science fiction involving extraterrestrials, up to 1900

Prior to the nineteenth century, the concept of authentically alien creatures – beings unlike anything on Earth – never arose. Lucian, Ariosto, Kepler, Wilkins, Godwin, and others, all told of voyages through space and meetings with the inhabitants of other worlds, in stories that are precursors of modern science fiction, but none of their extraterrestrials were anything more than strangely-attired humans or animals obviously modeled on terrestrial forms. In the latter part of the ninteenth century, however, science fiction began to reflect the influence of three key scientific paradigms and breakthroughs: the notion of biological evolution (see evolutionary theory and extraterrestrial life), the nebular hypothesis (which, in the form it then took, suggested that the planets of the solar system might be at different stages of development), and the confirmation by spectroscopy that the same chemical elements occur throughout the Universe. To these underlying themes, must be added the specific and powerful effect that Percival Lowell's vision of Mars exerted on the public (and scientific) imagination.


The Frenchmen Camille Flammarion and J. H. Rosny were among the first to portray in fiction alien life that was radically different from any terrestrial variety. Yet both, in keeping with the views of their compatriots Lamarck and Bergson, offered a positive perspective in which humans and extraterrestrials were part of a broader, cosmic scheme of evolution. A darker possibility was suggested by H. G. Wells, who was deeply influenced by the Darwinian principle of the "survival of the fittest" as taught to him directly by Thomas Huxley. His War of the Worlds of 1897 makes a striking contrast with another great Martian story, Auf zwei Planeten (On Two Planets), published in the same year by Kurd Lasswitz. Both novels were (and still are) widely read, but they stand at opposite poles in imagining the consequences that might ensue from first contact between humankind and a superior alien intelligence. For the most part, the many science fiction tales written in the last two decades of the 19th century, by authors such as Greg, Griffith, and Pope, were lightweight extraterrestrial romances and fantasies written for the amusement of an urban middle-class enamored with the wonders of technology and travel.



1. Aldiss, Brian W., and Wingrove, David. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Victor Gollancz (1986).
2. Barron, Neil, ed. Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 4th ed. New York: Bowker (1995).
3. Clute, John, and Nicholls, Peter, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Press (1993).
4. Guthe, Karl S. The Last Frontier: Imagining Other Worlds from the Copernican Revolution to Modern Science Fiction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press (1990).