Jess Nevins gives us a look at the Dawn of Science Fiction. Clearly drawing a line in the sand is tricky, as you can see from the anthology series The Road to Science Fiction, but he looks at the most convincing claim: May 1st 1872:
This Sunday is the 140th anniversary of May 1, 1871. On that date Lord Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race and George Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” were both first published, and on that date Samuel Butler delivered to his publisher the manuscript of what would become Erewhon. (Erewhon was published in 1872). This is why critic Darko Suvin proclaimed May Day, 1871 the day that science fiction was invented in the UK. This is overstating the case — as we’ll see, science fiction was already well-ensconced in the public imagination as a discrete literary genre — but Suvin is partially correct. May 1, 1871, was the date on which “science fiction,” the marketing genre, was invented.
He looks at the book that preceded this date:
The exact origin of science fiction can never be determined. But whether one agrees with Brian Stableford, that Frankenstein, in 1818, is the beginning of an ongoing, coherent genre of science fictional writing, or with Peter Nicholls, that modern science fiction is simply the latest iteration of imaginative fiction, the oldest genre of literature in human existence, it is clear that there was a substantial amount of science fictional material written before 1871. Moreover, by May Day 1871 there was not only a corpus of science fiction–at least one science fictional story or novel had been published every year since 1832–but a general consciousness that science fiction was a separate genre of fiction, and different in distinct ways from mysteries and romances and other fictional genres.
Descriptive labels had even begun to be attached to the genre. In 1842 Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall” (1842) introduced the phrase “fairy tales of science,” which quickly came to be used about books of scientific theories told in fairy tale form for a juvenile audience. This formation was still in usage in 1871. In 1851 William Wilson’s A Little Earnest Book uses the phrase “science fiction” to describe similar works. In the 1860s in France the phrase “roman scientifique” (“scientific novel”) was popularized largely because of a boom in popular science articles and books, many of which used fictional devices, which in turn led to a number of science fiction novels, including Achille Eyraud’s Voyage à Venus (1865) and Hippolyte Mettais’ L’An 5865 (1865).
So by May 1, 1871, the genre of science fiction had a body of work to call its own and labels which separated it from other literary genres. But for all that science fiction was an obscure literary sub-genre in the United States and Great Britain, both commercially and critically. In sales and output, science fiction was dwarfed by other genres, especially Sensation novels (melodramas about threats to middle class families) and historical romances (“romance” is used here in the older sense of “adventure”). Jules Verne was popular, but only three of his novels-From the Earth to the Moon, Five Weeks in a Balloon, and Journey to the Center of the Earth-and been published in English by 1871, and his only American counterpart was Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909), whose “The Brick Moon” (The Atlantic Monthly, Oct-Dec 1869) and “Life in the Brick Moon” (The Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1870) were Verne-inspired hard sf, was better known for his mainstream fiction. Science fiction was roughly the equivalent of modern Laboratory Literature: read by few and written by fewer.
May Day, 1871, permanently changed this situation. Bulwer-Lytton, Chesney, and Butler were influential both directly and on the genre as a whole.
We’ll return to both The Coming Race and The Battle of Dorking in the near future (and have touched on them both in the past) but he gives a really good overview in the rest of the article.