The Science Fiction Novel Speculation and dystopia

Science-fiction is a genre marked by the speculations of alternate worlds, may they be found in outer space or in distant time. The journeys to a time ahead of our own are often in conjunction with dystopian themes, whereas a typical aspect of the genre is the totalitarianism tendencies.

A short definition of the genre

A science-fiction novel is about the unknown, that we cannot prove right or wrong by the moment since it is situated in an alternate world from ours. It can be, as already mentioned, in a distant future or on other planets. The story should be based on plausible science and/or scenarios. Yet, science-fiction should not be mixed with futurology, as the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson points out in the article "Can we trust our own predictions?".

In the same article, Robinson emphasizes  the connection with the present that are included in the content of a science-fiction story: "all these possible futures that science fiction present are not just forecasts but metaphorical statements about the feel of the present (...) If they are mistaken for predictions only, the metaphorical power of science fiction get lost".1

What differs science-fiction from fantasy is that fantasy don’t bother with being plausible in terms of the ingredients of the story. Fantasy often creates worlds with mythical creatures and are taking place in ancient times, during the Medieval  is especially popular.

Quite curious, in the famous science fiction novel The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, a discussion is made about the genre, concerning a book that is a part of the fictional world. Even more peculiar is that the book mention in the novel is partly about the same thing as the novel itself. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy as the novel in the novel is called are about an alternative, but contemporary, world. As one character says that the book isn't science fiction because it doesn't depict the future, another character is correcting her by saying "it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort".2

Early science-fiction novels

For the readers of today, the early science fiction stories often seem less spectacular. Instead of traveling to a distant planet system the journey is only under the sea or to the moon. And sometimes the destination, may it be the sun, is far from realistic for modern readers. Yet, this is logically enough since the scientific knowledge was inferior to these authors.

Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) can perhaps be the first science-fiction writer. Cyrano de Bergerac was a French author that wrote two stories about fantastic traveling. A voyage to the Moon (Les états de la Lune, 1957) and A voyage to the Sun (Les états et empires du soleil, 1662). None of these are however typical for the genre thematically and are foremost satirical novels that used the moon and the sun as contraries to the contemporary society.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: the forthcoming

A little less than two centuries after the death of Cyrano de Bergerac, another French pioneer in the science-fiction genre born. His name is Jules Verne (1828-1905). Verne is sometimes called the “Father of Science Fiction“ and his books established many of the fundamental features of the genre. Verne had an enthusiastic view of the technology and more than a few of the things he wrote about would come true in the yet awaited future. Yet, his stories did not happen in the future but in the current time.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is Jules Verne’s under the sea adventure from 1870 (first translated into English in 1873). The story begins by telling us about a mystic sea monster that has produced havoc on the sea. It turns out that it is not a marine animal but a human construction, more precisely a submarine craft. A mission is set to find and annihilate with craft. But the submarine turns out to be superior to all other ships. The narrator, professor Aronnax, that is on-board the ship that loses the duel with the mysterious underwater craft, and two other men are close to drown, but finally saved from drowning by the submarine and becomes a part of the crew.

They find out that the submarine is named the Nautilous and is created and commanded by a certain Captain Nemo. This captain Nemo is a peculiar man that has turned his back to the human kind and decided to spend the remaining time of his life under the sea: “I am not what you call a civilized man! I have done with society entirely“, he says to Aronnax (when the same Nemo turns up in another Jules Verne novel, The Mysterious Island, he is called a "noble misantrope"). The narrator concludes that Captain Nemo creation “not only suited his instinct of freedom, but, perhaps, also the design of some terrible retaliation“. In the end of the book the Nemo character is given darker and more adversely descriptions. The reason for this development of the Nemo character is also to be found in the plot construction: the reader is served the motifs from the heroes in a typical order, and in this phase they are planning a flight from Nemo and his ship.

Professor Aronnax and the other two men are saved are given a fine comfort on Nautilous, but they are nevertheless prisoners. Nemo has built his craft in secret and prefer that it remains so.

The essential matter of this novel is yet the adventure under the sea and the presentation of the fantastic apparatus, the Nautilous that is. The Nautilous is driven only by electricity and all food needed for the men onboard are supplied from the sea. Today, submarines are far from science fiction and neither a journey that taking place under the sea. But when the book was published the submarines that existed were rudimentary and nothing like the craft in the book.

Also, the title Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea may fool some modern reader to be a description of the depth since it seems far from impressive to simply traverse a distance of twenty thousand leagues under the water. But, once again, at the time the book was originally published it was a marvelous though.

Although Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is considered one of the first science fiction novels, it is also written in the tradition of the Enlightenment. The novel is for sure a speculation of the unknown future (, but foremost it is an exploration of the life under the sea (but that again make the exploration of the sea to a speculation, in the terms of science fiction, is that the oceans at the time wasn’t explored).

Jules Verne did also call his books “scientific romances“.3 And the narrator and main character, Professor Aronnax, show proofs of encyclopedic knowledge, and his declarations on the subject are not especially realistic. For example, about pearls Aronnax says:

They are formed alone in the tissue of the mollusk, are white, often opaque, and sometimes have the transparency of an opal; they are generally round and, being more precious, are sold singly. Those adhering to the shell of the oyster are more irregular in shape, and are sold in weight.

Such a vast human knowledge is resembled in the ingenious engineer Cyrus Harding character that occur in The Mysterious Island (1874).

Jules Verne also wrote Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873).

The Time Machine: speculations to absurdity

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) has got a reputation as one of the inventors of the science fiction. Jules Verne has certainly published literary works with fantastic scenarios a few decades before Wells debuted, but when Jules Verne thought about machines that yet wasn’t invented on earth did H.G. Wells goes further–both further into the future and further to fantasy worlds beyond our own.

When Jules Verne found extraordinary life under the sea would Wells invite extra-terrestrial life to our planet in The War of the Worlds (1897). When Jules Verne was going around the world in eighty days (yes, in these days it was still an unreal thought), would Wells travel thousands of years into the future with a time machine.

The Time Machine (1895), Wells first novel, he does one of the farthest speculations about the future: describing a world ten thousands of years ahead of our time. In its way to concretize the speculations of an unknown future by time traveling it typified an important part of the genre of science fiction.

In The time Machine the protagonist, simply named “The Time Traveler“, has constructed a machine for time traveling. He succeeds in use it and travels until “the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand Seven Hundred and One, A.D.“ where he meets two human-like species: “Eloi“ and “Morlocks“.  The Eloi are sympathetic, but not marking an advanced civilization “I never met people more indolent or more easily fatigued“. Neither the evil creatures, called morlocks are far from an advanced species. Thus, the future world in the novel is the result of regression. The morlocks are cannibals, a theme that is also present in the 1984 and the 1973 movie Soylent Green.

It could also be noticed that The Time Machine shares some features with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. There is a clear resemblance of how the protagonists describes the new worlds they meet and at the same time draw comparisons with their own contemporary societies and reveal some utopian findings on their new destinations–“Diseases had been stamped out. I saw no evidence of any contagious diseases during all my stay“, the protagonist in The Time Machine points out.

The Time Machine shares the adventurous and pseudo-scientific characteristic with the novels of Jules Verne. Later science fiction works would establish a more realistic scientific line in their speculations. But until we are going into the science fiction of the 20th century there is another book of the 19th century worth mentioning.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was published in 1886. This novel or novella includes none of the strange milieus in books by H.G Wells or Jules Verne, but is shares some of the themes with Frankenstein, a novel that is discussed in The gothic novel article.

As in Frankenstein, a monster-like creature is created in the laboratory. But this time its creator is also the monster himself. It is a case of split personality and the monster is thus more humanlike than Frankenstein and the monstrous features are in the whole somewhat understated. This Mr. Hyde is in the book once described as “troglodytic“ and in another passage: “There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, and yet I scarce know why“.

The explanation is the dualistic nature of Dr. Jekyll. With help from a drug–yes, the theme of the “mad scientist“ is once again present–he managed to transform himself into another personality: Mr. Hyde. From the beginning he makes the transformation when he wants, but by time his desire for changing to the other character grew bigger and he loses control of it. In the end Mr. Hyde is taking over the personality and Dr. Jekyll is obliterated. In a confession letter Dr. Jekyll writes “I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse.“

Dr. Jekyll is representing the best, whereas Mr. Hyde is representing the evil. The meaning behind the story could be interpreted in many ways, but one way is to see Dr. Jekyll as representing the sober man and Mr. Hyde as the drunkard. Dr. Jekyll is filled by remorse for his wish to become Mr. Hyde but cannot resist, which is one of the dilemmas of the person with alcohol problems.

The theme in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been copied in various ways in popular culture. One example is the movie The Mask from 1994, in which a subdued man with the help of a mask can transform himself into someone that can act his inner darker sides. Another parallel could be found in the story of the fictional superhero Hulk, which after being involved in a serious laboratory incident can’t avoid from switching between two very different personalities and statures.

Brave New World: a dystopian “light“

Brave New World was written by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and published in 1932. It is alongside Nineteen Eighty-Four the most famous dystopian depiction of the future.

It is set approximately 600 years ahead of our time. Instead of AD (anno Domino), the time is called A.F. which is an abbreviation for after Ford. Ford is the assembly line inventor and founder of the known motor company – to use his name in this context gives a hint of the satirical and the technologian theme in the story.

The theme is typical for the dystopian science fiction genre. It is the dehumanizing factor that has led to lack of emotions. There are no flowers and the nature in general is forsaken opposed to industrial development: “A love of nature keeps no factories busy“.

As well as with flowers, also the books are forgotten and the children are programmed to grow up hating these things. In Aldous Huxley’s future world, the children are literally programmed from birth–they have no parents, instead they are brought up in the State Conditional Center and “born“ by a chemical process.

Yet, the people are happy, almost all the time. One reason for that is that they are extremely superficial and if there still is something that itch theirs mind, there is soma. Soma is the drug that is used exclusively by the people of the new civilization, it gives a piece of mind, but without hangover.

A typical genre cliché is found in the use of Shakespeare as a contrast to the future world in which (almost) all traces of culture are gone. John Savage (a young man that has been brought up by real parents in the old world, happens to find an old book with the collected works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare is then a contrast to the new world. The title “Brave New World“ is by the way taken from the bards play The Tempest. A parallel could be drawn to Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian science fiction novel, in which books are burned–most ironically, by the firemen.

There are, in other words, many similarities with the typical dystopian story, but that distinguishes Huxley’s dystopian future world from others is his focus on the superficious. His future is less pessimistic compared to Nineteen Eighty-Four, it's kind of a “light“ version. There is not the same totalitarian control and the penalties for breaking the rules is not as cruel.

It is most of all superficial. Sex has become a pleasure without the reproduction or romance aspect and a person who don’t agree to have sex with almost anyone is looked at as strange. People who think, people who blushes, or people who spends time alone are seen at likewise.

There are many proverbs in the book, that serve the ideas as summaries: “Everyone belongs to everyone“ (can be seen as meaning sexual freedom and lack of integrity), “Ending is better than mending“ (meaning it is better to consume than to fix broken things), “History is bunk“ (meaning forget the past).

Stability is the goal and consequently inventions are not needed. The last part of the book includes a lengthy philosophical exposition about the world that has been created by the leader, he says:

They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’re got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave.

As the technological world it is, there are no computers, no robots and no nuclear weapon. The writer acknowledges himself in a foreword to the later edition that “The theme of Brave New World is not the advancement of science as such; it is the advancement of science as it affects human individuals“.5

Brave New World  is definitely a writer’s comment on the contemporary: people are rafted by their jobs, and besides that, they have only time for simple pleasures and drugs (soma). No time to think. Huxley probably saw such tendencies in his own world.

Nineteen Eighty-Four: the darkest of dystopians

Nineteen Eighty-Four or 1984, is a classic dystopian novel published by George Orwell (1903-1950) in 1949. It is common to refer to this book when making comparisons with the contemporary society and its tendency to increase surveillance on the citizen–the Big Brother concept.

The novel includes many of the typical themes often found in dystopian science fiction stories: the increasing of state authority and dehumanization. Also, how the uniformity approach suppresses all forms of emotions: love is forbidden and the main character Winston Smith is forced to meet his new found lover, Julia, in secret, and symbolically enough it happens in the forest, which the connotations of forgotten nature. The relationship is soon revealed and Wilson being imprisoned and exposed to electroshock torture. As a manifestation of the state’s irresistible power he finally confesses and likewise do Julia. In other words, they both betrays each other, which is a hopeless picture of the inferior human versus the state that controls everything, including the human behavior and thought.

Contemporary science-fiction novels

We live in a technological age and it is no wonder many new book science-fiction books are being published. A few titles worth mentioning are 2312 (2012) by Kim Stanley Robinson, Quarantine Zone (2016) by Daniel H. Wilson and Too Like the Lightning (2016) Ada Palmer.

Last words

This article is an expose over science fiction in literature. The works discussed are just some and plenty have been left out. The ambition is to mention some of the most important works which create a chronological red line in the genre. Some other novels that have innovated the genre are Flatland (1884) by Edwin A. Abbot, We (1921) by Yevgeny Zamyatin, War with the Newts (1936) by Karel Čapek and Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury.


1.Scientific American September 2016 "Can we trust our own predictions?" by Kim Stanley Robinson p. 76
2.The Man in the High Castle 2015 p. 109
3.Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea Introduction p. vii
4. p. xliv
5. Brave New World Foreword p. xliv