Science Fiction Studies


#10 = Volume 3, Part 3 = November 1976

Notes, Reports, and Correspondences

That Early Coinage of "Science Fiction." I read with interest the note by Brian Aldiss in SFS #9, p 213, "On the Age of the Term ‘Science Fiction.’" I don’t know when Aldiss made his "discovery," but now that you have published it, I think proper credit should go for first publication to John Eggeling, owner of Phantasmagoria Books, London, who quoted the sentence containing "Science-Fiction" in his listing of Wilson’s book in his July 1975 catalogue, Phantasmagoria Books, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Catalogue 12. I own a copy of the book, and am including a review of its Chapter 10 in a work in progress, as follows:

While it is known that in the 20th century Hugo Gernsback coined the term "science fiction," tried to trademark it, and most certainly popularized it, it was in 1851, while Jules Verne was struggling to find himself, that the earliest use of the term so far uncovered appeared. In that year a little book with the long title A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject, written by William Wilson, was published in London by Darton & Co. The author was a poet whose verse had appeared in a number of British magazines and would eventually be collected in a volume called Gathering Together in 1860. He had previously gained modest notoriety for the publication in Hood’s Magazine and in hardcover in 1848 of A House for Shakspeare, a Proposition for the Consideration of the Nation, followed in 1849 by A House for Shakspeare, the Second and Concluding Paper Containing a Review of the Reception of the First.

In A Little Earnest Book he has a series of well-written essays on the role of the poet and his work, the contribution of the poet to civilization, and the relationship of poetry to philosophy, religion, and most particularly science. The title of Chapter 10 of the book is "Science-Fiction—R.M. Horne’s Poor Artist—Notice of the Same (A Foot Note)—The Modern Discoveries and Application of Science—The Electric Telegraph—Phrenology." He leads off the chapter by saying: "Fiction has lately been chosen as a means of familiarizing science in one single case only, but with great success. It is by the celebrated dramatic Poet, R.H. Horne, and is entitled ‘The Poor Artist; or, Seven Eye-sights and One Object.’ We hope it will not be long before we have other works of Science-Fiction, as we believe such books likely to fulfill a good purpose, and create an interest, where, unhappily, science alone might fail."

Here he gives a definition of "science fiction" that might apply today: "Campbell says, that ‘Fiction in poetry is not the reverse of truth, but her soft and enchanting resemblance.’ Now this applies especially to Science Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true—thus circulating a knowledge of the Poetry of Science clothed in a garb of the Poetry of Life."

He then, in a long footnote, reviews The Poor Artist by Richard Henry Home (1882-1884). In that story six creatures—a bee, ant, spider, robin, and cat—have seen a strange object and describe it to the artist. Each description is so radically different from the others as to be almost unrecognizable. When the artist investigates, he discovers that they have all been giving their interpretation of a "shining golden sovereign, covered with bright dew drops." The moral is that each creature sees things in its own way; a sort of poetic anticipation of the study of semantics. The story is obviously a fable and not what we would today consider science fiction, except that the author has blended a "charming and naive mixture of poetic imagination and scientific fact," the science obtained mostly from the books of the biologist Professor Richard Owen, to whom the volume is dedicated.

This early use of the word "science-fiction" (hyphenated) would not only have been a landmark but useful to Verne in later years had The Poor Artist been uncontestably such a work and had not Wilson further singularized it by calling it "the only book of its kind." However, that he was groping towards something like science fiction must be admitted when later in the chapter he states: "The Modern discoveries and applications of Science, throw deeply into the shade the old romances and fanciful legends of our boyhood. The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments—The Child’s Fairy Tales—Oberon and Titania—The Child’s Own Book—are all robbed of their old wonder by the many marvels of modem science. The Magnetic Needle—which has grown into the almost Omnipresent Electric Telegraph—has more magic about its reality, than the wildest creations of child-fiction and legend have in their ideality."

Before Jules Verne, the world would call what we today term "science fiction" what it would, whenever such stories appeared, since there were no specialists of merit consistently writing them. As Jules Verne moved into the approaches that would bring him unprecedented success, a name would have to be decided upon for these special stories, and despite William Wilson and A Little Earnest Book Upon a Great Old Subject, that initial term would not be "science fiction." —Sam Moskowitz.

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