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July 2022

The evolution of science fiction

You've probably never heard of the 2nd century satarist Lucian, but you've certainly heard of what he created:  the literary genre of science fiction.  His work, "A True Story," contained a lot of the elements of science fiction found today:  travel to other worlds, extraterrestrial lifeforms, interplanetary warfare, and artificial life. By the 1600s, well-known figures including Francis Bacon and Johannes Kepler were writing sci-fi.  But it took a woman to make science fiction into a true literary form.
Some scholars regard Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (1818) as defining work for science fiction. She made her protagonist a practicing "scientist" -- though the term scientist was not actually coined until 1834, and gave him an interest in galvanic electricity and vivisection, two of the more advanced technologies of the day.  Edgar Allan Poe dabbled in science fiction as well, but in short story form. It wasn't long after Shelley and Poe came along that science fiction really blossomed thanks in large part to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
Verne's first novel, "XXieme siecle (Paris in the Twentieth Century)" was written in 1863 and was set in the distant 1960s.  It contained what turned out to be accurate prognostications:  elevated trains, automobiles, facsimilie machines and computer-like banking machines.  Most of his later works, including "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth" achieved remarkable international success.
H.G. Wells succeeded Verne as the pre-eminent science fiction writer of his time.  His notable works include "The Time Machine" (1895), "The Island of Doctor Moreau" (1896), "The Invisible Man" (1897) and "The War of the Worlds" (1898.  His science fiction imagined alien invasion, biological engineering, invisibility and time travel.  Wells also predicted the advent of airplanes, military tanks, nuclear weapons, satellite television, and something resembling the Internet.  
What scholars consider the "golden age of science fiction" coincided with the advent of pulp magazines in the US in the 1920s.  Many of the authors we still read today got their start with the pulps.  By the '60s and '70s, New Wave science fiction was known for its high degree of experimentation.  "Dune" (1965) by Frank Herbert features a much more complex and detailed imagined future than previous science fiction.  Ann McCaffrey, author of the "Dragonriders of Pern" series, became the first woman to win a Hugo or Nebula Award.  And Ursula Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness" was set on a planet where inhabitants have no fixed gender.  Emerging themes today include environmental issues, the implications of the Internet, questions about biotechnology, nanotechnology and post-scarcity societies.  Word has it that someone is even working a novel about a world in which luggage is not lost on airlines, although that seems a little far-fetched for even the most imaginative mind.

This Month's Puzzler
On July 8, 1926, this woman was born (one of a set of triplets) in Zurich,
Switzerland. After getting an M.D. from the University of Zurich in 1957,
she did a psychiatric residency in the United States, where she was
appalled by the way American doctors and nurses treated patients with
terminal illnesses. Over the next several years, she began to influence
the way medicine was taught by exposing medical students to dying
patients. She burst on the cultural scene in 1969 with "On Death and
Dying," a book about working with terminally ill patients. In addition to
introducing her now-famous theory about the five stages of grief, the book
also paved the way for the hospice movement in America. She once said:

"It's only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth--and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up--that we will begin to live each day to the fullest."

Who is this woman?   (Answer below)
Couldn't have said it better

From a letter in The New York Times.

To the Editor:

The headline on your June 9 article about browsing in bookstores read, "Can Any App Capture This Experience?"  The answer is obvious -- of course not.

Book browsing is a physical experience, involving visual, tactile and sometimes even olfactory sensations.  In a physical bookshop, people are moved to pull a book off a shelf and take a closer look for many reasons, some obvious, some subtle and some downright mysterious.

Every book browser has experienced those magical instances in which they have found books they weren't looking for or even knew existed, but which to some degree affected their life. 

The possibility of making another such serendipitous discovery is why people love to browse in bookstores.  It can't be engineered or made subject to an algorithm.

M.C. Lang, Chevy Chase, MD

Puzzler answer

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  If you like our Puzzler, find more on our Facebook page.  
Thanks to Dr. Mardy Grothe for the use of his puzzler.  Visit him at

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