Infographic Of The Day: A Mind-Blowing History Of Sci-Fi

Ward Shelley's sprawling, hand-drawn flowchart of science fiction's history.

Artist Ward Shelley has produced another fine, fine, fine hand-drawn flowchart that will blow your mind: This time, it's dedicated to the 2,500 years of intellectual history that have produced the modern sci-fi genre.

Which sounds totally ridiculous, but just look at the chart and you'll understand its beauty:


[Click to view full-size]

Now, in lesser hands, the chart might have simply been a record of all the various strains of sci-fi as we know it. But Shelley is as much a historian as he is an artist, and he tracks the very first flowering of sci-fi to the Enlightenment's fascination with science, which begat Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which begat Jules Verne:


Shelley manages to encapsulate dozens of PhD's in just that little bit of real-estate — just witness all the counter movements that attend the Enlightenment. But the chart continues with the same fanatical attention to detail and surpassing wit. Here, for example, is a detail show the subgenres that were birthed by sci-fi, but turned off to become their own. Fittingly, they disappear down wormholes:


And here is the most decisive moment in creating sci-fi as we know it: The hothouse moment between the 1930s and 1950s, which saw H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds and popular pulp fiction dedicated to ray-gun toting Martians:


Eventually we come to modern sci-fi. And that's is where things get really crowded. Here, for example, is cyberpunk and all of its great works:


You'll note that the closer an author is to the actual label, the more important a figure they are in founding that subgenre — so here, you get Neal Stephenson and William Gibson right at the heart.

And here is the history of sci-fi in film, dominated, of course, by Star Wars:


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  • despairing panda

    It does not include the first hacker story, which features a "man in the middle attack" with a telegraph and was written in 1898 (!)
    This really forward thinking piece has been lost to history. Who the heck do I contact to get this gem some attention? I also have scans, if any science fiction historian is interested.
    Please, somebody, rediscover this gem.

  • larrylz

    Two major contributions missing Tolkien and C.S Lewis the puzzle is not complete without Middle Earth and Narnia

  • Wesley Erisman

    From the artist's page: The History of Science Fiction diagram by Ward Shelley is now available as a poster-size photo lithographic print. It has been newly edited for spelling errors by the British Library (absolutely true!) and a few grievous omissions have been remedied.

  • Zsolt Zsofka

    Reading the comments about the missing data, I wonder:
    Do we expect Cliff to bring us the absolute perfection and no data to be missed from this picture?
    Or perhaps we can take his work as a foundation and continue the drawing by personalizing it?
    After all no two brain is the same now is it? Especially when a cyber-traveler factors in the Sci-fi resource produced outside of the English speaking cultures, soon anyone can realize it is unlikely that a single brain can encompass all that there is, was and now the new stuff that is in the making.
    If I were to make use of this great work by Cliff, I’d order a wall size printout and with his permission of course, I would start adding to it as I see fit and by doing so have a unique Sci-Fi brain of my own ;-)
    In short, you have a choice to point out limitations and shortcomings of this picture by Cliff or think of how to take it & fly with it by personalize it to your own views. Good starting point! I’d like to see similar masterpieces on other topics. If you know any, please drop me a line. ommby at gmail thanks. Z

  • Susanna Speier

    Clearly from the mind of one inspired visionary rather than an updated scholarly compendium or a user generated crowdsourced anthology. All have value, of course. It's the personalized aspect that makes this truly sing, though. Cliff, thanks so much for calling it to my attention and inspiring me to blog in more detail about what resonated with me and what I felt was missing //

  • lee de cola

    This graphic illustrates that for really complicated (and not "just" complex) data, there's no substitute for paper and pencil and pen and brush!

    Lee De Cola
    Data to Insight

  • Brad Einarsen

    Wow, the amount one needs to know to be able to create this is staggering. Well done!

    Minor nitpick... it's "Elric" not "Erlic" for M.Moorcock.

  • Jeremy H

    So where are the comics in this picture? I see no mention of comic books anywhere, just the acknowledgement of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers' origins as comic strip characters.

    Seems kind of a glaring omission.

  • Ben J Grimm

    Fascinating! But, no Blake's Seven or Firefly? Two of the greatest shows! Not included! Damn shame! Still; it IS an amazing piece!

  • Garrett Marin

    Really cool! I would have expected Firefly to be somewhere between Sliders/Futurama and Wall-E though in the TV section.

  • Kristan Tetens

    This is glorious. One minor nitpick: Horace Walpole's 1764 novel was "Castle of Otranto," not "Oranto."

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    OK, this is just plain cool, and I love how it ties mythology and fantasy and utopianism into sci-fi. Although...if we were to concentrate strictly upon sci-fi, it seems to require a belief in science (not really codified until the late middle ages) as opposed to nature or magic or theology, and it also seems to require a belief that science can create a different world, either from the original one we are in, or in a different place altogether. Hmmm, now it is becoming difficult to tease out sci-fi from fantasy. I'll stop now.

    A more salient question is, how can I get a part as an extra in a sci-fi series or movie? I am more than willing to be a red-shirt or an apocalyptic refugee or whatever, I just want to be in the show!

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Time Management Coach to Authentic Leaders

  • daen

    It's amazing, although I was surprised AlastairReynolds didn't make it onto the "New Space Opera" bleb.

  • Rebekah Montgomery

    I want this hanging on my wall in my office. It's fabulous, I can't get enough.