Science fiction is the genre of ideas — but it’s also given us some unforgettable pictures along the way. Every era in science fiction’s history has shown us a new vision of the strange and futuristic, and one image can spawn a million reflections in your mind’s eye.
Here are 21 unforgettable pictures that showcase the whole history of science fiction.
Top image: the iconic Transporter effect from the original Star Trek.
1. A Trip to the Moon (1902) – based on the novels From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells, Georges Méliès created this image of humans reaching our only natural satellite.
2. Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein (1910) – the first real science fiction novel became one of the first movies ever made, by the man who helped put electricity in everyone’s home
3. Metropolis (1927) – Just seven years after the play Rossum’s Universal Robots, Maria the robot seduced the workers — and the world.
4. Lensmen by E.E. “Doc” Smith (1937), and the rise of Golden Age science fiction pulps
5. Superman (1938) – the first real superhero, and the alien who captured our imaginations
6. Foundation (1942) – Isaac Asimov invents psychohistory and cements science fiction as the genre of the technocrat. Image by Michael Whelan
7. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) – the first 1950s paranoia movie is also the most thoughtful, and the iconography of Klaatu’s ship and Gort helped define a decade
8. Godzilla (1954) – the Kaiju era begins, and the fear of atomic destruction has its poster creature
9. Forbidden Planet (1956) – Robby the Robot became the most famous of the 1950s robots, coinciding with the rise of space age “Googie” style
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – There are so many great images in Kubrick’s film, but the scenes of weightlessness, and the panic of floating out of the airlock, might be the most influential
11. Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970) – the era of the “huge object in space” included some insane vistas and mind-blowing concepts, but none more awesome than Ringworld. Image by Cortney Skinner
12. The New Wave – around the same time that authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock and Samuel Delany were reinventing science fiction, artists like Jean Giraud/Moebius were creating new ways of seeing
13. Star Wars (1977) – Hard to pick one influential image from Star Wars — but this one shot, of the stars turning into streaks of light by uncanny speed, defined the exhilarating speed and vastness of George Lucas’ galaxy, and was copied endlessly.
14. Alien (1979) – H.R. Giger’s design aesthetic influenced everything from the Borg in Star Trek to every great science fiction horror movie
15. Blade Runner (1982) – It’s hard to pick one image for the rise of Cyberpunk — I almost went with the cover of Mirrorshades — but Blade Runner helped define the genre’s aesthetic
16. Tron (1982) – and meanwhile, Tron gave us our first computer VFX and our first glimpse of a virtual world
17. Akira (1988) – the iconic anime classic brought us a new vision of apocalypse and mutant havoc
18. Jurassic Park (1993) – the first realistic CG creatures and the foundation for the past 20 years of immersive storytelling
19. The Matrix (1999) – gave us “bullet time” but also a new way of looking at reality as constituted by computers
20. The New Space Opera – from Iain M. Banks to Paul McAuley, from Firefly to Battlestar Galactica, from Halo to Mass Effect, epic space adventures rose again
21. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006) – in many ways, the past several years have been defined by post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds, from The Hunger Games to The Walking Dead.