Science fiction stories in their historical context by Joe Stech

Last year I worked with Flame Tree Press on a new science fiction anthology that collects both historically notable science fiction and science fiction from modern authors (both up and coming and established!). It was a fun project, and instead of talking about it I'm going to go ahead and give you all the forward I wrote for the book:

Forward to the Compelling Science Fiction anthology from Flame Tree Press

SCIENCE FICTION is a unique genre, in that it must, by definition, constantly evolve. Good science fiction explores novel scientific, technological, and social ideas, and so without constant change would no longer be science fiction. Due to this unique quality, the genre's stories have continual impact on technological and social progress, and as a corollary cannot be ripped from their historical context and retain their full meaning.
It's interesting to look at the historical arc of science fiction through the lens of individual stories and observe how our perception of them has changed over time. It's also fun to think about the impact those stories have had on the public consciousness.
There are well-known and straightforward examples of high-impact stories, like Arthur C. Clarke making the first proposal for a system of geostationary communications satellites in 1945, and then later using the concept of geostationary orbit in his Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel The Fountains of Paradise (1979). There's no doubt that Clarke inspired a generation of engineers who went on to work on the frist artificial communications satellites, and scientists continue to search for matierials with high enough tensile strength to support a space elevator that can be also be manufactured relatively cheaply.
While Clarke's impact on technological progress is fairly clear-cut and easy to evaluate in retrospect, the impact of most stories is more nuanced. For instance, to modern readers a story like "The Thing from "Outside"" by George Allan England may seem like a story with an extremely ordinary science fiction trope, but to readers in 1926 the concept of an uncaring non-corporeal superintelligence interacting with humans had not been thoroughly explored.
Even less straightforward to evaluate is the impact of stories like "The Girl in the Golden Atom" by Ray Cummings. The story has been hailed as Cummings' most highly regarded fictional work, but even at the time it clearly drew inspiration directly from Fitz-James O'Brien's "the Diamond Lens" and H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine" — it was a pulp magazine story written entirely for entertainment purposes.
Despite its humble origins, the story contains a flash of brilliance that may have had an outsized historical impact. The words " what keeps everything from happening at once" have variously been attributed to many well-known physicists, and the famous theoretical physicist John Wheeler was even quoted as saying the words verbatim in the American Journal of Physics. It's impossible to say if this was a simple case of simultaneous invention or Cummings captured the imaginations of the most brilliant physicists of his day, but if it was the latter then the impact of this early pulp story could have been greater than anyone realized at the time.
As you read through the stories in this book, both old and new, I'd encourage you to think about them in their historical context. How would the classic stories have been percieved by their intended audiences? How will future generations percieve our modern work? Good science fiction has an impact on the worldview of those who read it, no matter what the era. You might even say that good science fiction is compelling.

That's the forward! If the anthology sounds interesting to you feel free to order a copy from Flame Tree here (to be clear, I do not get a cut of sales, I just wrote the forward and helped select some of the modern stories).

Want more posts like this?

Sign up for our newsletter.