Is there any science-fiction that predates Mary Shelley's Frankenstein?
April 26, 2005 4:19 PM   Subscribe

Are there any precursors to the science-fiction genre that appear earlier than Frankenstein? Essentially, I want to know: what is the first ever appearance of science-fiction?
posted by monsterhero to Writing & Language (30 answers total)
 
wouldn't Dante count? or even Beowulf? or early Mythology--both Greek and Roman? and Homer?

(or are you looking for stuff that was called "science fiction"?)
posted by amberglow at 4:22 PM on April 26, 2005


Guliver's Travels (1699 apparently) predates Frankenstein (1818 apparently) by quite a bit...

It kind of requires a definition. Or as amberglow says, what is called science fiction.
posted by Chuckles at 4:34 PM on April 26, 2005


amberglow, I'm guessing they would involve the "science" component of science fiction. Frankenstein was about (among other things) science out of control.

I'd imagine preceding Frankenstein there were other cautionary tales about automata. This might go back to something in the era of Leonardo or back to the Greeks and to Heron, depending on how you define it or, and this is my guess, to the golem which at least precedes Frankenstein.
posted by vacapinta at 4:37 PM on April 26, 2005


Oops. meant to include this golem link.
posted by vacapinta at 4:39 PM on April 26, 2005


Faust?
posted by gimonca at 4:40 PM on April 26, 2005


The Iliad mentioned "mechanical servants" which might be the precursor to robots?

Also, in 1657 Cyrano de Bergerac wrote Voyage to the Moon in which a traveler fastens a quantity of small bottles filled with dew to his body. The sun sucks him up with the dew and he lands on the moon.

Who knows.
posted by ieatwords at 4:41 PM on April 26, 2005


I think the Laputan Chapter from GT is particularly interesting. Marlowe's Faustus might also count. Brilliant scholar pushes the limits of knowledge and discovers evil? ... sounds like the plot of a hundred science fiction stories. Dante... (on preview, what they said :)
posted by fleacircus at 4:44 PM on April 26, 2005


The golem was kept alive by magic and religious sorcery, not science. I agree that hard and fast definitions are not agreed upon, but I think people are getting sci-fi confused with speculative fiction, which includes fantasy and horror.

Hope this helps.
posted by monsterhero at 5:05 PM on April 26, 2005


Mythology. Icarus is a pretty straightforward science-screws-up story. If you allow broader definitions, you can see it in Homer -- Odysseus is allatime getting screwed by being too clever by half, which is close enough to the science-gone-wrong meme.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:05 PM on April 26, 2005


There are several marvelous books available which attempt to answer this question.

I have two books which shed some light on the subject. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nichols has this to say:
Science fiction is an impure genre which did not finally take shape until the late nineteenth century, although all its separate elements existed earlier. If the labeling of any earlier story as science fiction depended only on the presence of science fictional elements there would be many such. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, has a fantastic voyage [one common science fictional theme] and a great world-flood, and in those respects it qualifies; but such retrospective labeling is not very useful, since there is no sense at all tin which we can regard science fiction as a genre conscious of being a genre before the nineteenth century. Science fiction proper requires a consciousness of the scientific outlook, and it probably also requires a sense of the possibilities of change, whether social or technological. A cognitive, scientific way of viewing the world did not emerge until the seventeenth century, and did not percolate into society at large until the eighteenth (partly) and the nineteenth (to a large extent); a sense of the fragility of social structures and their potential for change did not really become wide-spread until the political revolutions of the late eighteenth century.
The article on the history of science fiction then goes on to cite Jonathan Swift (specifically Gulliver's Travels and Johannes Kepler and Cyrano de Bergerac and Jane Loudon's The Mummy! as examples of "proto-science fiction". Then:
The two figures most important to science fiction in the early nineteenth century were Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe, both of whom wrote Gothic romances with a degree of scientific speculation...
From there, the article cites the usual suspects: Hawthorne and Melville, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, etc.

A book I love more than the Encyclopedia is the fantastic Anatomy of Wonder edited by Neil Barron. (I actually prefer older editions of this reference; I own the second and fourth, and almost always opt to use the second.) This book contains a long (25+ page) section on the early history of science fiction (and subsequent essays on later stages of the genre's development), followed by a bibliography of significant works.

Anatomy of Wonder cites as the first significant piece of speculative fiction — and this meshes with what I've read from other sources — Sir Thomas More's Utopia, first published in 1551:
More contrasts the state of England, where men are hanged for theft while the state seizes vast areas of land in enclosure, with the communistic society of Utopia, visited by Ralph Hythloday. Utopia is a planned society governed by the principles of justice in keeping with natural law, and the people concern themselves with personal health. Utopia ("no place") serves both as a model of the ideal state and as a vehicle for criticizing existing societies.
Utopia is important both as a seminal work in science fiction, and as an influential work. So many of our modern science fiction stories pay homage to Utopia in oh-so-many ways.

Other, more obscure early works contain science fictional elements, such as Sir Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1627) and Tommaso Campanella's The City of the Sun (1623). Have you heard of either work? Neither have I.

Anatomy of Wonder again cites Kepler and Swift as early examples of authors employing science fictional techniques. Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley are again credited as being the first authors to perform significant work in the genre.

See also the wikipedia article on the subject.

(If you're interested in science fiction and haven't read The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and/or Anatomy of Wonder, I highly recommend both. The latter is much more difficult to find. I had to special order one of my copies from Powell's in the mid-nineties (pre-internet).)

On preview: I think it's wrong to consider mythology as science fiction. Mythology is religion. People believed these stories as literal, just as modern Christians believe the Bible as literal. Is the Bible science fiction? Is the Koran? I think it's specious to argue that mythology is science fiction, though it does contain what we now consider elements of the fantastic.
posted by jdroth at 5:15 PM on April 26, 2005


Oops. Didn't mean to italicize Cyrano de Bergerac. See ieatword's previous comment for more on him. (Or, again, the ever-wonderful wikipedia...)
posted by jdroth at 5:19 PM on April 26, 2005


According to the Mathematical Fiction site I recently posted in the blue, Margaret Cavendish published "Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World" in 1666, a full 152 years before Frankenstein. An SF site review actually considers it more clearly sci fi than either Swift and de Bergerac:

You may think to yourself that calling The Blazing World science fiction may be somewhat of a misnomer and that it rather should be termed a satirical "voyage imaginaire" (imaginary voyage) -- a common literary form of the time -- e.g. Cyrano de Bergerac's contemporaneous Les états et empires de la lune (1657) or Jonathan Swift's later Gulliver's Travels (1726). However, while it does share certain elements of these works such as satire and alternate world setting, The Blazing World might aptly be termed hard science fiction. The Blazing World is a novel which serves as a platform to disseminate Margaret Cavendish's opinions on 17th century science.

Worth wondering why Cavendish's contribution has so far been overlooked in the Wikipedia entry on the history of sci fi. Is she mentioned, jdroth, in either of your sources?
posted by mediareport at 6:44 PM on April 26, 2005


My $.02:

You probably can't go too far back, because the concept of science as we know it came into existence fairly recently (compared to literature itself). What is Frankenstein except a retelling of the golem parables in early Judaism, replacing the name of God with galvinization?

I'd say (without evoking much controversy) that they're the same story, except one was written at a time when the best way we had to think of the world was in terms of religious mysticism, and one was written somewhat later, under a different mental constraint.

If that's right, the theoretical earliest date for science fiction would be the 1540s (Copernicus), because that's when our definition of science started to be fleshed out, but more likely not until the mid 1600s. I'm not a historian -- I don't know when exactly the shift towards science as we know it took hold, but I suspect that science fiction couldn't have happened earlier than this, because it would have been couched in religious language and symbolism, and we would recognize it as a work of religion, and wouldn't call it science fiction.
posted by Hildago at 7:55 PM on April 26, 2005


By that measure, you might assume there could be no true SF until the Enlightenment, so, 1700s.
posted by kindall at 8:06 PM on April 26, 2005


Glad you mentioned Poe, jdroth. In a Fantasy Lit class I took in college (where I was finally motivated enough to earn the first "A" on my transcript) we were assigned his "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" because it can be considered the first-ever time travel story, of the suspended animation variety.
posted by Rash at 8:28 PM on April 26, 2005


Hmm. Not sure I like Hildago's formulation, mainly because I think something like the speculative/scientific impulse has always been present in human society, and also think the speculative impulse is a more important element in "science fiction" than any rigid "mid-1600s" definition of scientific understanding.

How the hell did we ever manage to negotiate the oceans by star patterns, if not by some form of "science"?
posted by mediareport at 8:44 PM on April 26, 2005


I agree that the "speculative/scientific impulse" has always been present, my point is just before the scientific revolution, that impulse presented itself in other ways -- religious, fantastic, mystic, et cetera. In other words, you can't have science fiction before you have "science".
posted by Hildago at 9:26 PM on April 26, 2005


In other words, you can't have science fiction before you have "science".

Again, wasn't there "science" behind the Pacific Islanders' ocean navigation via starlight? I simply prefer a more expansive definition of "science fiction," I guess. Your definition seems rather too artificially pinched.
posted by mediareport at 10:11 PM on April 26, 2005


I'm much less read than the previous posters, but I'd say that Jules Verne would be the popular great-grand-father of 'modern' science fiction (speculative fiction - for those of the Canadian pursuasion).
posted by PurplePorpoise at 10:23 PM on April 26, 2005


There might be science behind the ocean navigation, but it wasnt science as we know it now, with hypotheses etc. A lot of things was just observation based. I support Hildago's stand that only after science was formulated, we can get science fiction. Which is exactly why Brian Aldiss, in his Trillion Years Spree, a history of science fiction, argues that Frankenstein was the first True SF novel.
posted by dhruva at 11:55 PM on April 26, 2005


Icarus is a pretty straightforward science-screws-up story.

It's a science application story, but the tragedy stems from human error not from any scientific fault.
posted by biffa at 1:57 AM on April 27, 2005


Is the Bible science fiction?

Surely the first chapter of Ezekiel counts, if Close Encounters of the Third Kind does?
posted by nicwolff at 4:47 AM on April 27, 2005


You're missing the point that Ezekiel is not fiction (is not intended to be taken as such). Are 19th-century articles on phlogiston "science fiction" because we no longer believe in phlogiston?
posted by languagehat at 6:58 AM on April 27, 2005


You're missing the point that Ezekiel is not fiction (is not intended to be taken as such).

I don't know that that's true. The idea of scriptures as literal fact is as much a product of modernity as the emphasis on science that brought forth modern science fiction is. The Old Testament is a history of the Jewish people in the same sense that the Aeneid is a history of the Roman people; the point isn't to tell a factual account, the point is to say something meaningful about who you are today. If you exclude the Bible from the category of literature, you also have to exclude most all Greek and Roman works.


Along the same lines, I wonder if the roots of the "mad scientist" at least lie in the character of Cain from Genesis, the first murderer who was also credited as the creator of much of the technology readers would have been familiar with. Interesting, at least. The Tower of Babel also shares similar themes (technology's attempt to usurp God's rightful power).
posted by dagnyscott at 7:12 AM on April 27, 2005


Characters head to the moon in Orlando Furioso (1516). Of course, they hang out with St. John the Apostle there, which really isn't that scientific, but the moon part works.
posted by trox at 7:58 AM on April 27, 2005


I don't know that that's true. The idea of scriptures as literal fact is as much a product of modernity as the emphasis on science that brought forth modern science fiction is.

It still wouldn't have been considered "fiction" though. "History" perhaps. "Scripture" definitely. The concept of "fiction," i.e. stories made up out of whole cloth (rather than derived from myths, history, etc.) is I think a fairly recent one, historically speaking.
posted by kindall at 9:51 AM on April 27, 2005


Smithsonian recently had an interesting short article on Jules Verne. Finally, there are English transations available that don't cut out all of his politics.

I apologize for the derail, but Verne is one of the authors frequently mentioned as "the first SF author", even if he isn't.
posted by QIbHom at 10:11 AM on April 27, 2005


Again, wasn't there "science" behind the Pacific Islanders' ocean navigation via starlight? I simply prefer a more expansive definition of "science fiction," I guess. Your definition seems rather too artificially pinched.

And I think your's is just too broad. I think it would include a lot of things that nobody really considers science fiction, even (if we could travel back in time and ask them) the people who originated the stories. Plus, I suspect monsterhero would have phrased the question differently if he'd meant to include that sort of thing -- if you take "science fiction" to include things that don't fit a modern definition of science, it's a lot easier to think of stories that were written before Frankenstein.
posted by Hildago at 10:12 AM on April 27, 2005


If you exclude the Bible from the category of literature

Whoa whoa whoa! Where did that come from? I said Ezekiel was not intended to be taken as fiction; how you get from that to "isn't literature" is beyond me. Of course the Bible is literature, and of course the idea of "literal fact" is modern -- but so (as kindall points out) is the idea of "fiction." To put Ezekiel in the same category as Amazing Stories seems to me perverse and unhelpful.
posted by languagehat at 3:14 PM on April 27, 2005


if you take "science fiction" to include things that don't fit a modern definition of science, it's a lot easier to think of stories that were written before Frankenstein.

Well, I see the point. Just so long as you realize that even under your more restrictive definition, the 1666 Cavendish story clearly qualifies as an example of "early science fiction."
posted by mediareport at 8:54 PM on April 27, 2005


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