Why Were The Two Most Famous Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century Not Written By Science Fiction Authors?

The two most famous science fiction novels of last century were Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.  Now I didn’t write that to generate a flame war among science fiction fans, or as a slight to genre writers, but because I believe it’s true, especially if you ask people who don’t normally read science fiction.  I’m actually wondering why the two biggest successes using science fiction as a writing technique weren’t penned by writers who specialized in writing science fiction?  Huxley and Orwell were straight ahead literary guys – total amateurs at speculative fiction.  They probably never heard of Hugo Gernsback or John W. Campbell.

And, the two most famous science fiction novels of the 19th century, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, were not written by a genre writer either.  H. G. Wells existed before the science fiction genre was established.  Nor were his books written for the genre reader of his day, which did have a lot of science fiction, even though it lacked the label.  In the 21st century, when science fiction is a well established, and a well loved genre, it bizarrely seems that the people who aren’t science fiction writers have the biggest successes with the technique.  Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood are two good recent examples.

What are these non-SF writers doing that SF genre writers aren’t?  I just got through rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four and I thought about this the whole time I was thoroughly enjoying the book.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is so different from the genre science fiction books I normally read that I’m tempted to say it’s not science fiction.  Many literary writers and English profs claim just that, but they would be wrong.  Insanely wrong.  George Orwell might not have written for Campbell’s Astounding, and probably never even read the famous pulp, but Nineteen Eighty-Four would have fit comfortably in that magazine as a serial.  No Astounding reader would have made one objection as to it not being science fiction.  And I’m quite sure readers would have voted it the best story of the issue, even if Heinlein had had a story in that issue too. 

Not long ago I reread Beyond This Horizon by Heinlein and I felt pretty sure that Heinlein wrote it hoping it would be another Brave New World.  Heinlein was savvy enough to know that Huxley’s book sold far more than pulp fiction, and at the time, very little science fiction was even being published in hardback, or that new format, the paperback.  Here’s an early paperback cover for Nineteen Eighty-Four – looks just like a science fiction novel, doesn’t it?


While reading Nineteen Eighty-Four this time I was blown-away by Orwell’s world building genius.  World building is an essential feature of SF/F, which books like Dune and The Lord of the Ring illustrate.  J. K. Rowling is a billionaire for her world building, and deservedly so.  Does that mean Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world is just better painted than all the other genre stories working with the same idea?  Does The Handmaid’s Tale just out dystopian run of the mill SF writers?  Maybe so, but why?

It’s pretty obvious that more people on Earth can understand what the implications of Big Brother are over philosophical implications of Arrakis.  Too many hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century encountered a totalitarian state first hand, or fought against them in wars, or spent years hearing about them in the news, not to understand the brilliant portrayal of Big Brother and the savage criticism of them with the creation of Newspeak.

The reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World are so well known in the 20th century is they describe so clearly the quintessential fears of the 20th century.  All stories set in the future are about the present, and I guess the better they are about exploring the present, the more copies they will sell, and the better chance they will be part of the curricula in high schools and colleges.

The entire time I spent reading Nineteen Eighty-Four off my Kindle I was amazed by how relevant this book written in 1948 was to 2013.  To write that Orwell was brilliant is an undeserving understatement.  We live in a society that worships freedom, yet we live with constant NSA surveillance, continuous war, Homeland Security, and the sun never sets on our drone airspace.  Our paranoia knows knows no bounds.  In terms of political psychology and insight into the human heart, Orwell runs away with the prize for applying science fiction techniques for writing about the future to say so much about now.  Nor has any science fiction writer ever attempted to explore the linguistic territory of Newspeak, which is the real science that makes Nineteen Eighty-Four great science fiction.


I haven’t reread Brave New World recently, but I plan to.  Brave New World was written in 1931 and I just finished a book,  One Summer: American 1927 by Bill Bryson that is the perfect companion to the Huxley book, because it explained the world Huxley was living in when he wrote his classic.  It’s a time when many U.S. governors and mayors belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, where many prominent Americans publically espoused beliefs in eugenics and extreme racism, where many states had passed eugenic laws, and racism was the law of the land.  The twenties was the decade that mass production and mass communication really got massive.  It was a decade where America began the Americanization of the world.  That scared Huxley.  Huxley was afraid of America in 1930, and Orwell was afraid of Russia in 1948.

Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are true dystopian novels – they are anti utopian, written in response to intellectuals promoting utopian solutions to world problems.  Huxley and Orwell understood the world in which they lived, and wrote books that showed off that knowledge in deeply insightful ways.  They both used science fiction as a literary device to philosophize about ideas if written as nonfiction would have been entertaining to few, and boring to many, but because of those techniques, wowed millions.  Readers still study and reference their work.  And those novels would not have had the impact they did without the science fiction. 

Huxley and Orwell, and other literary writers, use science fiction to bring political, ethical and scientific ideas to the masses.  Why don’t more genre writers attempt this?  Heinlein tried, especially with Stranger in a Strange Land, his most ambitious novel.  So, why did he fail?  I think for two reasons.  First, it included ESP, or PSI powers, that aren’t scientific or believable, and second, it promoted his personal ideas about freedom, especially sexual freedom, nudity, and group sex, which few people beside the hippies of the 1960s shared.

Ray Bradbury hit one out of the park with Fahrenheit 451, but it’s never achieved the popular acclaim that Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four has.  Maybe because it wasn’t nearly as ambitious as those two.  And dare I say it, maybe the target, those people who would give up reading for mindless television, were insulted rather than inspired to canonize literacy?

John Brunner also tried several novels of this type, using science fiction to make political statements, especially Stand on Zanzibar.  Zanzibar was an experimental tour de force that was hard to comprehend or read by the general reader, but dazzled the exceptional reader.  It should have been a contender.  It should be better remembered.  Both Fahrenheit 451  and Stand on Zanzibar are shining examples of what pulp writers can do when they aim high.

I think the genre writer that comes closest in writing ambitious science fiction for the non science fiction reading masses was Orson Scott Card and his book Ender’s Game.  It was obvious targeted at genre readers, but it was widely read outside of the genre.  It was never as sophisticated as Huxley and Orwell’s books, and didn’t deal with broad contemporary issues, but it dealt with xenocide in a way that made it relevant to the average reader who could translate it into commentary on genocide, or commentary on science fiction.  Unfortunately, the recent movie version of the story targets Ender’s Game at the lowest common denominator video game player, whose kill anything that moves instinct means they have deaf ears for the ethical insights.

The 2014 Earth is just as fucked up as the 1948 Earth, even more so, so why aren’t we reading novels that targets our political, social and ethical failures like modern science fictional smart bombs that are literary descendants of Huxley and Orwell?  Is it because serious thinkers no longer believe that science fiction is the proper tool?  Has decades of fun science fiction dulled the edge of sharp science fiction?  Or maybe we don’t have political and social thinkers like Orwell or Huxley anymore, because those writers work for the New York Times or Fox News.  Let’s hope it’s not that times aren’t bad enough yet to be muses for such writers.

JWH – 12/31/13

19 thoughts on “Why Were The Two Most Famous Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century Not Written By Science Fiction Authors?”

  1. It makes sense to me. I would expect great writers of diverse forms of literature to be able to produce great works no matter what genre the works fit in. Part of the fame of the two novels you’ve spotlighted is because those works comment upon so many aspects of the worlds they imagined. A certain portion of their popularity is probably because they are assigned reading in English classes sometime during Middle or High school. In my case we read and wrote papers on both in sixth or seventh grade.

    It’s also interesting that you mention Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”, since that’s his only science fiction novel, if you define science fiction as the art of the possible. Most of what Ray wrote was fantasy, with a few works in horror and detective fiction.

    You really made me want to read “Stand on Zanzibar”, which I hadn’t heard of. Thanks for that. I would add Frank Herbert’s “Dune” to the list of famous, well-imagined worlds you’ve referenced.

  2. I can’t say how much – as the numbers are not available – but I suspect that marketing budgets are a not small contributor to the disparity you highlight.

    Stranger In A Strange Land was a best seller and achieved the kind of broad cultural penetration you mention for 1884 &c for about a decade or so….F451 I think still enjoys the same kind of high profile – at least on the academic side – as ’84 and Brave New do.

    Another work that fits this bill is Slaughter House Five by Vonnegut – and he probably straddles the SF author/not an SF author divide.

    I do wonder what would be the fate of certain works if they had been mainstreamed. The Space Merchants comes to mind as a good candidate for that thought experiment as it deals with issues that remains with us. Both 1984 and BNW treat with big issues that are constantly with us (that I think contributes to their continued relevance), as does Space Merchants. Stand On Zanzibar warns of issues that sadly have mostly come true already.

    But I do take issue with your title to the piece: this may sound a bit flip but – doesn’t having written a science fiction novel make them authors of science fiction?

    1. Steve, I suspect if Huxley and Orwell had known about the label “science fiction author” they would have avoided it much like Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood and other literary writers do today. There’s nothing wrong with being a science fiction writer, but if you write books and don’t want them shelved in the SF&F section at the bookstore, then you want to avoid the label. We don’t think of P. D. James as a science fiction author because she mainly wrote mysteries. I think to a degree Kurt Vonnegut ran away from the label science fiction writer. And yes, Slaughterhouse Five would be another example of a famous 20th century SF novel.

      I have always been fascinated with the lack of success of written science fiction in the world of literature at large. I’ve always been a mass consumer of SF books, and love the genre, and wondered why more people don’t read science fiction. Movie and TV science fiction does have tremendous mass appeal, but not written science fiction. Why?

      And I think written science fiction is often far more dazzling than movie science fiction. For the most part movie science fiction is dumb science fiction, and moviegoers can’t seem to get enough of it. So why does’t written science fiction dominate the book best seller lists like SF movies dominate box office sales lists? If we listed the top 100 blockbusters in the movie world, the list would contain many SF movies. But if we list the top 100 books of the publishing world, it wouldn’t. Why?

      1. James,

        yes, but I was actually suggesting the other point of view: what if Bradbury had never been shuffled off to genre land by the publishers, but had, instead, been treated like Huxley or Orwell?

        The other question to ask (among many) is: why are ‘we’ so eager to incorporate works by non-genre authors? Is it ‘just’ their fame and notoriety?

        I personally contend that at least one element of defining a work’s genre is the intention of the author. It’s not the only criteria by far, but too often (when discussing this divide) we fail to look at what the author was trying to accomplish.

        And the other thing we frequently do is (for some reason) automatically deliver a default judgement in favor of the “literary” side and then try to shoehorn the rest of genre in around it: why, for example, when discussing Handmaid’s Tale, do we compare other post apocalyptic genre works TO Handmaid’s as the yardstick? It’s not the yardstick nor the exemplar of the trope – all of the post apocalyptic resurgence of religious authority tales that came before are the yardstick. Let’s measure Handmaid’s against that – it’s the new comer, the upstart, by an author who is admittedly hostile to genre.

        What do we measure end of the earth/end of civilization tales against The Road? IT should be measured against the genre’s offerings that we are trying to squeeze it into (and a poor fit it makes).

        Why? I believe because of forms of measure that have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with those story’s value as story; Sales? When have dollar amounts ever had anything to do with quality/fitness/proper form? Promotion? That’s just another aspect of money. Distribution? Same.

        I can’t, in fact, think of any way of measuring one against the other without coming down to those works that were arbitrarily chosen for mainstream literary treatment, promotion, hype and the budgets that went along having an unfair advantage, the absence of which would probably render those books as unknown literary experiments.

        1. That’s a good question Steve. Bradbury is an old case too. He has books in the SF&F section, the Mystery section, and sometimes in the Fiction section. I remember back in the 1960s when many SF readers considered Bradbury an outsider anyway – that is to the genre, because of his general success (like being published in Playboy), and because his stories didn’t really feel like regular science fiction. His Martian stories feel more like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg Ohio stories – just set on Mars.

          I think the genre wants to lay claim to non-genre science fiction as a form of validation. Science fiction really is a kind of literary ghetto and we resent that. I agree that it’s the author’s intention that really defines how a book should be categorized – at least in the publishing world. And by that definition I used to say Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four were not science fiction. But when I just reread Nineteen Eighty-Four it was all too obvious it was science fiction, and more than that, it was brilliantly done science fiction. Now Orwell might have independently reinvented science fiction writing techniques on his own, or he might have studied them beforehand, but either way, he took up the game by the rules and won handily.

          Is science fiction because we point to something and call it science fiction, like porn, or does it have truly definable attributes that make it science fiction? I believe the second.

          If we measure The Road against other end of civilization tales such as Earth Abides, On the Beach, Alas, Babylon, few genre tales match up. The Postman and A Canticle for Leibowitz do come to mind. It’s when we make a list of all of them and ask: Did the genre writers do a better job than the literary writers – that we start to see how they are different.

          Sales is an important measuring stick, but ultimately I think it’s general readership over time that defines the success of a book. Earlier you mentioned The Space Merchants. It was a big success within the genre, but had little impact outside. But today, even within the genre few people still read it. Heinlein is my favorite writer of any kind (mainly for sentimental reasons), but his readership is declining. Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four keep getting new readers. Are still taught in schools. And still get rediscovered by literary scholars.

          For a while I thought Stranger in a Strange Land had a shot at the big time, like Slaughterhouse Five and Fahrenheit 451, but its being forgotten. An interesting blog post would be to write about the aspects of Stranger in a Strange Land that scuttle it’s chances for literary immortality.

    2. Thought of something else Steve. I wonder how things would have been different if the “Science Fiction Section” in bookstores and libraries had never been invented. I should blog about that. If only Fiction existed, and no genre sub-worlds, editors probably would have accepted far less books using science fiction as a technique, but more of them would have been read by the general reader – I would guess.

      1. One of the themes of my editorials lately has been to get rid of the sub-genre labeling within science fiction. We need to stop dividing readers into tiny niches that end up making the genre easy to divide and conquer. We need to encourage readers to get out of their reading rut.

        1. I agree completely that we should encourage readers to get out of their reading rut. So, how have your readers responded Steve?

          I think they should read outside of the SF genre too. Books have become like food. We need to eat a large variety of different foods, but reading science fiction is like saying I’m only going to eat desserts, and some readers going further and saying they are only going to eat the various kinds M&Ms.

  3. well one general response is – no one should ever want to nor need to read anything other than science fiction (and its cousins). Too bad Big Brother isn’t in charge – he’d have mandated the eradication of any and all lit not so identified. (Or would have if I was Big Brother)
    Some of that is tongue in cheek, some slightly serious as I believe (without getting into great detail) that two things lost when most people “grow up” is the ability to imagine, make-believe, and wonder for wonder’s sake; the other being an interest in and engagement with “the future” (buried under the daily grind).

    Space Merchants lost some of its ability to compete in this discussion by having been sold and going out of print for about two decades.
    And then there’s authors like Dick to consider. After years of obscurity and being relegated to the realm of hackster pulpist, he is now the subject of no small amount of academic and literary laudations (?, lol). I wonder if some of his contemporaries, given the same hollywood treatment (which brought his novels and themes to wider notice) might not experience the same/similar result?

    And then there are major literary figures like Michael Chabon (who I consider to be the yin to Atwood’s yang): an author who demonstrated that he had as much literariness as any other highly touted word-play meister and yet he has made a career of embracing genre – has recommended it as being liberating and malleable, and makes no bones at all about his early genre influences, stuff he loves.

    Ghetto – boy you’re hitting all my buttons on this first day of 2013. In short: I believe that the “artistic ghetto” (to distinguish it from others) is an absolutely necessary environmental construct for the introduction of new art forms and “breakthroughs” in existing forms. The primary reason is that art produced in a ghetto is essentially being created for two and only two reasons: 1: for the love of – and largely deliberately without commercial considerations taken into account. 2. artistic vision – again, expression largely devoid of commercial consideration. Yes, at least the former reason is striving in some respects for commercial respect (mostly hoping for it) but doing art for art’s sake produces more pure forms than doing art for commerce’s sake. (That was largely the trick used by Moorcock and Ellison when establishing the “new wave”; art for art’s sake was out there in SF land, but no one was buying or encouraging it: Both those gentlemen as editors said “hey, we’ll spend some money on that stuff! Give us the things YOU wanted to write – not what you can sell to the existing markets. And not that the “new wave” didn’t really disappear – it was subsumed into the zeitgeist and had its edges rubbed off by commercial weathering. The same can be said about Cordwainer Smith’s fiction in microcosm; it tool a semi-pro publication to buy his first (Scanners) and an editor (Pohl) who was largely free to purchase what he wanted to purchase while establishing a “new” type of magazine/anthology.)

    1. I don’t know if it takes an isolated ghetto to help writers birth new forms, but it might. It’s an interesting idea. Robert E. Howard seemed to live in his own little world. Heinlein seem to come out of nowhere. What made Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany jump out of the background radiation of the 1960s? And what about William Gibson? A good case could be made that only individuals innovate, and not isolated groups. But then again, look at The Beats. Their isolated group fed and reverberated on each other.

      Another case could be made that because science fiction is so self-contained that most of the writers just write variations of what already exists and don’t innovate. A case could be made that there are a few innovative writers and most of the rest are just fan fiction writers of the innovators.

  4. artistic ghettos are a well-known phenom: you mentioned one – the Beats. Another is early rock-n-roll; another the popculture stuff originating with Andy Warhol and his cadre.

    Inevitably, art becomes commercialized; it went from a patronesque system (creating stuff at the behest of one set of tastes) to marketesque (anything that gatekeepers with money think they can make more money with).

    1. I was just reading Jo Walton over at Tor.com and she mentioned the film Jaws. She said instead of movie makers thinking the public wanted more tightly plotted stories with great characters and tension, they assumed they wanted more stories about sharks. That’s how I feel about many science fiction books. Writers read Starship Troopers and then wrote more books like Starship Troopers.

      But publishers are pushing this by encouraging series. Now it seems most SF, fantasy and mystery books are part of endless series. But they’ve been around a long time. I just read a review of one of Georgette Heyer’s later books that followed the same plot and character types as the previous one, but just changed the names.

  5. So, let’s get this straight as its never spelled out in clear terms: the primary reason Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World are so famous and popular is because of their ability to cut to the heart of modern society’s deepest fears?? While there is certainly some truth to this, I think the fact both writers were accepted in the mainstream gave publishers, media, etc. the comfort to advertize their works without fear of chastisement for supporting genre works. This also has to play a role in popularizing the novels. Moreover, each novel supports some aspect of the American worldview. The Cold War greatly affected the distribution of Orwell’s, for example. In turn, each of these novels, along with Bradbury’s, are part of most high school curricula, ensuring a copy is resting on the shelves of most people’s homes whether they have been read or not. I can’t help but think that, along with the fear/appeal aspect, these other factors play strong roles in contributing to the books’ relative success.

    Regarding the supposed lack of integrity of modern science fiction, i.e. its failure to address political, social, environmental ideals, the truth is such books are being published. However, because science fiction has become popular enough to draw closer to the mainstream, the expectations of a mainstream audience come in tow. Such readers prefer simple plots, simple characters, simple ideas, etc., which, of course, publishers cater to in our capitalist paradigm. But there remain authors who are publishing politically and socially aware sci-fi in the footsteps of Brunner, Lem, Bradbury, et al. In no particular order they are: Kim Stanley Robinson (whose name I should write twice given the conern he shows for the state of our world), Peter Watts, Ursula Le Guin, Ian McDonald, Ken MacLeod, Cory Doctorow, M. John Harrison, and to some degree Paolo Bacigalupi, Chris Beckett, and Terry Pratchett. (Yes, behind the humor Pratchett has a full agenda.) Not all these writers may be the stylists that Huxley or Orwell were, but their desire to present and comment upon the issues the world is facing today remains as strong, if not stronger, than the desire to tell a ripping good yarn.

    Bravo to this post for calling out an establishment which favors entertainment over in-depth fiction.

    1. I don’t object to fun science fiction, not as long as it doesn’t completely crowd out serious science fiction. When I wrote this piece I was wondering if genre SF writers produced more serious SF, would it sell better? Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl got noticed by Time Magazine as one of the top novels of 2009 – not top SF, but top novels of the year. Or to put it more crassly, does ambition pay off in dollars. Are Doctorow and Robinson getting a bigger audience because they take on bigger issues? Or maybe I should say wider issues.

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