A FANTASTICAL EXCURSION INTO THE PLANETS (1839) – Written by an unknown author. The anonymous narrator of this novel is taken on a visit to assorted planets and other celestial bodies. The figure who transports him is a winged, rainbow-colored sprite whose face and body constantly change slightly, allowing no lasting impression to be made out.
MERCURY – The narrator discovers Mercury to be a sunny but not scorching planet of pleasantly aromatic meadows and trees. The inhabitants are beautiful, angelic creatures of indeterminate gender whose light-weight bodies permit them to virtually float around like feathers.
These beings devote all their time to frolicking, singing and making music on other-worldly stringed and wind instruments that the narrator compares to lyres and flutes. The closest thing to actual labor that the Mercurians do is to cultivate flowers then weave them into chaplets and garlands with which to adorn themselves.
VENUS – Next our narrator and his winged guide visit Venus. This planet is covered with roses, myrtles, amaranths and asphodels plus alien flowers flaunting colors unknown on Earth. The flatlands are all covered in short green grass which smells of lilies and violets.
Trees are plentiful, the air is tropically balmy and the rivers and streams sound like music. Birds sing during the daylight hours, birds which sound like doves and nightingales but are of Venerean species (the narrator says “Venerean” instead of “Venusian”). Our main character proves unable to catch any of these winged creatures to study them more closely.
The inhabitants of Venus are just as elusive and our hero can only glimpse these vaguely humanoid beings from a distance. When he tries to draw nearer they move away from him. Our narrator quarrels with his rainbow colored guide, annoyed that the sprite cannot help him adequately describe the sights of Venus.
The sprite also forbids his human passenger to climb the steep, almost vertical mountains of the planet. Many of the peaks vanish into the atmosphere but the ones that can be made out are capped by precious gems like Earthly mountains are often capped with snow. The mountains themselves are colored blue, grey, green, yellow and purple. Veins of quartz and pyrite decorate the mountains.
Our narrator and the sprite stay to observe and marvel at the beauty of the Venerean sunset. After sundown the Earth itself can be made out in the sky and our main character is nearly overwhelmed by how gorgeous it looks.
THE MOON – It’s on to Earth’s moon. The winged guide flies all around the lunar surface for awhile, letting its human companion soak in the sights below. The sprite calls our narrator ungrateful since he starts another argument with his guide. This time the argument stems from the human’s mistaken assumption that the moon is devoid of life.
The rainbow-colored being shows the grouchy space traveler how wrong he is. Tiny humanoids dwell on the moon and these beings regard the narrator as something of a curiosity. The sprite serves as a translator for his companion and the lunar race.
The moon people have no scientific aptitude and no technology. They condescend to the narrator as if he is a fool, prompting him to argue with them. (This guy is the most cranky space explorer this side of Dr McCoy on Star Trek!) While the moon people lead the Earthling and his rainbow-hued friend along the perilous canyons of the lunar surface our hero further argues and banters with them.
So much of this visit to the moon is derivative of Astolfo and of Baron Munchausen that I’ll skip over most of it.
MARS – Our irritable narrator finds another mood as he and the sprite approach Mars. He is frightened by the reddish glow of the planet and is filled with dread at the barren landscape. Here he sees ice caps at each of the poles, with hot red desert-terrain in between.
The surface of Mars is marked here and there by mine-shafts from which incredibly hot air flows as a result of the intense mining operations that the Martians (the author spells it “Marsians”) conduct. The scowling Martians are squat, muscular beings who use bizarre versions of picks and shovels to mine enormous iron deposits.
Instead of picking arguments here, the narrator hides behind his winged guide asking for protection from the fierce, angry-looking miners. The sprite leads him around, showing him the products of the Martian foundries: vast stores of iron bars, weapons and projectiles.
Again serving as a translator, the rainbow figure shows the Earthling some Martian tourists visiting an outdoor museum of cannons and other weapons seized from enemies in wartime. Next the pair observe a grand procession of Martian soldiers – both male and female – parading by, carrying iron weapons and shields adorned with precious gems. They all wear iron helmets and wear clothing made from some unknown animal’s hide.
The procession is followed to a Martian temple, in which their supreme deity is depicted as an all-conquering warrior with iron statuary graphically depicting scenes of slaughter and of the suffering of war’s victims.
The favorite sports of the Martians are horse-racing, boxing and hunting. All of the sports are co-ed since the Martian females are as fierce and bloodthirsty as the males. Hunting is especially violent, with prey stalked not just to be killed but to be maimed or mutilated and cruelly forced to live on.
The Martians also cage and torture their unearthly animals before serving them up as meals and washing down those feasts with iron goblets full of the creatures’ blood. Eventually our hero and his winged friend are spotted by the Martians and immediately flee the planet.
THE ASTEROID BELT – The value of these old written works is immense and very effective at “capturing the moment” of time when they were written. Apparently in 1839 astronomers were only aware of FOUR of what we now know to be hundreds of asteroids in between Mars and Jupiter.
The theory that these bodies were the remains of a planet which formerly existed between those two planets was already popular as the narration tells us. The “four asteroids” or dwarf planets in the Asteroid Belt were named Pallas, Ceres, Juno and Vesta.
Our narrator is disappointed to see that the four celestial bodies are nothing but lifeless rock. Needless to say, he complains to and argues with his winged guide about this. And back on Mars he was trembling and begging for protection! What a jerk! Anyway, after speculating that it’s probably been about 6,000 years since the four (lol) asteroids were formed by the explosion of a planet, the travelers decide to move on.
JUPITER – On this planet the Earthling discovers he is about the size of an insect compared to the enormous trees. The sky is as multi-colored as Jupiter’s cloud cover appears through telescopes. We get a continuity error here as the sprite refers to having spotted life-forms on Vesta even though our two travelers saw no such thing.
A gigantic Jovian is spotted, deep in thought while sitting in a grassy field. The narrator ponders the way the bones of the contemplative behemoth he sees would compare to dinosaur bones. The vegetation on Jupiter is all enormous and has colors far beyond the meager number of colors found on Earth.
Throughout the fields of Jupiter are scattered enormous sculptures of either gods worshipped or prominent Jovians of the past, both male and female. The statues are made from a wet Jovian clay which, once dried, has the solidity of marble.
Eventually the space travelers fly into a Jovian temple, a building larger than an Earthly city. After exploring this structure and observing several enormous denizens of Jupiter kneeling in worship our narrator and his guide go back outside. Night has arrived but on Jupiter that does not bring darkness, but rather just a slightly subdued tinge to the many-colored clouds above.
A throng of Jovians assemble in the fields for the reenactment of a successful overthrow of a former tyrant, followed by joyous singing. The loudness of this prompts the Earthling and the sprite to fly off.
SATURN – On Saturn our cosmically ungrateful narrator whines some more, this time over the fact that the sprite won’t let him thoroughly inspect the planet’s rings before setting him down on the surface. Saturn is experiencing night and has 7 more years before the dimness of its “day” will return.
Its 7 moons (the number known as of 1839) provides all the light right now and it’s not much. Each moon appears to be a different color in the foggy, glum Saturnian atmosphere. From the surface the rings appear in the sky as vast archways whose starting and ending points cannot be glimpsed.
The inhabitants of Saturn are large, pale giants with enormous eyes to help see in the scarce light. Their eyelids are on the bottom of their eyes and close upward, not downward like human eyes. Their movements are very slow and sluggish and their faces so frightening the narrator has his winged guide fly him out of their reach so he can observe them at a safe distance.
The Saturnians have disproportionately large mouths, too, and all of them have bald heads. The beings are walking through a grove of dark, dark trees. Through that grove runs a stream of black, thick, sluggish fluid which produces screams as if it’s alive and in pain.
Nearby is a plain with a yawning chasm at its center. Across that plain some Saturnians slowly drag a smaller, apparently female, member of their species. She is drenched with some of the black, screaming fluid and then sacrificed, tossed into the chasm to die. The remaining Saturnians screech and howl at the sky.
We now move from that Lovecraftian tableau to a more sedate one. On the other side of the planet it is much warmer and there the same type of huge, sluggishly moving beings work at some unfathomable form of agriculture. Their large mouths breathe on the meager plant life they grow, which causes the plants to grow much larger.
URANUS – On this planet we learn that time passes very slowly and the inhabitants more slowly still. Those beings are faceless humanoids whose speech cannot be detected by our narrator’s ears nor translated by the rainbow colored guide.
Uranian culture seems to be centered entirely around astronomy, as the humanoids ever so slowly position and reposition some sort of detecting devices toward the skies. They are seemingly studying either the other planets in our solar system or the vast void beyond.
COMETS AND METEORS – On the flight back to Earth our narrator and his guide have to thread their way through a dangerous swarm of meteors or comets. (The narrator uses both words interchangeably.) The guide tells the Earthling that the day may come when a particularly large example of such objects may collide with the Earth, wiping out all life.
On such a fearful thought the sprite returns our hero to his home and then flies off.
EPILOGUE: The author commits his tour of the solar system to writing and then is plagued by a nightmare in which the personified form of each planet – fancifully coordinated to fit the Roman deities they were named after – condemn and threaten him for daring to inadequately describe the cosmic sights he beheld in human terms.
This dream supposedly disturbs the narrator so much that he declines to put his name to the work, accounting for its anonymous nature.
Overall, the language in A Fantastical Excursion Into The Planets is so flowery it often reads more like an imitation of the poetry of Keats than a work of early science fiction. It’s an odd vibe that I’ll compare to Navis Aeria, another work of proto-science fiction I reviewed previously – a sci-fi story written as an epic poem!
None of that is meant as an insult, just as a means of comparison. Imagine On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer crossed with the epic style of Dante’s Paradiso transferred to a journey around our solar system. THAT’S the style of this novel.
FOR TEN MORE EXAMPLES OF ANCIENT SCIENCE FICTION CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2014/03/03/ten-neglected-examples-of-ancient-science-fiction/
FOR WASHINGTON IRVING’S 1809 depiction of an invasion from the moon click here: https://glitternight.com/2014/05/05/ancient-science-fiction-the-men-of-the-moon-1809-by-washington-irving/
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