Long before 1961, when Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shephard became the first humans to journey beyond Earth's atmosphere, writers envisioned spaceflight and life on other planets. These authors, all born before 1900, took their readers to the moon ... beyond ... and into our future.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

History of Science Fiction

"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them, into the impossible." ~ Arthur C. Clarke

The literary genre of science fiction is diverse, and its exact definition remains a contested question among both scholars and devotees. This lack of consensus is reflected in debates about the genre's history, particularly over determining its exact origins.

There are two broad camps of thought, one that identifies the genre's roots in early fantastical works such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (earliest Sumerian text versions c. 2150-2000 BCE). A second approach argues that science fiction only became possible sometime between the 17th and early 19th centuries, following the Scientific Revolution and major discoveries in astronomy, physics and mathematics.

Question of deeper origins aside, science fiction developed and boomed in the 20th century, as the deep integration of science and inventions into daily life encouraged a greater interest in literature that explores the relationship between technology, society and the individual. In recent decades, the genre has diversified and become firmly established as a major influence on global culture and thought. Continued ...

Virtual Introduction to Science Fiction
Videos, Lectures and more at www.virtual-sf.com 

Depending on which scholar you ask, science fiction begins at so many different stages in human history that it is hard to find a common ground for discussion of the pre-20th century science fiction. Almost all scholars can agree on the fact that the term itself is an invention of the 20th century and that pulp magazines developed the genre into what we commonly understand as classical science fiction. But that is about all the consensus you will get.

Voyage to the Moon
Gustav Dore (1870)
James Gunn, editor of one of the largest and best science fiction anthologies on the market, starts his Road to Science Fiction with the Summerian epic of Gilgamesh (2000 BC) and in the first volume includes “examples and works that preceded and led up to the contemporary expression of science fiction in magazines and books” (xi). In its pages Gunn includes not only mythology dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, but also many examples from other genres. Similarly, Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint discuss literary predecessors of science fiction in their Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction (20-39): they name examples of Utopian literature, adventure stories, apocalyptic fiction and tales of science and invention, all of which have had influence on the development of science fiction and intersect with it.

Most famously though, critic Brian Aldiss argued in his seminal work Billion Year Spree from 1973 that science fiction “was born in the heart and crucible of the English Romantic movement in exile in Switzerland, when the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus” (3). Gothic fiction, rationalized by modern science, thus becomes an important influence to science fiction which editor Hugo Gernsback picked up on, when he defines what he calls “scientifiction as ‘the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision’” (Gernsback quoted in Bould and Vint 6).

Independent Scholar, Dr. Brian Stableford, has examined traditions of literary expression that came before this statement and the earliest definition of science fiction as a genre. To read his lecture, Science Fiction Before 1900, click HERE. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Lucian of Samosata (120-180 AD)

More Than Human

Found at www.daviddarling.info
Iconic novel from Theodore Sturgeon 

Lucian of Samosata (120-180 AD) was a Syrian-Greek writer responsible for the first fictional accounts of extraterrestrial life. Lucian, whose parents had hoped he might become a sculptor, made a fortune by traveling around Asia Minor, Greece, Italy and other lands giving entertaining speeches, before settling down in Athens to study philosophy.This was a time – the second century AD – when faith in the old gods had all but evaporated, Greek culture and thought was in decay and the great literature of Greece at its height had given way to shallow novels of adventure or romance.

All this was grist to Lucian's satirical mill and in his two extraterrestrial stories – precursors of science fiction – he parodies the kind of feeble fantasy that had become popular. The concluding sentence of the preface to his “True History” reads: "I give my readers warning, therefore, not to believe me." And with that he launches into a tale of a group of adventurers who, while sailing through the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar), are lifted up by a giant waterspout and deposited on the Moon. There they find themselves embroiled in a full-scale interplanetary war between the king of the Moon and the king of the Sun over colonization rights to Jupiter, involving armies which boast such exotica as stalk-and-mushroom men, acorn-dogs, and cloud-centaurs. The human inhabitants of the Moon are also remarkable:

A waterspout lifts Lucian's heroes to the moon.
“Amongst them, when a man grows old he does not die, but dissolves into smoke and turns to air [a convenient ploy for disposing of dead aliens also used in more recent science fiction, such as 'The Man Trap' and 'Catspaw' episodes of the original Star Trek series]. They all eat the same food, which is frogs roasted on the ashes from a large fire; of these they have plenty which fly about in the air, they get together over the coals, snuff up the scent of them, and this serves for their victuals. Their drink is air squeezed into a cup, which produces a kind of dew.”

Lucian may be off here in Cloudcuckooland (or almost – the trip to the city of Nephelo-coccygia (the cloud cuckoo) actually comes later in the book) but it is interesting that, in his space odyssey, he portrays the Moon and planets as being genuine worlds with unique life-forms of their own. In fact, for many centuries, Lucian's adventure was highly regarded, not as pure fantasy but as speculative fiction, much as we might treat a SF novel by a respected scientist-author today. An example of this is buried in the footnotes of an 1887 edition of Lucian's work (Cassell's National Library series, p. 83). The original translator, one Thomas Franckling, Greek Professor at the University of Cambridge, writing in 1780, had this to say at the point where the Earth is seen suspended in the lunar sky as if it were itself a mere satellite: "Modern astronomers are, I think agreed, that we are to the moon just the same as the moon is to us. Though Lucian's history may be false, therefore, his philosophy, we see, was true." In parentheses after this, the editor of the Cassell edition has inserted the terse comment: "The moon is not habitable, 1887."

In his second space story, “Icaromenippus”, Lucian is again bound for the Moon, this time in the footsteps, or rather the wing-flaps, of his hero who has improved on the ill-fated scheme of Icarus. To his incredulous friend Menippus, the hero explains: "I took, you know, a very large eagle, and a vulture also, one of the strongest I could get, and cut off their wings." Lucian, like many who followed him made no distinction between aeronautics and astronautics, assuming that normal air-assisted flight and breathing are possible on voyages between worlds. Then through his hero, he lets rip on the presumptuousness of earlier philosophers to know about the nature of the universe and life beyond the Earth:

 ... to think that men, who creep upon this Earth, and are not a whit wiser, or can see farther than ourselves ... should tell us the size and form of the stars ... that the sun is a mass of liquid fire, that the moon is inhabited ...

Friday, March 7, 2014

Francis Godwin (1562-1633)

Francis Godwin, the son of Thomas Godwin, was born at Hannington, Northamptonshire, England in 1562. He died in Whitbourne, Herefordshire, England in Apr 1633. His sister, Margaret (Godwin) Swift was the great, great grandmother of Jonathan Swift who wrote "Gulliver's Travels".

His book "The Man in the Moone" describes a voyage of utopian discovery. Initially considered to be one of his early works, it is now generally thought to have been written in the late 1620s. It was first published posthumously in 1638 under the pseudonym of Domingo Gonsales. The work is notable for its role in what was called the "new astronomy," the branch of astronomy influenced especially by Nicolaus Copernicus, the only astronomer mentioned by name, although the book also draws on the  theories of Johannes Kepler and William Gilbert.

The Man in the Moone

The story is written as a first-person narrative from the perspective of Domingo Gonsales, the book's fictional author. In his opening address to the reader the equally fictional translator, E. M., promises "an essay of fancy, where invention is shewed with judgment".

Gonsales is a citizen of Spain, forced to flee to the East Indies after killing a man in a duel. There he prospers by trading in jewels, and having made his fortune decides to return to Spain. But on his voyage home he becomes seriously ill, and he and a negro servant Diego are put ashore on St Helena, a remote island with a reputation for "temperate and healthful" air. A scarcity of food forces Gonsales and Diego to live some miles apart, but Gonsales devises a variety of systems to allow them to communicate. Eventually he comes to rely on a species of bird he describes as some kind of wild swan, a gansa, to carry messages and provisions between himself and Diego. Gonsales gradually comes to realise that these birds are able to carry substantial burdens, and resolves to construct a device by which a number of them harnessed together might be able to support the weight of a man, allowing him to move around the island more conveniently. Following a successful test flight he determines to resume his voyage home, hoping that he might "fill the world with the Fame of [his] Glory and Renown". But on his way back to Spain, accompanied by his birds and the device he calls his Engine, his ship is attacked by a British fleet off the coast of Tenerife and he is forced to escape by taking to the air.

After setting down briefly on Tenerife, Gonsales is forced to take off again by the imminent approach of hostile natives. But rather than flying to a place of safety among the Spanish inhabitants of the island the gansas fly higher and higher. On the first day of his flight Gonsales encounters "illusions of 'Devils and Wicked Spirits'" in the shape of men and women, some of whom he is able to converse with. They provide him with food and drink for his journey and promise to set him down safely in Spain if only he will join their "Fraternity", and "enter into such Covenants as they had made to their Captain and Master, whom they would not name". Gonsales declines their offer, and after a journey of 12 days reaches the Moon. Suddenly feeling very hungry he opens the provisions he was given en route, only to find nothing but dry leaves, goat's hair and animal dung, and that his wine "stunk like Horse-piss". He is soon discovered by the inhabitants of the Moon, the Lunars, whom he finds to be tall Christian people enjoying a happy and carefree life in a kind of pastoral paradise. Gonsales discovers that order is maintained in this apparently utopian state by swapping delinquent children with terrestrial children.

The Lunars speak a language consisting "not so much of words and letters as tunes and strange sounds", which Gonsales succeeds in gaining some fluency in after a couple of months. Six months or so after his arrival Gonsales becomes concerned about the condition of his gansas, three of whom have died. Fearing that he may never be able to return to Earth and see his children again if he delays further, he decides to take leave of his hosts, carrying with him a gift of precious stones from the supreme monarch of the Moon, Irdonozur. The stones are of three different sorts: Poleastis, which can store and generate great quantities of heat; Macbrus, which generates great quantities of light; and Ebelus, which when one side of the stone is clasped to the skin renders a man weightless, or half as heavy again if the other side is touched.

Gonsales harnesses his gansas to his Engine and leaves the Moon on 29 Mar1601. He lands in China about nine days later, without re-encountering the illusions of men and women he had seen on his outward journey and with the help of his Ebelus, which helps the birds to avoid plummeting to Earth as the weight of Gonsales and his Engine threatens to become too much for them. He is quickly arrested and taken before the local mandarin, accused of being a magician, and as a result is confined in the mandarin's palace. He learns to speak the local dialect of Chinese, and after some months of confinement is summoned before the mandarin to give an account of himself and his arrival in China, which gains him the mandarin's trust and favour. Gonsales hears of a group of Jesuits, and is granted permission to visit them. He writes an account of his adventures, which the Jesuits arrange to have sent back to Spain. The story ends with Gonsales's fervent wish that he may one day be allowed to return to Spain, and "that by enriching my country with the knowledge of these hidden mysteries, I may at least reap the glory of my fortunate misfortunes".

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)

Johannes Kepler, son of Heinrich Kepler and Katharina Guldenmann, was born at the Free Imperial City of Weil der Stadt, Germany (now part of Stuttgart) on 27 Dec 1571.

In 1597 he married Gemma van Dvijneveldt (a widow with a young daughter), with whom he had five children: Heirich and Susanna (both died in infancy), Susanna, Friedrich and Ludwig. Following the death of his first wife, he married Susanna Reuttinger in 1613. The children of this marriage were Margareta Regina, Katharina and Sebald (all died in childhood), Cordula, Fridmar and Hildebert. Kepler died in Regensburg, Bavaria on 15 Nov 1630.

Kepler was a German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer. A key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution, he is best known for his laws of planetary motion, based on his works Astronomia nova, Harmonices Mundi and Epitome of Copernican Astronomy. These works also provided one of the foundations for Isaac Newton's theory of universal gravitation.

Read it HERE
Around 1608, Kepler circulated a manuscript of what would eventually be published (posthumously) in 1634 by his son Ludwig Kepler as "Somnium" (The Dream). In the narrative, an Icelandic boy and his witch mother learn of an island named Levania (our Moon) from a daemon (demon). "Somnium" presents a detailed imaginative description of how the Earth might look when viewed from the Moon, and is considered the first serious scientific treatise on lunar astronomy. Part of the purpose of "Somnium" was to describe what practicing astronomy would be like from the perspective of another planet, to show the feasibility of a non-geocentric system. Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov have referred to it as the first work of science fiction.

Years later, a distorted version of the story may have instigated the witchcraft trial against his mother, as the mother of the narrator consults a demon to learn the means of space travel.

In 1615, Ursula Reingold, a woman in a financial dispute with Kepler's brother Christoph, claimed Kepler's mother Katharina had made her sick with an evil brew. The dispute escalated, and in 1617 Katharina was accused of witchcraft; witchcraft trials were relatively common in central Europe at this time. Beginning in August 1620, she was imprisoned for fourteen months. She was released in October 1621, thanks in part to the extensive legal defense drawn up by Kepler. The accusers had no stronger evidence than rumors, along with a distorted, second-hand version of Kepler's Somnium, in which a woman mixes potions and enlists the aid of a demon. Katharina was subjected to territio verbalis, a graphic description of the torture awaiting her as a witch, in a final attempt to make her confess.

Following her eventual acquittal, Kepler composed 223 footnotes to the story—several times longer than the actual text—which explained the allegorical aspects as well as the considerable scientific content (particularly regarding lunar geography) hidden within the text.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Cyrano de Bergerac 1619-1655)

Hercule-Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, son of Abel de Cyrano, lord of Mauvieres and Bererac, and Esperance Bellanger, was born in Paris, France on 6 Mar 1619. 

Though regarded as the father of Scientific Romances, and therefore the grandfather of Science Fiction, Jules Verne was not without his antecedents. Going far back, very far, into the earliest of literature that could be considered a forerunner of the genre, Verne looks to a fellow countryman. He is none other than the man most famous for his nose, Cyrano de Bergerac. Published posthumously in 1657, de Bergerac was the first Frenchman to take a fantastic journey into space with "L'Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune" (Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon).

De Bergerac, like so many "freethinkers", was a better believer in reason than a user of it. Nevertheless, he was a biting critic of his times. Making use of Galileo's new worlds, he took his fanciful visit to the Moon to observe the customs of its strange people. Like authors Johannes Kepler and Bishop Francis Godwin before him, de Bergerac was less concerned with a credible means of getting thwew. Kepler's man was kidnapped during an eclipse and Godwin's arrived on an airship pulled by geese. De Bergerac had a slightly more difficult time of it: His first attempt was to use bottles of dew attached to his body. As the morning light rose, so too would the dew, carrying him along. This fails and lands him, thanks to the Earth's rotation, in New France (the colony of Quebec). In Quebec, de Bergerac fashions an airship that also failes. Finally the airship is converted into a rocket, intended for the St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations, which conveys him to the stars.

Once on the Moon, Cyrano makes a series of startling discoveries: it is, in fact, the Garden of Eden. After nourishing himself on the Tree of Life, he encounters Elijah and learns the history of Biblical spacefarers. Banished from Eden, Adam and Eve took flight to Earth. Enoch, on the other hand, was taken up to the Moon by bottling the smoke of a pious burnt sacrifice. Noah's daughter simply washed ashore after taking off with the Ark's lifeboat. Elijah used a golden chariot of his own construction, repeatedly tossing a magnetic ball into the air and letting the chariot soar upwards towards it, repeating the process until he arrived.

These are not the Moon's only inhabitants, however. After taking a bite from the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, de Bergerac is introduced to spacefarers from the Sun who have set up their colony on La Lune. He is a bit more comfortable with these Rationalists than he is with the Biblical prophets. Godwin's astronautical pioneer also makes an appearance, when he is mistaken for a type of monkey and de Bergerac mistaken for a female of the species.

Several authors followed in the footsteps of de Bergerac. Voltaire elicited the help of aliens to satirize human self-importance in the face of a vast cosmos. Simon Tyssot de Patot critiqued religion and the arts via a lost world in 1710s "Voyages et Aventures de Jacques Massé." Louis-Sébastien Mercier visited "L'An 2440." Jonathan Swift took Gulliver around the planet to its many strange and varied societies. Baron Munchausen himself visited Diana several times. Washington Irving used "The Conquest of the Moon" as a parable of American expansionism. Fellow American George Tucker took the first steps in transforming these satires into Scientific Romances by taking a great deal more care in making plausible the means by which his persona took "A Voyage to the Moon" in 1827.

When he passed away
 in Sannoise, France on 28 Jul 1655, De Bergerac was at work on a second story, "Les États et Empires du Soleil" (The States and Empires of the Sun, 1662). 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Margaret Lucas Cavendish (1623-1673)

Margaret Lucas, daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Lucas, was born in 1623 at St. John's Abbey, Essex, England. Her father was exiled for a time after a duel that resulted in the death of "one Mr. Brooks," and returned to England after being pardoned by King James in 1603.

Margaret became a maid of honour to Queen Henrietta Maria and, in 1644, accompanied her into exile in France where she lived for a time at the court of the young King Louis XIV. In 1645 she became the second wife of William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Cavendish notes that her husband liked her bashfulness and states that he was the only man she was ever in love with, loving him not for title, wealth or power, but for merit, justice, gratitude, duty and fidelity. She believes these to be attributes that will hold people together, even through misfortune. She further credits such qualities as assisting her husband and her family to endure the suffering they experienced as a result of their political allegiance. They had no children.

Read It HERE
Margaret was a poet, philosopher, writer of prose romances, essayist and playwright who published under her own name at a time when most women writers published anonymously. Her writing addressed a number of topics, including gender, power, manners, scientific method and philosophy.

Her Utopian romance, "The Blazing World", is one of the earliest examples of science fiction which, as noted by many, criticized and explored such issues as science, gender and power. Cavendish writes herself into the book, which details a fictional new world (not just a new continent but an entirely separate world) and its empress. She remarks in her epilogue to the reader that she herself is empress of the philosophical world. In fact, in Cavendish's epistle to the reader she remarks that, in much the same way as there is a Charles the first, she would be considered Margaret the first.

She published over a dozen original works; inclusion of her revised works brings her total number of publications to twenty one. Cavendish has been championed and criticized as a unique and groundbreaking woman writer. She rejected the Aristotelianism and mechanical philosophy of the 17th century, preferring a vitalist model instead. She criticized and engaged with the members of the Royal Society of London and the philosophers Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes and Robert Boyle. She has been claimed as an advocate for animals and as an early opponent of animal testing.

Margarget died in x on 15 Dec 1673

Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754)

Ludvig Holberg (Baron of Holberg), son of Christian Nielsen Holberg and Karen Lem, was born on 3 Dec 1684 in Bergen, Norway. He died in Copenhagen, Denmark on 28 Jan 1754.

His only novel, “Niels Klim’s Underground Travels”, is a satirical science fiction/fantasy story that describes a Utopian society from an outsider's point of view, and often pokes fun at diverse cultural and social topics such as morality, science, sexual equality, religion, governments and philosophy. It is one of the first science fiction novels to use the Hollow Earth concept.

Holberg knew that the satirical content of the novel would cause an uproar in Denmark-Norway, so the book was first published in Germany, and in Latin, as “Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum” (1741). He thus got a broader audience than he would have gotten in his homeland. The novel made him widely acclaimed across Europe. Danish, German, French and Dutch translations were also published in 1741.

Niels Klim’s Underground Travels

The novel starts with a foreword that assures that everything in the story is a real account of the title character's exploits in the Underworld. The story is set, according to the book, in the Norwegian harbor town of Bergen in 1664, after Klim returns from Copenhagen, where he has studied philosophy and theology at the University of Copenhagen and graduated magna cum laude. His curiosity drives him to investigate a strange cave in a mountainside above the town, which sends out regular gusts of warm air. He ends up falling down the hole, and after a while he finds himself floating in free space.

After a few days of orbiting the planet which revolves around the inner sun, he is attacked by a gryphon, and he falls down on the planet, which is named Nazar. There he wanders about for a short while until he is attacked once again, this time by an ox. He climbs up into a tree, and to his astonishment the tree can move and talk (this one screamed), and he is taken prisoner by tree-like creatures with up to six arms and faces just below the branches. He is accused of attempted rape on the town clerk's wife, and is put on trial. The case is dismissed and he is set by the Lord of Potu (the Utopian state in which he now is located) to learn the language.

Klim quickly learns the language of the Potuans, but this reflects badly on him when the Lord is about to issue him a job, because the Potuans believe that if one perceives a problem at a slow rate, the better it will be understood and solved. But, since he has considerably longer legs than the Potuans, who walk very slowly, he is set to be the Lord's personal courier, delivering letters and suchlike.

During the course of the book, Klim vividly chronicles the culture of the Potuans, their religion, their way of life and the many different countries located on Nazar. After his two-month long circumnavigation on foot, he is appalled by the fact that men and women are equal and share the same kind of jobs, so he files a suggestion to the Lord of Potu to remove women from higher positions in society. His suggestion is poorly received and he is sentenced to be exiled to the inner rim of the Earth's crust. There he becomes familiar with a country inhabited by sentient monkeys, and after a few years he becomes emperor of the land of Quama, inhabited by the only creatures in the Underworld that look like humans. There, he marries and fathers a son. But again he is driven from hearth and home due to his tyranny and as he escapes he falls into a hole, which carries him through the crust and back up to Bergen again.

There, he is mistaken by the townsfolk to be the Wandering Jew, mostly due to a lingual misunderstanding (he asks a couple of young boys where he is in quamittian, which is Jeru Pikal Salim, and the boys think he is talking about Jerusalem). He learns that he has been away for twelve years, and is taken in by his old friend, mayor Abelin, who writes down everything Klim tells him. He later receives a job as principal of the college of Bergen and marries.

Book Notes

  • The book is significant in the history of science fiction, being one of the first science-fiction novels in history along with Johannes Kepler's “Somnium” (“The Dream”, 1634), Cyrano de Bergerac's ”Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon” (1656), Jonathan Swift's “Gulliver's Travels” (1726) and Voltaire's “Micromégas” (1752). Along with a number of those stories, an excerpt was included in the anthology “The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to Wells.”
  • The renowned Danish Communist author and artist Hans Scherfig [1905–1979] created a graphic retelling of "Niels Klims underjordiske rejse", which was originally published in the Danish newspaper Land og folk [Country and people] from 3 Jul 1955 to 21 Jan 1956 and later as a book at Sirius Publishing House, Risskov, Denmark in October 1961.
  • The story was adapted to a costly 3-episode TV series for The Danish Broadcasting Corporation in 1984, starring actor Frits Helmuth in the title role.
  • In one chapter, Klim refers to Pliny the Elder and his Naturalis Historia when he feels that his descriptions of the Underworld inhabitants would seem too incredible for other humans to believe.
  • There are a few characters in the book that were actual persons. Niels Klim (d. 1690) was employed as a bell ringer at Korskirken, a church in downtown Bergen. He was also a retailer of books and a publisher. Klim's friend in the book, Mayor Abelin, was also a real person named Rasmus Chistenssen Abelin who was the mayor of Bergen in Klim's lifetime.