The History and Development of American Science Fiction in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Our podcast will explore the history and development of American science fiction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Through literary analysis of both text and film, we examined what we considered to be important contributory factors to the establishment of science fiction as a distinct literary genre. We traced the development of science fiction conventions and tropes from their earliest forms in the 1840s up to their appearance in films in the late twentieth century. We can thus conclude that from its origins, science fiction was always used as a genre to critique and question broader social and cultural issues. Many topics, concerns and conventions explored in nineteenth century texts remain relevant in modern science fiction and appear frequently in contemporary films.

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Firstly, Niamh will discuss the contributions of Edgar Allan Poe to the genre of science fiction in the nineteenth century. While it is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment at which a genre originated, Niamh will explore why Poe is often regarded as a pioneer of science fiction. Through examination of historical context and literary analysis, she will consider how Poe was the first to use scientific fact and plausible extrapolation to explain occurrences such as lunar voyages or conversing with a dead person. Poe’s scientifically justifiable approach to explaining seemingly fantastic events would become a defining feature of science fiction, contributing significantly to why he is often considered to be the father of the genre. Poe was also arguably the first to use this method of scientific verisimilitude to critique and question the society in which he lived, which is an important motivation behind science fiction texts, and this still occurs frequently in the science fiction of today.

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Luke will then discuss how Poe influenced H.P. Lovecraft, who is one of the most influential sci-fi and horror writers of the 20th century. In his segment, Luke will examine the concept of cosmicism, which is the belief that man is insignificant in the greater scheme of things, and how earth is just a tiny speck in a large universe. Lovecraft wanted to go a step further than Poe, as Lovecraft explored the outside forces that drive mankind to madness.  Luke will refer to two of Lovecraft’s most well-known stories, “The Call of Cthulhu”and “The Colour out of Space,”as they both reflect what he is trying to achieve through his concept of cosmicism.

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Brian will then examine how the science-fiction genre has carried over from literature into film and how selected films are influenced by the works of both Poe and Lovecraft. In this section, Brian will talk about how early science-fiction films draw on the works of these two authors in style and in the themes that they address. Continuing on from this, Brian will explore how more recent science-fiction films still employ the genre to discuss some of the same topics that Lovecraft and Poe considered decades earlier.

Further Reading.

Fossemo, Sandro. “Cosmic Terror from Poe to Lovecraft.”

Halldorsson, Kristjon Runar. “The Enlightenment and Connection to the World of Cosmicism.” 2010.

Lambie, Ryan. “HP Lovecraft and his Lasting Impact on Cinema”. 2011.


Olney, Clarke. “Edgar Allan Poe—Science-Fiction Pioneer.” The Georgia Review, Vol. 12, No. 4, Georgia Review, 1958, pp. 416-421.

Tresch, John. “’The Potent Magic of Verisimilitude’: Edgar Allan Poe within the Mechanical Age.” The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 30, No. 3, Cambridge University Press on behalf of The British Society for the History of Science, 1997, pp. 275-290.

Westfahl, Gary. “‘The Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe Type of Story’: Hugo Gernsback’s History of Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3, SF-TH Inc, 1992, pp. 340-353.


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