Victorian Science Fiction: Understanding the rapidly changing world through speculation and storytelling

(Note: This article is a work in progress.  From time to time new information will be added and other parts changed.)


Steampunk is often coined as being based on Victorian science fiction.  But what does this really mean?

Science fiction (or sci-fi) is described as being a genre of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction being a broad genre of narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements.

Sci-fi typically deals with creative and imaginative concepts that include, but are not limited to;
  • futuristic science and technology
  • space travel
  • time travel
  • faster than light travel
  • parallel universes
  • extraterrestrial life
It often explores the potential impact and consequence of science and innovation by extrapolating it into a potential future.  As such is it often called a "literature of ideas".  Through this exploration of ideas and possibilities it helps the author and reader to better understand the current world.

This method of speculation through storytelling dates back centuries, but such early works do not include the "Science" element.  This did not appear until the Age of Reason and the development of modern science, which lead to Johannes Kepler and his book Somnium. Somnium depicts a journey to the Moon and how the Earth's motion is seen from there.  It is this work that many, including Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, believe is the first science fiction story.

Following improvements to the printing press during the Industrial Revolution and the development of the novel as a literary form in the early 19th century, we see the real dawning of science fiction;
  • Mary Shelley
    • Frankenstein (1818)
    • The Last Man (1826)
The Victorian era then brought with it new technologies like electricity, the telegraph and powered transportation;
  • Jules Verne
    • Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)
    • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870)
    • Around the World in Eighty Days (1873)
An 1889 Hetzel poster advertising Verne's works
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  • H. G. Wells
    • The Time Machine (1895)
    • The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
    • The Invisible Man (1897)
    • The War of the Worlds (1898)
It is these works, the works of Shelley, Verne and Wells, written throughout the 19th century that make the basis of modern science fiction.  These works are what we term to be Victorian science fiction.


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