The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

The first thing I need to say, so that my position is fully understood, is that as a character, I really don’t like Gulliver. This is the second time I’ve read Swift’s most famous tome which is actually titled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. It was originally published in 1726, although amended in 1735. My copy is the Wordsworth Classic’s edition of the 1726 version originally published in 1992.

My reading of the text ignores the notes and introduction, and as with all books in this series, is based on reading the story for itself and whether or not it is a worthy addition to the History of Science Fiction Literature. There was no occasion when reading it I felt the need to refer to the notes. Most people might know the story of Gulliver and his travels, or at the very least, is journey to Lilliput and the ‘small people’. Indeed, MS Word even knows Lilliputians but not, Luggnagg or Blefuscudians, for example. Again, many people may understand that it was work intended as a satire, a political comment of Swift’s times. I know little about these times, so while I can appreciate the satirical nature of the text, I can only hazard a guess at the allegorical nature of the beast.

Dull. That’s my one word review of Gulliver’s Travels. As I said, I didn’t like the protagonist at all. Here’s why…

The story starts out with an advert about the book’s publication and a letter from Gulliver to his cousin. He makes reference to Utopia as piece of fiction, helping to establish the reality of his narration. And then we’re off on his first journey, where he is quick to present himself as a man of good character. After a shipwreck, he is washed ashore and finds himself bound by tiny people who reveal themselves to be Lilliputians. He soon finds favour with the rulers and accepted into society. He assists them in overcome their enemies, the Blefuscudians, although refuses to force them into complete submission. After putting a fire out in the palace by pissing on it, he falls out of favour and escapes to Blefusci with the assistance of a friend. He eventually finds his way back to England. Growing restless, he sets sail again, and again, poor luck leads him to Brobdingnag, which turns out to be inhabited by giants of the same scale to him, as he was to the little people (12:1). This time, he falls in with a farmer and his daughter until he is brought before the court. As in Lilliput, he becomes a royal favourite and his every need is provided for. He even has a travelling box, akin to a mobile dolls house. Unfortunately, this is snatched by an eagle on a trip to the seaside and dropped in the sea, where Gulliver is eventually rescued by some normal sized sailors, who return him to England. Of course, he doesn’t settle at home and is off on his travels again just in time for his ship to be attacked by pirates and he is marooned. Fortunately, he spots what turns out to be Laputa, a floating island. Once ‘aboard’, he discovers that these people are devotees of science and the arts. However, their experiments almost always prove fruitless. After a short while, our protagonist decides to make for Japan, and while waiting, visits Glubbdubdrib, an island dominated by magic. He finds a magician who summons the ghosts of historical figures. He then ventures to Luggnagg which has a race of immortals called the struldbrugs. The downside of their immortality, his that they do keep growing old, and become legally dead aged 80. He eventually finds his way home via Japan, swearing to remain there. Which doesn’t last long and he’s off again, bored of home life and employment. This time he is captain, and, forever unfortunate, finds his crew mutinous against him. These men abandon him in a land populated by savage and hideous human-like creatures and magnificent looking horses. He soon discovers these horses are the masters of their land, and called Houyhnhnms, whereas the base humans are known as Yahoos. Gulliver finds himself in a Houyhnhm household and finds himself admiring their society and wishes to stay. However, they think he will corrupt them, and so is banished. Returning home thanks to a decent Portuguese captain, he cannot reconcile himself with life amongst the Yahoos and spends most of his time with his horses, ignoring his family.

So, the story has a lot of repeated tropes and plots over a series of journeys and adventures which span 16 years, most of which time he spends away from his wife and family. As mentioned, Gulliver starts out by stating that he is a man of good character. I dispute that. He is easily bored and easily led. He fawns over those higher in society than him, especially the royal Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians. Despite being relatively wealthy, he is a receiver of gifts, and never a giver. He has a natural gift for languages which is perhaps his only redeeming quality. He is, which may be a product of the times, sexist, putting his own adventures above the needs of his wife. Indeed, there is sexism, both specific and casual dotted throughout the novel. He doesn’t grow as a character, and learn from his mistakes. That’s surely the point of a story? For the character to learn from his experiences? He clearly repeats his mistakes, to the detriment to his family. The only thing about Gulliver that is different at the conclusion is his distaste for humans.

There are several clear digs at society from Swift. He highlights petty rivalries, such as that of the Tramecksan and Slamecksan (heel heights) and even the battle of which end of an egg one should eat first. He criticises the class systems of schools when describing Lilliputian schools (with added casual sexism). There is a disappointment in Englishness, as Gulliver describes it to the Brobdingnag king. Swift is critical of science and (this one I do know) the Royal Society, and is clearly distrustful of it. For him, experimentation without goal is fruitless. He also hints that science likes to think it has power over the masses. There is also, which ties in with this theme while Gulliver is on Laputa, of the potential for our planet to be destroyed by an extra-terrestrial body. The digs at society continue: the corruption of empire (while at Glubbdubdrib), and Gulliver’s own personal arrogance in summoning history’s greats (a touch of celebrity worship as well?); the poor treatment of the old (the struldbrugs) with more sexism – the idea that immortality is bad enough, but worse if you have to share your life with a woman; folly of religion; human corruption and the stupidity of war and law. The conclusion brings about the idea that reason should be its own perfect way of being, and those who choose against it are nothing more than savages.

I can’t decide if the opening mention of Utopia is an attack, but if so, it is folly. Much of the structure of Gulliver’s Travels is similar. Passages of description of great or not-so-great attempts at society which are thinly-veiled attacks on the norms of the day. The only difference is that Swift’s work is more first-person adventure style. I still wouldn’t call it a novel, as there is no beginning, middle and end. No character development. Is it science fiction? No. Un-categorically. It is a fantasy. There is no world where humans, Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians can exist under the same gravitational influence. There is also hints that Swift knows this. He suggests that on Lilliput, the sheep are about an inch and a half high, yet the geese are the size of sparrows. Really? Most are about 4 inches. So the geese are more than twice the height of sheep. Scary geese. And while on Brobdingnag, animals are in proportion to the humans, but fish are normal Gulliver-sized? The only hint at this being science fiction is the method that controls Laputa. Maybe, at best, this could be said to be the first story to mention a potential comet-based apocalypse.

I found Gulliver’s Travels mostly dull. Endless repetition. A lead character I didn’t like. Coarse and obvious metaphors. Crude satire. Uninspiring fantasy. I felt really sorry for his kids but I couldn’t understand why his wife would stay with him, especially at the end when he calls her an odious animal. This is not an enjoyable tale and is definitely not proto-science fiction.

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