What Do These Three Authors Have In Common?
Jules Verne. Isaac Asimov. William Gibson. What do these three authors have in common?
The most obvious similarity between them is that they are all science fiction writers. But there’s something more specific than that. Can you guess?
Let’s explore the answer by starting with a mini-profile of the first of our famous authors, Jules Verne.
Verne has sometimes been called the “Father of Science Fiction” although there is much debate about who in fact was the first. One thing not in doubt is his role as a Victorian futurist. In writing about the future in ways that captured the imagination of the Victorians, Jules Verne’s novels, along with novels by Mary Shelley,(Frankenstein) and H. G. Wells (War of the Worlds), created the formative works of what was then a new genre we now call science fiction, fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes. Verne’s short story, A Voyage in a Balloon published in August 1851 combined adventurous narrative, travel themes, and detailed historical research and would later be described by Verne as “the first indication of the line of novel that I was destined to follow”. The most successful of these early science fiction novels were: Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1864; From the Earth to the Moon, 1865; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1869; and Around the World in Eighty Days, 1872.
When the name, Jules Verne, is mentioned today it is often in the context of the new genre of Steampunk. People mistakenly suggest that Jules Verne ‘founded’ Steampunk because many of the works of Steampunk fiction are an homage to his early classic science fiction novels. Indeed, the meme of the octopus in Steampunk jewelry and cosplay can be attributed to his novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. But Jules Verne was not a founder of Steampunk. There was no such genre in his day. He was a futurist in the Victorian era, looking at the future as he saw it back then. Today’s Steampunk is retrofuturistic, a contemporary re-imagining of what we believe the Victorians saw as their future. Futurism and retrofuturism are not the same. Retrofuturistic authors like myself must shed the bias caused by what we know to be true today, to adopt the viewpoint of those in a bygone era who had no experience with modern day technology like computers and space travel. Verne looked into the future…his future…and saw a world of balloon flight and steam-powered engines. As a retrofuturist, I have to imagine what he was looking at. That requires casting off my knowledge of how his future actually did transpire and ‘pretend’ either that it didn’t happen or hasn’t happened yet. Another way of saying this is that if I want to write retrofuturistically, I’d have to get inside HG Wells’ Time Machine to transport myself back to the mid 1800s so I could sit with Verne in his writing circle. What did his imagination perceive the future to be, at a time when the motor car, airplane, and rocketry had not yet been invented?
Let’s profile our second science fiction author, Isaac Asimov.
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was an American writer and professor of biochemistry at Boston University. Asimov wrote hard science fiction, a category of science fiction characterized by concern for scientific accuracy and logic. Along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov was considered one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers during his lifetime. His most famous works are the Foundation series, the Galactic Empire series and the Robot series.
The Oxford English Dictionary credits his science fiction for introducing into the English language the word ‘robotics’.
Asimov believed one of his most enduring contributions would be his Three Laws of Robotics.
The Three Laws (also known as Asimov’s Laws) form an organizing principle and unifying theme for Asimov’s robotic-based fiction as introduced in his 1942 short story Runaround (included in the 1950 collection I, Robot). They are quoted in the story as being from the “Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D.”:
First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
So once again, in Isaac Asimov, we have a science fiction writer who is one of the great futurists of his time, writing fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances, a future containing robots.
We’ll move on to a profile of our third science fiction author, William Gibson. As you have probably guessed by now, what all three of these authors have in common is that they are pioneering futurists and their science fiction inspired their contemporaries in ways that broke new ground for the genre.
Beginning in the 1970s, Gibson’s early works were near-future stories that explored the effects of technology, cybernetics, and computer networks on humans. It was William Gibson who coined a term that is ubiquitous today… ‘cyberspace’. His futuristic vision of ‘widespread, interconnected digital technology’ in his short story Burning Chrome (1982), and later in his acclaimed debut novel Neuromancer (1984), were a prescient vision of a future that is rapidly coming to pass. With Neuromancer, William Gibson is widely credited with pioneering the science fiction subgenre known as cyberpunk. Despite the inclusion of ‘punk’ in its title, cyberpunk is futuristic not retrofuturistic. Cyberpunk is a look into our future, not a re-imagining of what those in the distant past believed was in theirs.
The term ‘Steampunk’ first originated in the late 1980s. Sci-Fi author K. W. Jeter was trying to find an accurate description of works by himself (Morlock Night), Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates), and James Blaylock (Homunculus).
Although much of Gibson’s reputation has remained rooted in Neuromancer, his work continued to evolve conceptually and stylistically. His Sprawl trilogy was followed by the 1990 novel The Difference Engine, a Steampunk novel that Gibson wrote in collaboration with Bruce Sterling.
With the publication of The Difference Engine, Gibson and Sterling brought further attention to this new genre of Steampunk. Set in a technologically advanced Victorian era Britain, The Difference Engine was a departure from the authors’ cyberpunk roots. It was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1991 and its success drew attention to the nascent Steampunk literary genre of which it remains one of its best-known works. So William Gibson, a pioneering futurist and founder of cyberpunk, is also considered one of the founders of Steampunk, a genre rooted in retrofuturism.
We’ve very briefly reviewed the literary resumes of our three authors. In the process we’ve reflected on a few of the seminal works from the past one hundred and fifty years of the history of science fiction. We can see that despite how technology has caused fiction to become fact, science fiction still looks to the future for inspiration. A common denominator is the role of ground breaking futurist writers and the influence they have had in setting a course for their contemporaries.
From the futurism of Jules Verne…that gave birth to some of the very first pieces of science fiction literature…to the hard science fiction of Isaac Asimov with his musings on robotics…to the cyberspace worlds of William Gibson and the creation of the futuristic cyberpunk sub-genre, we have now come full circle to the fiction of today. The circle closes when we discover that the real origin of Steampunk was not with Jules Verne but instead with contemporary futurists like Gibson who use retrofuturism to take us back in time to the science fiction of yesterday.
(NOTE: References and images in this post have been mainly taken from Wikipedia with many thanks to the original authors for putting them into the public domain. Some of the book cover images not in the public domain are presented through the ‘fair use’ doctrine.)