From Scheherazade to Shelley: The Origins of Speculative Fiction

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream”

-Lord Byron, “Darkness” (July, 1816)

The summer of 1816 was cold and gloomy. Monsoons drenched the continent of Asia, flooding China’s Yangtze Valley and the River Ganges. The East Coast of the United States was engulfed in a mysterious fog, tinting the weak sunlight an uncanny shade of red. And in Europe, torrents of icy rain and bouts of brown-tinged snow caused crop failures and starvation across the continent. The cause, we know now, was the massive eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora the previous April, an explosion so violent that it sent a plume of ash 26 miles into the sky and blanketed the earth in haze and darkness. However, the question of what caused the “Year Without A Summer” would go unanswered within the lifetimes of nearly all who lived through it. To them, without warning or explanation, nature, as one diarist at the time put it, simply turned “backward.” Red sunlight, August snow, rainstorms for months on end. It must have felt, to many, like something out of another world.

Among those who experienced this surreal summer was 18-year-old Mary Godwin, an Englishwoman on vacation in Switzerland with her lover Percy and a handful of mutual friends. The group had hoped for a sunny summer together on Lake Geneva, but the heavy rains kept them indoors for most of the trip, where they had to find a way to pass the unanticipated time they found on their hands. Mary, like most of her traveling companions, was a writer, so it seemed an obvious solution for the group to entertain each other by telling stories. Maybe it was the unearthly atmosphere surrounding them, maybe it was the copious amounts of laudanum they consumed each night, or maybe it was just the proximity to their host, noted weirdo Lord Byron. But over the course of the trip, the stories Mary and her companions told began to take on a wild and fantastical tone. The storytellers drew inspiration from books of German ghost stories and Greek myth, as well as contemporary political, social, and scientific events. They spun tales of monsters, mad scientists, magical curses, and creatures returning from the dead. The stories were surreal, grotesque, dark, and dreamlike. And, by the end of it all, young Mary Godwin had sketched out the outline for what would become one of the most pivotal works of modern English literature.

Though Mary and her friends didn’t know it at the time, their gathering on Lake Geneva would be remembered as a watershed moment in what would come to be known as speculative fiction.

Villa Diodati, the house where Mary and her friends gathered in the summer of 1816

WHAT IS SPECULATIVE FICTION?

The term “speculative fiction,” like many literary terms, is more complex than a simple description can summarize. It was coined by sci-fi author Robert Heinlein in 1947 as a synonym for science fiction, but has since taken on a broader meaning, encompassing the genres of fantasy and horror as well. These categories are also frequently described as “genre fiction,” though by most standards “genre fiction” is a broader term that also includes things like crime, mystery and romance. Generally, “speculative fiction” is used to describe any work of fiction in which the events depicted could not happen according to the currently accepted rules of our own universe. It must be written with the intent of being understood as fictional–ie, no tall tales, legends, or other stories with a veneer of “truth” to them–and it usually has a known author or authors, as opposed to oral storytelling traditions like folklore and myth. 

EARLY PRECURSORS

A tablet engraved with Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh

The broad strokes of speculative fiction have existed as long as humans have had the capacity for language, but what most audiences would recognize as modern speculative fiction was first codified in England sometime around the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was at this time that more nebulous types of fantastical, supernatural, and surreal fiction first began to coalesce into the distinct genres with established names and tropes we recognize today. However, if speculative fiction was simply “invented” in 19th century Britain and remained exactly the same in the intervening 200 years, this would be a very short and very boring series of articles. Instead, speculative fiction–the result of countless global storytelling traditions woven together to form a set of established genres–has been itself adopted, borrowed from, and transformed by countless other traditions in the years since its inception. The North African folklore that laid the groundwork for some of the earliest precursors to Victorian-era science fiction would eventually recombine with it in the 20th century to form Afrofuturism. The Celtic language and mythology that made its way into early fantasy by way of Arthurian legend would be foundational in the pivotal works of JRR Tolkien in the 1950s. And in some cases, literary traditions that evolved entirely independently–such as European Gothic horror and Japanese ghost stories–would come to influence one another long after both traditions had become well-established in their countries of origin.

It’s difficult to state with certainty what the first works of proto-speculative fiction were, since so much early literature overlaps with myth, allegory, and religious text. Stories about the antics of ancient deities, for instance, may not have been meant as literal accounts, but their purpose also wasn’t to entertain with purely imaginary characters and events. The Mesopotamian text The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest works of literary fiction, has fantastical elements in its plot, but it is also believed to be based upon the story of an ancient king of Mesopotamia, making it hard to tell what in the story was an embellishment of true events and what was intended to be interpreted as imaginary. Works like Homer’s Odyssey face similar issues–yes, Odysseus encounters monsters, sorcerers, and other magical beings on his journey home from war, but it’s impossible to say how many of these elements were meant to be accepted as outright fiction, and how many were intended as exaggeration of an otherwise real, or at least realistic, story. Even global folklore stretches the definition of speculative fiction, given that much of it is thought to be moral and/or behavioral allegory to educate children, with imaginary elements inserted to help support its central lesson. Without a singular author and a clear intent for the text to be recognized as fictional, these ancient works can better be described as influences of speculative fiction than early examples of it.

Frontispiece from the original French translation of the One Thousand and One Nights

One of the earliest works considered to be a direct precursor to modern speculative fiction is The One Thousand and One Nights, an anthology of stories compiled in Southwest Asia and North Africa during the Islamic Golden Age (c. 700-1400 CE). The reason this work, above others, is considered a direct influence to speculative fiction isn’t just its style and content, but also its documented popularity among the authors who would go on to lay the groundwork for the modern speculative genre. The text, originally written in Arabic, was translated into French in 1704 by archaeologist Antoine Galland and Syrian writer Hanna Diyab, followed by a Russian translation circa 1763, an English translation in 1811 and a German translation in 1825. Fortuitously released at the tail end of Europe’s late-17th-century fairy tale craze, a trend ushered in by French authors Madame d’Aubnoy and Charles Perrault, the work became popular throughout the century, especially among Romantic authors like Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Edgar Allan Poe (The stories contained within The One Thousand and One Nights share an astonishing number of tropes with modern speculative fiction–hidden worlds, mermaids, fairies, interstellar travel, and even robots–though ultimately, due to their lack of singular author, they still fall into the category of folklore by most definitions). 

But before we get into the role Romantic literature would play in the genesis of speculative fiction, let’s backtrack a bit and address how the Romantic movement itself came to be. 

THE ROMANTIC ERA

At the time that Galland was working on his translation of The One Thousand and One Nights, a different movement was ascendant in Europe: the Age of Enlightenment. In case you need a refresher from your AP Euro class, the Age of Enlightenment (or just “The Enlightenment”) was a philosophical movement in late 17th to mid 18th century Europe that prized human reason above divine forces and superstition. Along with the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions (which we’ll revisit more in future installments), the Enlightenment ushered in a period of change and innovation unlike nearly anything Europe had experienced before. Enlightenment-era inventors brought the world the steam engine, the telegraph, the submarine, the gas turbine, even the electric battery. Innovations in manufacturing led to widespread industrialization, radically changing the way average people worked and lived. And advances in science and medicine led to a deeper understanding of how our bodies worked, including, somewhat unsettlingly, the roots of life and human consciousness. And along with this fascination with the tangible and rational came a sharp decline in interest for the emotional, the nostalgic, and the inward-looking.

But, as Enlightenment icon Isaac Newton himself noted, for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Though the full list of factors that spurred the transition from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era is much too long to include here in detail, most academics agree it was, at least in part, a shift resulting from the rejection of Enlightenment dogma. The focus of European art and literature turned to the inner world, rather than the pursuit of understanding the external one, nostalgia for the old replaced vindication of the new, and in place of staunch realism came revived interest in the imaginary. Unsurprisingly, texts like the One Thousand and One Nights regained popularity, both for the novelty of its “foreign” setting (the European Romantics had a bit of an obsession with the aesthetics of the Middle East) and for its fantastical characters and plot points. Interest in fairy tales and folklore returned, with figures like Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm publishing entire collections of them throughout the early 19th century. 

However, the societal changes of the preceding centuries had fundamentally transformed the world from what it had been in the age of Perrault, D’Aubnoy, or the One Thousand and One Nights. Increased literacy in political and economic systems, advances in human capacity to manipulate nature through science and technology, and a general broadening of awareness of the surrounding world were, to borrow an image from Galland, a genie that could not be put back in the bottle. In a world that had become so accustomed to the cult of rationality, supernatural and fantastical fiction needed to be approached differently than it had before–explained with theoretical technology, distanced from the reader with alternate realities, or framed, in contrast with the rational “real” world, as unnatural and horrifying. 

FROM ROMANTIC TO GOTHIC

Romantic-era author and embroidery aficionado Horace Walpole

Early Romantic writer Horace Walpole penned his hallmark novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1764. The novel, set in the medieval period, told the story of a mad prince obsessed with preserving his ancestral castle from an ominous curse. Walpole, like other early Romantic writers, was enamored with the aesthetics of pre-Enlightenment history, but also sought to create something fresh and new in his writing. In writing Otranto, he later remarked, he wanted to combine “ancient” romantic literature (defined, in his mind, by its “imagination and improbability”) with “modern” romantic literature (which had an “adherence to common life”). The result was a surreal, stylistically melodramatic novel that brought realistic characters face to face with the supernatural and macabre. Ghostly apparitions appeared, ancient prophecies were fulfilled, young love was thwarted by evil madmen, and all ended with the sympathetic characters traumatized or tragically dead. By its second printing, the novel carried the subtitle “A Gothic Story,” after its Gothic-era setting; and before long, any story that mimicked its tropes and tone became known as a “Gothic novel” or “Gothic fiction.” 

The Gothic novel, though now mostly remembered as a subgenre of horror, was a key step towards the genesis of speculative fiction as a whole. Even more than Romanticism in general, Gothic fiction integrated the heightened and surreal with the realistic and recognizable, creating both distance and tension between the real world and the fictional one. Its use of supernatural and fantastical elements to play upon human anxieties would, in particular, be instrumental in the development of modern speculative fiction, especially in the realms of science fiction and horror. 

We can assume that the Gothic novel was on Mary Godwin’s mind when her friend Lord Byron suggested that the housebound vacationers tell each other “ghost stories” that summer in 1816. Mary, nervous about presenting her ideas before more established writers, procrastinated on the challenge for days, brushing off her friends’ questions about when she would have a story to tell them. “I was asked each morning,” she later wrote, “‘Have you thought of a story?’ […] and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” But despite racking her brain, Godwin could not think of a way to use the supernatural and fantastical to evoke fear and wonder in her companions, as Byron and the others did. 

Until, that is, one night in mid-June, when Mary and her friends sat around the fire discussing not ghost stories, but biology. Specifically, they discussed the experiments of Enlightenment-era biologist Luigi Galvani, who had famously discovered that electrical currents could provoke muscle contractions, and thus reanimation, of dead organisms (in this particular case, frogs). The implications of this discovery provoked not just scientific questions, but also existential ones. Was “life,” long thought to be a solely spiritual phenomenon, the product of electrical impulses more than a soul? And if that was the case, was death really as permanent as previously thought? That night, Mary had what she would recall as a “waking dream,” imagining the image of a scientist using Galvani’s electric currents not just on dead frogs, but on dead men. Some time after midnight, she began crafting her ghost story. “It was on a dreary night in November,” she wrote in her first draft, “that I beheld my man completed. And with an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”

And with that, 18-year-old Mary Godwin began work on the novel Frankenstein–perhaps the very first full-length speculative fiction work of the modern age.

CONCLUSION

Portrait of a young Mary Godwin Shelley

As we’ve seen, it would be an oversimplification to say Mary Godwin (soon to become Mary Shelley) “invented” the genre of speculative fiction, even if it does make for a good story. Genres, styles, and movements in art and literature are almost always transitions along a spectrum, not points on a timeline. Though in retrospect, we can see Frankenstein as a signal of the beginning of a new age of fiction writing, it’s equally a continuation and culmination of all that came before it, from ancient folklore to 18th century fairy tales to Romantic literature to Gothic fiction. But, as we will find out, in the history of speculative fiction, there are a number of creators–including Shelley–whose work crystallized and refined these traditions, innovating and transforming them in ways that would change all that came after. And by examining both those works, and the trends and traditions they drew from, we can start to paint a picture of just how speculative fiction has come to be what it is today.

Next stop: science fiction. We’ll see you then.

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