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.

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".