Science fiction is that branch of fantasy, which, while not true to present-day knowledge, is rendered plausible by the reader's recognition of the scientific possibilities of it being possible at some future date or at some uncertain point in the past.”–Donald A. Wolleheim.

Like the Gothic tale, what we would today call the science fiction tale pre-dated Poe. Appearing in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus shocked and fascinated the reading public; it has never been out of print. Nor was the science fiction genre that for which Poe is best remembered. Nevertheless, with The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, Poe established his claim to be, with Shelley, the inspiration for generations of later writers.

After Poe came Jules Verne with his fantasies, including a sequel to Pym. Like his fellow countryman Charles Beaudelaire, Verne was a devoted admirer of Poe, and did much to popularlize Poe in France. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was as much horror as science fiction. H. G. Wells had enormous success with The War of the Worlds. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote science fiction about Mars before his tales of Tarzan of the Jungle. Tarzan survives; his Martian fantasies remain less well-known.

With the advent of the Twentieth Century and its advances in science, science fiction became more popular than ever. Using the definition above, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 can be classified both as dystopian fantasies and as science fiction. After World War II, as the Promethean horrors of the atomic and hydrogen bombs became widely known, and thus the knowledge of what science could do for good or ill, the public’s appetite for science fiction grew. From Curt Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and other tales, to Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes and Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the post-war Twentieth Century was eager for these stories of “What if--?” Much of what science fiction writers fantasized has come to be: space travel, (the fear of) nuclear destruction, organ transplant, totalitarianism, mind-altering drugs (although various native cultures have known about those for millennia).

In the late 1930’s, the new medium of radio had one of its most famous nights when Orson Welles made a broadcast of The War of the Worlds as if it were a real-time event. Panic ensued. Welles was unrepentant. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, on the new medium of television, Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” and the children’s program, “Lost in Space,” found enormous audiences, followed by “Star Trek” and–in film–Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Science Fiction in film and television is beyond the scope of this essay; you fans know where to find it!

As has been said elsewhere, E.A. Poe of Baltimore and Richmond would be amazed and (possibly) delighted at what followed his early ventures into the (unnamed) science fiction genre. The Web site of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America will provide ample material for enthusiasts to explore: