1 Arguably the inspiration for much science fiction traces back to classical mythology. Think of it—Earthlings abducted by beings from the sky, humans morphing into strange creatures, and events that defy the laws of nature.
2 Birth of the (un)cool: In 1926 writer Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories, the first true science-fiction magazine.
3 Gernsback loved greenbacks. He tried to trademark the term science fiction, and he paid writers so little that H. P. Lovecraft later nicknamed him “Hugo the Rat.”
4 Rat’s revenge: The most famous sci-fi writing award is called the Hugo.
5 Writers for the early pulp magazines would often write under multiple pseudonyms so they could have more than one article per issue. Ray Bradbury—taking this practice to another level—used six different pen names.
6 Serious science-fiction heads say sci-fi carries schlocky, B-movie connotations. Many prefer the abbreviation SF.
7 Prominent physicists and space travel pioneers have (often secretly) contributed to SF lit. German rocket genius Wernher Von Braun wrote space fiction and was an adviser to sci-fi movies such as Conquest of Space.
8 During the 1960s, James Tiptree Jr. penned sci-fi classics like Houston, Houston, Do You Read? but was so secretive that people suspected he was a covert government operative.
9 At age 61, Tiptree was outed—not as a spy but as outspoken feminist Alice B. Sheldon.
10 One of the more famous works in the growing field of gay sci-fi is Judith Katz’s Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound, about a woman who bolts from her overbearing Jewish family to the mystical all-lesbian city of New Chelm.
11 Irony alert: Ray Bradbury, one of the world’s most influential SF writers, studiously avoids computers and ATMs and claims he has never driven a car.
12 Not to be outdone, sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov wrote about interstellar spaceflight but refused to board an airplane.
13 Neal Stephenson’s acclaimed 1992 novel Snow Crash has inspired two major online creations: Second Life (derived from Stephenson’s virtual Metaverse) and Google Earth (from the panoptic Earth application).
14 Meanwhile, in the humble brick-and-mortar world: Sci-fi author Gene Wolfe helped develop the machine that cooks Pringles, while Robert Heinlein conceived the first modern water bed.
15 Sexual liberation plays a big role in Heinlein’s books, which really puts the water-bed thing into perspective.
16 In Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, the HAL 9000 computer discusses its feelings and Pan Am flies passenger shuttles to the moon. After the book’s release, Pan Am announced a real-life list of passengers waiting to go to the moon; Walter Cronkite, Ronald Reagan, and 80,000 others signed up.
17 Forty years later, computers can’t discuss printer drivers, let alone emotions, and Pan Am has been dead for 17 years.
18 When sci-fi visionary Philip K. Dick inadvertently re-created a Bible scene in his book Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, he became convinced that the spirit of the prophet Elijah had overcome him, kicking off a long bout of schizophrenia.
19 After Dick’s death, fans built an android likeness of him that mimicked his mannerisms and quoted his writings.
20 In 2005, the Dickbot was misplaced by a baggage handler. It remains at large.
by Dean Christopher and Jocelyn Rice with additional reporting by William Shunn
From the February 2008 issue of Discover Magazine; published online January 30, 2008