Forget the stories written by the usual science fiction pioneers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. This list will examine some of the nascent works of science fiction going back to before the world at large even used those words to describe this emerging genre. Though technically this examination could begin as far back as 150 C.E. with the Greek philosopher Lucian’s works like Icaromenippus and True History – both involving journeys to the moon via man-made craft – I will instead begin in the 1600s and move on to the early 20th Century.
10. SOMNIUM (1634) – Written by Johannes Kepler. Yes, this is THE Johannes Kepler the famed astronomer so this may be the earliest work of proto-science fiction written by a figure with a grounding in something approaching our own notions of rational science (which, of course, excludes Michael “the false Nobel Prize winner” Mann). Somnium depicted a fictional visit to the moon with story details based very loosely on observations Kepler had made while observing Earth’s natural satellite through a telescope – a fairly new device at the time.
Kepler’s work depicted the moon as a celestial body of extremes which was bisected into two regions of blazing heat and freezing cold. Nights on the moon were very mild on the side facing Earth because of the amount of reflected sunlight that our planet sends its way. Believe it or not life existed in this world of extremes – reptilian creatures which lived in caves and breathed in the lunar atmosphere. Kepler also depicted plant life – cone-shaped vegetation which went through its entire life-cycle within two weeks.
Fearing the type of persecution that Galileo had faced Kepler never published Somnium during his lifetime and even wrote it in Latin accompanied by copious technical footnotes, possibly to try to disguise it as a thesis. Even though Kepler’s story came out posthumously he might have been spared any persecution for his Copernican views even if he had published it earlier since he took the precaution of explaining the lunar journey away as a mere dream (the meaning of the word “somnium”).
9. THE MAN IN THE MOONE (1638) – Written by Bishop Francis Godwin. The Man in the Moone depicted Godwin’s fictional hero Domingo Gonsales who trained a huge flock of specially-bred swans to transport him to the moon. The book was written in the style of the accounts that the great nautical explorers of the age wrote of their travels and is often considered the first science fiction story written in English.
Despite the tale’s thoroughly unscientific method of reaching the moon Gonsales dealt with sensations of weightlessness on his space journey in a nicely prescient bit. Godwin came very close to stating a theory of gravity even before Isaac Newton! In a nod to Dante’s Divine Comedy from centuries earlier the story also featured some of the spirits of deceased humans inhabiting the space between worlds.
Godwin depicted the moon itself as fairly Earth-like and inhabited by a race of lunar Christians with technology slightly more advanced than that of the Earth. These “Christians on the MOOOOON” lived an unlikely utopian existence in their extraterrestrial theocracy, which made the fictional government in the Rosicrucian work Christianopolis look positively plausible by comparison. At any rate that idyllic existence was made even more serene by their custom of banishing criminals Botany Bay style – to the Earth – specifically North America!
8. A VOYAGE TO THE MOON (1657) – Written by Cyrano de Bergerac. Yes, the one and only Cyrano de Bergerac noted for his prominent proboscis and for Rostand’s play depicting his romance with Roxanne, at first acting on behalf of his friend. Some people still mistakenly believe Cyrano was a fictional character.
If he seems an unlikely man to dabble in science fiction consider this brilliant excerpt from de Bergerac’s writings: ” I think the planets are worlds revolving around the sun and that the fixed stars are also suns that have planets revolving around them. We can’t see those worlds from here because they are so small and because the light they reflect cannot reach us. How can one honestly think that such spacious globes are only large, deserted fields and that our world was made to lord it over all of them …?”
Cyrano’s fictional space traveler was named Dyrcona and was the first to use multi-stage rockets to reach his destination. Dyrcona’s rocket design was based on firecrackers of the time period. The lunar inhabitants wore no clothing, had four legs and spoke in song. Their technology included transparent globes that captured solar rays for illumination, talking book-machines (early radio) and ray-guns that not only killed game but simultaneously cooked it. Dyrcona discovered that the Garden of Eden was also on the moon (“You did it, you finally went and did it … “oh, wait. That’s completely backward). The moon people expected Dyrcona to prove that he was really from the Earth because the moon’s inhabitants were convinced that no intelligent life resided there.
7. A VOYAGE TO THE SUN (1659) – Written by Cyrano de Bergerac. Yes, the world can also credit Cyrano with the first-ever science fiction sequel! Following the adventures he experienced on the moon Dyrcona planned his logical next journey – to the sun itself.
Dyrcona’s means of transport were far less impressive scientifically this time around however. Cyrano misconstrued the way vacuums work and depicted his hero traveling in a large box designed of multiple layers of hollow crystal. When the sun’s heat exhausted the air in the crystal it formed a vacuum and drew the box toward the sun. Considering how forward-thinking de Bergerac was with the multi-stage rocket of his previous novel this is a very disappointing step backward.
The sun was depicted as an inhabited world just like the Earth and the moon and its climate featured burning snowflakes that fell from the sky like ashes. The sun was inhabited by intelligent birds who could speak and use artificial eyes for night vision among other accomplishments and who put Dyrcona on trial for the crime of being a human being. Any fan of Star Trek can’t help but picture James T Kirk facing a similar situation.
6. MICROMEGAS (1752) – Written by Voltaire. The famed philosopher’s contribution to the nascent science fiction genre dealt with one of the earliest known instance of beings from other planets depicted visiting the Earth. Amid the fantastic elements of the story Voltaire fits in examinations of the philosophies of Aristotle, Locke, Descartes and others.
The title character comes from the star system Sirius and from a huge planet that dwarfs the Earth. He himself is 20,000 feet tall, has a thousand senses to our five and is 450 years old. Micromegas was banished from his homeworld for scientific heresy and took to roaming the cosmos in search of knowledge. Sometimes traveling by comet and at other times beaming himself along light waves his journey at last brought him to our solar system’s planet of Saturn. Once there he befriended a kindred intellectual rebel, the Secretary of the Saturnian Academy, a 6,000 foot tall being who joined him on his visit to our planet.
After a cursory exploration of the Earth, Micromegas and his companion established communication with a shipful of scholars returning from an Arctic expedition and began setting straight the many misconceptions that even Earth’s greatest minds have about the universe. The two extraterrestrials especially ridiculed the notion that the cosmos was created just for Earthlings and decided to depart in disgust. A book that the mischievous Micromegas gave the scholars, promising it explained the meaning of existence turned out to be filled with blank pages. (And here you thought it was a cook book.)
5. DISCOVERIES IN THE MOON (1835) – The full title of this work is Discoveries in the Moon Lately Made at the Cape of Good Hope by Sir John Herschel. Originally published as a series of “real” scientific articles in the newspaper the New York Sun, this hoax was the written-word equivalent of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast of a century later. The series of fraudulent articles caused a sensation and increased the newspaper’s circulation exponentially before the Sun revealed it was all a work of fiction.
Richard Adams Locke wrote the two-month series under the name Sir John Herschel, a supposed British astronomer who had constructed at the Cape of Good Hope a seven ton telescope with a lens twenty-four feet in diameter. “Sir John” wrote all about the many species of lunar animal life his enormous telescope had permitted him to observe. The articles described the appearance and habits of moon-buffaloes with furry flaps for eyebrows, single-horned blue goats who ran at incredible speeds and spheroid amphibians who rolled in and out of the waters of a two hundred sixty-six mile wide lake.
Those animals and many other species supposedly lived amid thirty-eight species of trees and pyramidal mountains made of amethyst. The story concluded with Herschel’s discovery of four feet tall winged humanoids who traveled in flocks like birds and walked upright when on land. The beings had copper-colored hair on their heads and yellowish skin. Ironically, even after the whole affair was revealed as a hoax it was praised for exciting the public’s interest in astronomy and other sciences.
4. ACROSS THE ZODIAC (1880) – Written by Percy Greg. This author’s works are credited with inspiring the whole sub-genre of “sword and science” or “sword and planet” sci-fi so all John Carter, Flash Gordon and Star Wars fans take note.
In the 1800’s a scientist discovers “aspergy” a type of anti-gravity energy and uses it to propel his spaceship called The Astronaut on an exploratory journey to Mars. The spacecraft’s systems were powered by electricity which regulated the anti-gravity energy and recycled the air in the craft to maintain a breathable atmosphere. Once on Mars the space traveler discovered it was inhabited by humanoid Martians of a short stature. The Martians had dirigibles, electric tractors, 3-D communications devices (early holograms) and guns that shot deadly poison gas. Greg depicted competing secret societies on the Red Planet (no, not Sith and Jedi) and even created a detailed and elaborate language for the atheistic Martians, setting the standard for generations of sci-fi nerds yet unborn.
On the lighter side the Martians refused to believe their strange visitor was from Earth because they insisted Mars was the only inhabited planet and treated him like a freakishly tall guest from some remote country on Mars. On a sadder note the Martians had no immunity to terrestrial diseases their visitor had brought with him so the space traveler soon had to depart to avoid potentially wiping out the planet’s population. Later on H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds of course would also depict Martians as vulnerable to Earth diseases.
3. A JOURNEY IN OTHER WORLDS (1894) – Written by John Jacob Astor, a descendant of the John Jacob Astor who was famous as America’s first millionaire. This Astor went on to serve in the Spanish- American War and was one of the passengers who died on the Titanic.
This novel depicted a spaceship called Callisto staffed by a crew of representatives of various sciences and big-game hunters as if it was an African safari. The story is set in the year 2000 and features an Earth which has been terraformed to provide year-long mild summer all over the world. There are also other wonders like global telephone access, solar power, airplanes and steel roadways for cars that run on magnetism. Content that the Earth has been sufficiently tamed our crew set out for “the final frontier” as it were and fly to Jupiter and Saturn.
Our explorers find Jupiter to be one big jungle region complete with man-eating plants and populated by alien monsters most of which are the size of dinosaurs. The novel is unintentionally comical at times as the crew basically shoot and eat everything that moves when they aren’t cataloguing the planet’s life-forms. They also discover Jupiter is ripe with precious metals and oil and mark it for future exploitation.
On Saturn things get incredibly dull and anticlimactic as the crew of the Callisto discover it to be inhabited by the spirits of Earth’s dead. These spirits are able to sense what is happening back on Earth and prove their bonafides by accurately foretelling all the news that will greet the space travelers when they return home. They also tell them about two undiscovered planets: one even closer to the sun than Mercury and called Vulcan (yes, really) and another beyond Neptune – a Jupiter-sized planet called Cassandra.
2. A HONEYMOON IN SPACE (1900) – Written by George Chetwyn Griffith- Jones under the pseudonym George Griffith. Jones had worked as a sailor, a journalist and a teacher before writing a series of novels covering a broad range of topics.
This story details the adventures of Lord Redgrave and his American wife Zaidie. Redgrave has created the Astronef, a “space yacht” powered by the fictional R-Force, a means of harnessing gravity and deploying its energy in whatever way was desired. The maiden voyage of the Astronef causes a global sensation and inspires peace between various nations on the verge of war. (no squid-gina necessary) Next, Lord Redgrave decides to take his blushing bride on a honeymoon spent exploring our solar system.
The newlyweds discover the ruins of an ancient civilization on the moon and visit angelic bird-people on the paradisal planet Venus. They battle war-like and sexless Martians who have an entire aerial fleet, befriend a futuristic civilization on Jupiter’s moon of Ganymede and encounter horrific monsters on Saturn. And so it goes on most of the planets known at the time as well as some of their moons and the asteroid Ceres for good measure. All this plus our husband and wife astronaut team must survive an encounter with a Black Hole and avoid a fiery death in our own sun! A very entertaining work and Lady Redgrave is a terrific female character who suits up and explores each world side-by side with her husband and she is never depicted as stupid or weak.
1. A COLUMBUS OF SPACE (1909) – Written by Garrett P Serviss, a well-known author in his day but virtually forgotten now. Serviss had worked as an astronomer at one point in his career and frequently lectured on the subject.
A Columbus of Space is the most outrightly “steam-punk” story on this list, although it was written long before that term was coined. Eccentric inventor Edmund Stonewall invites some friends over for a demonstration of his mysterious new creation. That invention is a spaceship in which he flies off to Venus with his now-captive audience. Stonewall’s craft is a sort of atomic-powered zeppelin and comes complete with all the conveniences that well-to- do gentlemen of the age expected like fine food, cigars and brandy.
Despite the way Stonewall has jeopardized all their lives without permission his cohorts join in the spirit of adventure as their host navigates the craft through dangerous swarms of meteors. Once on Venus they travel above frozen crystalline mountainous regions on the dark and frigid side of the planet. Eventually the explorers encounter a primitive tribe of huge ape-men and must survive being sacrificed to their god – the planet Earth ironically enough. Traveling to the light side of Venus (and surviving a crash-landing plus a flood) Edmund and his friends find piloted aircraft and beautiful telepathic humanoids led by the alluring Queen Ala and her treacherous consort Ingra. Tentacled swamp monsters and a gigantic spider also enter into the story.
Serviss is also known for the early science fiction works Fighters from Mars (1898) and Edison’s Conquest of Mars (also 1898). Fighters was set in Boston, depicted an attempted invasion by Martians and was basically a ripoff of War of the Worlds. Conquest, its sequel, was a very odd story which used the inventor Thomas Edison, Lord Kelvin, Roentgen, Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm, President McKinley and other real-world figures as characters. This tale featured Earthlings creating spaceships of their own by “reverse- engineering” the spaceships of the dead Martians. Earth’s new fleet then traveled to Mars on a mission of retaliation for their attempted invasion of our home planet.
FOR ADDITIONAL EXAMPLES OF “ANCIENT” SCIENCE FICTION CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2014/05/05/ancient-science-fiction-the-men-of-the-moon-1809-by-washington-irving/
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