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It's no surprise that science fiction didn't surface till the end of the 19th century....and the beginning of the Technological Age. Modern man is preoccupied with technology, both as villain and hero, and though most people probably associate sci-fi with Star Wars and Doctor Who, originally it was a literary genre devoted to serious (and often terrifying themes).
That's not to say it hasn't always been plain fun. H.G. Wells was making weighty social commentary when he wrote The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man, but both of those are also rousing adventure stories with themes that remain stock elements of the genre. Dune is Frank Herbert's political and ecological manifesto, as well as a desert saga filled with knife fights and mysterious Fremen wanderers.
At first glance a lot of science fiction looks pretty much like tech-savvy fantasy. In some cases it is—the aforementioned Star Wars has swords and knights and an evil emperor, just like The Prydain Chronicles or John White's Archives of Anthropos. But this kind of swashbuckling galactic adventure is typically called "space opera" and not taken very seriously except as great entertainment.
The more contemplative (but no less exciting) work of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card is what comprises the canon of Science Fiction proper. Subjects range from psychological investigations to the ethics of human-robot relations, but all of them are concerned primarily with human society and the moral obligations of those within its bounds.
In 1896, H.G. Wells published a novel called The Island of Dr. Moreau. It follows a captive of the crazed Dr. Moreau, whose experiments uniting animal and human organisms reach a gruesome level. While the implications would seem distant from any realm of possibility, Wells' fable touches on many contemporary themes, from stem cell research to the Creation/Evolution debate. It is in this tradition that the greatest science fiction authors write, making some small sense of the growing senseless complexity of modern life.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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