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Science Fiction Before Frankenstein, 1: This World

By / January 10, 2018 / no comments

So, a couple of days ago, we reported on the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Because Brian Aldiss had identified this as the first true sf novel, some people have also said that it’s also the 200th birthday of science fiction itself. It is not, and as promised here’s a bunch of stuff published long before Frankenstein in which you’ll recognise all of the themes and devices we associate with science fiction.

It’s possible that the origins of science fiction actually lie sometime around the 2nd century CE, when at least a couple of works were produced that featured voyage to the moon. If so, however, it was something of a false start, and it would really only be with the Renaissance in Europe that we start to get the idea that would shape science fiction. One of the ideas that emerged during the Renaissance was that humanity could, by rational means, shape the political, social, cultural, scientific and even physical world around them. Out of this belief emerged the first of the major strands that would shape science fiction.

Utopias

There had long been a notion of a better world that could be reached, usually by the simple process of dying. What was unique about Thomas More’s Utopia was that it suggested that there was a better world that could be reached physically while alive. Indeed, a better world that could be created here and now by people who chose to behave rationally. It was an ordered society, modelled on the monasteries, where people worked but for fewer hours each day than they did in More’s England, where they would be guaranteed ample food, where they were free from the upsets of war, and where, above all, they would be healthy and happy.

Utopia was a massive best seller across Europe during the 16th century, and the word, “utopia” entered common parlance. It wasn’t too long, therefore, before other utopias started to appear, each of which offered their own different prescription for what would make people happy and secure. For instance there was the religious utopia, such as The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella, or the political utopia, such as James Harrington’s Oceana.

There were also satirical inversions of utopias, anti-utopias, such as Another World and Yet the Same by Bishop Joseph Hall which satirically portrayed a world of gross physical indulgence, and another in which everyone was a thief. The multifarious utopias and anti-utopias that evolved during the 16th and 17th centuries were an essential precursor of the utopias and dystopias we know today.

Scientific inventions

One form of utopia that emerged during the 17th century was the scientific utopia. This was instigated by Francis Bacon’s posthumous (and incomplete) novel, New Atlantis. Bacon had spent his career advocating for a new approach to science, one based on observation and experiment rather than tradition and authority, and in New Atlantis he imagined a society structured on just such lines. In social and political terms, the situation on Bensalem is little different from that known to Bacon’s readers; but the citizens of Bensalem enjoy a wealth of material benefits that come from sustained scientific investigation. These include microscopes, flying machines and underwater boats, none of them known at the time Bacon was writing the book.

After the Restoration of Charles II, Bacon’s idea of a society of scientists was realised with the formation of the Royal Society. But the notion that abstruse scientific speculation might lead to material gain was satirised barely a century later when the third voyage of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift takes in the flying island of Laputa, where scientific endeavour includes efforts to extract sunlight from cucumbers. The fact that it could be so readily satirised suggests that another strand of science fiction, involving the novelties of scientific invention, had already become firmly established.

Visions of the Future

Another of the fundamental premises of science fiction is that the passage of time will change things. That is the basis upon which time travel stories are built, and also any fiction set in the future. And it is a notion whose fictional origins also lie in the 17th century. The noted historian of science fiction, I.F. Clarke, in The Pattern of Expectation, says that the first work set in the future was a 6-page pamphlet published at the height of the Civil War. “Aulicus His Dream” was a nightmarish vision of a Catholic Charles I triumphant in London. But a far more significant work of futuristic fiction was Nova Solyma by Samuel Gott, a two-volume romance published only four years later but set 50 years in the future. Gott was a millenarian, a sect that believed the conversion of the Jews would signal the second coming of Christ, and that is the basis of this novel. In this future the Jews have accepted the True Messiah, which has resulted in the creation of a utopian state in Jerusalem from which the Turks have been expelled. It’s not a great novel, but it is an interesting exploration of how different the future might be.

There was a revival of interest in fictions about the future during the 18th century, when the future took over from utopia as a setting for satirical attacks on political or social aspects of the present. There was a whole slew of them during the middle years of the century (at roughly the same time that the Gothic was becoming established, though distinctly different from that literary mode), such as Memoirs of the Twentieth Century by Samuel Madden, the anonymous The Reign of King George VI, 1900-1925, and Louis Sebastien Mercier’s The Year 2440.

Again, a key aspect of science fiction was well established 50 years or more before Frankenstein. But in this post we’ve only looked at the more Earth-bound aspects of science fiction. In the next post we’ll also look at how early science fiction was already alive with alien beings and other worlds.

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