As most readers of sci-fi and fantasy are probably aware, there are these things called tropes—bits of storytelling shorthand that convey something about the narrative we’re experiencing, based solely on our preexisting experience with the genre. The tropes that are used and reused in the stories we love didn’t just come out of thin air—for the most part, great authors invented them, honed them, and revised them, transforming them into the sharp tools used today to shape great stories. But modern sci-fi and fantasy isn’t just the product of great writers—plenty of non-authors contributed to the genres we love as well. The six people listed here never wrote a short story or novel, yet their influence over science fiction and fantasy as we know it is immeasurable. (Note: It may seem odd that none of the venerated SFF editors of the Golden Age—Joseph Campbell, Donald A. Wolheim, and more—appear on this list, but, unsurprisingly enough, most of them were writers too.)
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Gary Gygax (Check out: Rise of the Dungeon Master, by David Kushner and Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Rise of Dungeons & Dragons, by Michael Witwer)
Whether or not you have ever personally rolled a saving throw to see if the poison needle in that mysterious chest will kill you or not, role-playing games (RPGs) have shaped the imaginations of generations of writers. It all started with Gygax, who in 1971 created the rules for Chainmail, a game using miniatures to replicate medieval combat. He later modified those rules into the basis for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), which quickly became (and remains) the most widely-known RPG in history—a game that has introduced countless people to basic fantasy tropes, storytelling skills, and suspension of disbelief that are the bedrock of fantasy writing. It’s no surprise there’s a heavy overlap between SFF writers and fans of RPGs like D&D; even if Gygax never wrote a novel in the genre, his influence is inarguable.
Hugh Everett III (Check out: The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III, by Peter Byrne)
These days it’s more or less common knowledge—at least in sci-fi and fantasy circles—that every choice you make creates a whole separate universe in which you made a different one, and we’re all living side-by-side with infinite universes that can be traveled to, if we could just figure out how. Making such mind-blowing concepts seem common and unremarkable is kind of what SFF novels do—but the concept of the alternate universe where Spock has a kick-butt goatee or where apes have taken over the whole planet owes a debt to Hugh Everett III, the physicist who first expressed the concept known as the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of quantum physics. Everett was widely mocked for what seemed like a fantastical idea, but over the decades, his work has risen in status—and been adopted as the single greatest story idea in sci-fi, used so often, even the least-scientifically aware person has a casual relationship with the concept.
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Roger Corman (Check out: How I Made a hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman)
Roger Corman has made a lot of movies. A lot of movies. And if his name, for a time, was synonymous with “cheap,” in recent years his legacy has clarified, and he’s often considered one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. Not only did Corman teach dozens of directors (from Ron Howard to Martin Scorsese) how to ply their trade, he brought some of the most startling sci-fi stories to the screen as well, including Little Shop of Horrors, Death Race 2000, and The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. It’s safe to say that when you go to see a modern-day sci-fi or fantasy blockbuster, you’re seeing the work of someone who learned at the feet of Corman, or who was influenced by his guerrilla style of filmmaking.
Gavrilo Princip (Check out: Bedeviled, by Colin Duriez)
What does the guy who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, ultimately sparking World War I, have to do with science fiction and fantasy literature? A lot, actually, as the war had a profound effect on this guy named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and heavily influenced much of his thinking as he wrote this little book called The Lord of the Rings. While fan theories about the atomic bomb and analogies to Hitler and the Nazis have been proven specious, Tolkien did confirm his horrific experiences in what was known as “The Great War” shaped his concept of evil and mankind’s weaknesses—concepts that are dealt with directly dealt in LOTR and his deeper-dive writings about Middle Earth. Considering Tolkien has influenced generations of fantasy writers that have followed, it’s easy to argue that Princip had a hand in making modern epic fantasy what it is today.
Fritz Lang (Check out: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: Cinematic Visions of Technology and Fear, by Holger Bachmann)
Lang’s legend as a filmmaker is proven by the simple fact that he’s one of a handful of 1920s-era directors whose name remains widely known, and whose work remains widely recognizable. Metropolis, released in 1927, is one of the very first science fiction films ever made, and its striking visuals are so profoundly influential, you’re still seeing homages and outright thefts in the sci-fi movies of today. Aside from style and design cribs, Metropolis paved the way for sci-fi as a viable film genre, proving the fantastic could be just as artistic and culturally important as more reality-based stories; it’s not crazy to draw a meandering dotted line from Lang’s masterpiece to Guardians of the Galaxy.
Myrtle R. Douglas (Check out: Cosplay World, by Brian Ashcraft)
Douglas, known by her Esperanto-inspired nickname Morojo, is today considered to be the originator of the concept of cosplay, something that’s as much a part of sci-fi culture as Star Wars quotes. In 1939, Douglas and her boyfriend, none other than Forrest J. Ackerman, attended the first World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon), Douglas created costumes for the duo inspired by the film Thing to Come, which had been released a few years earlier. And thus, cosplay was born, and convention centers and hotel ballrooms everywhere would never be the same.