The origin of science fiction stories is well-known to both critics and the public: by consensus, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) was the first SF novel. But the origins of "science fiction" as a concept are neither well-known nor agreed-upon. The phrase "science fiction," meaning the genre of scientifically-oriented fantastic fiction, was popularized in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback. But "science fiction" had a 19th century predecessor: "scientific romance," a term used by H.G. Wells. However, as we'll see, science fiction started decades before that, as did many of the terms describing science fiction.
Before 1849 and the Death of Poe
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is generally recognized as the first significant American author of science fiction. Gernsback himself, in defining "scientifiction" (Gernsback's predecessor term before "science fiction'), said in 1926 that "By 'scientifiction,' I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story." Poe was not the only writer of science fiction during these years, however, nor the best-known to his contemporaries.
Mary Shelley's lesser-known follow-up to Frankenstein was The Last Man (1826), set at the end of the 21st century. In it a plague destroys much of humanity, and conflict in Great Britain and between the United States and Europe takes care of the rest. While not the most famous work of science fiction up to that point - Frankenstein, Rudolf Erich Raspe's Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785) and William Godwin's St. Leon (1799) were all better-known than The Last Man – it attracted a great deal of attention in Great Britain and the United States and was described as "a favorite with admirers of the German school of romance." This reference to the German genre of gory supernatural stories known as the schaeurroman, or "shudder novel," indicates an understanding that The Last Man, with its futuristic setting and winged balloons capable of long-distance flights, belongs to a different category of fiction from the usual genres of the time. However, "the German school of romance" would become used primarily for works of emotional or narrative extremity rather than just the fantastic.
The "Great Moon Hoax" grew out of six articles published in the New York Sun in late August, 1835. Most likely written by Richard A. Locke, a reporter for the Sun, the articles described aliens and unicorns living on the moon. The articles attracted a great deal of attention, and though the Sun did not admit that they were fictional for six weeks, others recognized them for what they were immediately.
On September 9, the Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser wrote this about Locke and the Hoax articles:
Mr. Locke, the very ingenious author of the late story of the Moon and the wonders, animate and inanimate, there to be seen, promises to figure-if we are to believe the New York Herald-as an author of no little celebrity. To explore new fields in science, has been quite a frequent thing in the present age; but a new walk in literature, it has been thought, almost until now, impossible for the shrewdest mind to discover. This distinction seems to have been reserved for Mr. Locke; who, in the intelligence he has brought us nether mortals from our Earth's Satellite, has opened to us sources of the marvelous, the delightful and the comic, which were never before so much as dreampt [sic] of by either the genius of Swift or Fielding, of Scott or Bulwer. Mr. Locke, we are given to understand by the Herald, has in preparation, or, in the Herald's phrase, is putting on the stocks the frame of a new novel on a subject similar to that of his recent able invention in Astronomy. His peculiar and original talent will then be brought out in full relief….
As Sir Walter Scott was the author of the historical Novel of which he had many imitators, so Mr. Locke is the inventor of an entirely new species of literature, which may be called the "scientific novel." He, too, may expect a few, not, like Sir Walter, many imitators; very few will be at the pains, even supposing they should have the capacity to add to their diversified literary acquirements the requisite scientific attainments. Mr. L. possesses both. He and the very few who may soar to the heights and sound the depths of science, who may delightedly repose in the bowers of literature, who, to a masterly knowledge of books, may join the vigor and raciness of immediate observation of living characters and manners, he and those few only may hope to excel in this new species of fictitious history.
Locke never finished his novel (if he began it at all), and "scientific novel" never caught on as a descriptor of science fiction, most likely due to the comparative lack of science fiction over the next ten years. Instead, "scientific novel" was applied to books like Harriet Martineau's Illustrations of Political Economy (1832), which use fiction to explore the ideas of science, and to the works of Zola, with their "scientific contemplation of human corruption." Nonetheless, its use here marks the first known occasion when science fiction was recognized as something unique and different from other genres of literature.
In 1847 William Henry Smith, in reviewing Tales, by Edgar Allan Poe, wrote that Poe's poem "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion," about the destruction of Earth by a passing comet, was "a remarkable instance of that species of imaginary matter of fact description, to which we have ventured to think that the Americans show something like a national tendency." Smith has no single phrase to draw upon to describe Poe's science fiction. "Imaginary matter of fact" appears occasionally, but never in reference to science fiction. But it is clear that Smith knows what science fiction is when he sees it, which was also critic and author Damon Knight's preferred definition of science fiction. It is also clear that Smith is aware of previous works of science fiction. I mentioned in the preceding paragraph that there was a relative lack of science fiction published between 1835 and 1845. However, some of that was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and gained a great deal of attention. While those stories were usually described in comparison to of Hawthorne's other work they were clearly science fiction, as William Henry Smith recognized.
From Post-Poe to Verne: 1849-1863
The period after Poe and before Verne had less science fiction than the 1835-1845 decade: E.F. Bleiler's Science Fiction: The Early Years lists 34 short stories, anthologies, and novels from 1835 to 1845 and only 26 from 1849 to 1863. Unsurprisingly, no agreed-upon term for science fiction appeared during these years. The first, entirely isolated, use of the term "science fiction" was by William Wilson in 1851.
The "romance of science" is the phrase most often used during this period to describe science fiction and the science fictional. Many times it is used in a more modern sense. In 1849 the British "Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge" wrote that "The hardships and adventures undergone in some of the great trigonometrical surveys of the earth's surface belong almost to the romance of science," but many other times it is used as a description of science-based speculative thought, or a scientifically-informed flight of fancy, rather than as a description of a literary genre. In 1841 the Eclectic Review, scathingly deriding atheism, wrote:
It commences with an assumption of a living being endowed with properties of the most extraordinary nature, and capable, according to the hypothesis, of performing all the works usually attributed to a Deity–which amounts to the same thing as making that lowest of animals the very Deity–and yet this is done by those who affect to think there is no Deity. This romance of science baffles all parallel....
In 1849 The Literary World described the unicorn as "taken from what may be called the romance of science." In 1850 the Journal of the British Archaeological Association described the phoenix using a similar phrase. Joseph Bullar, in his Evening Thoughts, by a Physician (1850), says of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation that:
It is the partly informed, the immature scientific mind which believes in the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, or in any such bold generalizations. The real interpreter of Nature estimates them at their worth: as the romance of science, the ingenious air-castles of a scientific bookworm, or the day-dreams of an imaginative mind, which has chosen science instead of history.
And in 1857 Frederick Ayrton wrote, in Railways in Egypt, wrote:
We may live to realise in a few years the extraordinary fact of the leading events of one day in India, and perhaps in our Eastern colonies also, being recorded in the London newspapers of the following morning! This, to some minds, may appear like a romance of science; yet the step, in the sober progress of events, is not great.
On a few occasions "romance of science" was used to describe literary science fiction. William North's The Impostor; or, Born Without A Conscience (1845) has the following exchange:
"I write a scientific work!"
"You are accused of a romance."
"Unjustly, I assure you; but even if it were true, this book is–"
"A romance of science – works of fiction affect to describe what probably would happen under certain circumstance, ‘The Vestiges of Creation' do no more."
The phrase "scientific romance" was used somewhat more often to describe literary science fiction. In its early appearances, beginning in 1845, critics used the phrase to describe Robert Hunt's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), a work of cosmogony and speculative natural history. Vestiges attracted a great deal of attention and was widely labeled a "scientific romance" by critics, to the point that the 1845 introduction to Vestiges' second edition stated "this book has well been called a scientific romance."
But during the post-Poe period "scientific romance" began to mean primarily literary science fiction rather than flights of fancy. In 1851 Macphail's Edinburgh Ecclesiastical Journal and Literary Review reviewed Thomas Hunt's Panthea, or the Spirit of Nature, a story of mesmerism and visions of other planets. The reviewer wrote of Hunt that "he has not only dealt with the romance of science but he has written a scientific romance." In 1851 the Annals and Magazine of Natural History described Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation as "that delightful scientific romance." And in 1859 the Southern Literary Messenger described Balzac's Ursule Mirouet as "a scientific romance of mesmerism."
After Verne: 1863-1884
It's safe to say that Verne was the most influential author of the 19th century when it came to how people thought about the idea of science fiction. Beginning with his Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863, 1869 in English translation), he virtually created what soon became known in France as the roman scientifique. A direct translation of that is "scientific novel," but the more common phrase used in English was "scientific romance." Edmond About's The Man with the Broken Ear (1862), in discussing the revivification of a mummy, uses the phrase "c'est un petit roman militaire et scientifique," but the English language translation has it as "I have a little military and scientific romance for you."
After Verne's debut "scientific romance" became the standard phrase used to describe science fiction. In 1865, in The Journal of Science, and the Annals of Astronomy, Biology, Geology,.... the Rev. Thomas Hincks wrote that the "Hydroid Zoophytes,–an Order of compound, plant-like animals, chiefly marine" have "formed the staple of many a scientific romance in the pages of our popular literature."
In 1866 the Nation described Oliver Wendell Holmes' Elsie Venner as "a scientific romance of the destiny which a physican can discern in blood and nervous tissue." That same year Charles Dickens, in All the Year Round, described Henri de Parville's An Inhabitant of the Planet Mars (1865) as "a scientific romance." By 1875 "scientific romance" was accepted enough as a concept that it appeared in advertisements: James de Mille's The Sunless Land was advertised in Publishers Weekly as "a scientific romance that fairly rivals Jules Verne's best." "Scientific romance" still retained its secondary meaning as a science-based flight of fancy – Darwin's Origin of Species is often described in this fashion – but primarily it meant science fiction.
The 1870s was a decade in which a number of science fiction stories and novels were published, including George Chesney's The Battle of Dorking and Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race, and it is unsurprising that other terms besides "scientific romance" were used in referring to science fiction. The Chicago Public Library's Annual Report in 1873 said "Prose fiction is quite as harmless as poetical fiction, historical fiction, biographical fiction, or scientific fiction." Mary Braddon, in discussing her "Journey to the Sun" in Belgravia in 1876, described it as "scientific fiction," and in that same year Caxton's Book described Verne as "that master of scientific fiction."
Nonetheless, "scientific romance" was the commonly used term, and in 1884, when C.H. Hinton published a two-volume set of collection speculative non-fiction and science fiction, he entitled it Scientific Romances, beginning over a decade of its steady use by critics.