Science fiction history is full of strange occurrences, and it's easy to imagine some wild alternate histories of the genre. And without some bolts from the blue, science fiction could have turned into something way less interesting. Here are 12 happy accidents that helped save science fiction.
Top image: Martian Chronicles, art by Meinert Hansen.
1) Hugo Gernsback Stumbles on the Formula for Science Fiction
As a child in Luxembourg, Gernsback was enthralled by a biography of Percival Lowell, for whom the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff was named. As an adult emigre to the U.S. he eventually founded the magazine Amazing Stories in 1926. The first issue had six stories, three of which were reprints of recent works and a story each by Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. This ratio of three parts literature (Poe, Verne, Wells) to one part science (Lowell) became his official formula.
2) John W. Campbell flunks German
And because Campbell failed his German class, he was tossed out of MIT, and wound up going to Duke University to finish his physics degree. There, he met Joseph Banks Rhine and became involved in Rhine's experiments in parapsychology and ESP — starting a lifelong fascination with the power of the human mind and helping to push him towards a slightly more humanistic form of science fiction. This also may have helped lead to Campbell becoming editor of the magazine then-titled Astounding Stories. Campbell re-christened it Astounding Science-Fiction, and then Analog Science-Fiction and Fact. The July 1939 issue ran stories by A.E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov, in August Campbell published Robert Heinlein's first story, and in September, Theodore Sturgeon's. As an editor, Campbell remains a controversial figure, but his contributions to the genre cannot be overstated.
3) Arthur C. Clarke's "The Sentinel" Loses a BBC Story Competition
This short story, whose afterlife was extraordinarily influential, didn't even place in the competition for which it was authored. After it lost the 1948 contest, it was anthologized in the U.S. and the U.K. in 1951, and a couple of times after. Then in 1964 Clarke met Stanley Kubrick and was impressed by the latter's determination "to create a work of art which would arouse the emotions of wonder, awe, … even, if appropriate, terror." Clarke gave Kubrick six short stories, and Kubrick chose "The Sentinel." The result? 2001: A Space Odyssey.
4) Ray Bradbury Changes Humans into Martians
The conclusion of Ray Bradbury's 1950 collection The Martian Chronicles stages a profound shift in awareness both within the science fiction canon and outside it. In "The Million Year Picnic," a family prepares for a fishing trip on Mars—only to reveal that this fishing trip has been an escape plan all along. In the last moments of the story, which are also the last moments of the book that is both novel and anthology, the family looks into their own reflections in a canal and recognizes themselves as the Martians. They have given up earth for a new, better future. "The Million Year Picnic" and the whole of TheMartian Chronicles arguably started the shift Dhalgren continued: the crossing over of science fiction into literary fiction. This book certainly moved Bradbury out of a genre ghetto. Jorge Luis Borges, himself a major crossover figure, introduced the Spanish edition of the book and listed it as an influence. And, in 1963, it was selected for the Time Reading Program, an imprint of Time-Life, and given an introduction by British astrophysicist and author Fred Hoyle. Bradbury's novel sets up what was, even by then, a cliche of science fiction: the humans vs the Martians, and then upends that assumption by making the Martians human.
5) Verity Lambert Made The World Safe For Monsters
One of the stipulations of the original Doctor Who program was that there were to be no "bug-eyed monsters." The show was initially developed to introduce children to time history through the time-travel conceit. Yet in the 1963 series, the show's second, the Daleks were introduced, intended as an allegory of the Nazis, and were a huge hit. Sir David Attenborough, was at the BBC at the time and reminisces in a recent Radio Times interview:
"I've always enjoyed Doctor Who from a technical point of view. I sat in on a lot of early discussions during which we cooked up the programme under the aegis of Sydney Newman, who was the BBC head of drama. I remember he specified he didn't want monsters in it but the first producer, Verity Lambert, went against that and introduced the Daleks. Sydney was livid with her to start with but Verity, of course, was right."
Indeed she was. The Daleks were a huge and immediate hit, and they are now completely absorbed into British culture. They appeared on a 1999 postage stamp, and a 2008 survey demonstrated that nine out of ten British schoolchildren could identify a Dalek (as a Dalek, presumably, and not a pepper-shaker).
6) Ursula K. Le Guin Angers Conservatives and Feminists
Beginning with The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969, Le Guin really pushed science fiction's representation of gender and sex. But if this novel hadn't been so controversial on both sides, she might not have felt the need to keep evolving and experimenting. Margaret Atwood recalls that Left Hand was attacked both by SF's conservative old guard and by second wave feminists:
This novel appeared at the beginning of the hottest period of 1970s feminism, when emotions were running very high on subjects having to do with genders and their roles. Le Guin was accused of wanting everyone to be an androgyne and of predicting that in the future they would be; conversely, of being anti-feminist because she'd used the pronoun "he" to denote persons not in "kemmer"—the sexual phase.
Yet, as Atwood shows, the revelation represented by Left Hand showed readers that the weird and radical in SF is also relevant to all readers:
Consequently the androgyny described in her book is neither prediction nor prescription, just description: androgyny, metaphorically speaking, is a feature of all human beings. With those who don't understand that metaphor is metaphor and fiction is fiction, she is more than a little irritated. One suspects she's received a lot of extremely odd fan mail.
In the face of this anger from both conservatives and feminists, Le Guin was forced to keep innovating — and in the process, helped pave the way for more experimental works.
Map by Lance Greenlee
7) Gene Roddenberry Changes Television Forever
Star Trek, in many ways, invented contemporary television. It was the first triumph of viral, crowdsourced marketing. From the first series' rescue from cancellation in 1968 by a letter-writing campaign, only to be cancelled in 1969, to the overwhelming attendance at the first convention, in New York in 1972, the audience was hands-on for this franchise long before shows started counting on a fan base that was active on social media. While the story of the fans' bringing Star Trek back from the brink is old news, Roberta Pearson, a scholar of media and fandom, argues that Star Trek established a mode both for the creation of television and film franchises as open-ended universes, and for treating fan communities as essential. In this regard, Star Trek's contribution to all subsequent television and film, but in particular those franchises that have produced expanded universes, can hardly be overstated.
8) Frederik Pohl Buys Dhalgren for Bantam and Makes it a Crossover Hit
Frederik Pohl says he made the decision to buy Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren independently of any of Bantam's "boss editors," and when, after the manuscript was circulated and Pohl kept getting asked why he bought it, he answered, "Because it's the first book that told me anything I didn't know about sex since Story of O." Despite being earth-shakingly weird by the standards set by its SF contemporaries, the novel was a major publishing success. It went through seventeen print runs in its first year, and it reached far beyond the genre audience that Pohl had carefully cultivated in advance of its release. It was also notoriously reviled by Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison. Yet Bantam, whose science fiction imprint fell apart after Pohl departed, let the novel go out of print in 1984. It remained out of print until an academic press reissued in the 1990s, and more recently in an edition with an introduction by William Gibson, in which Gibson describes Delany as the "most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction." This truly seminal book also crossed over, proving that the writers of SF's New Wave were not going to be consigned to a genre ghetto like their Golden Age predecessors had been. Dhalgren is now regularly mentioned among the great works of literature in English. Sam Anderson, in a 2010 New York Magazine article on the occasion of the theatrical premiere of Bellona: Destroyer of Cities, The Kitchen's adaptation of the book, situates it alongside Moby Dick and Finnegans Wake. With this work, Delany both forced the SF audience to start grappling with the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, and he also forced the literary establishment to start reckoning with science fiction.
Illustration by Monkeyblake for Strangelove4SF
9) Octavia Butler Sees The Devil Girl From Mars
At 12, Butler saw this ridiculous B-movie, and knew she could do better. With the Patternist series, she not only did better, she helped start a new multigenre movement: Afrofuturism. This broad movement connects Afrocentric history, jazz, funk, and hip hop music, science, and science fiction. Arguably one of its literary inventors, author Ishmael Reed said in a 1973 interview: "Science Fiction might be more revolutionary than any number of tracts, pamphlets, manifestoes of the political realm." The revolutionary science fiction of this movement is, most famously but hardly exclusively, the work of Octavia Butler, beginning with Patternmaster in 1976. Butler described her Patternist elite as "natural genetic engineers," a theme with particular urgency within a movement that imagined a Black diaspora. The Patternist novels, and Afrofuturism generally, situated the quasi-scientific rhetoric of race, particularly to do with genetics and genetic engineering, within speculative environments. Despite Butler's premature death, the movement continues, represented, to name just a few of its literary practitioners, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, Tananarive Due and Andrea Hairston.
10) Everyone Believes Michael Crichton Is Telling The Truth
There was a persistent rumor that Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain was based on a true story, that his plot, in which a satellite returns to earth carrying an extraterrestrial microbe that proceeds to horribly infect a small Arizona town and precipitates the race-against-time scenario in which a group of scientists have to find a cure for this fast-moving disease, was based on real events that the government had kept secret. That rumour came from the book's own frame story, which positions it as a report on those events after the fact. That conceit, and the plot, subsequently spawned a whole genre of "killer virus" fiction that has "infected" all genres and media. From Outbreak to Contagion, killer virus plots are a staple of thrillers, but they also precipitated the resurgence of the zombie. The film 28 Days Later was a hybrid of killer virus and classic zombie plots, and that film has influenced a whole new hybrid genre. Some of the most interesting virus stories have taken the trope into unexpected directions, like Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio, and maybe SyFy's Helix. So the crazy rumor-mongering about Crichton's story helped to bring back zombie movies, in a very weird roundabout way.
11) William Gibson writes A Novel Featuring Torontovian Drug Slang
Grungy, seedy, and dark, the cyberpunk revolution in SF was arguably a more hopeful idea of a future than the space-opera empires of Star Wars and Dune, or the post-apocalyptic landscapes of A Canticle for Leibowitz or Mad Max. William Gibson's Neuromancer won the "triple crown," the Hugo, Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick award, and has been lauded for its poetic language, but Gibson says he didn't invent any of it. "A lot of the language in Neuromancer and Count Zero that people think is futuristic is probably just 1969 Toronto dope dealer's slang, or biker talk," he says in an interview with Larry McCaffrey:
LM: Some of the phrases you use in Neuromancer- "flatlining" or "virus program"- manage to evoke some response beyond the literal.
WG: They're poetry! "Flatlining," for example, is ambulance driver slang for "death." I heard it in a bar maybe twenty years ago and it stuck with me. A drunken, crying ambulance driver saying, "She flatlined." I use a lot of phrases that seem exotic to everyone but the people who use them.
Cyberpunk revitalized SF not only because of Gibson's facility with language but also because its thematics of decline and degradation seemed to match the sense of the decline of the 1990s. Lawrence Person described it this way in 1998:
Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body. William Gibson's Neuromancer is, of course, the archetypal cyberpunk work, and this (along with early Gibson short fiction like "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Burning Chrome," The Artificial Kid, and the odd John Shirley work) is whence the "high tech/low life" cliché about cyberpunk and its imitators came.
The marginalized and alienated, and morally questionable, had, arguably, been absent from most mainstream a science fiction. With Blade Runner, then Neuromancer, and then the Mirrorshades anthology, cyberpunk introduced to SF a new, grittier aesthetic that is evident today in works as disparate as The Matrix, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica.
12) Connie Willis Decides Her Life's Goal Is To Write A Sequel To Heinlein's Have Space-Suit Will Travel
As a thirteen-year-old, Connie Willis randomly discovered Robert Heinlein's novel for young people, Have Space Suit, Will Travel at the local library. And she decided her goal in life was to write a sequel to this book — something that never happened, but this did help turn her into a science fiction author. And Heinlein's book also inspired her to read Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, which, in turn, inspired her to write To Say Nothing of the Dog, in which a time-traveling Oxford history professor encounters Jerome's three men in his effort to determine if the Victorian Coventry Cathedral really housed a Bird Stump.