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Kevin J. Maroney [userpic]

The Birth of a Genre

February 26th, 2012 (11:39 pm)

current mood: accomplished
current song: "Video Killed the Radio Star", Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club

One of my favorite books is Michael Richie's Please Stand By: A Prehistory of Television. It's a history of the very earliest days of television, the 20 or so years between the invention of television* and the launch of commercial television in the United States in 1948. Richie was annoyed by the degree to which standard histories of television overlooked the tremendous efforts and creativity brought to the enterprise of television during the pre-WWII era and set out to rewrite the canon to include the excluded. I respond on a visceral level to the unveiling of forgotten histories.

Many canonical histories of science fiction point to Hugo Gernsback as the inventor of the idea of science fiction; he did, after all, coin the term. No one seriously thinks he invented the method or techniques of science fiction, either as a writer (the dreadful Ralph 124C41+) or as an editor (of Amazing Stories, the first pulp dedicated exclusively to science fiction). Everyone knows that the techniques of science fiction go back to "Micromégas" and Frankenstein, through Poe and Verne and Wells and Shiel and so many other works that are clearly science fiction avant la future.

That first issue of Amazing in 1926 consisted entirely of reprints and served as a gathering-together of stories, exemplars of the types of fiction that Gernsback wanted to promote. As such, the more careful writers say that he was the first figure to approach science fiction as a distinct and coherent genre, complete with a community of readers. Although there are hundreds of works of proto-sf, there was never really a genre before Gernsback.


Over the last few years, Brian Stableford has been doing heroic work in translating French works of proto-sf into English--J.-H. Rosny aîné, Paul Féval, Maurice Renard, and many others. In the process, he has discovered that two French editors of the 19th century spent several years exactly carving out a genre of science fiction--gathering together sf works in their publications, catering to a distinct readership, and actively soliciting new works in this fiction-of-the-new. The only thing they lacked that Gernsback brought later (besides propeller beanie) was a single term for their new type of fiction--they didn't even use the existing term "roman scientifique". If they had come up with a term, it might well have become the standard.

So, there it is. A lost history of a forgotten future. Go, read.

*The invention of television occurred roughly in 1925-27 at the hands of several different people mostly independently, most notably John Logie Baird and Philo Farnsworth. The difficulty of identifying the first "television" is not much less difficult than identifying the first "science fiction novel", for mostly the same reasons.


Posted by: Baron Dave Romm (barondave)
Posted at: February 27th, 2012 07:55 am (UTC)

Commercial television goes back to 1946, according to the book (one of the few books still more useful than the internet for such info).

Edited at 2012-02-27 07:55 am (UTC)

Posted by: El Coyote Gordo (supergee)
Posted at: February 27th, 2012 10:59 am (UTC)

Does he mention the television references in Finnegans Wake?

Posted by: beamjockey (beamjockey)
Posted at: March 6th, 2012 11:10 pm (UTC)

I was hoping you'd link to something Stableford has written about this intriguing discovery, rather than to a long list of translated works. Can you recommend a summary?

Posted by: beamjockey (beamjockey)
Posted at: March 7th, 2012 12:07 am (UTC)

After I wrote this (your essay has been bugging me for days), I googled in earnest, and found "The French Origin of the Science Fiction Genre," which is exactly the article I was hoping existed. (Perhaps you had meant to link to it yourself?)

Posted by: Kevin J. Maroney (womzilla)
Posted at: March 7th, 2012 12:32 am (UTC)

Arrgh! Yes, that's it exactly. Thank you for pointing out that I had forgotten to link to the article; I've added the link.

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