Even more provocative when it was first published was The Blazing World, by the first woman in the Royal Society, Margaret Cavendish. The story is an account of travels to a parallel universe accessed through the North Pole and populated by sentient animal-man creatures: “Bear-men, some Worm-men, … some Bird-men, Some fly-men, some Ant-men, some Geese-men,” and others. There are flying vehicles and submarines, as well as discussions on scientific innovations, particularly the most recent discoveries afforded by the invention of the microscope.
The novel is especially notable for its narrative complexity. The author herself appears as a character and reflects on writing, “making and dissolving several worlds in her own mind … a world of Ideas, a world of Atomes, a world of Lights.”
The Blazing World was recovered as a subject of serious study by feminist critics in the last quarter of the 20th century, and Cavendish has recently found herself in more popular discussions as well. Danielle Dutton, whose historical novel Margaret the First kicked off a renewed interest in Cavendish earlier this year, says that the first time she encountered The Blazing World, she found it “totally bizarre, in the best possible way: the talking animals, the cities of amber and coral, the metafictional move wherein the soul of Margaret Cavendish travels to the Blazing World to befriend the Empress.” The book conjures the clockpunk era of primitive microscopes and telescopes, of fleas made monstrously visible to the human eye, and magnetic lodestones pointing true North.
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Godwin, Cavendish, and their contemporaries are important for generating a freely speculative space of imagination—which is still science fiction’s role today. In constructing worlds—or birthing “paper bodies,” as Cavendish called them—the authors’ acts of envisioning possible futures had a tangible impact on how reality took shape. Take this selection of technological marvels Bacon describes in New Atlantis: “Versions of bodies into other bodies” (organ transplants?), “Exhilaration of the spirits, and putting them in good disposition” (pharmaceuticals?), “Drawing of new foods out of substances not now in use” (genetically modified food?), “Making new threads for apparel” (synthetic fabrics?), “Deceptions of the senses” (television and film?).
And then there’s this eerily prescient description of the Lunar technology in The Man in the Moone:
You shal then see men to flie from place to place in the ayre; you shall be able, (without moving or travailing of any creature,) to send messages in an instant many Miles off, and receive answer againe immediately you shall bee able to declare your minde presently unto your friend, being in some private and remote place of a populous Citie, with a number of such like things… you shall have notices of a new World… that all the Philosophers of former ages could never so much as dreame of.
Can one read that passage and not think of air travel, telecommunications, the internet, computers? This is prophesy, but not of scripture and myth; Godwin did not speak to angels, and had no scrying mirrors or tools of divination. Instead, he relied on empiricism and reason. And that gave him a rare quality as an oracle: He happened to be correct.