If you haven’t read The history of science fiction part 1, then please do so before reading this article.
In the last article, we made another couple of centuries worth of progress into the roots of science fiction when we checked out Frankenstein and Swift. Still it was not enough to really reach the beginnings of science fiction, although they did prove to be beginnings to several types of science fiction (who doesn’t love mad scientists and traveling to other possible realities?). With the discovery of these earliest types of genres it could have been easy to dismiss the earlier works and say that these were the true beginnings. Easy as it would have been it would have been a lie.
Picking up the pebble trail (we’re adults here, we know better than to use bread crumbs), we return to our labyrinth to see just what is in the middle.
The Moon and the Stars
Shelley and Swift may have felt Earth was adequate for exploration, but the century before them was quite enamored on the moon. Ironically, the Age of Reason brought with it little people on the moon, and what we now know today as possible, human trips to the moon. Johannes Kepler, famous scientist, was of course able to write science fiction without as much ignorance as many. As one of the most celebrated scientists of the Age of Reason, it is funny to think of him writing fiction, but Somnium was just that.
And most of us have heard of Cyrano de Bergerac, the writer with the big nose. However, that was not all he had, his large imagination lead him to write Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon. That’s right, he was populating the moon long before Victoria was populating the world with people from her empire. 100 years later Voltaire, best known for his enlightened take on humanity, took a look at the follies of man and the possibilities that creatures of other planets are very likely considerably more advanced. Reading his work Micromegas will give you a very different look into the man than continuing to read his philosophy treaties.
As a side note, even English most celebrated writer, Shakespeare wasn’t immune to the pull of science fiction. Most of his plays, from MacBeth and most notably The Tempest, Shakespeare tended to add many supernatural elements to his works. Sure he delved into human nature, just like Shelley and Kubrick. Writing gets a little boring when you constrain yourself to only what is real.
The Blip That Lasted Through the Years
Most of the works of Thomas More’s where very serious, including Utopia. The work certainly fits into the definition of science fiction, even if that was not the point of the book. Imagining a place anything like Utopia is virtually impossible. Yes, I have to say that Utopia is science fiction on nearly all accounts, because it is a possibility but a very firm improbability. It has translated over many other works of science fiction and philosophy to become something that people have tried to imitate, showing just how improbable it is that humans can actually achieve it.
Tall Tales, Fairy Tales, and Other Earthen Tales
Before reason gripped the world, science fiction was much looser and wide spread. Arabian Nights is packed full of scientific curiosities, such as genies and the super natural. Dante’s Divine Comedy is largely considered a religious epic, but it is about one man journeying to places outside of this world. It may be a telling of what happens to the human soul, but it is a much older Gulliver’s Travels. Dante places people in various stages of The Inferno simply because of the way he felt about them. When it gets that subjective in a world that clearly isn’t Earth, that would make it science fiction.
And of course there are der Bruder Grimm, or the Brothers Grimm. There isn’t a single story they relayed that doesn’t have science fiction elements to it. And please keep in mind they may have written later, but their tales were those that had been handed down over centuries without being recorded. The Grimm Brothers recorded stories that were much older than themselves. True, they pretty much took place here on Earth. And it may be possible to grow your hair out long enough that it could be used as a ladder, perhaps it is an experiment that could be tried. Although, I doubt you will find many women willing to let anyone use their head as an anchor, or allow their hair to be so abused. The little elves have been adapted, modified, and slapped onto spaceships in more recent works, possibly making the earliest form of alien (except that they were born right here too, we just couldn’t come up with anything cuter than an elf, and it’s only more recently where we decided that we want our invaders to be creepy death seekers).
Science Fiction Origins
Now we reach the center of the labyrinth and the beginning of science fiction. It is no surprise that we end at the beginnings of known writing. All of the great works that we think of as too old to be entertaining when examined for entertainment value is clearly within the realm of science fiction. From Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh to Egyptian, Greek, and Norse Mythology we can clearly see where science fiction began in terms of writing. All of these works are phenomenal, pulling in all of the characteristics of a great piece of writing. These are the reasons why they have survived over millennia, even when they are no longer believed to be true.
Beowulf was able to not only kill Grendle, he took the fight to the lair, which was underwater, and killed Grendle’s mom. Yeah, people had wild imaginations, actually wilder imaginations back in the day when you had to worry about dying every day because there were so many things lurking even in the sunshine. Oh yeah, and he was killed in the end by a dragon. Ok, so we’ll call it science fiction/fantasy because back then they actually thought that kind of death was possible.
Mythology began as a way to explain the world, with goddess spanning the world to cloak it in night and gods driving sun-loaded chariots across the world to bring the day. Again, it could be argued as a work of religious significance, but without a doubt it fits into the definition of science fiction today. It makes for some of the most fascinating reading you can find if you keep in mind that people actually believed in the stories. It is why The Illiad and The Odyssey have made it through the millennia, just like Journey to the Center of the Earth. We know it can’t happen, but it makes for such a wonderful change from the every day.
Perhaps science fiction could be traced back even earlier, predating writing. But looking at the works we have at the beginning of written language, it is clear to see that our fascination with things under and outside of our world have long been an attraction. The need to explain them is what lead to science fiction, and is a large reason why today we work so hard to make science fiction a part of reality. That early impulse really has not dissipated. And the things that we can imagine would be wonderful to be able to experience.