Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Comparative Literature and Literary Theory

First Advisor

Andrea Goulet


This dissertation addresses the question of why science fiction arose in the nineteenth century, arguing that this literary form emerged to express a new technoscientific paradigm ushered in by the Industrial Revolution, and which could not be sufficiently represented by already-existing literary forms. Situating itself firmly in the history of ideas, this dissertation proceeds from Darko Suvin’s seminal theoretical framework of science fiction, with each chapter considering one of the defining characteristics of the genre and tying them to social, technoscientific, and ideological transformations happening primarily in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The first chapter argues for understanding science fiction as a thought experiment in the literal sense of the world, drawing on the history of experimental science rather than the philosophical tradition of the Gedankenexeriment, and uses Jules Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires to illustrate the spread of scientific popularization that makes such an understanding possible. The second chapter, which also focuses on the Voyages extraordinaires, more extensively investigates the “results” of such experiments, as well as how they contribute to the beliefs and practices that make up social life. The third chapter argues that science fiction serves as a virtual “flight simulator” that allows the reader a sustained, immersive experience of technological novelty, and uses Albert Robida’s 1882 novel Le Vingtième Siècle to demonstrate how such an experience prepares readers to confront technological novelty in their lives by simultaneously allowing them to practice experiencing estrangement and familiarizing specific novelties. The fourth chapter uses H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine to illustrate how the disciplines of geology and evolutionary theory emerging in the nineteenth century, as well as the revelations of thermodynamics, created a sense of the “contingency of humanity” that maps onto what Suvin terms the “cognitive glance” of science fiction – that is, a perspective predicated on change and the instability of the known and familiar world. Finally, this project gestures towards the ways in which science fiction’s role in nineteenth-century culture can elucidate its significance in our contemporary, techno-centric culture.

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