How Mary Shelley invented science fiction long before HG Wells or Jules Verne

Women have been writing science fiction since the early days of genre novels. Unfortunately, their contributions to the genre can often be dismissed or erased entirely by fans and academics. Recently, there has been a discourse around who “invented” the genre of science fiction. Some attribute the first science fiction stories to writers like Jules Verne or HG Wells. However, it does the mother of sci-fi – Mary Shelley a disservice.

I thought most genre fans were aware that Shelley is considered the “inventor” of the sci-fi genre. However, a recent New York Times article claims that it was male writers who invented the genre – decades later. This is a surprising claim for the newspaper, which apparently has not done its research. So let’s take a look at the history of the genre to establish how Mary Shelley laid the groundwork for science fiction with her best-known work – Frankenstein.

Genre conventions have always existed in fiction

Image of The Iliad | AJ Church, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, we have to recognize that there are some fantastic elements that have made their way into storytelling since the dawn of time. Obviously, The Iliad and The odyssey tell the stories of mythological characters and heroes. Much of this tradition made its way into genre fiction, marking Greek mythology as the precursor to much of the fantasy genre. Others throughout history have incorporated magic into their work, including Shakespeare. Gulliver’s travels by Jonathan Swift – published in 1726 – is often considered a genre novel, comprising descriptions of “alien cultures” and “strange sciences”.

Although Mary Shelley bears the title of “Mother of Science Fiction,” she was actually not the first woman to write in the genre. In the 1600s, Margaret Cavendish published The flamboyant world. This story was a bit of a hybrid – an adventure, a romance, and a satirical utopian fantasy. Elements of this story can give rise to the emergence of the science fiction genre. However, most of them sound like a fantastic story. While the lines drawn between sci-fi and fantasy as separate genres are a relatively new divide, it’s true that Shelley’s work fits better into the sci-fi genre.

The legendary roots of Frankenstein

Marie shelley Marie Shelley | Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Shelley posted Frankenstein in 1818, and the legend around the origins of the story is famous. In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley traveled to Lake Geneva with her husband Percy Shelley and several friends, including the poet Lord Byron. Bad weather during the trip forced the group to lock themselves inside, forced to entertain themselves. It was during those long, wet days that Byron challenged everyone to write ghost stories.

Mary Shelley then had a “daydream” which inspired the story of Frankenstein. Although Mary Shelley continued to write other novels, it was Frankenstein that made her famous. The idea of ​​a man built from spare parts brought to life through a dangerous experiment of a “mad scientist” definitely laid the groundwork for future science fiction.

Despite the success of Frankenstein, the novel by Shelley The last man is often considered the first true science fiction novel. This dystopian story centers on a deadly pandemic that is rapidly spreading across the world and leading mankind to near extinction.

Jules Verne and HG Wells continued to build the world established by Mary Shelley

Jules Verne Jules Verne | Photo by Félix Nadar, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the prolific work he compiled during his lifetime, Jules Verne is still best known for his novels which make up the Travel Extraordinary. Among these stories are the famous Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty thousand leagues under sea. Verne began publishing her novels in the 1860s, decades after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

HG Wells was a contemporary of Jules Verne, and it is true that Wells is often referred to as “the father of science fiction” often associated with Mary Shelley. Wells was an extremely prolific writer, with works published between 1895 and 1941. He cemented the genre of science fiction as a popular medium. Many of his novels like Doctor Moreau’s island and War of the Worlds are iconic science fiction stories deeply rooted in modern popular culture.

HG Wells | Public domain photo by George Charles Beresford via Commons Wikimedia

Jules Verne and HG Wells are both very influential figures in the science fiction canon. Their work established the basis for much of contemporary genre fiction today. However, none of these men would have been so successful without Frankenstein and the work of Mary Shelley at the turn of the century. It was she who laid the foundations on which these men could later build.

Let’s not forget that the Sci-Fi Cannon is irrelevant anyway

Books Photo by Eugenio Mazzone via Unsplash

I once wrote an article on why the classic genre canon should be abolished. The problem with the canon is that it considers certain figures and texts to be revered or “sacred”. For years, men like Jules Verne and HG Wells have been idolized as part of the science fiction canon. Mary Shelley is too, although to a lesser extent, as people tend to remember only Frankenstein.

There is a problem with considering these authors as paragons. Sacred idols generally don’t perform well in science fiction stories. To hold classical writers as the ideal that others should meet is contrary to the very nature of science fiction itself. Strict adherence to the canon and “rules” of science fiction developed by these classic writers is restrictive and unnecessary. Let’s not forget that generations of genre fans (mostly men) have used the classic cannon as a weapon against other readers. Or as a door to keep closed to genre fans who aren’t white men.

The argument about who “invented” science fiction is tired. However, due to the erasure of women from so many literary circles, it is always important to remember that Mary Shelley paved the way for many male authors. Ultimately, science fiction is not about looking to the past, but about imagining the future. So, the onus is on today’s sci-fi writers to go ahead and break the rules of the canon. Remember, Mary Shelley did it first. And she would certainly approve of more women breaking the rules set by men.

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Emily O’Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her teeth in The Wizard of Oz books at the age of 6 and was reading epic fantasy adult novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction as if there is no tomorrow. She’s excited to be living the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She’s not ashamed of the amount of fanfiction that lingers online under her name.

AuthorsBooksCannonFrankensteinHG WellJules VerneMarie shelleyScience fictionThe last man


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