The history of the future: how science fiction has evolved across time

The visionary genre has grown from humble beginnings

The history of the future: how science fiction has evolved across time

Science fiction is worthy of praise. After all, who would have thought that two words with such contrary definitions could be combined to form such a powerful and popular genre?

Science investigates reality through physical and natural observations, experiments, and conceptual theories, whereas fiction writing fabricates events and characters from the imaginary through creative mediums. Science fiction somehow manages to reconcile these two endeavours.

In an interview with The Varsity, Dr. Bart Testa, an associate professor at U of T’s Cinema Studies Institute, explained that it is a “fantasy literature that reduces its fantasy on the basis of speculation with respect to the cosmos or technology.”

When and how did science fiction begin?

“Science fiction began, as we know it, in the nineteenth century during the industrial and technical expansion and innovation,” Testa said. The industrial revolution, which began in the late eighteenth century and continued through the nineteenth century, describes the period when the manufacturing process shifted from the home to the factory.

This shift had increased production scales, product varieties, and the standard of living. However, we cannot have all these ups without some downs, right? Industrialization led to labour-intensive jobs in factories, which in turn frequently resulted in poor working conditions for their employees.

Testa mentioned that “a lot of science fiction writers like to refer back to [the industrial revolution]. They saw the industrial world flourish around them and started to fantasize and speculate about what might happen, and sometimes, these fantasies became real.”

How practical is reading science fiction?

According to Testa, science fiction has always “had a big audience,” and has been very popular among people studying science.

“Perhaps science fiction went into their imaginations — what was possible and what was impossible to do,” Testa continued. He explained that science fiction has helped mould three generations of technicians and scientists. 

Consider what Testa mentioned — it’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? The fact that a mere genre of literature has had such a huge impact on the path taken by scientists — to reach the summit of technical advances in the present age — seems unbelievable.

But how did science fiction manage to do so? It cleverly masks real-world issues — be it environmental, ethical, or societal — as problems affecting a different reality. This allows readers to engage with these issues from a new viewpoint, which often results in a deeper understanding of the author’s conception of these challenges. 

What, if any, are the limitations of this genre?

From its humble beginnings in inexpensive pulp magazines, science fiction authors had to abide by strict limitations.

“The editors of these magazines, by all records, were dictatorial,” said Testa. “They told writers things they should and must say and shouldn’t and must not do.”

In fact, science fiction was mostly centred around science, big governments, and technology because those editors were usually pro-science, pro-big governments, or pro-military technology, according to Testa.

However, science fiction writers did not allow this tyranny to continue, rebelling against the genre’s norms along the way.

An iconic figure was Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer and biochemistry professor at Boston University. According to Testa, Asimov was a member of a rebellious science fiction group who believed that pulp magazine editors were too narrow-minded to be invested in literature.

The golden age of science fiction directly followed the publishing of science fiction in paperback. Testa described this age as “the period when limits were, to some degree, removed.”

The golden age mainly focused on broadening the scientific aspect of writing. “Much of what we pick from science fiction comes from that golden period,” said Testa.

Now, moving on from the golden age, science fiction experienced another period of border expansion — one with a decidedly less optimistic take on the future.

Testa exemplified this by referring to a novel written by J. G. Ballard called The Drowned World, which he described as “an apocalyptic novel where the world is covered largely in water.”

Three inventions inspired by science fiction. HANNAH BOONSTRA/THE VARSITY

Science fiction in perspective

All in all, it is clear that science fiction, a genre so impactful on scientists and the advances of the modern world, did not develop in the spur of the moment.

The genre felt various forms of pressure, yet it managed to not only survive them, but also to overcome the obstacles thrown its way. The diligence of writers and readers who stood by this genre and won its freedom allowed them to present the world the true worth of science fiction.

Book Club: Ben Ghan’s upcoming novel, What We See in the Smoke

A new novel by a U of T alum on Torontonian apocalypses at the intersection of Bradbury and Bloor

Book Club: Ben Ghan’s upcoming novel, <i>What We See in the Smoke</i>

You would be hard-pressed to find a U of T student who is not painfully aware of the catalogue of accomplishments that the Office of the President shills for the now-retired Boundless campaign: our nine Nobel Prize laureates, our four Prime Ministers, and our engineering and medical marvels.

But our less marketable assets conveniently slip through the cracks of campaigns, newsletters, and student awareness. Not as many students can list the accomplishments of Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, and the other name-droppable contributors to Canadian culture as easily as they can recite the now-trite laundry list of accomplishments from the campaign.

This familiar cultural issue forms the core of one motifs explored by the hand-stitched literary debut of Ben Berman Ghan: What We See in the Smoke. The book, a self-described “patchwork” of interrelated, but ultimately not codependent, stories, leads the reader through increasingly fictional and farfetched plots with the city of Toronto at its center. It is a Bradbury-esque adventure that takes its reader across time and space at the intersection of science fiction and the yearning for a better home.

The vector for each of these Torontonian escapades? Apocalypses. Big and small; banal and fundamental; at times familiar yet oftentimes not.  

The destruction of a standard becomes Ghan’s mandate. True to form, each of the seventeen ‘patches’ that form his quilted narrative eventually destroys themselves. The earlier stories, ones both chronologically and thematically closer to our present time, destruct in forms that are quite familiar to denizens of a city built upon seemingly-constant renewal and construction.

It is upon this concept of familiarity that Ghan seems to base his most successful heel-turns in character development and plot. He wields What We See’s dramatic irony so aptly that the reader rarely expects the destruction wrought in his stories. The later, more futuristic, and certainly more science-fiction-like stories, transition slowly from the familiar bounds of the city we all know, yet remain consistent in motif, providing the reader with a sense of recognizability, despite constant content shifts.

Truly, the whole novel feels like Toronto — all of its tragic and painful moments, which happen more often than expected — are caught up in cherry blossoms, major intersections, and, of course, the unassailable CN Tower.

When the reader begins the novel, Ghan seems to sell his stories short, making them almost too recognizable, too familiar. Certainly, in my first read-through of the novel, I questioned what interest I had in reading realistic stories of Toronto’s grittiness when I was faced with them in one way or another almost every day. I live here.

But that familiarity deceives. Ghan allows you to become comfortable in a surrounding you feel like you know, before making you believe that you never knew it in the first place. This happens to the point of uncanniness, where the feeling of Toronto, despite all the changes each story makes in plot and content, begin to signal something uneasy. For Ghan, there are only two certainties in Toronto: a mild-yet-still-somehow-debilitating winter and similarly enduring business development.

Despite its unique motley demeanour, What We See ends up being a novel rich in motifs that the average Torontonian can recognize and understand. A mixture of the heinous and the righteous, and a spark of constant renewal that keeps it all in flux, Ben Ghan’s debut is a solid underscoring of the Torontonian ethos.

Ghan seems to ask each of his stories, and the reader as well, what Toronto they would like to see. How would you give Toronto the identity it so desperately aches to discover?  

The only way for you to know is to pick up the book yourself.

What We See in the Smoke is set to release on June 6, 2019.

You can pre-order the novel on amazon.

50 years of A Space Odyssey

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

50 years of <i>A Space Odyssey</i>

Fifty years ago, the landmark science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (A Space Odyssey) dazzled audiences worldwide.

The film was a collaboration between director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke, who had set out to create the first ‘serious’ science fiction film. Up until that point, science fiction had not been considered a legitimate genre.

Over the course of the year, the film community has been celebrating A Space Odyssey’s 50th anniversary, including the premiere of a special 70mm original print of the film at the Cannes Film Festival.

According to the festival’s press release, “For the first time since the original release, this 70mm print was struck from new printing elements made from the original camera negative. This is a true photochemical film recreation. There are no digital tricks, remastered effects, or revisionist edits. The original version will be presented to recreate the cinematic event audiences experienced 50 years ago.”

Recently, this particular print travelled through North America; I viewed it on June 9 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. I have always been of the opinion that the true way to view a film is on the big screen how the filmmaker originally intended.

True to A Space Odyssey’s quality, the best way to enjoy the film is to see it exactly how it was delivered in 1968. Everything in the film was louder, clearer, and sharper. HAL’s ‘eye’ is all the more frightening, and the Star Gate sequence is an auditory and visual ride.

With a screenplay co-written by Clarke and Kubrick and based on Clarke’s novel of the same name,  the film is a grand, sweeping piece of cinema that stretches from the dawn of mankind to first contact with extraterrestrial life.

Stanley Kubrick was a prolific filmmaker and known as a genius in the art of movie-making. During the development of his films he would completely immerse himself in the subject, with the aim of learning as much as possible, so the film would feel completely authentic.

A Space Odyssey was no different; he and Clarke would have long discussions on science, space, and physics, and solicited feedback from luminaries such as Carl Sagan. Kubrick had a ferocious, almost insatiable, thirst for knowledge that is evident in every frame of his films.

Kubrick and Clarke have created a film that still resonates with audiences today. It is a film so utterly mysterious and brilliant that critics and fans continue to discuss what it all means. To this day, A Space Odyssey is considered one of the finest films in the science fiction genre ever made.

The film’s sets were impeccably created, with the giant centrifuge spaceship where the crew lived as the showpiece. Kubrick’s team created a Ferris wheel-like design to simulate gravity in the scene where one of the astronauts jogs around the ship. A Space Odyssey is filled with other innovative design elements like the climatic final sequence through the Star Gate and the heavy emphasis on realism for a science fiction film.

A Space Odyssey is a visual masterpiece and an example of how well practical effects and creative ingenuity can work together to achieve a singular vision. It is a testament to the film’s quality and allure that, despite being 50 years old, it could pass for a 2018 release.

With the 50th anniversary of the film, it’s a good time to go back and re-watch a classic or see it for the first time. To enhance your enjoyment of the film, I recommend reading Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson. It chronicles the before, production, and after of the film, with brilliant tidbits and details about Kubrick and Clarke’s process of bringing the film to print.

2001: A Space Odyssey’s release was a true turning point for science fiction films. The film changed the way audiences perceive the science fiction genre and its artistic quality.

The film’s stature has risen since its initial release 50 years ago and I predict that it will continue to charm audiences 50 years from now.