You Gotta Know These Authors of Speculative Fiction

  • Mary Shelley (1797–1851, United Kingdom). As the daughter of the philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women), and the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley was a product of both the Enlightenment and Romantic eras. Her 1818 novel Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus helped to lay the groundwork for modern science fiction by contrasting Enlightenment ideas of progress with a Romantic conception of nature as an untameable force. The idea for Frankenstein came to Shelley while she was taking part in a friendly writing competition at Lord Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Inspired by Luigi Galvani’s experiments in “animal electricity,” Shelley wrote about the Swiss scientist Victor Frankenstein, who reanimates dead tissue and creates a “monster.” This attempt to control nature fails, as the monster murders Frankenstein’s brother William, friend Henry Clerval, and wife Elizabeth before fleeing to the Arctic. Frankenstein pursues his creation, and tells his story to the explorer Robert Walton before dying. Shelley presented an even bleaker scenario in her 1826 novel The Last Man, which describes Lionel Verney’s efforts to survive a 21st-century plague that devastates human civilization.
  • Jules Verne (1828–1905, France). Verne offered a brighter vision of technological progress in his novels of adventure, many of which doubled as works of popular science. In Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, Professor Lidenbrock explains contemporary theories of geology and paleontology as he leads an expedition that travels beneath the Earth’s crust from Iceland to the Italian volcano Stromboli. Verne later wrote the 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, whose narrator Pierre Aronnax offers extensive commentary on marine biology while accompanying the mysterious Captain Nemo on a voyage in the submarine Nautilus. In a more realistic vein, Verne considered the possibilities presented by new forms of transportation in the 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days, which describes a trip taken by the Englishman Phileas Fogg and his French valet Jean Passepartout. During his travels, which are undertaken to win a bet with members of the Reform Club, Fogg falls in love with an Indian woman named Aouda, and is pursued by the Scotland Yard detective Fix, who mistakenly believes that Fogg is a bank robber. Fogg ultimately wins his bet to return to the Reform Club within 80 days of his departure, with the help of an extra day gained by crossing the International Date Line.
  • Herbert George Wells (1866–1946, United Kingdom). H. G. Wells used speculative fiction to explore the social issues of his day from a left-wing perspective. In the 1895 novella The Time Machine, Wells wrote about a “Time Traveller” who visits the year 802,701 A.D, and learns that humanity has diverged into two different species—the surface-dwelling Eloi, who are gentle and beautiful but intellectually limited, and the subterranean Morlocks, who resemble apes but are strong and clever enough to use the Eloi as livestock. The Time Traveller speculates that the Eloi are descended from aristocrats who were once served by the ancestors of the Morlocks. After writing about time travel, Wells helped to establish another of science fiction’s key themes by depicting an alien invasion in the 1897 novel The War of the Worlds. The anonymous narrator of The War of the Worlds observes a Martian spaceship that lands in Surrey, and flees the “Tripods” and “Black Smoke” that the Martians use as weapons in the conquest of Earth. The invaders easily overcome human resistance, but eventually perish from lack of immunity to Earth microbes. Wells also wrote several novels about researchers who use science to pursue unethical goals. In the 1896 Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, the shipwrecked Edward Prendick discovers that the title vivisectionist performs painful experiments to transform animals into human-like “Beast Folk.” A year later Wells published The Invisible Man, which centers on a student of physics named Griffin who plans to use his invisibility to enact a “reign of terror.” However, Griffin’s invisibility makes it difficult for him to exist in society (he must cover himself with clothes and thick bandages if he wishes to be seen), and he is eventually killed by an angry crowd.
  • Aldous Huxley (1894–1963, United Kingdom). Aldous Huxley belonged to a prominent family of British intellectuals that included the Victorian evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley. Although Aldous Huxley depicted his own social milieu in novels such as Crome Yellow and Point Counter Point, he is best known for writing about a dystopian “World State” in the 1932 novel Brave New World. Extrapolating from Henry Ford’s model of industrial production and contemporary advances in biochemistry, Huxley imagined a world in which the fictional “Bokanovsky’s Process” is used to create human clones, which are then modified to posses different intellectual abilities, and sorted into social castes named after the Greek letters Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon. Inhabitants of the World State enjoy a prosperous existence, immersive entertainment known as Feelies, and the drug soma, but lack family connections and spiritual fulfillment. The shallow pleasures of the World State are contrasted with the ideals of John the Savage, a young man who grew up on a New Mexico reservation. John is initially delighted to meet the World State residents Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowne, and excitedly quotes the “Brave New World” speech from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. However, John soon grows disgusted with “civilization.” After the World Controller Mustapha Mond forbids John from living on an isolated island with the aspiring writer Helmholtz Watson, John unsuccessfully tries to retreat from society, and eventually hangs himself.
  • George Orwell (1903–1950, United Kingdom). George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair) condemned the totalitarian government of Joseph Stalin in the fantasy Animal Farm and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell’s speculative fiction was part of a wide-ranging body of work that also included attacks on British colonialism (the essay “Shooting an Elephant” and the novel Burmese Days), first-hand accounts of war (Homage to Catalonia) and poverty (Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier), and works of cultural criticism (the essay “Politics and the English Language”). After taking part in the Spanish Civil War and growing alarmed at the authoritarian nature of Russian communism, Orwell wrote the 1945 novel Animal Farm as an allegory of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. Animal Farm describes barnyard animals who revolt against their owner, and try to create a more equitable society under the leadership of the pig Snowball, who develops principles of “Animalism” such as “Four legs good, two legs bad.” However, Snowball is soon ousted by his fellow pig Napoleon, who exploits the other animals, sends the horse Boxer to be slaughtered, and degrades the principles of Animalism to “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Four years later, Orwell imagined a future Britain (known as Oceania) under the harsh rule of “Big Brother” in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith and his lover Julia try to rebel against Big Brother, but are tortured into compliance in the Ministry of Love. Nineteen Eighty-Four also described the distortion of the English language for political purposes (“Newspeak”), and introduced many words and phrases that are still used with reference to oppressive governments (thoughtcrime, doublethink, memory hole, “we’ve always been at war with Eastasia,” “war is peace,” “Big Brother is watching you”).
  • Isaac Asimov (1920–1992, United States). Along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov was one of genre science fiction’s “Big Three” writers. During the 1930s and 1940s “Golden Age” of science fiction pulp magazines, Asimov worked closely with Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell Jr. to create stories such as “Nightfall,” which describes a rare moment of darkness on a planet with multiple suns, and “Robbie,” the first of Asimov’s many works about robots with positronic brains. (The word “robot” was introduced by the Czech author Karel Capek in the 1920 play R.U.R., which depicts the worldwide uprising of “Rossum’s Universal Robots”). Before Asimov, most stories about artificial life had followed the template established by Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which a scientist who tries to usurp God’s power to create life is ultimately destroyed by his own creation. Asimov challenged this trope by creating the “Three Laws of Robotics,” which robots in his stories are obligated to follow. The laws are as follows:

    1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
    3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

    By using these laws in dozens of stories (some of which were collected in the book I, Robot), Asimov helped to promote a conception of robots as useful machines rather than inhuman monsters. Asimov is also known for his Foundation series, which was inspired by Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Foundation series begins when the “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon realizes that the Galactic Empire will soon fall, and creates the title organization to limit the length of the ensuing Dark Age. Asimov eventually linked together his Robot and Foundation series into a far-reaching “history of the future,” which also includes Asimov’s novels The Caves of Steel, Pebble in the Sky, and The Stars, Like Dust.

  • Ray Bradbury (1920–2012, United States). Bradbury’s science fiction and fantasy stories often contain nostalgic elements related to his Midwestern childhood. The Illinois community of Green Town is the setting of Bradbury’s novels Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes, both of which center on boys beginning to enter adulthood. Similarly, small towns on Earth and Mars are the setting of many stories in Bradbury’s 1950 collection The Martian Chronicles, which is made up of loosely connected works about the expeditions of human astronauts, the displacement of indigenous Martians as human settlers arrive, and a nuclear war that destroys most life on Earth. Bradbury also wrote about Mars in several stories that appear in his collection The Illustrated Man, whose title character has tattoos that foretell the future. Another theme that recurs in Bradbury’s works is censorship and the importance of literature. This theme is expressed most strongly in Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, which depicts a dystopian future in which “firemen” burn books . The protagonist of Fahrenheit 451 is Guy Montag, a fireman whose wife Mildred is deeply depressed and addicted to television programs that she watches on large “parlor walls.” Montag begins to question his profession after meeting the free-spirited Clarisse McClellan, and secretly preserves books to read, leading to a rebuke from Fire Captain Beatty. Montag is eventually pursued by a robotic attack dog called the “Mechanical Hound,” but escapes to join a community of rebels who memorize classic works of literature.
  • Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007, United States). Vonnegut’s fiction provides a darkly humorous response to the absurdities and violence of the twentieth century. During World War II, Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Germany, and lived through the Allied firebombing of Dresden. That experience was the basis for Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the soldier Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time,” and perceives his life in a non-linear fashion. Billy travels between the present, past, and future as he is captured by the German army, witnesses the destruction of Dresden, becomes a prosperous optometrist in the town of Ilium, is kidnapped by aliens and placed in a zoo along with the actress Montana Wildhack, and is eventually assassinated. Slaughterhouse-Five contains a number of elements that recur in other Vonnegut novels, including the veteran Eliot Rosewater, aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, the unsuccessful science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, and members of the wealthy Rumfoord family. Vonnegut also wrote the novel Cat’s Cradle, which describes a substance called “ice-nine” that instantly turns liquid water into a solid. Ice-nine was created by the atomic scientist Felix Hoenikker, whose life is researched by the novel’s narrator John. Another thread in Cat’s Cradle concerns the “bittersweet lies” of the prophet Bokonon, who lives on the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo. Bokonon comments on human stupidity after an accident that occurs during the funeral of the San Lorenzan dictator Papa Monzano causes ice-nine to fall into the ocean, destroying almost all life on Earth.
  • Margaret Atwood (1939–present, Canada). One of Canada’s most prominent authors of literary fiction, Atwood has written multiple works that combine speculative elements with psychological realism. In 1985 Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, which portrays a dystopian near-future in which the United States has been replaced by the patriarchal Republic of Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale is narrated by Offred, whose role as a “handmaid” is to bear children for “the Commander” and his wife, Serena Joy. Offred flees her oppressive existence with the help of Nick, a chauffeur who claims to be a member of the underground Mayday resistance movement. In an epilogue set in the year 2195, the archivist Professor Pieixoto discusses Offred’s unknown fate. Atwood later wrote a trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic world where corporations have created bioengineered diseases and people (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam). In addition to her speculative works, Atwood has also written historical fiction (Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin, the latter of which contains a character who is a science fiction author), novels about the relationships between female friends (Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride), and a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from a female point of view (The Penelopiad).
  • Douglas Adams (1952–2001, United Kingdom). Adams wrote comic science fiction and fantasy novels that poked fun at genre tropes and the quirks of British culture. After working on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Adams created the BBC radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which premiered in 1978. The radio series became the basis of a series of novels (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe, and Everything; So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish; Mostly Harmless; and the authorized sequel And Another Thing…, which was written by Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer after Adams died). The Hitchhiker’s series focuses on Arthur Dent, an ordinary Englishman who becomes one of the last humans in the universe after Earth is destroyed by the alien Vogons. Arthur and his friend Ford Prefect travel on a starship named the Heart of Gold, along with the “paranoid android” Marvin, the two-headed galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox, and the human scientist Trillian. Arthur eventually discovers that “answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” is 42 (although the question itself remains unknown). Characters in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series sometimes consult the title reference work, which offers the advice “Don’t Panic,” encourages hitchhikers to carry towels at all times, and provides the recipe for a drink called the “Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster”. Besides the Hitchhiker’s series, Adams also co-authored two books offering comic definitions of British place names (The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff), and wrote a pair of novels about the supernatural adventures of the private investigator Dirk Gently (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul).

This article was contributed by NAQT editor Larissa Kelly.

Back to the You Gotta Know homepage.