves of Steel.
    • Wrote 500 books in his lifetime! These include the Foundation trilogy.
  • Robert A. Heinliein (1907-88) –
    • Was a right-wing anarchist and libertarian
    • Incorporated scientific and cultural information smoothly into his plots
    • Key stories and novels: “All You Zombies,” Starship Troopers (turned into the film of the same name), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Stranger in a Strange Land

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) –

    • The movie 2001: A Space Odysseywas based on his short story “The Sentinel.”
    • Also wrote Rendezvous with Rama , Childhood’s End
  • Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov where known as the “Big Three” of the later half of the 20th century. Clarke and Asimov wrote what is known as hard science fiction, while Heinlein wrote soft science fiction.

In 1944 Campbell published a story in Astounding called “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill. Cartmill did not end up being a sf author who wrote lasting stories. However, “Deadline,” a story about an atomic bomb drew the attention of the FBI who showed up at Campbell’s office. Since America’s development of the atomic bomb [known as the Manhattan Project] was top secret, the FBI wondered how Cartmill could have possibly known about it unless he were a spy. Campbell pointed out that all the facts in the story were available in pre-war unclassified sources and that the magazine had previously published stories about atomic war.


Post-war era

  • 1950-65
  • sociology dominant
  • fears of communism
  • fears of the consequences of the atom bomb
  • movies

Soft Science Fiction

From the 50s on, many science fiction stories were written as “soft science fiction.” SF authors developed characters and cared about their interaction.

By this time, most stories depicted science and technology not as identifying and solving the problem, as before, but as causing the problem.

Soft science fiction stories have plots and themes that focus on human feelings while de-emphasizing the details of technology and the laws of physics. It can also contain technology that current scientists consider impossible or highly unlikely [like faster-than-the-speed-of-light space travel].

The sciences in soft science fiction tend to be philosophy, psychology, politics, and sociology [“soft” sciences].

Ray Bradbury and Jack Finney are soft science fiction writers.


Science Fiction at

the movies

Fears about the genetic mutations that resulted from the radiation from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan greatly influenced science fiction movies during this time, the greatest fear being the increase in size of creatures that should be small, as you can see from the titles on the next slide.


Alien invasion movies were also on Americans' minds in the 1950s as a result of the country’s fear that “alien” communism was taking over the world. [Russia and China, representing a huge portion of the world’s population, were communist.]


DID YOU KNOW The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers all were highly acclaimed sf films of their day and have proven to have plots that still interest audiences today? The 1953 War of the Worlds won an Academy Award for special effects and has been remade several times (including TV versions), most notably in 2005. It was based on H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel of the same title. The 1954 novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers was turned into a film in 1956 and then remade again in 1979 and has spawned several spin-offs. The 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Stillwas based on Harry Bates’s 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master” and was remade in 2008. The 1956 Forbidden Planet, a kind of sf version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, featured Robbie the Robot, the first robot character in film that has a personality. The movie’s special effects were also nominated for an Academy Award.

there is nothing wrong with your television set science fiction on tv
There is nothing wrong with your television set . . . Science fiction on TV

During the 1950s more and more families had a TV in their home (black and white only). The television boom occurred between 1949, when 940,000 households had a set, and 1953, when the number soared to 20 million.

During the 1960s a number of science fiction TV shows were popular.


There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to — The Outer Limits. — Opening narration, The Control Voice, 1960s

The Outer Limits is an American television series that aired  from 1963 to 1965. The series is similar in style to the earlier The Twilight Zone, but with a greater emphasis on science fiction, rather than fantasy stories.

go where no man has gone before
Go where no man has gone before . . .

Star Trek started out in 1966 as in an American TV science fiction  series created by Gene Roddenberry. It only ran for three seasons, but it had such a strong fan base that five spin-off TV series -- Star Trek: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise– and many films. The original Star Trek followed the interstellar adventures of James T. Kirk and the crew of an exploration vessel of a 23rd century galactic "United Federation of Planets"—the Starship Enterprise.

The crew gets ready to be beamed down (teleported) to a planet.


“Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”

This is what the B-9 Environmental Control Robot would shout whenever the 9-year old boy of Lost in Spacewas about to encounter, well, dangerous situations, such as this 

Yeah. Really. State of the art scary TV aliens for 1967, but just, well, kind of lame now.

Lost in Space was a Swiss Family Robinson concept, except that they are stranded on an alien planet, not on an island. Premiering in 1967, the show lasted three seasons. On October 16, 1997 (thirty years into the future in 1967), the United States is about to launch of one of history's great adventures: man's colonization of deep space. The Jupiter 2’s mission is to take a single family on a five-and-a-half-year journey to a planet of the nearby star Alpha Centauri. However, the medical doctor and environmental control expert is a foreign spy who sabotages the Jupiter 2, an action which traps him in the ship and sends the craft off-course until they crash on an alien planet.


Contemporary Science Fiction

  • 1966 to present
  • Soft science fiction reigns
  • Social issues more important in sf
  • Contemporary science fiction increasingly explores the failures of science and technology; dystopias; post-apocalyptic scenarios,; the idea that mankind has created problems that it cannot solve; a distrust of science and technology; a perception that mankind is fatally flawed and that man is essentially contemptible or of no consequence.
  • Many science fiction writers’ works were of high literary value, and thus, sf’s reputation as a “juvenile” sort of fiction has changed to one that is more respected.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Adapted by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubric (the director) from Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel,” the story deals with a series of encounters over millennia between humans and mysterious black monoliths  that are apparently affecting human evolution. Eventually, a space trip is made to Jupiter to trace a signal emitted by one such monolith found on the moon. The sentient computer HAL 9000 has full control over their spaceship (unfortunately for most of the crew).


2001: A Space Odyssey was a 1968 sf film was noted for its realistic depiction of space flight. [Did you know there is no sound in space? The explosion of a spaceship would be completely silent.] It also had phenomenal special effects for its time. Furthermore, it included some technological doo-dads that didn’t exist until many years later, such as: the Ipad, Skype, the International Space Station, robotics in space, in-flight personal TVs.


A definition of

science fiction


There is none.

Actually, there are many.

So that means,

there is no one definition.

But here are a few that fit pretty well . . .


Defining science fiction is like measuring the properties of an electron: you may think you’re measuring a solid object, but it’s really a wispy cloud.” -- James Gunn

Science fiction is what we point to when we say [that’s science fiction].-- Damon Knight

Science fiction consists of the hopes and dreams and fears (for some dreams are nightmares) of a technologically based society.--John Campbell

Science fiction isn’t just one thing. It has no recognizable action, like the murder mystery, or recognizable setting, like the western, or recognizable relationship, like the romance. It is about the future – except when it’s about the past or the present. It can incorporate all the other genres.-- James Gunn

Science fiction . . . deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected onto the past, the future, or to distant places. It often concerns itself with scientific or technological change, and it usually involves matters whose importance is greater than the individual or the community; often civilization or the race itself is in danger. -- James Gunn


In order to call something “science fiction” it has to

have science and be fiction.

Seems obvious, huh?

As fiction, it can be imaginative; however it also has to be realistic and plausible. Unlike fantasy which creates its own worlds with its own laws (magic, wizards, dragons, orcs, demons, angels, giant spiders), any science fiction world has to follow the laws of physics as we know it. There must be gravity, galaxies within solar systems within universes, length of days corresponding to the size of a planet and how fast in revolves. [And spiders the size of a car could never exist because of the laws of physics would crush them the instant they were plopped on Earth.]

Science fiction must also have some aspect of science or technology that affects the story. Sometimes the technology or science plays a huge role (as in Asimov’s novel I, Robot, the movie The Matrix, or Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” Sometimes the technology or science either has created or has allowed access to a world alien to us. It can be on another planet or on future Earth or in the past in an alternate history (Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in High Castle where Nazi Germany won WW II).