Science fiction (SF) emerges as a distinct literary and cultural genre out of a familiar set of world-famous texts ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (1966–) to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008–) that have, in aggregate, generated a colossal, communal archive of alternate worlds and possible future histories. SF’s dialectical interplay between utopian optimism and apocalyptic pessimism can be felt across the genre’s now centuries-long history, only intensifying in the 20th century as the clash between humankind’s growing technological capabilities and its ability to use those powers safely or wisely has reached existential-threat propositions, not simply for human beings but for all life on the planet. In the early 21st century, as in earlier cultural moments, the writers and critics of SF use the genre’s articulation of different societies and different possible futures as the occasion to reflect on our own present, in ways that range from full-throated defense of the status quo to the ruthless denunciation of all institutions that currently exist in the name of some other, better world. SF’s global popularity has grown to the point where it now looms quite large over cultural production generally, becoming arguably the most popular narrative genre in existence, particularly in the sorts of SF action spectacles that have dominated the global box office of the first two decades of the 21st century. It has also become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the things we used to think of as SF and the advanced communication, transportation, and entertainment technologies that have become so ubiquitous and familiar that we now take them for granted, as well as the growing prevalence of political, economic, and ecological crises now erupting out of the pages of our science fictions, like our very worst dreams come to life.
The year 1922 has been known as the annus mirabilis (“miracle year”) of Anglo-American literary modernism, chiefly because of the near-simultaneous publication of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. The distinctive historical character of 1922 remains an ongoing concern: the year was at once a time of traumatic memory of World War I and a moment of renewed ambition for the radical experiments of modernism. During the war, Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf had enjoyed an unusual opportunity to revise and extend their aesthetic ambitions. Each of their works registers the more defiant provocation of postwar literature, but each confronts the powerful resistance of cultural and political authorities who saw the efforts, especially of Eliot and Joyce, as both meaningless and dangerous. The postwar period also saw the rapid expansion of new technologies (especially in transport and telecommunications) and a consumer society keen to enjoy the availability of freshly circulating material goods. D. H. Lawrence described the end of war as both a relief and a menace. This double valence captures the contrast between searing memories of battlefield death and anticipation of pleasure and plenitude in the Jazz Age. The central figures in this entry are at once newly confident in the adversarial mission of modernism and fully aware of the social complacency and cultural conservatism arrayed against them. The immediate felt disturbance of these works came through their formal challenge, in particular through the intersecting uses of many-voiced and multi-perspectival montage, an assemblage of fragmentary views, and a diversity of speaking tones. This conspicuous technique appears in closely related terms within the early films of Dziga Vertov and the postwar philosophy of logical atoms developed by Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the formal inventiveness exhibited during the year is no more prominent than the social concern. Especially as in 21st century, historical studies of the period have recovered the depth of interest in questions of race, empire, sexual debility, and social failure.