The phantom menace: 10 milestones in science fiction
Dominic Sandbrook picks out 10 milestones in science fiction history that show how tales of alien imposters, urban dystopias and implacable clones were born out of more earthly concerns...
From the Earth to the Moon (1865)
by Jules Verne
French author Jules Verne (1828–1905) is often regarded as the father of modern science fiction, and his book From the Earth to the Moon is the first vaguely realistic story of travel in space. Writing towards the end of the American Civil War, Verne told the story of an imagined postwar society called the Baltimore Gun Club, obsessed with weapons of all kinds.
In the novel, the club devises a plan to fire a manned ship into space from a giant gun, and raises funds from countries across the world – although not Britain, which is jealous of the Americans’ scientific exploits.
The story ends with the ship shooting off into space; only in the sequel, Around the Moon, do we find out what happened to the astronauts. But Verne’s story proved hugely influential, and in 1902 it inspired the first science fiction film, Le Voyage dans la Lune, by the French director George Méliès.
By now, however, science fiction had acquired a taste for melodrama, and Méliès included an audience-friendly battle with sinister alien insects. As a result, the film was hugely successful – especially in the United States, a country that was increasingly seen as the crucible of scientific modernity.
The War of the Worlds (1897–98)
by HG Wells
The late Victorian age was the heyday of ‘invasion fiction’, as writers reacted to the news of the Franco-Prussian War with increasingly lurid scenarios of German, Russian and French invasions of southern England. Many were set in the suburban Home Counties, and one writer, William le Queux, whose stories were serialised in the new Daily Mail, deliberately featured towns with a high proportion of Mail readers.
In many ways, then, HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds was a satire of the invasion genre, from the shock of the alien landings to the suburban ordinariness of the Surrey setting.
Wells’s theme has fascinated readers and audiences ever since, from the 1950s Hollywood adaptation to Steven Spielberg’s version in 2005, which was clearly influenced by the trauma of 9/11.
Yet unlike so many science-fiction thrillers, his book ends on a distinctly grim note. The Martians may have fallen victim to Earth’s bacterial infections, but the crowds in London now look like “phantasms in a dead city”. And though he survived the invasion, the narrator feels an abiding sense of “doubt and insecurity”, like some ghostly premonition of the horrors of the First World War.
by Karel Čapek
The word ‘robot’ was coined by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R., first performed in Prague in January 1921. Čapek derived it from the word robota, which means ‘forced labour’, and his play captured both the excitement and the anxiety with which many people viewed the coming of the machine age.
This was the heyday of Fordism, with machines transforming industry and throwing thousands out of work. And Čapek was the first writer to capture an abiding theme of modern science fiction: our fear of the machine.
His play tells the story of a firm called Rossum’s Universal Robots, which manufactures artificial people – clones, effectively – to work for mankind. But the robots learn to think for themselves and launch a revolution – a threat that seemed very real in the age of Bolshevism. In a chilling echo of events in Russia, the robots storm the citadels of mankind and wipe out all remaining humans, except one.
But in a final twist, the robots themselves develop human feelings. Two robots fall in love: they are the new Adam and Eve, the father and mother of a new human race.
dir. Fritz Lang
Often regarded as the greatest film of the silent era, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was hugely influential on science fiction in the cinema. An Austrian veteran of the First World War, Lang had since moved to Berlin and, as perhaps the supreme exponent of German expressionism, became a master of nightmares.
Metropolis was a product of the Weimar Republic’s brief artistic golden age. It is set in a terrifying future city, ruled by an oligarchy while the toiling masses live underground. A fear of machines pervades, and the implacable robot Maria became a lasting symbol of German cinema.
The film is animated by a lurking dread of revolution: not for nothing is the robot’s mission to stir up unrest among the city’s workers. HG Wells wrote that Metropolis was “quite the silliest film” he had ever seen. But its vision of the city of the future, with its towering skyscrapers and huddled masses, was to prove remarkably prescient.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
dir. Don Siegel
No film better captured the nightmares of the early Cold War, when Senator Joseph McCarthy was warning of Reds under the bed, than Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Adapted from Jack Finney’s novel, the story is set in Santa Mira, California, where people become convinced that their friends and neighbours have been replaced with imposters, hatched from alien seed pods.
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The beauty of the Body Snatchers story is that it resists easy interpretations. Some saw it as a criticism of the soulless uniformity of the Soviet Union – or as a metaphor for fears that communists were infiltrating the American suburbs. But the film’s director, Don Siegel, denied that there was a simple meaning. “The political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable,” he said, “but I tried not to emphasise it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach.”
Now that Doctor Who has become a British cultural institution, it is easy to forget that it was originally devised as a Saturday evening filler to keep BBC audiences watching between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury. Yet no other cultural product of the last half-century has addressed so many serious historical issues – from the British empire and the Second World War to genocide, slavery and religious intolerance – even if many of them have been disguised in an alien setting. And perhaps no other television series better captures the ambiguities of Britishness itself, from the central character’s Victorian curiosity to his semi-detached relationship with the armed forces.
For a historian, meanwhile, the fascinating thing about Doctor Who is how faithfully it has echoed the political and cultural trends of the day, from the technological fears of the 1960s and the feminism and environmentalism of the 1970s to the anti-Thatcher passions of the 1980s and the Iraq War debate in the 2000s.
Generations of children may have thrilled to the adventures of the Doctor and his companions. But like all the best science fiction, it has often been at its most compelling when tackling issues that haunted the imaginations of their parents.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
by Ursula K Le Guin
Born and brought up in Berkeley, California, Ursula K Le Guin wrote The Left Hand of Darkness as a “thought experiment”. One line above all has gone down in science fiction legend: “The king was pregnant.” For what her book explores is an alien world called Winter, on which the people are ambisexual. Once a month, for mating purposes, they can choose to be male or female, but their genders are not fixed.
At the time, Le Guin’s book seemed revolutionary. Feminism’s second wave was yet to get fully under way, while the gay rights movement was still in its infancy.
But what The Left Hand of Darkness reflected was not just the emerging social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, but science fiction’s latent potential to question the way things are. For much of the 20th century, writers used science fiction, more than any other genre, as a tool of social criticism, satirising the conventions of the day and speculating about a better future. And in imagining an alien world in which there were no fixed gender roles, there was no war and nature coexisted harmoniously with technology, Le Guin was challenging the values her American compatriots took for granted.
Star Wars (1977)
dir. George Lucas
More than any other picture since the early days of cinema, Star Wars changed the film industry itself, ushering in an era of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Yet George Lucas only made his space epic after failing to secure the rights to remake Flash Gordon.
Flash Gordon had first appeared in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. In a society haunted by the spectre of unemployment, it was pure escapism: a thrilling adventure utterly removed from its social context. This was what George Lucas wanted to give American audiences in the 1970s: the era of Vietnam, Watergate, economic stagflation and morbid introspection. “It had become depressing,” he once said, “to go to the movies.”
Lucas’s aim may have been to make a film that would banish the miserable headlines of the day. But there were obvious geopolitical parallels, too. In an age of détente with the Soviet Union, Star Wars restored a clear dividing line between good and evil. It was little wonder, then, that when Ronald Reagan devised the Strategic Defense Initiative, a ring of satellites to protect the United States from nuclear attack, it was quickly nicknamed ‘Star Wars’.
by William Gibson
When William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, he was an obscure American-born writer who had emigrated to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War draft. Today, he is often described as the man who foresaw the invention of the internet and coined the term ‘cyberspace’, which he defines in the book as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation… lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”
The story of a computer hacker, hired to carry out the ultimate crime, Neuromancer was remarkably prophetic. Gibson was writing before most people even had home computers, yet he imagined a world in which computer networks would constitute their own ‘virtual’ reality.
Later, he explained that he had been inspired by watching people in video arcades, their eyes glazed as they played games like Space Invaders. Today, of course, Space Invaders feels like an ancient relic. But Gibson’s book endures, not merely as a cultural artefact of the 1980s, but as a chilling guide to the emerging world of the 21st‑century internet.
District 9 (2009)
dir. Neill Blomkamp
If anyone doubts that science fiction can explore serious historical themes, they ought to watch Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, which could hardly be a harder-hitting examination of the racism that blighted South Africa for so long. On the surface, the film tells how extraterrestrials, having landed outside Johannesburg, are confined in a poverty-ridden camp, supervised by government bureaucrats and military contractors.
Behind the story, however, lurks the shadow of the real-life District Six, a largely black area of Cape Town during the apartheid era. In 1966, claiming that District Six had become a crime zone, the government declared it a whites-only area and began evicting residents to a bleak township known as ‘apartheid’s dumping ground’.
In the film it is the aliens, not black South Africans, who face eviction, but the parallel is clear to see. What made the film even more unsettling, though, was its frankness about race relations in South Africa today, notably the tension between indigenous South Africans and immigrants from other African countries, such as Nigeria. That such themes could be explored in a film about aliens living on Earth, complete with expensive special effects and a compelling narrative, is testament to science fiction’s extraordinary power.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, columnist and TV presenter.