The Science Fiction That Came Before Science

Literature imagined technologically marvelous cities, space travel, and aliens before the scientific revolution even hit its stride.

A drawing by the French film director Georges Méliès of a scene from his 1902 classic, A Trip to the Moon (Wikipedia Commons)

An explorer builds a space ship and meets aliens on another world. They are a “people most strange,” these extraterrestrials. They’re twice as tall as humans; they wear clothes spun of a mysterious material, dyed in a color unseen by human eyes; they speak only in haunting musical tones. Then the explorer returns to Earth.

This has been the plot of seemingly countless examples of pulp magazines and canonical science fiction in the past century. Similar themes have been explored by authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke, classic television such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, and films like this month’s Arrival. But this particular story isn’t from the past century. Its explorer, Domingo Gonsales, is the fictional narrator of The Man in the Moone, a novel by Francis Godwin, a bishop in the Church of England. It was published in 1638.

Science fiction is sometimes understood as the result of modern science. According to this view, the genre emerged to make sense of the tremendous expanses in empirical knowledge and technological ability throughout the 17th and 18th centuries—the Copernican model of the solar system, discoveries in the New World, medical advances, microscopes. Critics like Brian Aldiss have argued that Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s 1818 masterpiece, is the first science-fiction novel because its fantastic events occur not because of magic or miracle, but purely through science.

Yet many books written at the height of, or even before, the Scientific Revolution used the same narrative conceit. What makes these books fascinating is not just that they reflect the new science of the time, but that they demonstrate literature’s influence on scientific inquiry. Like many contemporary scientists say that Star Trek inspired their love of discovery, or that modern technology is prefigured by stories from a half-century ago, The Man in the Moone disseminated ideas like heliocentricism and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Science fiction alone did not inspire the scientific revolution, but the literature of the era did allow people to imagine different realities—in some cases, long before those realities actually became real.

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A reading list of these early stories includes works of varying canonicity, such as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634), Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666), Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines (1688), and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). These texts all share the driving curiosity that defines so much classic science fiction. “There is no man this day living that can tell you of so many strange and unknown peoples and countries,” writes More, describing the discoverer of the fictional island Utopia—a passage as evocative and stirring as “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Though obscure today, Godwin’s The Man in the Moone captivated 17th-century readers with its tale of a Spaniard who travels in a ship powered by geese. He flies through space, which, for the first time in literature is depicted as weightless, then spends time with the denizens of a lunar civilization, only to leave for an almost equally exotic and technologically marvelous land called China. The story’s blend of natural philosophy, travel narrative, and the utopian and picaresque genres delighted English and European audiences. It also influenced literary stars for centuries. The French author Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac poked fun at the book in his satirical 1657 novel, The Other World. Edgar Allen Poe referenced the novel in his 1835 story “The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall.” And H.G. Wells’ 1901 novel, The First Men in the Moon, was directly inspired by Godwin.

Godwin’s influence was scientific as well. As the Oxford professor William Poole writes in his introduction to the latest edition of The Man in the Moone, “Literary or humanistic traditions and practical astronomy were not absolutely separate activities for early-modern astronomers.” For Godwin, the humanities and sciences weren’t just overlapping, they were often mutually reinforcing methodologies. John Wilkins, a fellow of the Royal Society and the inventor of the precursor to the metric system, argued in his book Mercury (1641) that Godwin’s novel could “be used to unlock the secrets” of natural philosophy.

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.

“What the scientific revolution did,” writes the British historian Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Belief in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England, “was to … buttress up the old rationalist attitude with a more stable intellectual foundation.” That is, science fiction wasn’t always derivative of scientific explanations themselves. Even before science had fully defined itself, literature offered a means for thinking about science.

The capacity to envision alternative social arrangements, in particular, makes science fiction arguably the literary genre with the most revolutionary potential. Cavendish’s “proto-feminist critique,” Dutton says, was a “critique of dominate power structures.” In 17th-century Britain, “these critiques … coming from a woman’s pen, no less, must have seemed nearly as fantastical as [her] talking bears!”

Science fiction has since been the social laboratory of visionaries like Ursula K. LeGuin, Samuel Delaney, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and Octavia Butler. The freedom of speculative fiction has allowed these authors to question real-life culture in radical ways. In the tradition of socially engaged science fiction, Cavendish is the first “Creatoress, as she called herself.

In The Blazing World, Cavendish wrote that “fictions are an issue of man’s Fancy, framed in his own Mind, according as he please, without regard, whether the thing, he fancies, be really existent without his mind of not.” Yet for her, Godwin, Bacon, and others, so many of the things they fancied later did become “really existent.” Their imaginations didn’t always require empirical discoveries to have happened first; their fancies were written in the poetry of delight and wonder, before being confirmed in the prose of experiment and logic.