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Best Proto-Science Fiction

Best of the Really Old Stuff Before Science Fiction was a Genre

'Proto-Science Fiction' being science fiction books written before HG Wells (pre 1890. Also referred to as the 'really old stuff before science fiction was even a genre.

If you value your sanity, stay away from all those places where critics argue about what was the first science fiction story. No one agrees. Brian Aldiss famously said that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was the first, but that's because he defined science fiction in such a way that nothing before then could count. Gary Westfahl insists that science fiction could not begin until authors recognised that they were working within a genre, so science fiction really begins with Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories. And there are all sorts of other works, between these dates or much earlier, that other critics have proclaimed.

You see, it all depends on how we define science fiction. And since it is impossible to come up with a definition that everyone agrees on, so it is inevitably impossible to come up with a starting point that everyone agrees on.

All we know for sure is that as long ago as the second century of the Christian Era there were at least two works in which travellers visited the moon. One was A True History by Lucian of Samosata, and the other was The Incredible Wonders Beyond Thule by Antonius Diogenes, which probably was earlier though it has been lost so we don't really know much about it. There could well have been others, we just don't know. Were these the first science fiction? As I say, it all depends what you mean by science fiction, but it does suggest that people have been writing about the sorts of things we associate with science fiction for as long as they have been writing.

There's a name for this sort of stuff: it's referred to as "proto-sf", which sort of suggests it's not really science fiction. Well, there's all sorts of pretty amazing, pretty science-fictional ideas in all of these books, so make your own mind up.

It doesn't matter whether you agree with Aldiss or not, this is the obvious place to start, because it's such an amazing book. Mary was 18, she'd been in a relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley since she was 16, the couple had a child but were not yet married.

That May they travelled to Geneva where Lord Byron rented the Villa Diodati along with his mistress, Claire Claremont and his physician John Polidori. It was a miserably wet holiday, so they spent their time telling ghost stories and challenging each other to write new ones. Polidori wrote The Vampyre, a precursor of Dracula, and Mary, the new science of galvanism, wrote Frankenstein.

You know the story, everyone does: a young scientist puts together various body parts and uses electricity to reanimate them. Seeing his creation, he rejects it; the creature, cast out alone, learns to talk and read, but yearns for revenge against his creator. The story ends with the two disappearing into the Arctic wastes.

Why it's at the top of the list:

The ink was barely dry on the first edition of 1818 before it had been adapted for the stage. Countless stage productions followed, and films, and novelists from Brian Aldiss to Michael Bishop have written sequels to or variations on the story. It is, without doubt, the most influential work in the entire history of science fiction. What's more, after Shelley's death, Mary earned a living from writing and produced another science fiction classic: The Last Man.

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Throughout the Middle Ages there had been folk stories about perfect places, whether it was Heaven or the Land of Cockaigne, but when More wrote about a perfect place he did something very different. He suggested that Utopia was a real place that could be reached in this world, and, moreover, that its perfection was a result of deliberate human planning.

On a (genuine) embassy to the Low Countries, More is introduced to Raphael Hythloday (the name means "dispenser of nonsense") who describes how he was left behind in the New World on one of Amerigo Vespucci's expeditions, and on his travels discovered a land where everything was ordered and right. Gold was so unvalued that it was used for chamber pots, there were no possessions, everyone had enough to eat, no-one had to work excessively and so on.

The book contains scathing satire on the state of England as it then was, but what caught everyone's imagination was the idea of this peaceful and ordered land. Indeed, it was such a powerful idea that the word entered the language almost instantly.

Why it's at the top of the list:

Utopia was originally written as a work of philosophy, like several books by More's friend Erasmus it was intended as a guide to how the world should be organised. But it became so popular so quickly that it was taken up as a way of expressing religious ideas, scientific notions, political satire and more. Within a century it was being used to express political plans. Yet it has always remained a model for fictions, right up to the work of writers as varied as H.G. Wells and Kim Stanley Robinson.

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What we learned from Jeckyll and Hyde is that Frankenstein's monster is in all of us. Taking elements from the real-life case of Deacon Brodie, a respectable cabinet maker who was also a secret burglar, and from James Hogg's story of Calvinist guilt, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Robert Louis Stevenson fashioned something completely new. The idea that any one of us is capable of becoming the monster had never appeared in science fiction before; but since then the idea has never been absent.

This is another story that has been presented so often on film and on stage that we all know the story, even if we've never read the book (though the book has a sense of violence and malevolence that has never quite been captured on film). Told by a lawyer, Utterson, the story introduces a hideous, brutal figure, Hyde, who seems to be an acquaintance of respected Doctor Jeckyll. Gradually we discover that Jeckyll has found a way to indulge in his vices by changing himself into Hyde, but the transformations have slowly got the better of him.

Why it's on the list:

This is another work whose title has entered the language. The central idea of the double, the other self, has become one of the keystones of all subsequent science fiction and horror...

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We don't know exactly when Bishop Godwin wrote this extraordinary story, it could have been any time between the 1580s when he was at Oxford and the 1620s when he was already Bishop of Hereford. All we know is that it was found among his paper after his death, and published (anonymously, at first) in 1638. What we do know about the work is that it contains remarkably prescient scientific ideas, many of which were still very controversial, and that it presents the first ever mechanical means of travel to another world.

It's the story of an anti-hero, Domingo Gonsales, who, after various misadventures, is abandoned on the island of St Helena. There he harnesses a flock of wild geese to a carriage, meaning to fly away from danger, but the geese migrate to the moon and take him with them. On the journey, Godwin doesn't just reveal detailed knowledge of the theories of Copernicus, but, years before Newton, suggests that Gonsales becomes lighter the further away from Earth he travels, and for part of the journey he is actually weightless.

Why it's on the list:

This was one of the most influential of all books written in the 17th century. In the light of Godwin's novel, Bishop Wilkins, the founder of the Royal Society, revised a scientific treatise about the Moon in order to discuss ways of travelling there, the first scientific treatment of the topic ever. Moreover, Godwin's work was acknowledged as a direct influence by a host of later writers, including Voltaire and Jules Verne.

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Even more than today, writers in the 17th and 18th centuries often used science fictional devices for satire. Of these, none was more devastating than Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. He attacked religion in A Tale of a Tub, suggested that the poor Irish should avoid starvation by eating their own children in A Modest Proposal, and most famously of all attacked just about everyone in Gulliver's Travels from politicians (disputes over which end of an egg to open in Lilliput) to scientists (the flying island of Laputa).

This is another of those novels that has been dramatized so often, or abridged for children, that we all know it, though it is generally only the first part of the book that is well known. It is a marvellous voyage in which Gulliver is cast ashore on the land of Lilliput where he is a giant among tiny people.

His second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag, where he is tiny in a land of giants. On his third voyage he is taken up to the flying island of Laputa and witnesses the first aerial bombardment in fiction, and also scientists trying to extract sunlight from cucumbers. Finally, his fourth voyage takes him to the land of the Houyhnhnms, wise and noble horses while the human Yahoos are deformed and debased.

Why it's on the list:

The science in Gulliver's Travels is deliberately ridiculous, yet the novel is filled with the sort of invention that has inspired a host of later science fiction novels, most recently, Swiftly by Adam Roberts..

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The name means "Little, Big", and like Gulliver's encounters with the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, there is a lot of play with issues of scale. But it is a very different sort of story. Voltaire uses a tale of alien encounters to examine the philosophical ideas of his day.

Micromegas is actually a scientist from a planet around Sirius who is exiled for his heretical views and decides to visit our Solar System. Micromegas is about 23 miles tall, and when he reaches Saturn he meets a dwarf who is only one-twentieth of his size.

But though Micromegas is so much bigger in every sense, including lifespan and intellect, the two are both scientists and strike up a friendship. Together they visit Earth, where at first they conclude that the beings are too tiny to have any genuine intelligence. Then they encounter a boatload of philosophers and develop a way of communicating with them, only to laugh at the puny ideas of the puny Earthmen.

Why it's on the list:

Micromegas is one of the key works in the development of science fiction. It is the first of what the French call the "contes philosophique", the philosophical tale, that is a distinct brand of ideas-led science fiction.

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A group of astronauts blast off from Cape Canaveral in Florida for the first manned trip to the Moon. No, this isn't NASA in the 1960s, but Jules Verne in the 1860s; they don't blast off in a rocket but are fired from a huge cannon, but still there is a lot that was prescient in this story.

From the Earth to the Moon is just one of Jules Verne's Extraordinary Voyages, tales in which groups of men travel to strange places by strange means. Many have science fictional aspects, journeying to the centre of the Earth or flying off on a comet, travelling aboard Captain Nemo's submarine or in Robur's airship. Verne always insisted that his work was true to scientific knowledge, but it was the colourful adventure that made them so popular.

Why it's on the list:

When Hugo Gernsback first created a magazine devoted to "scientifiction", he defined it as the sort of story written by H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe and Verne. Right from the start, in other words, Verne has been part of the DNA of science fiction, and his amazing adventure stories full of extraordinary scientific possibilities are still part of how we all think of sf today.

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Margaret Cavendish was a fascinating and eccentric character. She was a Lady-in-Waiting to the queen of Charles I, and during the Civil War she was in a ship that fled to France pursued by a Parliamentarian naval vessel, a breathtaking escapade that would figure in several of her stories.

In exile, she met and married the Duke of Newcastle, and befriended leading scientists and philosophers, including Descartes, Hobbes, Gassendi and others. Her brother in law was the Charles Cavendish for whom the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge was named. She wrote poems and essays about science, she was one of the first women to publish under her own name and make a living from her writing, and she was also one of the first people to introduce ideas of atomism to England though her repeated attempts to join the Royal Society were always rejected.

She was also dramatic and tempestuous, earning the name "Mad Madge", and once turned up to the premier of one of her husband's plays in a costume that left her breasts bare.

The Blazing World, which first appeared as an appendix to one of her books of scientific essays, is full of the sort of wild adventure that characterised her life. A lady is kidnapped by pirates, shipwrecked at the North Pole, discovers another world attached to this one at the pole, meets a succession of talking animals, goes into the interior of the other world which turns out to be studded with blazing jewels, becomes Empress, engages in war, and then communicates with the Duchess of Newcastle.

Why it's on the list:

For a long time The Blazing World was ignored by male critics of science fiction, Brian Aldiss called it unreadable, but it is in fact a very readable if weird adventure. It was a book that encompassed serious scientific thought, as well as being a very early expression of feminism.

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In the middle years of the 19th century, Prussia embarked on a series of military adventures against Denmark, Austria and finally France which succeeded in uniting the German states under the Prussian crown, establishing a new military power in Europe, and destabilising the balance of power. As a result, stories began to appear stoking the fear of Germany as a way of lobbying for increased spending on the army and navy.

One of the first and certainly the most famous of these was "The Battle of Dorking" by George Chesney, a Captain in the Royal Engineers who had grown concerned by the lack of preparedness of the British army and also by the speed of the Prussian army. His story, recounted long after the event, describes a lightning German invasion of Britain, which sweeps aside the ill-trained British forces at Dorking and goes on to conquer the entire country and split up the empire.

Why it's on the list:

A flood of invasion stories followed "The Battle of Dorking", serialised in newspapers that found that they increased sales in towns named as part of the invasion route. The general fear of war that was building up meant that similar stories appeared in France, America and even Germany. Through books like The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, invasion stories were transformed into what we recognise as spy stories. And the sub-genre also directly influenced The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, so that the stories also gave rise to alien invasion tales.

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One of Mary Shelley's late novels, The Last Man, envisaged a world ravaged by plague in which humanity is wiped out. Although not well received at the time, the romantic notion of a world stripped bare of people set in train a strand of science fiction that would grow into the distinctive catastrophe stories of British scientific romance. One of the earliest and finest of these was After London by Richard Jeffries.

Jeffries was a nature writer, and some of the finest passages in the novel occur when he is describing landscape turning wild, domestic animals becoming feral and London being taken over by swampland. Against this vividly described background he tells a story that would become all too familiar from later post-apocalyptic works but that was startlingly original here. As society collapses, so the world reverts to barbarism before settling into a pseudo-medieval state.

Why it's on the list:

Post-apocalyptic fiction has been a commonplace of science fiction for decades, but this is where it started. Here is where we first encounter the loss of civilisation and the way that humanity reacts in the face of catastrophe.

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Francis Bacon was a scientist to his fingertips, one of the very first to argue for the primacy of experiment, and so devoted to his own observations that he died after catching a cold during an experiment in refrigeration. All of this poured out in a sequence of major books that were the foundation of 17th century science. One book unfinished at the time of his death was a utopia in which science held the reins.

The remote island of New Atlantis is governed by a school of science known as Saloman's House, a place of such advanced ideas that they already have versions of a microscope, submarine and aircraft, inventions that would occur in real life for decades or even longer. And because everything is conducted on scientific principles, society is, of course, perfect.

Why it's on the list:

There are works of fiction that have an effect on the real world, and this is undoubtedly one of them. It was on the model of Bacon's Saloman's House that John Wilkins and his followers created the Royal Society after the Restoration of Charles II. On the literary side, of course, New Atlantis is still recognised as one of the two or three major works of utopian fiction.

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Robida was an illustrator and caricaturist more than a novelist, which is just as well because it is the many charming illustrations for this book that have survived better than the story itself. But what illustrations! Writing in the last quarter of the 19th century, Robida imagined the middle years of the twentieth century as a place in which the familiar attitudes and mores of Victorian Paris are recreated against a setting of technological wonders.

Along the way, for instance, we see people in 19th century costume travelling in high speed mass transit systems above the city, flying in helicopters, conversing on videophones and more. With reference to women's liberation, biological warfare and even a Chinese invasion going on in the background, it's a very different world. Yet against this he tells a conventional tale of a young man wanting to marry a woman his parents consider unsuitable.

Why it's on the list: Ignore the story, just enjoy the pictures. They give a vivid impression of what the future might be like and actually proved surprisingly influential; films like Metropolis and Things to Come clearly owe a debt to Robida's illustrations.

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Throughout the 18th century, there was a vogue for stories about other worlds inside our own. In time, these would give rise to Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but one of the first and certainly most influential of these stories was written by one of the leading figures in Scandinavian literature.

In Holberg's utopia, Niels Klim falls through the Earth's crust and finds himself on another planet, which revolves around a sun inside our Earth. Here he encounters, in turn, a race of intelligent trees, of apelike beings, of jackdaws at war with the thrushes, even a country of string basses which communicate by music.

Why it's on the list:

A mixture of satire, fantasy, and an almost surreal invention, this is the first major example of a hollow Earth story, and one that would go on to be copied throughout Europe.

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At the start of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, a bunch of characters assemble, most of them identified only by their job: the local mayor, the journalist, and so on. One unnamed figure is actually William Morris, artist, poet, furniture maker, printer, wallpaper designer, and author of News from Nowhere. This is the reason he's on Wells's guest list, because the world the time traveller visits is in part a response to the idealised socialist utopia that Morris had presented in this book.

A socialist falls asleep in the 19th century and wakes in a future where all socialist ideals have come true. He finds this future London to be a paradise where there is no class system, no private property, no prisons, and where people work only because it is pleasureable to do so. Our Victorian traveller is conducted around this wonderland by a man who represents everything that Morris believes in, and falls in love with a woman who has been liberated by socialism.

Why it's on the list:

News from Nowhere was propaganda, of course, but Morris was also a very fine writer of romance and fantasy, and he brought this skill to bear on his novel. This was one of the last great utopias in the traditional style before H.G. Wells reinvented the form with his own A Modern Utopia.

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Usually translated as "Another World and yet the Same", Bishop Hall's book has been claimed as the first anti-utopia. Coming less than a century after Thomas More wrote his seminal book, this was an outrageous satire in which all the faults of contemporary society are pushed to gross excess.

It is set in Terra Australis (probably the first work of fiction to use that name) the unknown southern continent that has started to appear in the work of some mapmakers. This southern continent was always presented as the mirror image of northern continents, and so Hall makes the society there the mirror image of things in the north. Thus the physical indulgence in Crapulia is so extreme that the rich employ servants to hold their eyes open and put food into their mouths. Viraginia is a land rules by women; Moronia is a land where morons mimic the Catholic Church; and Lavernia is a land of thieves.

Why it's on the list:

Early utopias are often presented as being worthy and sometimes quite dull, but when utopian writers went for comedy the result is scatological, excessive and very far from dull. Another, slightly later example is the sexual licentiousness in Isle of Pines by Henry Neville which was abhorred at the time as being pornography.

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At some point during the 19th century, discoveries in geology and evolution awoke us to the idea of the long history of Earth, and with the discovery of the fossils of Neanderthal Man we started writing about prehistoric humans. There were a lot of them, most of which don't really count as science fiction. But this, one of the best, certainly does. Because this is a story of alien contact that just happens to be set in the distant past.

A prehistoric tribe arrives at what they hope will be their campsite, only to discover mysterious beings there already. These Xipehuz, as that are called, are shaped like cones of cylinders, objects rather than beings, but when the humans approach they prove to be aggressive. The story concerns one man, Bakhoun, who comes up with a series of major inventions, including writing, as he battles to preserve Earth for humanity.

Why it's on the list:

J-H Rosny, aine;, was the pen name of Belgian writer Joseph-Henri Boex, who deserves to be at least as well-known as his contemporaries, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, but alas seems to have been largely forgotten. But stories like The Xipehuz, Another World in which a strange child can see a whole ecology of other beings, and The Death of the Earth about the emergence of a new race to supplant humanity, all show that this was one of the great and original talents in the history of the genre.

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First published, in a bowdlerised form, after the death of Cyrano de Bergerac, the two parts of the book are incomplete, probably because they were considered too heretical and too racy. It is probable that a third part, taking the story on to the stars, was intended, and may even have been written, but it has been lost completely.

In the first part a man called Cyrano travels by rocket to the moon, where he discovers the Garden of Eden and encounters the ghosts of Socrates and of Domingo Gonsales (from The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin), all of which gives Cyrano a chance to talk about how useless the idea of God is. In the second part Cyrano builds another flying machine, powered by blasts of hot air generated by focussed mirrors, which takes him to a sun spot, where he is put on trial for the crimes of humanity and meets Tomasso Campanella (author of the utopian novel The City of the Sun) with whom he talks about sex.

Why its on the list:

Arthur C. Clarke credits this with the first appearance of a rocket for interplanetary travel, and also the first appearance of something like a ramjet. Be that as it may, this was a tremendously influential work that continued to inspire writers for a century or more..

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Hugo Gernsback defined scientifiction as "the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allen Poe type of story". Poe was a very varied writer, associated with romantic and gothic fiction, one of the fathers of the horror story and the detective story. Only a portion of his short fiction could be identified as science fiction, and most of them, such as "MS, Found in a Bottle" or "A Descent into the Maelstrom", are also straightforward adventure stories with an extra and often disturbing element. That is certainly true of this novella.

For the most part it is the story of an ill-fated expedition to the south seas, but on one remote island the crew of the ship encounter a race of savages who are terrified by the crew's whiteness. The crew are lured into a trap from which only the narrator, Pym, and one other survive by hiding in a cave where they discover traces of ancient writing (it seems to be a sort of hieroglyph) which explains the fear of whiteness in terms of a shrouded white figure. Escaping the island, the two men set off in a small boat in which they find themselves swept towards a great hole, at the entrance to which they glimpse a white, shrouded figure. The narrative ends at that point.

Why it's on the list:

The science fictionality of this story is all a matter of suggestion. We don't know that the Antarctic hole towards which the two men are heading at the end of the story is the entrance to an underworld, but that is the implication. We do not know that the white shrouded figure is an alien from this other, subterranean world, but again that is the best explanation. It is the use of hints that makes this such a powerful story.

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It would be hard to find any work of mainstream fiction that has had more influence on the history of science fiction than Robinson Crusoe. The story of a resourceful man who manages to adapt his environment to suit his own ends, it gave rise to a whole class of stories, the robinsonade, that has cropped up with remarkable regularity in sf stories ever since. What is less well known is that Defoe also wrote one work that is itself science fiction.

The full title, in the manner of the times, is: The Consolidator: or, Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon: Translated from the Lunar Language, which pretty much says it all. It's a satire in which the doings of life on Earth are observed and commented upon by the people of the moon. While there are various inventions in the story, such as a feathered flying machine, and a device called The Cogitator which connects one's mind directly to the workings of the world, this is primarily a device for looking at the world from a distance, which gives an excuse for comic misunderstandings and satiric asides.

Why it's on the list:

The importance of Robinson Crusoe to one side, the device of using distance and scientific detachment as a way of saying things about the world that you might not otherwise get away with has a long and honourable history in science fiction, and this is a prime example of the form.

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If The Time Machine was, in part, a response to News from Nowhere by William Morris, then News from Nowhere was in turn a response to Looking Backward. Morris didn't find Bellamy's version of Socialism to his taste, but in responding to it, he even borrowed the structure of Bellamy's novel.

In this novel, Julian West falls asleep in the latter part of the 19th century, and wakes up in Boston in the year 2000. But this is a America that has been transformed into a Socialist paradise, and the novel mostly consists of West being taken around Boston to see how much better everything is. The more uncongenial the job the shorter the hours everyone works, food is freely available to anyone who wants it, people retire at 45, there's something resembling a credit card, and culture is piped to the home by a sort of telephone.

Why it's on the list:

Bellamy's novel had an immediate and extraordinary effect. Bellamy Clubs sprang up all across the United States, a mass political movement was born (called, confusingly, Nationalism), Marxist writings of the day kept referring to the book, and there were even utopian communities that modelled themselves on the novel.

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Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the first Baron Lytton, financed his extravagant lifestyle by writing a string of best selling if often pot boiling novels. Titles like The Last Days of Pompeii and Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes, were highly successful and secured his reputation and his wealth. Though it has to be remembered that it was Bulwer-Lytton who began one novel with the immortal line: "It was a dark and stormy night", which has been parodied mercilessly ever since.

His one work of science fiction, The Coming Race, is a combination hollow Earth/lost race story. A traveller happens upon a subterranean world where he encounters the descendants of an antediluvian race who call themselves Vril-Ya. They have a potent source of food, Vril, which gives them inordinate power, so much so that even a child could destroy a city with the power of its mind alone. Having now encountered humans from the surface, the Vril-Ya decide that they must conquer the surface world.

Why it's on the list:

The Coming Race had an extraordinary afterlife. The novel was so popular that vril became a common term for elixirs, leading to things like the Vril-Ya Bazaar at the Royal Albert Hall and the establishment of a Vril Society in Germany. Though the most lasting effect was in the naming of a beef extract that was called Bovril and that is still on sale today.

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Following the Copernican Revolution, Kepler was probably the most important astronomer in the story of our understanding of the Solar System. He worked with Tycho Brahe and became court astronomer to Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, and it was his work that demonstrated the elliptical orbit of the planets. It was while he was in Prague that he wrote the story called Somnium (The Dream), which was circulated among friends in 1611 but was not published until after his death.

The dream is, really, a scientific thought experiment in which Kepler considers how various astronomical features, such as an eclipse, would appear from the moon as a way of promoting the heliocentric view of the Solar System. Kepler's dream concerns an Icelandic boy whose mother consorts with demons who are able to transport him to the island of Levania, which is their name for the moon. There he meets beings who are tall, because of the gravity, and pale because of the light, and who introduce him to different ways of observing the heavens.

Why it's on the list:

Somnium had an unfortunate effect, in that a garbled account of the story seems to have been responsible for Kepler's mother being tried for witchcraft. After she was acquitted, Kepler added a huge number of notes to his manuscript to explain away the allegory and make it seem more like a scientific treatise. Nevertheless, writers from Isaac Asimov to Adam Roberts have declared that this is the first science fiction novel.

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A reviewer at the time described this novel as "the illegitimate offspring" of Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe, which is a reasonable if not exactly precise description of the book, because it misses out the fact that this is also a hollow Earth story and a utopia.

Peter Wilkins is a fairly typical hard-done-by hero of 18th century fiction who undergoes various vicissitudes before being shipwrecked on a barren rock in the South Atlantic. There he lives a Robinson Crusoe existence until a flying woman, Youwarkee, crashes into his hut. In time, the two marry (for the 18th century, there's a lot of sex in this novel) and have several children before Youwarkee convinces him to come and visit her land. He is borne there on a chair carried by eight of these flying people know as Glumms and Gawrys. Their land us underground at the South Pole, where he finds a liberal, utopian society, though one that isn't technologically advanced, so he is able to bring a host of innovations that give him great power, enabling him to put down a rebellion and impose the true religion.

Why it's on the list:

We don't know much about Robert Paltrock (he doesn't even have an entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia) and this appears to be his only novel. Nevertheless it is perhaps the most significant work of science fiction to appear in Britain between Gulliver's Travels and Frankenstein..

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Before the end of the 19th century, everyone who travelled in time did so by falling asleep or being transported by magic, devices which gave the traveller no control over their journey. It is popularly assumed that the first mechanical device for travelling in time, the first time machine, was invented by H.G. Wells. But that is not the case. Eight years before Wells"s novel, this curious book came out in Spain; it wasn"t particularly successful at the time so there is no suggestion that Wells had read the novel or was even aware of it, but it is still the first time machine in history.

What Gaspar invented was a sort of airship occupied by an ever-changing cast of scientists, hangers-on, troublesome soldiers, sexy servants, a gaggle of superannuated prostitutes, refugees from other times, and more. Unlike Wells, who sent his traveller forward in time, Gaspar used the time machine like most subsequent authors to go back into history. So we get a series of brief visits to the siege of Granada, the court of the Chinese Emperor, the eruption of Vesuvius, and even to the Great Flood. All of which is little more than colourful background to a farcical tale of the inventor trying to marry his ward, and the ward trying to get together with her soldier boyfriend.

Why it"s on the list: Gaspar was a struggling writer who never earned the fortune or fame he felt his talents deserved, and this rather laboured comedy didn"t do anything to improve his luck. But it is of interest as the very first time machine in history.

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The most characteristic aspect of the science fiction we all know is that it is set in the future. Far and away the vast majority of science fiction stories are set anything from five minutes to five millennia in the future. And yet, for a long time authors didn't think to set their work at any time other than the here and now. In fact the first work of fiction to be set in the future was only published in 1648, towards the end of the English Civil War. 

Samuel Gott was one of the Members of Parliament excluded in what was known as Pride's Purge, and Nova Solyma is one of the most significant utopian fictions to appear during the Commonwealth era.It is basically a romantic adventure that features piracy and bandits, kidnappings, cross-dressing, mistaken identity, duals, and a love story in which the two heroes seem to fall for the same girl, until right at the end when it is revealed that they are twin sisters. But it is set fifty years in the future, when the Jews have all converted to Christianity, and Nova Solyma (Jerusalem) has become a peaceful and prosperous utopia.

Why it's on the list:

Nova Solyma is essentially a work of religious propaganda; millenarians like Gott believed that the conversion of the Jews was a sign of the Second Coming of Christ, so this novel is clearly intended as a model for the new Commonwealth in Britain, with education, industry and good Christian values leading the way to a better world.

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Finally, one to avoid:

Yes, that Casanova. The famous libertine was also an author, who somehow found time between his innumerable conquests to write this 1,700-page novel. It's another hollow Earth saga in which a brother and sister join an Arctic expedition, get caught in a maelstrom, and are sucked right through to the interior of the Earth. Here, on the underside of the crust, they encounter a world of 80 kingdoms and ten republics inhabited by millions of tiny, multi-coloured humans. Casanova goes into great detail about the different realms and the peoples and the technologies and their language and sex and on and on. Okay, a science fiction novel by Casanova is a curiosity, but life's too short to wade through all of this verbosity.

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