Scientific romance

"Maison tournante aérienne" (aerial rotating house). This drawing, by French science fiction writer Albert Robida for his book Le Vingtième Siècle, a nineteenth-century conception of life in the twentieth century, depicts a dwelling that can rotate on a post, with an airship in the distance. Ink over graphite underdrawing, c. 1883, digitally restored.

Scientific romance is an archaic term for the genre of fiction now commonly known as science fiction. The term originated in the 1850s to describe both fiction and elements of scientific writing, but has since come to refer to the science fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, primarily that of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle. In recent years, the term has come to be applied to science fiction written in a deliberately anachronistic style, as a homage to or pastiche of the original scientific romances.


Early usages

The earliest usage of the term 'scientific romance' is thought to be in 1845, by critics describing Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a speculative natural history published in 1844, and was used again in 1851 by the Edinburgh Ecclesiastical Journal and Literary Review in reference to Thoman Hunt's Panthea, or the Spirit of Nature.[1] In 1859 the Southern Literary Messenger referred to Balzac's Ursule Mirouët as "a scientific romance of mesmerism".[2] In addition, the term was sometimes used to dismiss a scientific principle considered by the writer to be fanciful, such as in 1855's The Principles of Metaphysical and Ethical Science, which stated that "Milton's conception of inorganic matter left to itself, without an indwelling soul, is not merely more poetical, but more philosophical and just, than the scientific romance, now generally repudiated by all rational inquirers, which represents it as necessarily imbued with the seminal principles of organization and life, and waking up by its own force from eternal quietude to eternal motion."[3] Then, in 1884, Charles Howard Hinton published a series of scientific and philosophical essays under the title Scientific Romances.[4]

20th century

'Scientific romance' is most commonly used to refer to science fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as seen in the anthologies Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of "The Scientific Romance" in the Munsey Magazines, 1912-1920[5] and Scientific Romance in Britain: 1890-1950.[6] One of the earliest writers to be described in this way was French astronomer and writer Camille Flammarion, whose Recits de l'infini and La fin du monde have both been described as scientific romances.[7] The term is most widely applied to Jules Verne, such as in the 1879 edition of the American Cyclopædia,[8] and H. G. Wells, whose historical society continues to refer to his work as 'scientific romances' today.[9] Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars (1912) is also sometimes seen as a major work of scientific romance,[10] and Sam Moskowitz referred to him in 1958 as "the acknowledged master of the scientific romance,"[11] though the scholar E. F. Bleiler views Burroughs as part of the "new development" of pulp science fiction that arose in the early 20th century.[12] The same year as A Princess of Mars, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published The Lost World,[13] which is also commonly referred to as a scientific romance.[14]

1902 saw the cinematic release of Georges Méliès's film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon); the time period and the fact that it is based partially on works by Verne and Wells has led to it being labelled as a scientific romance as well.[15]

Modern revival

In recent years, the term scientific romance has seen a revival, being self-applied by modern works of science fiction which deliberately ape previous styles. Examples of this include Christopher Priest's The Space Machine: A Scientific Romance,[16] published in 1976, Ronald Wright's Wells pastiche A Scientific Romance: A Novel, published in 1998, and the 1993 roleplaying game Forgotten Futures.[17] Though it uses the term, Dennis Overbye's novel Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance[18] does not imitate science fiction of the past in the manner of the other novels mentioned.

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