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  sf (the lower-case letters are obligatory) is short for science fiction and, with fantasy literature (its derivative), is one of the dominant genres of 20th-century fiction. Its ancestors were stories of human beings visiting strange worlds (in such collections as the Arabian Nights), and the Utopian literature of Renaissance and post-Renaissance Europe. But it came into its own only at the end of the 19th century, when science and technology took a firm hold on the popular imagination. The earliest sf writers, Jules Verne and his imitators, wrote of visits to the Moon, under the sea, to the centre of the Earth and so on. H.G. Wells, the other chief parent of the form, broadened its scope to include genetic engineering, time travel, transformation and war between beings from mutually alien environments.

In the 20th century, space travel and the exploration and colonization of alien worlds have provided plots for one main strand of sf. Writers have concentrated on technology, the sociology and ethics of alien societies (and of the Earth people who visit them), and (in an ingenious variant) on the Utopian, or more often dystopian, future of our own planet, depleted by the greenhouse effect, nuclear warfare, overpopulation, and remorseless technological and social engineering. The other major strand, particularly since the 1960s, has been psychological sf, exploring states of altered consciousness, ‘alternative’ philosophies and the interface between hallucination and the supernatural. Fantasy literature (which sprang into being, almost fully-formed, with the publication of Tolkien\'s The Lord of the Rings in the late 1950s) sets heroes and antiheroes to battle for the health of worlds populated by demons, monsters, samurai warriors, wizards and supernatural beings of every conceivable kind.

sf is one of the first literary genres to have an almost simultaneous impact on readers throughout the world. Its universal popularity, especially among younger readers, is parallelled only by that of pop music or junk food. Although to equate it with either is to patronize, there is junk in plenty in sf, as in any other form of literature. Its leading authors (such as Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Walter Miller, Stanislav Lem and Gene Wolfe—interestingly, most are from the UK or the US) have produced work of quality, and radicalized the thinking of a whole generation worldwide, in a way readers resistant to the genre may find hard to recognize. KMcL



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Other Terms : Political Anthropology | Mesmerism | Pathetic Fallacy
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