Contrary to popular belief, the ideas for science fiction stories are not placed randomly into writers’ heads via alien transmissions. The origins of sci-fi are long, using concepts that go back thousands of years. It is only during the last 200 years or so that what can be considered “modern” science fiction began to form and take the shape that it has today.
During the 19th century, religion had been mostly replaced with science as the chief explanation for why things in the physical world behave as they do. Writers everywhere heard the call and used their minds to craft new worlds, inventions and concepts. Some of these were more successful than others, which gives birth to this list.
From the mountains of conjecture arose many concepts which would go on to form the basis of popular science fiction for more than a hundred years. Robots, time travel and planetary exploration are just a few of these. Here are 10 writers of the past (in chronological order) who have impacted the genre so much that they literally formed what the world now thinks of as science fiction.
August 20, 1797 – February 1, 1851
Most people know Mary Shelley as the creator of the timeless tale Frankenstein (1818), and with good reason. Frankenstein explored concepts such as the nature of consciousness and life, as well as the morality associated with creating a life form in human image. These themes are still eagerly used today by writers everywhere and had a profound influence on the writings of Isaac Asimov, specifically his I, Robot (1950) tale. Many consider Mary Shelley to by the first modern science fiction author, and even those who do not, still rank her among the most influential sci-fi writers in the genre.
Edgar Allan Poe
January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849
Another writer who is considered to be one of the forefathers of science fiction, Poe is better known for his contribution to the world of horror and suspense. It was not Poe’s love of science or integration of it into his works that made him so popular within the genre, but his exploration of the concepts of alternate realities.
Perhaps the two most famous of his sci-fi tales are The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall (1835), in which a man journeys to the moon in a balloon, and Mellonta Taunta (1840), which explores the concept of a dystopian society as a form of social and political commentary. Science fiction legend, Jules Verne, sites Poe as one of his greatest influences.
February 8, 1828 – March 24, 1905
Jules Verne is one legend whose stories have been made into countless movies, several of them badly. Most people will recognize him for Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). All of these have been abused by Hollywood at one time or another.
Verne is perhaps best known for being a visionary who foresaw changes to the world long before they appeared. Submarines, lunar exploration, videoconferencing and the idea of world-televised news are all Verne’s. How he managed to come up with so many great ideas and write such a ludicrous amount of stories can only be explained through alien technology or him being a mutant.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
May 22, 1859 – July 7, 1930
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s name is synonymous with his character of Sherlock Holmes. While Sherlock has graced many books, television series and movies, few people realize exactly how much of an impact Doyle had on the world of sci-fi.
His most well-known piece of science fiction is The Lost World (1912), in which a journey is undertaken to the Amazon to a land where dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures still roam. Jurassic Park, anyone?
Doyle is also a hero to those involved in the Steampunk sub-genre of science fiction, which gives him a unique place on the list. He wrote most of his science fiction novels during his later years, touching on concepts such as time travel, aliens and mind-transfer – all staples of the genre today.
H. G. Wells
September 21, 1866 – August 13, 1946
One of the most revered godfathers of sci-fi, H.G. Wells is the creator of so many brilliant works that to list them all would make this article late for deadline. Suffice to say, most people know of The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The War of the Worlds (1898) and When the Sleeper Wakes (1898-99).
In his more than 100 stories, Wells introduced and explored such concepts as biological warfare, flat-screen televisions, the atomic bomb, lasers, portable video devices and (geeks rejoice!) the idea of a joystick control system. A visionary of world destruction and the wars of humanity, Wells not only advanced the science of the genre, but addressed such important issues as society, politics and inequality – all of which are favorites of modern day sci-fi writers.
Edgar Rice Burroughs
September 1, 1875 – March 19, 1950
Tarzan is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ main legacy, but following close in its footsteps are the John Carter stories, beginning with 1912’s Princess of Mars. Burroughs occupies a special place as a godfather of science fiction, being that the John Carter series was the first ever of what one would consider a modern sci-fi book series. This started a trend that now dominates the industry, for better or for worse.
Burroughs also wrote tons of other stories, many of them science fiction. Those who site him as a main influence include Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and R.E. Howard, just to name a famous few. Bradbury went so far as to refer to him as “…the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.” Others have credited him with being a primary influence on the moon landing. Whole generations of writers, scientists and inventors have Edgar Rice Burroughs to thank for inspiring their creative impulses.
July 24, 1878 – October 25, 1957
While Edward Plunkett did most of his work in the fantasy genre, he is still considered important to science fiction development due to the sheer number of great writers who were influenced by him. H.P. Lovecraft, R.E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien all claim Plunkett influenced them to write what they did. He may not have had tons of great revelations in the manner of Verne or Wells, but he shaped the way sci-fi writers of the following generations would think about their craft.
July 3, 1883 – June 3, 1924
Kafka is another writer to whom science fiction was not the main focus of his work. His best known works include The Hunger Artist (1922) and Metamorphosis (1915), both of which dealt with important social issues in some rather surreal ways. Kafka’s influence on writers of the genre comes more from his mixture of the bizarre with important issues of the day in a fictional format – an approach to science fiction writing that is still prevalent.
August 16, 1884 – August 19, 1967
Hugo Gernsback is, unlike the rest on this list, not known for his writing (which has been popularly referred to as atrocious) but instead for the impact he left on the availability and format of the genre. Gernsback was a writer second and a publisher first. His first publication, the legendary Amazing Stories hosted submissions from H.P. Lovecraft and dozens of other masters.
Though he underpaid his writers (and was often referred to as a cheap bastard) it was Gernsback’s work in publishing which brought science fiction to the masses and allowed children and adults alike to embrace the emerging art form. In addition to putting out fiction-based magazines, he also created a number of information-based periodicals, prompting those who created real science to share their ideas as well.
August 30, 1887 – January 23, 1957
The last great sci-fi icon on this list is less known, but no less important. Ray Cummings put out an amazing 750 novels and short stories during his lifetime, most of them in the science fiction genre. He originally worked with Thomas Edison, helping to invent real science, but found his calling to be more fictional.
Cummings contributed to the early days of comic book writing, crafting stories for Timely Comics (the precursor to Marvel). The Sub-Mariner, Captain America and The Human Torch are among the series that he wrote for. He is also credited with being the first to dream up technologies related to gravity control and lunar colonization. It was Cummings’ work which flooded the fledgling sci-fi market with stories, giving new fans of the genre plenty to read.