Although some have argued the case that science fiction began with stray stories about nutty inventions from ancient Greece to the time of Louis Quatorze, the truth is that real SF really got off the ground beginning with Jules Verne, who took decidedly fact-based premises upon which to build his novels of inner space, round-the-world travel, and subsea exploration. But despite the popularity of Verne’s stories, they served primarily as the buildup to the arrival of H.G. Wells, an author who was more reader friendly and who had the advantage of writing in the same language as that spoken by the huge American market.
Wells’ first foray into science fiction was with The Time Machine (1895) that was soon followed by The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes, and First Men in the Moon among others. With each novel, he staked out new territory in the landscape of science fiction, inventing sub-categories within the genre that generations of SF writers would spend decades exploring.
But Wells wasn’t the only person writing SF at the turn of the century; so were the likes of Robert Hugh Benson, M.P. Shiel, Edwin Lester Arnold, and E. M. Forster. These authors, following the earlier impetus supplied by Jules Verne, placed science fiction firmly in the mainstream of reader interest (although to be sure, the genre wasn’t recognized as “science fiction,” in fact, it wasn’t differentiated much at all from the regular run of novels).
But then something happened on the way to public acceptance. Even as various authors continued to treat the genre seriously, the rise of the pulp magazines in the United States offered the opportunity for anyone with an active imagination and a hankering to write to enter the field. Although such magazines as Argosy and All-Story offered a venue for the occasional SF story, it wasn’t until 1926 when publisher Hugo Gernsback gave imagineers their first all science fiction outlet with Amazing Stories. By then, the field of literary SF had divided into high- and low-brow fare with authors such as Wells and later Olaf Stapledon working the more prestigious book markets and upstarts like E.E. Doc Smith, Jack Williamson, and Edmond Hamilton cranking out spacefaring fodder for a penny a word.
However, after such critically acclaimed writers as Wells and Stapledon ended their association with the genre, science fiction was left to the pulps, leading to an infantilization of the field. With the lurid covers of scantily clad females and threatening BEMs, the SF pulps did little to improve their reputation as nothing more than entertainment for young boys. But those boys would eventually grow into men even as their favorite authors improved their skills as well as their perspicacity. Thus when the day of the pulps ended and the day of the paperback dawned, science fiction writers would be poised to make the transition into a format more acceptable to mainstream adult readers.
But that would happen in the 1960s. In the second decade of the century, modern science fiction was still in its infancy, and still divided between book and magazine publishers who were just beginning to realize the saleability of science-based tales of the fantastic. And because of that, every entry in this period, it seemed, broke new ground or further popularized the genre in a way that made it more accessible to the average reader. Entries such as those collected here, in a list of the ten most influential science fiction stories of the 1910s.
Well ahead of the modern science fiction movement, Murray Leinster was in at the beginning launching his SF career in 1919 with a short story called “The Runaway Skyscraper” about a Manhattan building caught in an earth tremor that somehow drives it back in time by thousands of years. Before the hero finds a way to reverse the process, the building’s office workers must cooperate in a struggle with day-to-day survival thus finding themselves in a truly fantastic and exciting SF tale first published in Argosy magazine.
A “lost” tale by the American answer to H.G. Wells, Beyond Thirty was first published in 1915 and promptly became one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ least known tales as it failed to be reprinted until forty years later — a fate it didn’t deserve. Reflecting desires at the time by Americans to close themselves off from the rest of the world’s problems, the story takes place hundreds of years in the future, long after the United States had ceased hearing from Europe. A blockade has been set up at the 30th meridian and patrolled by naval craft until one day, one of those ships goes adrift and Lt. Jefferson Turck is forced to seek safety in England, which lies “beyond 30” and where civilization is only a memory. A tale that prefigures later SF sub-categories of alternate futures, lost continents and cultures, and forbidden zones, Beyond Thirty is an almost forgotten classic!
Garrett P. Serviss was an astronomer and early SF pioneer who managed to explore a number of firsts in a few novels that were more fanciful than scientific. Among the subjects broached by Serviss were space flight powered by nuclear energy, early space opera, anti-gravity, and lost races. His career topper was The Second Deluge, serialized in 1911 by the Cavalier. In that story, Serviss prefigured the SF sub-category of the disaster novel in which the Earth is somehow threatened with destruction, be it colliding worlds, an exploding sun, or nuclear triggered earthquakes. This time, it’s being swamped under miles of water by way of the Earth moving through a liquified space nebula! Serviss also sets the example of a modern day Noah who manages to ride out the emergency in an ark of sorts. For the introduction of its post-apocalyptic theme (if not its sheer audacity), Serviss’ novel deserves inclusion on any list of the top SF stories of the 1910s.
Not to be outdone in the SF department by contemporary H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle chose to abandon for a while sleuthing with Sherlock Holmes to pen one of the all time classic science fiction novels: The Lost World. Serialized in 1912, Doyle takes his hero, Prof. George Challenger, to a mysterious plateau in South America upon which, cut off from the evolutionary forces that have reigned over the surrounding country, a prehistoric land has been preserved complete with giant dinosaurs roaming the jungle. A breakthrough novel dealing with the survival of animal species into the present, The Lost World represents a new kind of SF story that would soon expand to include lost races and civilizations as well.
One of H.G. Wells’ last entries in the realm of science fiction is The World Set Free published in 1914, a novel that confirmed the author’s leadership in the field of SF into the pulp era. Prefiguring his later work and a film based on the book (The Shape of Things to Come), The World Set Free posits a future war fought with nuclear weapons that leaves the world devastated and the remnants of humanity rejecting past nationalisms in favor of a new global order. It was a theme to be explored countless times in decades to come as science fiction writers continued to struggle with the human condition and exploring different methods of social organization.
Part of a trilogy that continued with The Vacant World (1913) and Beyond the Great Oblivion (1914), Darkness and Dawn is an ambitious attempt at future history by early SF writer and governor of Maine George Allan England. Published in 1912, the story follows Beatrice Kendrick and her boss, Allen Stern, who awakes in the distant future after the world has been destroyed by a meteor. Together, they overcome numerous difficulties and work to rebuild civilization. The series set the template for countless post-apocalyptic stories to follow.
Establishing another SF theme that would be endlessly mined in the decades to follow, The Girl in the Golden Atom posits the idea that atoms are actually tiny worlds in a whole new universe of inner space. In this classic novelette that appeared in 1919, author Ray Cummings tells the story of “the Chemist,” inventor of a shrinking formula who uses it to reach an atomic world within his mother’s wedding ring. There, he falls in love with the girl of the title, helps her people in a war with a rival city state, and finally decides to remain permanently on the microscopic world. Although Wells would stake out about 90 percent of all the original ideas that SF lit would explore in coming years, Cummings here can actually lay claim to a real trendsetting idea of his own!
Along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Cummings, and a handful of others, one of the major writers to emerge in the transitory period between books and magazine science fiction had to be A. Merritt. A journalist by trade, Merritt sidelined in fiction, breaking in in 1917 and quickly producing his all time classic The Moon Pool, published in 1918. In a story that would go on to influence any number of rising SF writers in decades to come, Merritt combines the lost race theme, the hollow earth, and the desire of an unearthly woman for the hero in a tale written in florid, descriptive prose with a veneer of metaphor that hints at something much bigger than a simple adventure story. Merritt would follow up The Moon Pool with a number of other fantastic novels (reprinted often in annuals and specials) that would establish him as a major influence on early pulp era SF.
Although more science fantasy than science fiction, the influence of A Princess of Mars (and its direct sequels Gods of Mars  and Warlord of Mars ) is almost incalculable; from flat out imitators such as the contemporaneous work by Otis Adelbert Kline to any number of space opera epics that would dominate the early years of SF pulp lit to movies from Flash Gordon to Star Wars. It all began when someone named “Normal Bean” (aka Edgar Rice Burroughs) had the idea to write an epic of two worlds in which his Earthman hero, John Carter, would mysteriously find himself on Mars. Immediately, he becomes the captive of towering, four armed, green skinned Martians and falls in love with the haughty Dejah Thoris, princess of the more human-like red Martians and, incidentally, the most beautiful woman of two worlds!
First serialized as “Under the Moons of Mars” in 1912, the tale was an immediate hit and has never been out of print since. It also launched Burroughs on an amazing literary career that included the invention of a number of other imaginary worlds including Venus and Pellucidar, and a string of immortal heroes led by Tarzan of the Apes. It all made him one of the most read authors in publishing history and one of the most influential, inspiring a small army of would-be writers who came to believe that they too could create whole new worlds from their own imaginations.
One of the most important stories ever written in the field of science fiction, Ralph 124C41+ was written by Hugo Gernsback for serialization in his own magazine beginning in 1911. Although written in an extremely didactic manner, the aim of the story wasn’t necessarily intended to entertain readers seeking action and adventure but rather to guide those interested in technology through a future world filled with inventive possibility. The story’s style was meant by Gernsback to inspire contributors to his magazine to write stories that would spotlight technology — but instead, he inadvertently invented what would eventually become modern science fiction or, as he would later term it, “scientifiction.” (Modern sci fi is more often divided between “hard” and “soft” fiction as opposed to science fantasy or space opera that became popular in Gernsback’s time).
The interest generated by the new type of story introduced with Ralph 124C41+ prompted Gernsback to publish the groundbreaking Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted entirely to science fiction stories. That in turn would become the forerunner of an avalanche of pulp magazines that over the decades would provide the seedbed for more serious-minded modern science fiction and eventually the mainstreaming of the entire genre.