Fly Me to the Moon

Or Tracing Science Fiction’s 17th-Century Roots

Without a doubt one of the greatest and most influential literary forms of the twentieth century has been science fiction. What we recognize as SF has been around for just over 100 years, with the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne being some of the earliest.

But when we look back farther, what do we find? Many, such as myself, group Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in with the genre. There are no spaceships—or little green men—but the exploration into the mind is one that is of great importance to modern SF. This takes us back more than 180 years. Is that as far as we can go?

If we want to trace things back to the first author to write about interstellar travel and life on other worlds, we have to aim our phone booth at Greece during the Roman period where we can pick up a copy Lucian's True History, hot off the proverbial press. Here is a story in which Greek travelers are carried to the moon by wind and waterspouts. There they find a war underway between the King of the Moon and the King of the Sun. What are they fighting over? Colonization of Jupiter, of course. In the end a peace treaty ends the war and stipulates that the two sides will share a colony on Venus (the Morning Star).

That’s pretty far back—the second century to exact. But we only really need to go back to the seventeenth century.

A Wonderful Time for a Moondance

A time of great voyages and exploration, the seventeenth century fed the imaginations of writers with a hunger to discover places unknown. This must be the reason behind the proliferation of stories about moon voyages during the 1600s. Everyone, it seems, got in on the act; offerings came from Kircher, Godwin, and even Kepler.

But are these stories really SF? Well, that depends on how you define the term "science fiction." Many believe that SF stories must contain travel through space in rockets or huge ships, or must contain activities on far-off planets involving high technology and aliens. Is that a fair assessment?

While many SF stories do contain these elements, they are not essential to the genre. In its basic definition, SF discusses the human condition and extrapolates from current scientific knowledge possible future paths for human society. If these stories are not SF, then they are forerunners—or "proto-SF"—at the very least. To the people of the seventeenth century, they must have seemed as incredible and far fetched as tales such as Stargate and Back to the Future do to us today.

The Eagle Has Landed

It's amazing how much language varies with time. Say these words to anyone today and they immediately know that you are referring to the famous moon landing. But say the same words to someone from the seventeenth century, and they'd look around for one of our feathered friends. Spaceship? What's that?

So how did people get to the moon in an age that had no rockets, no lunar landers, no starships zipping around at warp 9? It was really quite easy—and inexpensive. All one really needed was a bird, an angel, or some kind of supernatural force to make the short trip to Luna. It was a much easier time, when Congressional hearings and budget slashing never factored in to the weekend celestial fun.

One of the best examples of early SF is Bishop Francis Godwin's 1638 book The Man in the Moone: or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales, in which the main character sets off on a sea voyage that takes him first to St. Helena. Afterwards he moves on to Teneriffe where he has to escape cannibals. While on Teneriffe he is carried away by 25 gansas (geese) who carry him away to the moon.

Once there, Gonsales finds a world inhabited by giants. These moon men are very long-lived, recover quickly from any kind of injury—even decapitation—and have women who are so beautiful that no man ever desires to cheat on his wife. (It seems to me that such reasoning could be flawed.) A more interesting thing he finds there is the reason why the moon is so peaceful. It seems that the giants identify potential sinners at birth and ship them off to Earth—more specifically to North America.

Earlier we said that SF extrapolates from current scientific knowledge. The contraption in which the geese transport Gonsales to the moon is based on Galilean physics. Once on the moon, much of the story's underpinnings rely on the science of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. Clearly some attention was paid to the incorporation of "real" science. Godwin's advancement of the Copernican model is both brave and cutting-edge for the time period, especially given the fact that he was an Anglican bishop. Galileo was ultimately confined to house arrest by the Inquisition for doing the same.

Dreams of a New World

Another seventeenth-century trip to the moon is Kepler's Somnium (Dream), which was published in 1634—the same year that Lucian's works were translated into English. In Somnium the main character, Duracotus, arrives on the moon by supernatural means and then begins giving the reader a tour based on the scientific theories of the time. Duracotus's moon is more extreme than Earth in almost all respects. Mountains are higher, valleys are deeper, temperature variation is much wider, and the life forms that call the place home are born in the morning and die in the evening. Talk about your short lifespan! Somnium is nothing more than scientific extrapolation and speculation, but that is something that is commonly found in modern SF as well.

Speaking of life on the moon, more speculation can be found in John Wilkins's 1638 book Discovery of a New World. Here Wilkins talks about what it might be like to travel to the moon and what things man might find there.

Still another moon voyage from the time period is Athanasius Kircher's Itinerarium Exstaticum (1656) in which an angel carries the chief protagonist to the moon for a grand tour that is to complete his education. Again this is a common theme in SF, and I am particularly reminded of the ending of Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee's Rama Revealed. This final book in the new Rama trilogy comes to a close with the aliens, who have been so mysterious throughout the tale, revealing amazing facts about the galaxy that leave our heroes in awe.

Itinerarium Exstaticum isn't Kircher's only contribution to the early roots of SF. His Mundus Subterraneus takes readers on a journey into an underground world, just as does Robert Patlock's The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, which missed our target century by just 50 years. In Patlock's story the protagonist finds himself in an underground cave that is inhabited by flying people. These forays into the world beneath the surface play on a theme that would later appear in a piece of recognizable SF—Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The Root of the Matter

As we near the end of our journey, let's step back into the moonlight, which is where the seventeenth-century fascination with stories of adventure seems to want us. What have we found contained in that softly diffused white glow? We've found a literary genre that is surprisingly steeped in centuries of tradition. While two of modern SF's integral ingredients—technology and an advanced scientific understanding of the universe—have only come about in the last century, there's a lot more to SF than flying saucers and wormholes. The social and philosophical elements that play such an important role have been around since the beginning of the human race, and are contained in the stories we've looked at. Science, too, plays an important part in these seventeenth-century tales; even if many of the theories have since been proven far off the mark. When looked at in this way, it's really amazing where SF has been.