Yes, I was surprised too. Tolkien isn’t supposed to be a science fiction writer. The received wisdom is that he left such trifles to the other Inklings, notably C.S. Lewis, who was a moderately successful exponent of the genre.
However, Papa Tolkien was more interested in SF than most modern students of his work know, and his fascination for the forms of the genre come through in a little-known work entitled The Notion Club Papers.
Interestingly, I came upon this piece not through a search for Tolkien’s SF but because several versions of The Notion Club Papers are included in Sauron Defeated, the ninth installment of The History of Middle Earth, which is also Volume 4 of the History of the Lord of the Rings. To add to the fun, The Notion Club Papers is part of The History of Middle Earth, but Unrelated to The Lord of the Rings, despite being concurrently with it. Confused yet?
And while the text is related to the goings-on in Middle-Earth, and therefore possibly fantasy, the framework in which it’s couched is definitely SF. The story is that the papers are “discovered” in the 21st century after having been composed–documenting the goings-on of a club similar to the Inklings–in the 1980s. Both of these dates were in Tolkien’s future, of course.
The most interesting part of the papers (aside from the way they segue into the Silmarillion story) is a discussion about the fact that science fiction fails as a genre because the need for a space-ship defies the suspension of disbelief. Science Fiction (called scientifiction throughout) has merit as a way to explore societies real ills through the lens of a different world, but the act of getting to that other world is what destroys the illusion.
The conclusion they reach is that the only realistic way to reach far-off lands is to travel in the mind, in dreams or somesuch.
That’s a head-scratcher for sure, but there you go.
All in all, this is a brilliant piece of insight into Tolkien’s thinking, and, as a bonus, it also includes the concluding textual history of The Return of the King (see here for more), as well as some other texts linked to the Silmarillion story.
But, after reading his SF, it’s just as well that old Papa Tolkien concentrated on fantasy… his talents weren’t in the scientifiction realm.
Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a thriller entitled Timeless. You can check it out here.