The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Micromégas by Voltaire

Voltaire wrote Micromégas in 1752, almost 25 years after Swift Gulliver’s Travels. Despite the world’s learning picking up pace, there are no real notable efforts worthy of investigation in between the two. In my Penguin Classic’s edition of Micromégas and other short fictions, Voltaire’s tale is only 19 pages long, and in 7 chapters. He ventured back into this direction a few years later with Plato’s Dream. However, as it is just over 2 pages of my edition, it is not part of these readings.

What of the plot? Is there, indeed, a plot? As with the works of others’ Micromégas is more of a travelogue, or imaginary voyage. It is subtitled A philosophical story which makes Voltaire’s aim clear. And again, as with earlier fantastical writings, its tone is satirical. This time, however, the tale is from the perspective of a couple of aliens, although the narrator is from Earth (maybe it is Voltaire himself, we never find out). Micromégas is the main character and an inhabitant of a planet orbiting Sirius. His planet is, he describes, 21.6 million times greater in circumference than the Earth. He is, therefore, ‘twenty-four thousand paces from tip to toe’, or 20,000 feet tall. He is also very old in earth terms (450 years), but still a child where he comes from. After writing a book on insects which he claims are too small to see with naked eye and which is deemed a heresy, he is banished for 800 years. As a consequence, he travels to Saturn where he meets the secretary of the Academy of Saturn, who is only a third of his size. They compare and contrast their lives and planets before deciding to journey inwards towards the sun.

Once they arrive on Earth, they circumnavigate in just 36 hours. Micromégas states that he barely gets his feet wet when crossing the oceans, which at an average depth of over 3,500 metres is more than half his height. This in one of a only a few scientific inaccuracies within the tale (another stating Mars is only a fifth the size of Earth), but there are many that are correct. He notes, for example, that Mars has 2 moons, although Earth-bound astronomers had not discovered them yet (Phobos and Deimos were not discovered until 1877). Good guess? Probably. Back on Earth, they argue about whether or not any life could exist, eventually discovering a whale, and then a ship full of humans. They conclude that anything that small would not have intelligence or a soul. However, they listen to sounds coming from the people and learn that they are mistaken, and the story ends with the alien philosophers debating the ideas of Aristotle, Descartes, Malebranche and Leibnitz with the ship’s crew. Our protagonist explains he will write a book which will explain the nature of everything, so they wouldn’t be required to debate these ideas. The book is presented to the science academy in Paris, and when opened, contains only blank pages.

There is no time for classic story development as such. There is no character growth and no chance for conflict to arise and be overcome. Micromégas is an arrogant child and we learn nothing about his Saturnian companion, or anything about the humans who feature. This is a short treatise as opposed to a true tale, an opportunity for Voltaire to voice an opinion rather than examine an idea in depth.

Science fiction is based in a fictional world where scientific rules hold true. Its intentions are to describe and maybe warm the reader about the consequences of various extrapolations. Voltaire, in my opinion, achieves both these aims (although the second less successfully, it is but a surface comment). His science is sometimes a little off, but mostly fine in context with the understanding of the day. There is no attempt to add fantastical elements in order to explain anything or progress the plot. Other than inhabitants of the moon, I believe that this is the first example of properly described, extra-solar aliens in a published story. There is a coherent character, well thought out and described, with back-story and logic. The voyage trope is familiar, but this is the first example where aliens come to Earth as opposed to the human explorer venturing outwards. The aliens have a better rationale for the direct questioning human philosophy, and Voltaire has a few digs at those who would not live a rational life along the way too, as the aliens debate science and philosophy (bickering over size and distance). Voltaire has clearly designed his characters in terms of height and age to make these points. If a couple of human-sized aliens visited Earth, Voltaire couldn’t have told the story he intended to tell.

This tale, Micromégas, is clearly the first work of science fiction.


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