The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolph Erich Raspe.

Let’s clear this up first. This isn’t science fiction. It’s barely fantasy. In fact, the most surprising thing about this novella is just how dull and disappointing it is.

I was quite excited about the prospect of reading Raspe’s fictionalised version of the real life Hieronymus Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen’s tall tales. Also known as Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, the book contains thirty three very short chapters outlining the Baron’s ‘marvellous’ adventures. How much of my expectations were based on Terry Gilliam’s film, and having those expectations affected my judgement, I’ll leave for others to decide. The book was originally published in 1785, but based on accounts which began to circulate in 1781. My copy of the text is a US 2007 publication which contains an amusing preface signed by Aladdin, Sinbad and of course, Gulliver. To say that this owes a debt to Swift’s satire is an understatement. The writing lacks the skill and cutting wit of Gulliver’s Travels, but is equally as boring.

Each of Muchausen’s adventures is told as a boast from the alleged eponymous narrator (who in real life was not happy about his tales being fictionalised in such a way). He tells tales of journeys to Russia, England, Africa and the Moon as if this were a travelogue. He cites Gulliver’s adventures on occasion and also teams up with characters such as Don Quixote. He also has an odd fixation with fudge. Each tale is extraordinary in the sense of what he says happen. An example would be when the Colossus of Rhodes turns London’s landmark buildings into an instrument to celebrate the Baron’s return to the fair city. However, the way the tale is a described is so matter of fact as to be dreary.

Let’s get to the moon trips. These are nothing more than flights of fancy. Unlike, for example, Godwin’s hero, Munchausen doesn’t use a fancy machine, or any kind of recognisable science to make the journey. In fact, the first visit is a fluke, simply to retrieve his hatched which he threw up there. Nothing about his visits are anything but pure fantasy, and childish at that. The rest of adventures are surprisingly uninspiring, with a hint of unreality thrown in. I suppose you might say surreal in places, if you were being generous. He’s often captured. He’s often the hero and given great reward by grateful peoples. He fights animals and comes across extraordinary creatures. He ends up in the belly of a whale. The most interesting section is when he comes across Vulcan in Mount Etna. Most of the rest reads like someone with little imagination and a lot of ego. In this, Raspe is fairly successful in creating the character of the Baron and even some of his companions, such as Gog and Magog. However, the parts fall very much short of the whole.

There is little else to say about Raspe’s work, other than it shouldn’t really be mentioned in any examination of science fiction. A couple of trips to the moon do not a science fiction tale make. It is not even good fantasy, or good surrealist humour, or good fantastical voyage. It isn’t very good.

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