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Science Fiction Before Frankenstein, 2: Other Worlds

By / January 12, 2018 / no comments

Okay, for science fiction you really need strange worlds and alien creatures. Well, no you don’t, really; but it is still one of the typical characteristics of an awful lot of sf. And it’s a characteristic that goes right back to the early days of sf. Back, indeed, to those ancient Greek writers who wrote stories of travelling to the Moon. But we’re restricting ourselves here to those 300 years or so between the Renaissance (and Thomas More’s Utopia) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which Brian Aldiss claimed was the first work of sf). We’ve already seen that this period produced lots of work that introduced such typical sf devices as utopias, marvellous inventions and travel into the future. So now let’s look at stories that took us away from planet Earth.


By the early years of the 17th century, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler had all changed the way we think of the heavens. At least in the Protestant areas of Europe, where such speculation was not discouraged, we were starting to recognise that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, that planets orbited the sun, and that the stars were also suns that may have planets of their own. And when Galileo took up the Dutch invention of the telescope, and then turned it towards the sky, he produced a detailed map of the Moon that turned it from a featureless disc into a landscape that might, so it was thought, have forests and oceans and maybe even cities. And if there were cities, would there not also be inhabitants?

In 1620, the great Jacobean playwright, Ben Jonson, produced a masque for the court of James I called Newes of the New World Discover’d in the Moon, which was perhaps the first published work that treated the Moon as a landscape with its own inhabitants. Even before this, Kepler was circulating the manuscript of his Somnium, though it wasn’t published until after his death in 1630. This was an allegorical explanation of his views on astronomy, but it also featured tall, pale beings who lived on the Moon. These beings are actually rather similar to the lunar beings in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, which we’ll come to shortly.

Perhaps the most spectacular of the early aliens, however, came in Micromegas by Voltaire. In this story a massive alien from the star Sirius wanders into our solar system, and meets up with a not-quite-so-massive alien from Saturn, and together they tour the inner solar system. But they decide that the tiny little beings from Earth are too insignificant to be worth paying attention to.

Travel to Other Worlds

At first, these aliens were encountered in dreams (as in Kepler’s story) or by some magical device. But Francis Godwin’s posthumous The Man in the Moone introduced something new: a mechanical contrivance. His luckless protagonist, Domingo Gonsales, is trapped on St Helena, and in an effort to escape he builds a carriage then harnesses it to a flock of wild geese, which he hopes will carry him to the mainland. But the belief at the time was that geese migrated to the Moon, and that is exactly what they do. It is a particularly interesting voyage in science fictional terms, because at the mid-point of the journey he actually experiences a period of weightlessness, the first time that such an idea had crept into fiction. In the same year that Godwin’s book was published, John Wilkins, who would go on to be one of the founders of the Royal Society, wrote a text book about the Moon, Discovery of a World in the Moon; but he was so intrigued by Godwin’s invention of a mechanical conveyance that he republished his textbook with a new chapter in which he explored ways of travel to the Moon. For perhaps the first time, science fiction had directly influenced scientific thought.

Godwin’s book, published anonymously, was particularly popular in France. So much so that when Jules Verne read it a couple of centuries later, he assumed that the author must have been French. Among the writers directly influenced by the book was Cyrano de Bergerac, who included Domingo Gonsales as one of the characters in A Voyage to the Moon, which told of journeys to the Moon and the Sun by such extravagant means as evaporating dew and a rocket. Other mechanical means of travel to other worlds include a feathered flying machine in The Consolidator by Daniel Defoe.

Hollow Worlds

One of the most colourful characters in the early history of science fiction has to be Margaret Cavendish. She was a lady-in-waiting to Charles I’s Queen Henrietta Maria and was with the queen when she fled to France during the Civil War, her boat chased all the way by the Cromwellian navy; in France she met and married the Marquess (later Duke) of Newcastle and through him met Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, John Evelyn, and her brother-in-law the scientist Charles Cavendish. She was the first woman to write and publish books under her own name, and in her poetry produced the first atomist theory of nature to appear in English. And after the Restoration she attempted to become a member of the Royal Society, but was refused because of her sex. Her (sometimes eccentric) interest in science was at the heart of most of what she wrote, which included an extraordinary science fiction novel, The Blazing World. A lady is kidnapped by pirates but abandoned at the North Pole, where she discovers another world joined to this one. Crossing to the new world she discovers it is a hollow world, and she makes herself Empress of the society she finds there. At one point in the novel she begins to communicate with the Duchess of Newcastle in our world, an early example of the postmodern device by which the author appears as a character in her own book.

For some reason, the idea that the Earth itself was hollow became popular during the 18th century, and there were a whole load of stories which explored the lands discovered there. The biggest of these, The Journey of Niels Klim by Ludvig Holberg, was an international bestseller that helped to establish its author as the best known Scandinavian writer before Ibsen. Klim’s journey to the centre of the Earth introduces him to intelligent trees, mercurial apes and warring birds. Another example of the form was The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock, in which the hero is shipwrecked on an inaccessible island, marries a flying woman, and is then transported to the subterranean world of her people.

To be honest, this list barely scrapes the surface of the works of recogniseable science fiction that appeared in the centuries before Frankenstein. But with so many aliens and other worlds and hollow planets, not to mention utopias and future times and strange inventions, it has to be clear that, important as it was, Frankenstein really was not the first work of science fiction.

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