I can’t recall how I came across this little known oddity of science fiction. Probably at the British Library a few years ago. What I do know is that having read a few books and short stories ranging from 1516 to 1826, and declaring that science fiction had become an established genre by now, that this short story, published in 1847, could be the first science fiction story that puts the science first.
I read a converted e-text of the originally published pamphlet, which was transcribed from the British Library’s original copy. It has a grand declaration on the cover, stating that it is ORRIN LINDSAY’S PLAN OF AERIAL NAVIGATION, WITH A NARRATIVE OF HIS EXPLORATIONS IN THE HIGHER REGIONS OF THE ATMOSPHERE, AND HIS WONDERFUL VOYAGE ROUND THE MOON! Edited by J. L. RIDDELL, M.D. NEW ORLEANS; REA’S POWER PRESS OFFICE, 58 Magazine street 1847. No hiding from the intent of this pamphlet then. It turns out, that Riddell is actually John Leonard Riddell (1807 -1865) who was a scientist and doctor who also lecturer in various US universities.
The story is formatted in the way of letters. The first is a request for a lecture given by Riddell. The second is a response from the author, accepting that request. There is then the ‘attached’ transcript of the lecture which outlines the letter Riddell received from a former student Mr. Orrin Lindsay, ‘announcing some new and astonishing discoveries in aerial navigation’. The immediate point of interest is that just this transcript of the lecture, there is a scientific notation, describing the nature of gravitation, which contains equations and citations – Memoir on the Constitution of Matter and Laws of Motion, by J. L. Riddell, N. 0. Medical Journal, March, 1846, volume II, page 602. A little digging suggests that this is a real publication (see Worldcat entry). Riddell’s lecture transcript then refers to letters between himself and Lindsay, and then there is Lindsay’s account of his experiments, which is a narrative provided to Riddell, which he has read out. This short narrative falls under four parts:
- PRELIMINARY REMARKS AND PROGRESS OF DISCOVERY.
In which Lindsay discusses various powers available to man [sic] such as wind, steam and electro-magnetism. He talks about science and gravitation. He claims an invention which provides ‘an impervious screen to the influence of gravitation’. OK, so we’re firmly now in the realms of science fiction. Of that there is no doubt. He then talks about experimentation, and how he used science to create a magnetic balloon.
- NARRATIVE OF THE FIRST AERIAL VOYAGE.
In which Lindsay describes his first successful attempt at flying the balloon. He notes dates and times, describing both data and sensations. He reaches five miles and experiences drowsiness. On his return to Earth, he reports that his balloon had been observed by ‘sundry persons’. Again, this section contains scientific footnotes.
- PREPARATION FOR THE SECOND VOYAGE.
In which, this shortest of sections, Lindsay describes how he plans to overcome the difficulties of his first experimental voyage. He lays out mathematical logic which he uses to design his voyage.
- NARRATIVE OF THE SECOND VOYAGE.
In which Lindsay and his companion, Josslin, visit the moon in his gravity-defying balloon. Again, this passage is about observation and process; how they got there and what they saw. Refreshingly, there are no aliens on the moon (unlike, say Godwin’s The Man in the Moone). He describes the lightness of the moon’s atmosphere, mountains and depressions, unfortunately, volcanoes. Of course, at the time, it was unknown that the moon was geologically inactive, so Riddell, in writing Lindsay’s fictional account, assumed it would be just as active as Earth. I think that can be forgiven, within this context. The travellers then return to Earth, observing much of the planet during their descent, landing safely at their original point of departure. Again, there are footnotes containing equations and facts, assisting the reader in understanding the science behind Lindsay’s journey.
The story concludes with a letter again from Lindsay to Riddell suggesting a voyage to Mars.
What I find fascinating is that Riddell is real and uses reality within the story. Is this, therefore, not only the first science fiction story that puts real science at the forefront, but is it also the first example of science metafiction. Riddell uses his science background – and remember, this was 1847 when science (as named as such, with experimentation and reporting of results) was still in its infancy – to create a fiction that he is complicit in.
So let’s break this down into the components of science fiction story. It is well written in the sense that it reads like is should; a scientific account of the age. Of course, Riddell was a trained scientist and published author, which means he should have been practiced at getting his point across. There are no ‘real’ characters in the story. Riddell is merely a reporter. Lindsay is an experimenter, albeit with a grand vision. I suspect he is Riddell in a poor disguise. And I do think that justifies the metafiction idea too. Josslin has no character to speak of. Is it, then a story at all? Or just a fake scientific account? Tricky. Probably not. There is no traditional elements of growth and discovery. There is no warning or political comment, as much of science fiction does have. There is a beginning, middle and end, which counts, I suppose. So, this short work is strong science-based science fiction. Of that there is no doubt. It is a work well ahead of its time in almost every sense: use of evidence-based science and experimentation to drive the (small piece of) plot; clearly written and explained with the use of footnotes; and using current theories of science (lunar volcanoes) excepted to justify its existence. It deserves to be much more widely known about. While it is stretching it to call this piece a short story, it is nonetheless, a short fiction. It is not a flight of fancy and an excuse to put weird aliens on the moon, but a valid look into the future of technology and discovery. Despite its dryness, I kinda liked it.