How Mary Shelley Invented Science Fiction Long Before H.G. Wells
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How Mary Shelley Invented Science Fiction Long Before H.G. Wells Or Jules Verne

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BY November 26, 2021

Women have been writing science fiction from the earliest days of genre novels. Unfortunately, their contributions to the genre can often be dismissed or erased entirely by fans and scholars. Recently there has been discourse around who ‘invented’ the genre of science fiction. Some attribute the earliest science fiction stories to writers like Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. However, that is doing a disservice to the mother of science fiction – Mary Shelley.

I thought most genre fans were aware of the fact that Shelley is credited as the ‘inventor’ of the science fiction genre. However, a recent New York Times article claims that it was the male authors who invented the genre – decades later. This is a surprising claim for the paper, who apparently didn’t do their research. So, let’s look at the history of the genre to establish how Mary Shelley established the foundation for sci-fi with her best-known work – Frankenstein.

Genre Conventions Have Existed In Fiction Forever

The Iliad Image from The Iliad | A. J. Church, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

First, we must acknowledge that fantastical elements have made their way into storytelling since the dawn of time. Obviously, The Iliad and The Odyssey tell the tales of mythological figures and heroes. Much of this lore has worked its way into genre fiction, marking Greek mythology as the precursor for much of the fantasy genre. Others throughout history incorporated magic in their work including Shakespeare. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift – published in 1726 – is often considered a genre novel, including descriptions of ‘alien cultures’ and ‘weird science.’

Although Mary Shelley holds the title of ‘Mother of Science Fiction” she was actually not the first woman to write within the genre. Back in the 1600’s, Margaret Cavendish published The Blazing World. This story was a bit of a hybrid – an adventure, a romance, and a satirical utopian fantasy. Elements of this story may give rise to the emergence of the science fiction genre. However, most of it sounds like a fantasy story. While the lines drawn between science fiction and fantasy as distinct genres is a relatively new divide, it is true that Shelley’s work fits better into the sci-fi genre.

The Legendary Roots of Frankenstein

Mary Shelley Mary Shelley | Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818, and the legend around the origins of the story are famous. In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley traveled to Lake Geneva with her husband Percy Shelley and several friends including the poet Lord Byron. Poor weather during the trip caused the group to cloister indoors, forced to entertain themselves. It was during these long wet days that Byron challenged everyone to write some ghost stories.

Mary Shelley then had a ‘waking dream’ that inspired the story of Frankenstein. Although Mary Shelley went on to write other novels, it was Frankenstein that made her famous. The idea of a man built from spare parts coming to life through a dangerous experiment by a ‘mad scientist’ definitively laid the foundation for the science fiction that would come.

Despite the success of Frankenstein, Shelley’s novel The Last Man is often considered the first true science fiction novel. This dystopian story focuses on a deadly pandemic that rapidly spreads across the the world and drives humanity to near extinction.

Jules Verne and H.G. Wells Continued To Build The World Mary Shelley Established

Jules Verne Jules Verne | Photo by Félix Nadar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the prolific output of work, he compiled during his life, Jules Verne is still best known for his novels that comprise the Voyages Extraordinaires. Among these stories are the well-known Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas. Verne began to publish his novels in the 1860’s, decades after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

H.G. Wells was a contemporary of Jules Verne, and it is true that Wells is often referred to as ‘The Father of Science Fiction” often paired with Mary Shelley. Wells was an extremely prolific writer, with works published between 1895 – 1941. He did cement the genre of science fiction as a popular medium. Many of his novels like The Island of Doctor Moreau and The War of the Worlds are iconic sci-fi stories deeply embedded within modern popular culture.

H.G. Wells | Public Domain Photo by George Charles Beresford via Wikimedia Commons

Both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are deeply influential figures in the science fiction canon. Their work established the basis for much of today’s contemporary genre fiction. However, neither of these men would have been as successful as they were without Frankenstein and the work of Mary Shelley at the turn of the century. It was she who laid the foundation for these men to later build upon.

Let’s Not Forget That The Sci-Fi Canon Is Irrelevant Anyway

Books Photo by Eugenio Mazzone via Unsplash

I once wrote an article about why the classic genre canon should be abolished. The problem with canon is that it holds up certain figures and texts as revered or ‘sacred.’ For years, men like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells have been idolized as part of the sci-fi canon. Mary Shelley is too – albeit to a lesser extent since people tend to only remember Frankenstein.

There is a problem with holding up these authors as paragons. Sacred idols don’t tend to do well in science fiction stories. Holding the classic authors up as the ideal that others should meet is contrary to the very nature of science fiction itself. Strict adherence to canon and the ‘rules’ of science fiction made up by these classic authors is restrictive and unnecessary. Let us not forget that generations of (primarily male) genre fans have wielded the classic canon as a weapon against other readers. Or as a gate to be kept closed to genre fans who are not white men.

The argument over who “invented” science fiction is tired. However, due to the erasure of women from so many literary circles it is still important to remember that Mary Shelley paved the way for many male authors. In the end, science fiction is not about looking to the past but imagining the future. So, I behoove the science fictions authors of today to go ahead and break the rules of canon. Just remember that Mary Shelley did it first. And she would certainly approve of more women breaking the rules that men have established.

For more genre news, be sure to follow Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter today.

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Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.

AuthorsBooksCanonFrankensteinH.G. Wellsjules verneMary ShelleyScience FictionThe Last Man

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