The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin (1638)

The Man in the Moone or the Discovrse of a Voyage thither by Domingo Gonsales is the full title of a story written by the bishop Francis Godwin in the late 1620s. It wasn’t published until 1638, 5 years after he’d died. I’ve read the 2009 Broadview Press edition edited by William Poole. As with my review of Utopia, and my intention with as many of the titles in my challenge as possible, I have ignored outer layers of the published text. In this case, the introduction, the section on Godwin and his contemporaries, note on the text, textural notes and appendices. I have read the story as was originally intended. However, this version has not had its language modernised so I did need to refer to footnotes on occasion for clarity. For example, he calls the birds pivotal to the plot Gansas, which I needed an explanation for. So, in a book of 176 pages, The Man in the Moone can be found on 56 pages, most of which have footnotes. This is a short story, not even a novella. You might be fussy and call it a novelette. I don’t know. I haven’t counted the words.

Many commentators have called it the first piece of true science fiction. That calls into question the very definition of the term, which is debate for someone or somewhere else. My opinion will follow, but what all good stories need regardless of genre is a plot. This is what let Utopia down, in my opinion. Also, the term science wasn’t widely used until the eighteenth century (natural philosophy being used previously), so any label is retrogressive.

The story starts with a prologue comparing his voyage to the moon with earlier journeys to the Americas. It is simply stating that it is an inevitable consequence of progress. The main body of the story begins with the narrator, who appears to be a man of some means, kills and robs in order to find favour with a Duke in Spain, when a time of adventure and discovery were the fashion. Once he has increased his wealth he returns home to his parents and takes a wife. He hears of riches and adventure in the West Indies, so he sets off in search of a bigger fortune. He falls sick and is abandoned on an island. He comes across aforementioned gansas, which appear to have been bred specifically to counter the earth’s magnetic pull. Thus he designs a flying machine with he intends to take him back to Spain. However, he is picked up by his former fleet and they head back to Spain with his new flying machine, but come under attack from and English fleet. He escapes using the bird-driven machine, but eventually finds himself heading to the moon, as it turns out that is the gansas’ season to migrate. En route, he describes the continents and the movements of celestial bodies. Once he arrives on the moon he discovers that the dark areas are seas and that the inhabitants are giants. What follows is a description of the culture he sees around him. However, unlike  Utopia, it is narrated to the reader through a series of events and journeys. For example, he visits royalty to impress them with his jewels. The utopia he describes shows these giants are long lived and disease free, that they have food without labour and free housing, amongst other benefits.

Finally, he misses his wife and child, and with great reluctance on his part and pleading from his new friends, he heads back to Earth, only to find himself in China.

Godwin has mixed success with his use of science (remember, not-so-called at the time) and description of an alien world. He revels in explain the journey and methodology he applied to his machine. In a world only just waking up to Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, I think this is a brave attempt at applying these ideas. There are a few glaring failures, however, such as the dark side of the moon being lit by distant planets. I did particularly enjoy his description of a new colour, suggesting that to describe it would be like describing the difference between blue and green to a blind man. The narrator is a little annoying but generally convincing as someone caught up in the exploration fever of the day, and out to make himself rich. The descriptions of the utopia have the desired criticism of society of the day – the lunar giants have superior moral attitudes and have solved most of society’s ills. I found the actual prose hard to deal with, which is a combination of my own ignorance surrounding medieval language, but also due to the constant numbering  for footnotes and textural notes. It was hard to get to grips with the actual characters and journeys.

Some might call The Man in the Moone utopian fantasy or imaginary voyage. It is in my opinion, science fiction. By that, I argue that it uses general principles which science applies, such as theory and observation. It uses machines and mechanics to tell a story and in doing so, posts a warning on the path of human technological advancement. It is the earliest example that I know that is a deliberate fiction which sets out to explore the contemporary landscape and comment on a possible future. It is also the forerunner of all the novels that explore the moon, Mars, other planets and galaxies. It was the first true step.

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