The word ‘science’ came into popular consciousness until the late 18th Century. Before that, what we call science – the exploration of the world through theory and experimentation – was called natural philosophy. This is in spite of much earlier mentions by Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer. In a similar vein, the term ‘science fiction’ wasn’t popularised until early in the 20th Century, even though many works of science fiction had already been published. Previously, the terms ‘science romance’ and ‘fantastic voyage’ were more commonly used.
There has been much debate and speculation on what science fiction is and what it means. There has been just as much debate on when the genre began. Some claim that the Epic of Gilgamesh is proto-science fiction as it contains scenes which could be described as apocalyptic. In that case, The Bible must also be in with a shout. However, every fantasy, from Arabian Nights to Beowulf, from The Tempest to the speculations of Kepler and Galileo could be interpreted as having carried the seed of early science fiction. In order to define, and yet not to define, science fiction, one needs to think about the difference between fantasy and science fiction. In fantasy, while each world has its own internal logic and rules (although this is not always the case) where magic and supernatural forces come into play, there is no earth-bound reason begin that logic. Science fiction tends to extrapolate either from a point in history or a version of now, and develops an idea forward. Where fantasy is often about heroes and adventure, the ultimate purpose of science fiction is to hold a mirror up to ourselves and our society. It tries to explain ourselves to us, using themes of science and technology, but also of reason and of rationality. However, as the great Arthur C Clarke once said ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, which could mean that fantasy worlds are nothing more than highly advanced science fiction worlds. What is clear, however, is that the debate is one without a solid answer.
I came to this challenge with the aim to read the most important works in the history of science fiction and examine them in terms of their individual worth and also in terms of what they bring, if anything, to the genre.
It is my view that the first work of true science fiction is Votaire’s Micromégas. Written in 1752, this wasn’t the greatest year in terms of scientific discovery, but astronomy and physics were advancing nicely. Voltaire demonstrates clear scientific understanding as his characters, who are from other planets, have appropriate attributes and experiences. He presents a rational description of the events that befall them. He debates scientific philosophy and even demonstrates experimental thinking (when the aliens are looking for life on earth). Even though he gets some of his scientific speculation wrong, he does get some right. There are original ideas based on logic. Voltaire was examining the world around him from the perspective of alien beings. If that isn’t science fiction, then I don’t know why not.
Before Micromégas, Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638) is a good stab at proto-science fiction. There are hints of true scientific understanding and the commentary is aimed at examining human progress, especially with technology. The protagonist uses technology to get him to the moon, although there just happens to be a fantastical creature on hand to help him. What elevates this short story, however, is that there is an actual plot. There is purpose and meaning to the voyage. He is representing the world of the new discovery and the first superstar scientists (Copernicus and his peers). Had Godwin came up with a more scientific method of propelling his fictional machine to the moon, then this tale would have the honour I’ve bestowed on Voltaire.
The other works pre-1800 are nothing more than fantasy and speculation, and in the case of Raspe’s tall tales of Munchausen, not very good fantasy at that. Utopia is nothing more than a satirical rant, with no basis in reason. Why, how can it be a Utopia when slavery and sexism still exist? Wives are subordinate to their husbands as religion demands. There is no story or decent narrative structure to Utopia. It is nothing more than a poor idealistic dream. Which is also true, in some ways, of Gulliver’s Travels. Again, the majority of the work is fantasy and quite dull at that. The satirical swipe at the Royal Society on the flying island of Laputa is science fictional, in the sense that it is based on technology, but because it inhabits Gulliver’s fantastical planet, where gravity has not the slightest interest in the size of the inhabitants, I would guess that it was luck and not judgement that is behind the concept of Laputa. Which brings me finally to The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Silly, boring and not remotely reasonable. Despite a couple of trips to the moon, there is no evidence of any rational thought applied to the journeys. It is nothing more than poor surrealist fantasy at best.
Of the five stories published between 1500 and 1800, I would only call one a novel (Gulliver’s Travels), and a fantasy at that. Clearly the works from Godwin and Voltaire are short stories, while Raspe’s effort is a novella. Most of them aren’t actually very good. Again, Voltaire wins hands down. It is clearly the first and most deserving story that deserves to be called science fiction. What surprises me is that there was so little fiction written around these times examining themes of science and progress. After all, the world had been changing for some time. The Renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century. Advancement was gaining momentum. However, the next hundred years, from 1800, saw a rapid movement and growth in science fiction.