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(Investigator #195, 2020 November)


In 1935 the first science fiction (SF) serial, The Phantom Empire, became a hit with kids and adults.

In it the singing cowboy-actor Gene Autry (1907-1998) plays a singing cowboy who with two companions gets taken to the city of Murania situated deep inside the Earth under his ranch. The city was equipped with futuristic science including robots.

There, for twelve episodes, Autry put singing on hold and battled evil Queen Tika. In one episode Autry was even killed but then got resurrected in the Queen's resuscitation chamber.

In 1936 Universal Pictures debuted SF's most famous hero in a 13-episode serial, Flash Gordon, played by former Olympic swimmer Larry Crabbe (1908-1983). People sometimes ask, "What did he flash?" The answer is himself in his rocket-ship, which could cross the solar system and the Universe rapidly "in a flash".

The first episode, "The Planet of Peril", introduced major characters as well as the crisis that Flash would overcome. The crisis was that another planet, called "Mongo", was on a collision course with Earth. Only Flash and his very presentable girlfriend, Jean Rogers [Dale Arden (1916-1991)], both of them dressed in little more than beach-wear, and assisted by scientific genius Dr. Zarkov, can save the world.

The three blast off in their spaceship, land on Mongo, and meet evil Emperor Ming. Emperor Ming [Charles Middleton] became almost as popular as Flash and Jean, and survived through three separate serials until finally killed off.

Fighting with fists, ray guns and ingenuity Flash overcomes all obstacles including shark men, hawk men, Orangapoids, and of course Ming, and saves Jean and planet Earth.

The sequel serial, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938), 15 chapters, finds Ming alive and again raring to rid the Universe of planet Earth. Of course Ming loses again.

In 1939 Universal introduced Buck Rogers again starring Larry Crabbe, and a new villain Killer Kane. The action occurs 500 years in the future.

Buck Rogers was less popular than Flash Gordon who therefore returned in 1940 in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. Ming, here, is again malicious and intends to spray Earth with "death dust". Jean, now played by Carol Hughes (1910-1995, is again very winsome but has a different hairstyle and a more appropriate costume. After encountering various monsters and incredible challenges Flash wins again and Ming finally dies permanently.


SF typically deals with futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration and extraterrestrial life. Fantasy focuses more on mythical creatures and supernormal powers. Horror often involves supernatural themes like ghosts, witches, demons, ancient gods, reanimated mummies, and vampires, and aims to evoke fear and anxiety.

The ancient Greek myths are classed as myth or fantasy but include SF-type material. The Odyssey by Homer is about the Greek hero Odysseus voyaging homeward after the Trojan War. He and his crew meet Cyclopes (one eyed giants), Sirens (females who lure men to destruction with their sweet singing), Circe (an enchantress who changes men into animals), Skylla (a 6-headed monster), and Laestrygonians (man-eating giants).

In the 18th century Irish author Samuel Madden (1686-1765) speculated on time travel in Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) which imagined Europe and Russia in 200 years dominated by the Jesuits.  French writer Louis Sebastian Mercier (1740-1814) in Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (1771/1795) has the hero awakening in a future Paris transformed by science.

Modern SF began in the 19th century as literacy increased and reading for leisure became popular.

The early SF novelists included Mary W. Shelley (1797-1851), Jules Verne (1828-1905), Robert Louis B. Stevenson (1850-1894), and Herbert G. Wells (1866-1946):

•    Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) Shelley
•    Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) Verne
•    From the Earth to the Moon (1865) Verne
•    20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) Verne
•    Mysterious Island (1874) Verne
•    Off on a Comet (1877) Verne
•    Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) Stevenson
•    The Time Machine (1895) Wells
•    The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) Wells
•    The Invisible Man (1897) H.G. Wells
•    The War of the Worlds (1898) Wells
•    The First Men in the Moon (1901) Wells

In the 1865 novel the trip to the Moon is accomplished by three men in a large capsule fired by an enormous gun. In 1901 it's done by two men in a spacecraft constructed from an anti-gravity material. The astronauts find the Moon inhabited by people and monsters and even fall in love with Moon women.

With the discovery in 1877 of supposed canals on Mars, which implied the presence of intelligent life, many authors chose Mars as their main setting. Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) began his Mars series of eleven novels with A Princess of Mars (1917). Burroughs also authored a Venus series and Moon series.


Ghastly Beyond Belief (1985) is a compendium of over 2000 quotes illustrating the thesis that, "ninety five-percent [of SF] is unconsciously comic."


•    Past, present and future. Does it have to be in that order? (page 23)

•    From the blackest pits of hell, insatiable evil creeps forth to claim men's minds and souls. (40)

•    "My! We're going fast," Emma said… "Ten parsecs per nanosecond of microdotted time," Mercurio replied. (115)

•    His expression suggested he was giving birth to a porcupine. (146)

•    If this film doesn't make your skin creep… it's on too tight. (175)

•    Pray to God it only kills you. (193)

•    Attention! There's a herd of killer rabbits heading this way. (214)

•    We feed on brains. Unfortunately, they don't last very long, so we've been reduced to seeking a new world. (227)

•    Even the ears of corn are deaf to the torments of the damned. (241)

•    I know I'm going to miss her. A tomato ate my sister. (246)

•    It shouldn't be too difficult to spot a sixty foot man. (253)

•    Heroine: I never spent the night with an invisible man before.
    Hero: With the lights out, you'll never know the difference. (267)

•    Gammera doesn't mean to step on people. He's just lonely. (301)


In the 20th century came tens of thousands of SF stories in novels, magazines, anthologies, and comics. They ranged from plausible extrapolations of current technology to ridiculous scenarios that ignored or contradicted known science.

Weird Tales (founded in 1923) had occult and supernatural themes besides some SF. Magazines dedicated to SF began with Amazing Stories founded in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967). Amazing Stories ended with bankruptcy but soon had imitators which progressively increased into hundreds and include:

•    Wonder Stories (1929);
•    Astounding Stories of Super-Science (1930) renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact;
•    New Worlds (1936), Britain's preeminent SF magazine;
•    Tales of Wonder (1937) A British SF magazine;
•    Fantastic Adventures (1939);
•    Science Fiction Quarterly (1940);
•    Astounding Science Fiction (1943);
•    The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1949);
•    Galaxy Science Fiction (1950);
•    Imagination (1950);
•    Space and Time Magazine (1966);
•    Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (1977);
•    Wonder Stories (1979);
•    Leading Edge (1981);
•    Aurealis (1990) Australia;
•    Strange Horizons (2000);
•    Science Fiction World (1979) China.

My favourite SF novels as a 13-year old, of about 100 in my home library, were:

•    Day of the Triffids (1951) by John Wyndham (1903-1965);
•    War with the Gizmos (1958) by Murray Leinster (1896-1965) who was one of the "fathers" of modern SF and wrote 1500 short stories;
•    Space Prison (1960) by Tom Godwin (1915-1980)

Triffids are giant, carnivorous, mobile (walking on three stumps) plants, cultivated for their oil, which escape their plantations after most of the human race is made blind by a passing comet. Gizmos are shape-shifting aliens made of gas whose food consists of vapours. Gizmos float around seeking animals and humans to envelop and kill by soffocation. In Space Prison a spaceship carrying human colonists is intercepted by Gerns, alien rulers of a galactic empire, who plonk the earthlings onto the inhospitable planet Ragnarok to die.

The greatest expansion in SF novels came after my time. Neil Barron (1995) mentions: "the great expansion in book publishing of science fiction and fantasy, from 348 books a year in 1972 to 1,288 a year in 1979…" Barron's book includes: "Concise summaries and evaluations of more than 3,000 SF titles…"


SF movies began in 1902 and included movie adaptations of the afore-listed 19th-century novels. SF movies are often distinguished from monster movies such as The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933) and Anaconda (1977), unless the monsters are extraterrestrial or created by scientists or industrial pollution in which case it's SF.

Many 1950s SF movies were "B Movies" — "films intended for distribution as the less-publicized bottom half of a double feature." (Wikipedia) They were usually low-budget, quickly-produced, and often combined silliness, lurid content, and reliable shock effects with horrible deaths and poor special effects. (The label "B Movie" continued less precisely after the 1950s.)

The following list is representative of SF movies:

•    A Trip to the Moon (1902)
•    Metropolis (1926)
•    Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
•    Frankenstein (1931)
•    Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
•    Things to Come (1936)
•    Dr. Cyclops (1940)
•    Mysterious Island (1951) A 15-chapter serial
•    The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
•    The Thing (1951)
•    The War of the Worlds (1953)
•    Them! (1954)
•    Tarantula (1955)
•    This Island Earth (1955)
•    Forbidden Planet (1956)
•    Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
•    The Amazing Colossal Man (1957);
•    Attack of the Giant Crabs (1957)
•    Invasion of the Saucer-Men (1957)
•    Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
•    The Blob (1958)
•    The Fly (1958)
•    The Lost Missile (1958)
•    Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)
•    On the Beach (1959)
•    Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959);
•    The Time Machine (1960)
•    The Day of the Triffids (1963)
•    Quatermass and the Pit: Five Million Years to Earth (1967)
•    Planet of the Apes (1968)
•    2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
•    Soylent Green (1973)
•    Rollerball (1975)
•    The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
•    Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
•    Star Wars (1977)
•    Superman (1978)
•    Alien    (1979)
•    Blade Runner (1972)
•    The Starman (1984)
•    Aliens (1986)
•    Predator (1987)
•    Robocop (1987)
•    Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
•    Jurassic Park (1993)
•    Species (1995)
•    Independence Day (1996)
•    Mars Attacks! (1996)
•    Contact (1997)
•    Gattaca (1997)
•    The Matrix (1999)
•    Eight Legged Freaks (2002)
•    I Robot (2004)
•    Moon (2009)

Dr. Cyclops (1940) was the only memorable SF movie of the 1940s. It features evil Dr. Thorkel in Peru who shrinks animals to doll-size with atomic rays in his secluded laboratory, and does likewise to a group of visitors. It's all fun and thrills as the miniturized guests escape confinement and the mad doctor tries to recapture them. Actresses in SF and horror movies used to be little more than sex objects and pretty faces — their main function was to scream and run (or faint). When Dr. Thorkel catches up with fleeing Dr. Mary Mitchell her skirt is well up her thighs as his foot presses down as if to squash her. 

Dr. Cyclops was still exciting decades after its release when I was 12 and stayed up very late, despite school next morning, to watch Dr. Thorkel die and the little people regain full size.


SF became a university course in Australia in 1991. The Weekend News reported:

Studies in science fiction

SYDNEY: Science fiction freaks now can study their obsession at university.

A new course, titled Close Encounters: Science Fact and Science Fiction, will begin at Sydney University next term.

Students will delve into the portrayal of the genre by discussing movies, television programs, film posters and comic strips.

Celebrated authors Mary Shelley, HG Wells and Jules Verne will be studied and the students will have access to 43,000 items in the Fisher Library's science fiction collection.

Brainchild of Dr Michael Shortland, the course is open to science students at the university.

(Friday, July 19, 1991, p. 5)

Dr. Shortland was also joint author of the book Close Encounters?: Science and Science Fiction (1990). The book examines the development and history of SF in books and movies including how SF portrays scientists.


Many SF novels and movies become dated when scientific progress exposes their themes and imagined technology as inconsistent with basic physics, biology or chemistry.

But science and new technologies also produce new ideas. Clones and human-resembling robots (androids), for example, were rare in old SF but are now common. Here's a short list:

•    Metropolis (1927)
•    Westworld (1973);
•    The Terminator (1984; 1991);
•    Star Trek: Generations (1994);
•    Bicentennial Man (1999);
•    The 6th Day (2000);
•    Artificial Intelligence (2001);
•    The Machine (2013);
•    Ex Machina (2015);
•    Uncanny (2015);
•    Morgan (2016);
•    Passengers (2016);
•    Renaissance (2016);
•    Replicas (2018).


Aldiss, B.W. with Wingrove, D. 1986 Trillion Year Spree The History of Science Fiction, Victor Gollancz Ltd

Ash, B. Is too much science fiction a bad thing? Psychology Today, April 1978, pp 20-24

Barron, N. (Editor) 1995 Anatomy of Wonder, R.R. Bowker

Gaiman, N. & Newman, K. Ghastly Beyond Belief, Arrow Books

Gibson, W. Is science fiction dying? New Scientist 15 November, 2008, 46-49

Grant, J. 2006 Sci-Fi Movies, Facts, Figures and Fun, UK

Lambourne, R.J., Shallis, M.J. and Shortland, M. 1990 Close Encounters? Science and Science Fiction, CRC Press


Very nice issue, lots to enjoy!

 I like your piece about sf a lot!  I am a keen reader/viewer myself.  Of course we all have our favourites: I myself love Ursula le Guin, Jack Vance, Isaac Asimov, etc and some individual books & stories such as Asimov’s much admired Nightfall, Lindsay’s Voyage To Arcturus (now 100 years old; an operatic version appeared), Olaf Stapledon’s Last & First Men (movie now available), etc; and on the fantasy front Tolkien & such.

As a linguist I am especially interested in stories involving language and I have published quite a lot on this front, including sections of my 2013 book.  You may recall the movie Arrival and the short story from which it originated, about alien contact; the main human protagonist is a linguist.  I reviewed the movie in the skeptical press (3,600 words) and would be happy if you were interested in re-publishing the review.

Mark Newbrook