Click to viewScience Fiction came of age in the 19th Century under the talents of writers like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. But before these authors stands a long history of proto-science fiction tales, replete with voyages to the moon, socially and technologically advanced civilizations, and visions of the future. We've delved into our scifi roots and found some of the surprisingly forward-looking works from poets, mathematicians, politicians, and philosophers that predate the year 1800.
Lucian of Samosata – A True History (2nd Centure CE): Syrian philosopher Lucian of Samosata never intended to write a piece of speculative fiction. Rather, his ironically titled epic was meant to satirize the elaborate, so-called "true" fantasies that were popular at the time (Gateways to the underworld? Islands of magical women? Gods who transport uppity sailors halfway across the globe?). But his rousing tale of a trip to the moon, aliens armies, man-made men, and extraplanetary colonization is frequently recognized as the first known space opera. Ibn al-Nafis – Theologus Autodidactus (c. 1270): Syrian Egyptian polymath Ibn al-Nafis sought to demonstrate Islam's compatibility with science and reason and man's capacity for logically deducing truths about the universe. His tale of a spontaneously generated boy who encounters a group of castaways and is eventually brought to civilization suggests that the great mysteries of life, including the origin of man, the future of civilization, and the nature of the afterlife, could be deduced through proper scientific study. He even proposes that bodily resurrection is possible with a complete understanding of human anatomy. Thomas More – Utopia (1515): More coined the term utopia for his work of speculative politics, a concept that would pervade later works of speculative fiction. Although the culture More writes about is not extraterrestrial, it is, from his perspective, alien, placed in the New World and based entirely on communal living, strict sexual morality, and religious tolerance.
Francis Bacon – The New Atlantis (1626): Bacon's own utopian novel envisioned a society based not only on generosity and dignity, but on reverence for science and technology. A European crew lands in the mythical South American nation of Bensalem, where they wonder at the inventions and discoveries of Solomon's House, the county's state-sponsored scientific institute. Solomon's House attendees conduct scientific experiments according to the Baconian method, developed, of course, by Bacon himself. And the inventions developed by the citizens of Bensalem, including the submarine, the microscope, and the perpetual clock, were conceived by Bacon's one-time roommate, inventor Cornelius Drebbel. Johannes Kepler – Somnium (The Dream) (1634): Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote a student dissertation that claimed that the Earth's movements would be as visible from the moon as the moon's movements are from the Earth. Forty years later, Kepler's heirs would publish Somnium, which by then had evolved into a dream-like story of a trip to the moon. Like Kepler himself, the hero of Somnium was a student of fellow astronomer Tycho Brahe, and he predicts many possible challenges in reaching the moon, such as breaking free of the Earth's gravity (a decade before the birth of Isaac Newton) and dealing with solar radiation after escaping the Earth's atmosphere. In his show Cosmos, Carl Sagan described Somnium as the first work of science fiction.
Francis Godwin – The Man in the Moone (1638): Bishop Godwin's story features another trip to the moon, albeit one less grounded in science. A flock of migratory birds carry Domingo Gonsales to the moon, where he meets the Lunars, a race of moon-dwellers who avoid sunlight and, rather than putting them to death, ship their criminals down to Earth. The story is said to have influenced the tales of Baron Munchausen and Gulliver's Travels. Francis Cheynell – Aulicus: His Dream of the King's Second Coming to London (1644): Cheynell's brief political tract features no space voyages, no explorations of faraway lands, no scientific innovations. It does, however, speculate on Charles I's victory over Parliament in the English Civil War, making it perhaps the first work of European fiction to envision the future.
Cyrano de Bergerac – The Other World; Or, the States and Empires of the Moon (1656) and Sun (1661): Today, he is better known as the tragic, nasally-gifted hero of Edmond Rostand's play, but in his time Cyrano de Bergerac was known for his writing. The protagonist Cyrano attempts to get to the moon, first unsuccessfully by creating a belt of water that will lift him as it evaporates, then successfully on a rocket. He uses his adventures with the people he meets there to criticize church teachings and any authority that he believed went against freedom and reason. This fictional Cyrano also traveled to the sun (with some explanation as to why he isn't incinerated) and the stars, although the latter volume was ultimately lost. Margaret Cavendish – The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666): A student of natural philosophy, the Duchess of Newcastle paired this work with her Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. In it, a woman is kidnapped and brought to the North Pole, where her captors freeze and she discovers a portal to another world. She becomes empress of the anthropomorphic animals who live there, and together they eventually invade England. Oddly, although The Blazing World is frequently classified as science fiction because of its speculation on other worlds, it is highly critical of scientific theories such Aristotelian cosmology and the Baconian scientific method.
Simon Tyssot de Patot – The Voyages and Adventures of Jacques Masse (1710) and The Life, the Adventures, and the Voyage to Greenland of Reverend Father Cordelier Pierre de Mesange (1720): The lost world genre owes a great debt to Simon Tyssot de Patot. In Jacques Masse, his hero journeys to South Africa and discovers a land of prehistoric plants and animals. Father Pierre de Mesange discovers an opening in the earth, which leads him to a group of humans who have built a civilization underground.
Jonathan Swift – Gulliver's Travels (1726): Although largely a work of fantasy, Gulliver's Travels continues Lucian and Bergerac's tradition of the exploration of exotic civilizations, albeit Earth-bound, as satire and political commentary. Parodying the popular travelogues of the day, Swift explores themes of culture and politics in his character's travels through strange and undiscovered nations. Swift did envision technological innovation in the floating island of Laputa, but criticized it (and, by extension, contemporary scientific study) for being without purpose. Still, the volume's remarkable voyages and its description of imagined cultures, especially that of the utterly alien Houyhnhynms, made it a touchstone for later writers of science fiction. Samuel Madden – Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733): A far-looking work of futurology, Memoirs of the Twentieth Century is a letter from Constantinople in the year 1997. The entire world has been united under George VI, after quelling the Russian and American superpowers. Madden envisioned the building of canals, the establishment of public granaries, and certain rights for women. A conceit of the work is that an angel brings this letter back from the future, making it one of the forerunners of the time travel genre.
Ludvig Holberg – Niels Klim's Underground Travels (1741): Another contribution to the hollow earth genre, Holberg populates his underworld with non-human beings living in a utopian society. Niels Klim falls through the outer layer of the Earth and discovers a planet orbiting an underground sun, where he meets all manner of subterranean alien, but is cast out of these foreign societies because of his anthrocentric view. Voltaire – Micromegas (1752): Voltaire inverts the tales of human adventures in alien worlds by relating a tale of an alien's exploration of Earth. Micromegas is from a planet orbiting Sirius and is thousands times larger than humans, forcing him to examine us through microscopy. The outsider's view makes light of humanity's self-importance and its sense of rationality even as we commit acts of absurdity.
Louis-Sebastien Mercier – The Year 2440, A Dream if Ever There Was One (1771): In Mercier's time travel novel, a discontented Parisian falls asleep and wakes up in the year 2440. The world he awakens to is, for him, a utopia. The clergy has been reduced, slavery ended, and Paris has become orderly and clean. Writers have been elevated to the ultimate position of respect, but morality has been universalized. Morals are disseminated to the public in the theater, and writers who contradict that morality are reeducated by the state's censors. Nicolas-Edme Restif – The Southern Discovery by a Flying Man (1781): Many writers of the 17th and 18th Centuries sent their heroes on fantastical voyages to the antipodes, often flinging them to Australia or some other still-mysterious continent. But Restif's novel is set apart for its imagined inventions, such as the insect-inspired flying machines the hero creates to whisk himself and his lover far from their home.