Brief Prehistory of Science Fiction

The term "science fiction" first appears in the late nineteenth century

There is a time for the birth of modern science. Is there also a first moment for the literary genre that we now call science fiction? Was science fiction born in the same cradle as modern science?

The term “science fiction” first appears in the late 1564th century. But we can mark the course of a science fiction prehistory as having started after the birth of modern experimental science. And this happened to Galileo Galilei (1642-1571) and Johannes Kepler (1630-XNUMX) at the beginning of the XNUMXth century.

If Galileo is recognized as a leading figure in the scientific revolution, to Kepler, the German astronomer and mathematician, we owe the three laws on the motion of the planets, named after him and which were the starting point for the formulation, by Isaac Newton , from the law of universal attraction.

The curious thing is that great popularizers of science and human culture, such as Carl Sagan, identify in one of these giants of science the author of the first work in the prehistory of science fiction. As the scientist poet said, “they neither know nor dream that the dream commands life”. And in fact, it seems to have been the dream of a trip to the moon that the prehistory of science fiction began.

The birth of modern experimental science and an incipient literary expression that we can classify as “scientific fiction” coexisted and fertilized in the same time and space, a continuous act with the advancement of scientific and technological development itself. We are at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, in the prehistory of science fiction.

Astronomer Johannes Kepler mathematized the movement of celestial bodies in mechanics based on Copernicus' heliocentric model. The scientific revolution is based on its three laws of the movements of the planets, which Kepler published and bequeathed to us in his book “Harmonices mundi” (“Harmony of the World”), published in 1619.

Alongside his role as one of the founders of modern science, alongside Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler writes, between 1620 and the year of his death (1630), an autobiographical and fantastically imagined book: “Somnium” – “The Dream”. Only published in 1634, four years after his death, with the full title “Somnium sive opus postumum of astronimo lunari” (“The Dream, a posthumous work on lunar astronomy”) this work, written in Latin, is considered by Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, two unavoidable figures of XNUMXth century science and its dissemination to everyone, as the first book of Science fiction.

In "Somnium", a student of Tycho Brahe (most likely Kepler himself) is transported to the Moon by occult forces. In “Somnium”, man looks at the Earth for the first time in human history from a completely new perspective.

Presenting an imagined and detailed description of how the Earth might be seen from the Moon, Kepler gives a detailed description of the traveler's acclimatization to the desolate conditions of the lunar surface, projections that were largely confirmed by twentieth-century astronauts.

This imaginative and predictive anticipation of a reality that science and technology only made possible 350 years later is one of the characteristics that make this work a pioneer of its kind, which was definitively established at the end of the XNUMXth century.

Another work published before the beginning of science fiction prehistory deserves reference in this context, despite being considered a philosophical text. Its author is the Englishman Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an unavoidable theorist and disseminator of the scientific experimental method developed by his contemporaries Galileo and Kepler.

In a short story entitled “The New Atlantis”, published posthumously in 1627, Bacon tells us about a prodigious and lost island in the middle of the seas, whose inhabitants mastered the sciences and consequently possessed very advanced technologies. On the island there are several machines and other inventions that did not exist in the XNUMXth century and which, despite their literary and fanciful description, are surprisingly anticipated.

But trips to the Moon continued to be the stage setting for science fiction prehistory. In the history of world literature, the description of going to the moon by the French writer Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) is best known: “Histoire Comique des États et Empires de la Lune” (“Comic History of the States and Empires of the Moon”).

Written between 1642 and 1655, published posthumously in 1657, it makes the first description of a space trip to the Moon. They are no longer hidden forces, as in the case of Kepler. The trip takes place in its own vehicle. It is also related how an imaginary and lunar people, the Selenites, see the terrestrials. In a telluric and lunar distancing, Cyrano de Bergerac also writes a sequel: “Comic History of the States and Empires of the Sun”, also published posthumously in 1662.

The progressive knowledge of the solar system, then added by the systematic observation of the cosmos allowed by the telescope – started in March 1610 by Galileo Galilei -, expanded the literary and fanciful imagination to spaces farther away from the Earth, the Moon and the Sun. allowed the imagination to migrate beyond the everyday stars.

The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), great promoter of the ideas of celestial mechanics and the universal attraction of the physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton (1643-1727), wrote around 1732 a science fiction short story entitled “Micromegas”. Only published in 1752, and with the subtitle “Philosophical History”, Voltaire reports the “journey of an inhabitant of the world from the star Sirius to the planet Saturn”. The traveler is Micromegas, who, like a spatial Gulliver, visits various corners of the cosmos and tells us of the contrasts between the uses and customs of the peoples he encounters in these other astral worlds.

Despite being science fiction as we scale it today, Voltaire draws his tale with the science of the time and the philosophy of all times. The main thing that was known about astronomy and physics in the XNUMXth century is said or implied throughout the text.

In the end, Micromegas offers little humans, namely the secretary of the Academy of Paris, a book on philosophy which says the meaning of all things is contained. But this book is entirely blank, in a metaphor that knowledge of an orderly cosmos will always be unfinished.

There are authors who identify in the various alien cultures described throughout “Gulliver's Travels”, a work published in 1726 by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), elements of an anthropological science fiction, in which fantasy underlines the amazement of discoveries from zoology and botany, then much in focus for the various natural-philosophical expeditions carried out under the aegis of the various emerging scientific societies in the old western world.

Let's take stock of the situation:

We are in the XNUMXth century, the Century of Enlightenment, with reason moving into the industrialized XNUMXth century. Man no longer inhabits the center of the Universe and scientific advances and discoveries begin to unravel the contours of his biological and evolutionary nature.

Man is no longer the center of creation and has a place equal to that of other animals and plants that cohabit the same planet with him, with a geological history hitherto unimaginable and unsuspected. As before, and on a basis of scientific knowledge, cathartic fears and dreams flow into new and fanciful romances.

In 1818, Mary Shelley (1797-1851) published “Frankenstein”. this other bestseller of world literature is considered by some authors to be the work that defines the beginning of the literary genre whose prehistory we have been examining.

Together with another book by Mary Shelley, “The Last Man”, published in 1826, the costume of the scientific novel begins to forest the territories of literature and gain the status of a literary genre of its own.

It is also worth mentioning another work, unavoidable in the romanticized integration of the new scientific knowledge about the evolution of species and the chemical and biological nature of man: “The Doctor and the Monster”, written in 1886 by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) . This is another excellent example of the new scientific novel of the nineteenth century, in which animal and human drives combine in a unified human nature, in an immemorial conflict over the nature and place of man in society in the light of the scientific knowledge of the time.

Remember that Charles Darwin (1809-1882) had published in 1859 one of the main books in the history of science: “The Origin of Species”. With him, he revolutionized the scientific and religious panorama of the time, the understanding of the evolution of man himself, in a society already transformed by the industrial revolution as a result of science and technology.

Science fiction was bubbling at full speed in a space that modern physics and chemistry were then atomizing and relativizing and where wireless telephony allowed for remote communication, through the air, in the technological realization of what would have been pure magic before. (and witchcraft).

As Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) wrote, “sufficiently advanced technology is pure magic”. Recall that C. Clarke is considered the “father” of the first geostationary communications satellite, in addition to having been a prolific science fiction writer. A major example is his work “2001- a Space Odyssey” (which would serve as a matrix for the script of the homonymous film directed by Stanley Kubrick). Once again science, technology and fiction coexist in the same personality!

Science fiction, by setting sciences and technologies out of context in time and space, allowed the discussion of hypotheses, conjectures, ideas, dreams (which are the driving force of knowledge and trust in human beings to solve problems), which would otherwise be sublimated under the heat of an inquisitorial fire. It is the extrapolation of what is known scientifically and that through dreams is projected towards a future of hope.

And finally, the end of science fiction prehistory. Mainly and undoubtedly with Jules Verne (1828-1905) and HG Wells (1866-1946), the genus claims to be distinguishable from any other and reaches a brave new world, from the Moon to the center of the Earth, in which travels in the time and space surpass all known physical limits, but always and always passing through the reflection on the nature, origin and destiny of man himself through expanding universes.

Note: The works and the authors and scientists referred to throughout this text are the reference points to draw a guiding and chronological line for a prehistory of the kind understood by science fiction. There will be others to be included. Almost all are about to be translated into Portuguese. Thus, this text intends to be more a starting point for a journey through the human imagination, rather than an exhaustive and finished list of a history that is still very little known and consensual.


Author Antonio Piedade
Science in the Regional Press – Ciência Viva