How Did These Science Fiction Terms Come About?

Its interesting to understand how we come up with new terms in technology and science fiction. Several of these words are so commonly used, that we’ve nearly forgotten how these terms came about.

Alien is a word that has long been used to refer to something foreign, but when did it become the go-to term for a being from another planet? The first person to use alien this way was probably Victorian historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle, who at one point during his life, left behind his literati lifestyle to serve as a tutor to a farmer’s son in Yorkshire. In a letter to a friend, Carlyle is deliberately (and amusingly) melodramatic about life in York and his inability to fit in amongst his new neighbors, “I am like a being thrown from another planet on this dark terrestrial ball,” he wrote, “an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors.” In science fiction, “alien” isn’t used as a catch-all term for extraterrestrial beings until 1929, when Science Wonder Stories published Jack Williamson’s story The Alien Intelligence. It didn’t necessarily catch on right away; many sources cite the first use of “alien” for extraterrestrial beings in science fiction as Philip Barshofsky’s 1934 story One Prehistoric Night, which refers to Martians as aliens. It would certainly be an auspicious introduction for the word; the story involves Martians traveling to prehistoric Earth to battle dinosaurs.

The universe’s most generic form of currency first shows up John W. Campbell’s The Mightiest Machine, which was serialized in Astounding starting in December 1934 and stars Campbell’s recurring character Aarn Munro, when one character complains about having to build “a five-million-credit flying laboratory.” Later, the same character proposes naming a rocketship “Little credit-eater” after the hull alone costs him a jaw-dropping two and a half million credits.

Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein was 90 years old (and HG Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau was 12) when Raymond McDonald apparently coined the term “mad scientist” in his 1908 episodic novel The Mad Scientist: A Tale of the Future. The book involves a so-called mad scientist with socialist leanings who uses his brilliant inventions against US business and the US government. For readers at the time, the book was probably less exciting for its use of the term “mad scientist” than for the cipher contained within its pages. The publishers offered a generous cash reward for the reader who sent in the best analysis of the cipher.

“Robot” has one of the most famous origin stories. Karel Čapek used a Czech word for forced feudal labor, robota, for the title of his 1921 play Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti(Rossum’s Universal Robots). The robots in R.U.R. weren’t the mechanical robots we think of today, but rather artificial humans. Once the play was translated into English in 1923, English-speaking writers picked up the word to describe their own constructs made in humanity’s mental or physical image. But it wasn’t until 1940 that Isaac Asimov first named a discipline of study “robotics” when he referred to a character as a “Roboticist.” The shortened form “bot” first shows up even later, in Richard C. Meredith’s 1969 novel We All Died at Breakaway Station.

Read the full article here for all 31 terms.


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