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Best Proto-Science Fiction

Best of the Really Old Stuff Before Science Fiction was a Genre

'Proto-Science Fiction' being science fiction books written before HG Wells (pre 1890. Also referred to as the 'really old stuff before science fiction was even a genre.

If you value your sanity, stay away from all those places where critics argue about what was the first science fiction story. No one agrees. Brian Aldiss famously said that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was the first, but that's because he defined science fiction in such a way that nothing before then could count. Gary Westfahl insists that science fiction could not begin until authors recognised that they were working within a genre, so science fiction really begins with Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories. And there are all sorts of other works, between these dates or much earlier, that other critics have proclaimed.

You see, it all depends on how we define science fiction. And since it is impossible to come up with a definition that everyone agrees on, so it is inevitably impossible to come up with a starting point that everyone agrees on.

All we know for sure is that as long ago as the second century of the Christian Era there were at least two works in which travellers visited the moon. One was A True History by Lucian of Samosata, and the other was The Incredible Wonders Beyond Thule by Antonius Diogenes, which probably was earlier though it has been lost so we don't really know much about it. There could well have been others, we just don't know. Were these the first science fiction? As I say, it all depends what you mean by science fiction, but it does suggest that people have been writing about the sorts of things we associate with science fiction for as long as they have been writing.

There's a name for this sort of stuff: it's referred to as "proto-sf", which sort of suggests it's not really science fiction. Well, there's all sorts of pretty amazing, pretty science-fictional ideas in all of these books, so make your own mind up.

It is the summer of 1816. Mary Wollstonecraft is 18, and is travelling through Europe with her lover of two years, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The couple arrive in Geneva in May to stay with Lord Byron, who has rented a villa there along with his mistress, Claire Claremont, and his young doctor, John Polidori. But it turns out to be a miserable summer, and they spend the rainy evenings telling each other ghost stories. Then, they challenge each other to make up new stories. Polidori produces The Vampyre, a precursor of Dracula. Mary, after a nightmare, and recalling the current experiments by Galvani, comes up with Frankenstein. The novel was published, anonymously, two years later, then a revised edition under her name appeared in 1831.The novel is the story of a young and impatient scientist, Victor Frankenstein who, experimenting with electricity, manages to bring life back to dead flesh. He makes a living being from bits of dead men, but he sees the creature as ugly and so abandons it. Alone and terrifying anyone who sees it, the creature still manages to teach itself to speak and to read, and eventually he seeks out Frankenstein to persuade him to make a mate. Frankenstein agrees, but destroys the female before animating her; in revenge, the creature kills Frankenstein's fiancÃée on the eve of their wedding. Eventually the two, creator and created, disappear into the wastes of the North Pole. Why It Made the ListAccording to Brian Aldiss, Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel. Even if you don't accept this, there's no denying that it was one of the most influential books in the entire history of the genre. Everything from Jeckyll and Hyde to Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, owe a debt to Frankenstein.

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Frankenstein has been called the first science fiction novel, but there are several other contenders for that title. For instance, you might try Utopia by Thomas More, the original work about a perfect land, and a book that has been even more influential than Frankenstein.

Or there's The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin, about an anti-hero shipwrecked on a remote island, who tries to escape by building carriage powered by wild geese. But the geese, as it was then believed, migrated to the Moon, so he is swept along, experiencing weightlessness along the way, and then discovering a noble society on the moon.

Or, again, there's The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, in which a lady is kidnapped by pirates, abandoned at the North Pole, finds another world joined to ours at the pole, and in time becomes empress of that world.

Meanwhile, Frankenstein has inspired very many books as sequels or variations of the story. There is, for instance, Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss, in which a 21st century politician is transported back to Geneva in 1816 to meet both Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein.

Or there's Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop, in which the immortal creature survives the Arctic wastes and reappears in the Deep South of America during World War Two playing minor league baseball.

Throughout the Middle Ages there had been folk stories about perfect places, whether it was Heaven or the Land of Cockaigne, but when More wrote about a perfect place he did something very different. He suggested that Utopia was a real place that could be reached in this world, and, moreover, that its perfection was a result of deliberate human planning. On a (genuine) embassy to the Low Countries, More is introduced to Raphael Hythloday (the name means "dispenser of nonsense") who describes how he was left behind in the New World on one of Amerigo Vespucci's expeditions, and on his travels discovered a land where everything was ordered and right. Gold was so unvalued that it was used for chamber pots, there were no possessions, everyone had enough to eat, no-one had to work excessively and so on. The book contains scathing satire on the state of England as it then was, but what caught everyone's imagination was the idea of this peaceful and ordered land. Indeed, it was such a powerful idea that the word entered the language almost instantly. Why it's at the top of the list: Utopia was originally written as a work of philosophy, like several books by More's friend Erasmus it was intended as a guide to how the world should be organised. But it became so popular so quickly that it was taken up as a way of expressing religious ideas, scientific notions, political satire and more. Within a century it was being used to express political plans. Yet it has always remained a model for fictions, right up to the work of writers as varied as H.G. Wells and Kim Stanley Robinson.
What we learned from Jeckyll and Hyde is that Frankenstein's monster is in all of us. Taking elements from the real-life case of Deacon Brodie, a respectable cabinet maker who was also a secret burglar, and from James Hogg's story of Calvinist guilt, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Robert Louis Stevenson fashioned something completely new. The idea that any one of us is capable of becoming the monster had never appeared in science fiction before; but since then the idea has never been absent. This is another story that has been presented so often on film and on stage that we all know the story, even if we've never read the book (though the book has a sense of violence and malevolence that has never quite been captured on film). Told by a lawyer, Utterson, the story introduces a hideous, brutal figure, Hyde, who seems to be an acquaintance of respected Doctor Jeckyll. Gradually we discover that Jeckyll has found a way to indulge in his vices by changing himself into Hyde, but the transformations have slowly got the better of him. Why it's on the list: This is another work whose title has entered the language. The central idea of the double, the other self, has become one of the keystones of all subsequent science fiction and horror...
Godwin was Bishop of Hereford, and this extraordinary story was discovered among his papers after his death. Read today it is hard to realise what an amazing work it was, incorporating scientific ideas that wouldn't become commonly known for many years, and at the same time having an unexpected effect upon scientific thought. It is the story of Domingo Gonsales, a luckless picaresque anti-hero, who, after various adventures, finds himself cast away on the island of St Helena. In an attempt to escape, he builds a carriage which he harnesses to a flock of wild geese in the hope that they will carry him away to the mainland. But, in keeping with the common ideas of the time, the geese migrate to the Moon and Gonsales is carried away with them. On the journey he experiences weightlessness, long before that became accepted scientific knowledge. On the Moon he discovers an entire society of tall, pale beings, where greater moral worth is reflected in greater height; because Gonsales is small and dark, therefore, he is soon cast out and returned to Earth. Why it's on the list: This was the first work of any sort to imagine a mechanical means of conveyance to the Moon. When it appeared, in 1638, John Wilkins had just published a work that represented the very latest scientific thinking about the Moon, and in the light of Godwin's fiction, Wilkins produced a revised edition of his own book in which he discussed for the first time the scientific feasibility of creating a means of travel to the Moon. The book also influenced generations of science fiction writers, up to and including Jules Verne, so it can be fairly claimed to be one of the most influential books in the entire history of science fiction.
Even more than today, writers in the 17th and 18th centuries often used science fictional devices for satire. Of these, none was more devastating than Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. He attacked religion in A Tale of a Tub, suggested that the poor Irish should avoid starvation by eating their own children in A Modest Proposal, and most famously of all attacked just about everyone in Gulliver's Travels from politicians (disputes over which end of an egg to open in Lilliput) to scientists (the flying island of Laputa). This is another of those novels that has been dramatized so often, or abridged for children, that we all know it, though it is generally only the first part of the book that is well known. It is a marvellous voyage in which Gulliver is cast ashore on the land of Lilliput where he is a giant among tiny people. His second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag, where he is tiny in a land of giants. On his third voyage he is taken up to the flying island of Laputa and witnesses the first aerial bombardment in fiction, and also scientists trying to extract sunlight from cucumbers. Finally, his fourth voyage takes him to the land of the Houyhnhnms, wise and noble horses while the human Yahoos are deformed and debased. Why it's on the list: The science in Gulliver's Travels is deliberately ridiculous, yet the novel is filled with the sort of invention that has inspired a host of later science fiction novels, most recently, Swiftly by Adam Roberts..
The name means "Little, Big", and like Gulliver's encounters with the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, there is a lot of play with issues of scale. But it is a very different sort of story. Voltaire uses a tale of alien encounters to examine the philosophical ideas of his day. Micromegas is actually a scientist from a planet around Sirius who is exiled for his heretical views and decides to visit our Solar System. Micromegas is about 23 miles tall, and when he reaches Saturn he meets a dwarf who is only one-twentieth of his size. But though Micromegas is so much bigger in every sense, including lifespan and intellect, the two are both scientists and strike up a friendship. Together they visit Earth, where at first they conclude that the beings are too tiny to have any genuine intelligence. Then they encounter a boatload of philosophers and develop a way of communicating with them, only to laugh at the puny ideas of the puny Earthmen. Why it's on the list: Micromegas is one of the key works in the development of science fiction. It is the first of what the French call the "contes philosophique", the philosophical tale, that is a distinct brand of ideas-led science fiction.
Of all the works of translated science fiction, there can be few rivals for the mass and continuing popularity of Jules Verne's extraordinary voyages. Between 1863 and his death in 1905, he produced well over 50 novels (a further 10 appeared after his death), most of which incorporated some element of science fiction. But the example of Verne is also a warning that the quality of the translation matters.His books were translated into English almost as soon as they were published, but unlike the translations into other languages which presented him as a major contemporary writer, his English translator tended to see him as a writer for children. Thus the standard editions of his books, many of which have remained in print for well over a century, cut out some scenes, added others, and in general made the books simpler than the original. It is only recently that an effort has been made to produce more accurate English translations of the books.Even so, works like Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Off on a Comet, Robur the Conqueror and From the Earth to the Moon, with their subterranean worlds, submarines, flying machines and space journeys continue to excite the imagination.Why it's on the list As a representative of Verne's vast and varied output, From the Earth to the Moon along with its sequel Around the Moon, is fascinating. The building of a massive cannon in Florida to shoot three adventurers on an extraordinary journey to circumnavigate the Moon and return to Earth captures everything that most of us read science fiction to find.

Books in Extraordinary Voyages Series (57)

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, sometimes known as Mad Madge, was an amazing figure, a friend of major thinkers like Descartes and Hobbes, she was an early exponent of atomism, and persistently tried to join the Royal Society though women were not allowed to be members at the time. Above all, she was one of the first women in England to publish books under her own name, and to make a living at it. The Blazing World is full of incident. Our heroine is kidnapped by pirates, shipwrecked at the North Pole, finds another world attached to ours at the pole, crosses to that other world where she encounters a host of strange animals, then she goes into the interior of the world which is ablaze with jewels and has herself made Empress. On top of all of that, she then starts to communicate with the Duchess of Newcastle in our own world, so that the author thus becomes a character in her own novel. We might wonder whether The Blazing World might have been acclaimed as a precursor for postmodernism if it hadn't been written by a woman. Why it's on the list: This is the earliest substantial work of fiction written by a woman that is recognisable as science fiction, and it is still fascinating to read today.
In the middle years of the 19th century, Prussia embarked on a series of military adventures against Denmark, Austria and finally France which succeeded in uniting the German states under the Prussian crown, establishing a new military power in Europe, and destabilising the balance of power. As a result, stories began to appear stoking the fear of Germany as a way of lobbying for increased spending on the army and navy. One of the first and certainly the most famous of these was "The Battle of Dorking" by George Chesney, a Captain in the Royal Engineers who had grown concerned by the lack of preparedness of the British army and also by the speed of the Prussian army. His story, recounted long after the event, describes a lightning German invasion of Britain, which sweeps aside the ill-trained British forces at Dorking and goes on to conquer the entire country and split up the empire. Why it's on the list: A flood of invasion stories followed "The Battle of Dorking", serialised in newspapers that found that they increased sales in towns named as part of the invasion route. The general fear of war that was building up meant that similar stories appeared in France, America and even Germany. Through books like The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, invasion stories were transformed into what we recognise as spy stories. And the sub-genre also directly influenced The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, so that the stories also gave rise to alien invasion tales.
One of Mary Shelley's late novels, The Last Man, envisaged a world ravaged by plague in which humanity is wiped out. Although not well received at the time, the romantic notion of a world stripped bare of people set in train a strand of science fiction that would grow into the distinctive catastrophe stories of British scientific romance. One of the earliest and finest of these was After London by Richard Jeffries. Jeffries was a nature writer, and some of the finest passages in the novel occur when he is describing landscape turning wild, domestic animals becoming feral and London being taken over by swampland. Against this vividly described background he tells a story that would become all too familiar from later post-apocalyptic works but that was startlingly original here. As society collapses, so the world reverts to barbarism before settling into a pseudo-medieval state. Why it's on the list: Post-apocalyptic fiction has been a commonplace of science fiction for decades, but this is where it started. Here is where we first encounter the loss of civilisation and the way that humanity reacts in the face of catastrophe.
Francis Bacon was a scientist to his fingertips, one of the very first to argue for the primacy of experiment, and so devoted to his own observations that he died after catching a cold during an experiment in refrigeration. All of this poured out in a sequence of major books that were the foundation of 17th century science. One book unfinished at the time of his death was a utopia in which science held the reins. The remote island of New Atlantis is governed by a school of science known as Saloman's House, a place of such advanced ideas that they already have versions of a microscope, submarine and aircraft, inventions that would occur in real life for decades or even longer. And because everything is conducted on scientific principles, society is, of course, perfect. Why it's on the list: There are works of fiction that have an effect on the real world, and this is undoubtedly one of them. It was on the model of Bacon's Saloman's House that John Wilkins and his followers created the Royal Society after the Restoration of Charles II. On the literary side, of course, New Atlantis is still recognised as one of the two or three major works of utopian fiction.
Robida was an illustrator and caricaturist more than a novelist, which is just as well because it is the many charming illustrations for this book that have survived better than the story itself. But what illustrations! Writing in the last quarter of the 19th century, Robida imagined the middle years of the twentieth century as a place in which the familiar attitudes and mores of Victorian Paris are recreated against a setting of technological wonders. Along the way, for instance, we see people in 19th century costume travelling in high speed mass transit systems above the city, flying in helicopters, conversing on videophones and more. With reference to women's liberation, biological warfare and even a Chinese invasion going on in the background, it's a very different world. Yet against this he tells a conventional tale of a young man wanting to marry a woman his parents consider unsuitable. Why it's on the list: Ignore the story, just enjoy the pictures. They give a vivid impression of what the future might be like and actually proved surprisingly influential; films like Metropolis and Things to Come clearly owe a debt to Robida's illustrations.
Throughout the 18th century, there was a vogue for stories about other worlds inside our own. In time, these would give rise to Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but one of the first and certainly most influential of these stories was written by one of the leading figures in Scandinavian literature. In Holberg's utopia, Niels Klim falls through the Earth's crust and finds himself on another planet, which revolves around a sun inside our Earth. Here he encounters, in turn, a race of intelligent trees, of apelike beings, of jackdaws at war with the thrushes, even a country of string basses which communicate by music. Why it's on the list: A mixture of satire, fantasy, and an almost surreal invention, this is the first major example of a hollow Earth story, and one that would go on to be copied throughout Europe.
At the start of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, a bunch of characters assemble, most of them identified only by their job: the local mayor, the journalist, and so on. One unnamed figure is actually William Morris, artist, poet, furniture maker, printer, wallpaper designer, and author of News from Nowhere. This is the reason he's on Wells's guest list, because the world the time traveller visits is in part a response to the idealised socialist utopia that Morris had presented in this book. A socialist falls asleep in the 19th century and wakes in a future where all socialist ideals have come true. He finds this future London to be a paradise where there is no class system, no private property, no prisons, and where people work only because it is pleasureable to do so. Our Victorian traveller is conducted around this wonderland by a man who represents everything that Morris believes in, and falls in love with a woman who has been liberated by socialism. Why it's on the list: News from Nowhere was propaganda, of course, but Morris was also a very fine writer of romance and fantasy, and he brought this skill to bear on his novel. This was one of the last great utopias in the traditional style before H.G. Wells reinvented the form with his own A Modern Utopia.
Usually translated as "Another World and yet the Same", Bishop Hall's book has been claimed as the first anti-utopia. Coming less than a century after Thomas More wrote his seminal book, this was an outrageous satire in which all the faults of contemporary society are pushed to gross excess. It is set in Terra Australis (probably the first work of fiction to use that name) the unknown southern continent that has started to appear in the work of some mapmakers. This southern continent was always presented as the mirror image of northern continents, and so Hall makes the society there the mirror image of things in the north. Thus the physical indulgence in Crapulia is so extreme that the rich employ servants to hold their eyes open and put food into their mouths. Viraginia is a land rules by women; Moronia is a land where morons mimic the Catholic Church; and Lavernia is a land of thieves. Why it's on the list: Early utopias are often presented as being worthy and sometimes quite dull, but when utopian writers went for comedy the result is scatological, excessive and very far from dull. Another, slightly later example is the sexual licentiousness in Isle of Pines by Henry Neville which was abhorred at the time as being pornography.

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The Belgian writer, who used the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny aîné, was possibly the leading continental rival to H.G. Wells, producing a string of vivid and inventive short novels. This one, for example, is set in a distant future when human life on Earth is coming to an end. The whole planet has become a desert, and small isolated communities huddle around any rare source of water. But they are only too aware that the water they have cannot last for long, and their whole life is built around conserving what little they have and seeking out any new source. But while human existence is in decline, out on the horizon something new, mysterious and menacing is stirring. The “ferromagnetals” are a barely comprehensible form of metallic life that has developed spontaneously and may even be achieving sentience, and they are getting ready to inherit the Earth. Why it’s on the list: This was one of the first stories to suggest that any posthuman life may not be human at all; it is also perhaps unique in positing a form of metallic life that has not initially been manufactured by humankind.
First published, in a bowdlerised form, after the death of Cyrano de Bergerac, the two parts of the book are incomplete, probably because they were considered too heretical and too racy. It is probable that a third part, taking the story on to the stars, was intended, and may even have been written, but it has been lost completely. In the first part a man called Cyrano travels by rocket to the moon, where he discovers the Garden of Eden and encounters the ghosts of Socrates and of Domingo Gonsales (from The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin), all of which gives Cyrano a chance to talk about how useless the idea of God is. In the second part Cyrano builds another flying machine, powered by blasts of hot air generated by focussed mirrors, which takes him to a sun spot, where he is put on trial for the crimes of humanity and meets Tomasso Campanella (author of the utopian novel The City of the Sun) with whom he talks about sex. Why its on the list: Arthur C. Clarke credits this with the first appearance of a rocket for interplanetary travel, and also the first appearance of something like a ramjet. Be that as it may, this was a tremendously influential work that continued to inspire writers for a century or more..

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Hugo Gernsback defined scientifiction as "the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allen Poe type of story". Poe was a very varied writer, associated with romantic and gothic fiction, one of the fathers of the horror story and the detective story. Only a portion of his short fiction could be identified as science fiction, and most of them, such as "MS, Found in a Bottle" or "A Descent into the Maelstrom", are also straightforward adventure stories with an extra and often disturbing element. That is certainly true of this novella. For the most part it is the story of an ill-fated expedition to the south seas, but on one remote island the crew of the ship encounter a race of savages who are terrified by the crew's whiteness. The crew are lured into a trap from which only the narrator, Pym, and one other survive by hiding in a cave where they discover traces of ancient writing (it seems to be a sort of hieroglyph) which explains the fear of whiteness in terms of a shrouded white figure. Escaping the island, the two men set off in a small boat in which they find themselves swept towards a great hole, at the entrance to which they glimpse a white, shrouded figure. The narrative ends at that point. Why it's on the list: The science fictionality of this story is all a matter of suggestion. We don't know that the Antarctic hole towards which the two men are heading at the end of the story is the entrance to an underworld, but that is the implication. We do not know that the white shrouded figure is an alien from this other, subterranean world, but again that is the best explanation. It is the use of hints that makes this such a powerful story.
Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe and Journal of the Plague Year among many others, is not generally recognised for his science fiction, but in fact he wrote one of the most peculiar of early voyages to the Moon. The vehicle is a winged chariot powered by fuel and fire in a manner that makes it sound strangely like a combustion engine of some sort, but the fact that the number of feathers on the wings matched the number of seats in parliament demonstrates that the whole thing is meant more satirically than scientifically. Once on the Moon the traveller discovers a host of marvels, ranging from a seat that can read thoughts to a glass through which could be observed all the happenings back on Earth. But what we really get is a rather vicious satire on the Royal Society (all learned men are described as idiots) that is similar in many ways to the flying island of Laputa in Swift's Gulliver's Travels which came out some 20 years later. Why it's on the list: Defoe was something of a rabble rouser, notorious for his controversial conservative ideas, and he would use the Moon as a platform from which to lash out at what he saw as the idiocies of his day not just in this novel but in a whole series of pamphlets and essays written around the same time. This is an important, if now little known, episode in the history of Moon literature.
If The Time Machine was, in part, a response to News from Nowhere by William Morris, then News from Nowhere was in turn a response to Looking Backward. Morris didn't find Bellamy's version of Socialism to his taste, but in responding to it, he even borrowed the structure of Bellamy's novel. In this novel, Julian West falls asleep in the latter part of the 19th century, and wakes up in Boston in the year 2000. But this is a America that has been transformed into a Socialist paradise, and the novel mostly consists of West being taken around Boston to see how much better everything is. The more uncongenial the job the shorter the hours everyone works, food is freely available to anyone who wants it, people retire at 45, there's something resembling a credit card, and culture is piped to the home by a sort of telephone. Why it's on the list: Bellamy's novel had an immediate and extraordinary effect. Bellamy Clubs sprang up all across the United States, a mass political movement was born (called, confusingly, Nationalism), Marxist writings of the day kept referring to the book, and there were even utopian communities that modelled themselves on the novel.

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Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the first Baron Lytton, financed his extravagant lifestyle by writing a string of best selling if often pot boiling novels. Titles like The Last Days of Pompeii and Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes, were highly successful and secured his reputation and his wealth. Though it has to be remembered that it was Bulwer-Lytton who began one novel with the immortal line: "It was a dark and stormy night", which has been parodied mercilessly ever since. His one work of science fiction, The Coming Race, is a combination hollow Earth/lost race story. A traveller happens upon a subterranean world where he encounters the descendants of an antediluvian race who call themselves Vril-Ya. They have a potent source of food, Vril, which gives them inordinate power, so much so that even a child could destroy a city with the power of its mind alone. Having now encountered humans from the surface, the Vril-Ya decide that they must conquer the surface world. Why it's on the list: The Coming Race had an extraordinary afterlife. The novel was so popular that vril became a common term for elixirs, leading to things like the Vril-Ya Bazaar at the Royal Albert Hall and the establishment of a Vril Society in Germany. Though the most lasting effect was in the naming of a beef extract that was called Bovril and that is still on sale today.
Following the Copernican Revolution, Kepler was probably the most important astronomer in the story of our understanding of the Solar System. He worked with Tycho Brahe and became court astronomer to Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, and it was his work that demonstrated the elliptical orbit of the planets. It was while he was in Prague that he wrote the story called Somnium (The Dream), which was circulated among friends in 1611 but was not published until after his death. The dream is, really, a scientific thought experiment in which Kepler considers how various astronomical features, such as an eclipse, would appear from the moon as a way of promoting the heliocentric view of the Solar System. Kepler's dream concerns an Icelandic boy whose mother consorts with demons who are able to transport him to the island of Levania, which is their name for the moon. There he meets beings who are tall, because of the gravity, and pale because of the light, and who introduce him to different ways of observing the heavens. Why it's on the list: Somnium had an unfortunate effect, in that a garbled account of the story seems to have been responsible for Kepler's mother being tried for witchcraft. After she was acquitted, Kepler added a huge number of notes to his manuscript to explain away the allegory and make it seem more like a scientific treatise. Nevertheless, writers from Isaac Asimov to Adam Roberts have declared that this is the first science fiction novel.

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A reviewer at the time described this novel as "the illegitimate offspring" of Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe, which is a reasonable if not exactly precise description of the book, because it misses out the fact that this is also a hollow Earth story and a utopia. Peter Wilkins is a fairly typical hard-done-by hero of 18th century fiction who undergoes various vicissitudes before being shipwrecked on a barren rock in the South Atlantic. There he lives a Robinson Crusoe existence until a flying woman, Youwarkee, crashes into his hut. In time, the two marry (for the 18th century, there's a lot of sex in this novel) and have several children before Youwarkee convinces him to come and visit her land. He is borne there on a chair carried by eight of these flying people know as Glumms and Gawrys. Their land us underground at the South Pole, where he finds a liberal, utopian society, though one that isn't technologically advanced, so he is able to bring a host of innovations that give him great power, enabling him to put down a rebellion and impose the true religion. Why it's on the list: We don't know much about Robert Paltrock (he doesn't even have an entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia) and this appears to be his only novel. Nevertheless it is perhaps the most significant work of science fiction to appear in Britain between Gulliver's Travels and Frankenstein..
Before the end of the 19th century, everyone who travelled in time did so by falling asleep or being transported by magic, devices which gave the traveller no control over their journey. It is popularly assumed that the first mechanical device for travelling in time, the first time machine, was invented by H.G. Wells. But that is not the case. Eight years before Wells"s novel, this curious book came out in Spain; it wasn"t particularly successful at the time so there is no suggestion that Wells had read the novel or was even aware of it, but it is still the first time machine in history. What Gaspar invented was a sort of airship occupied by an ever-changing cast of scientists, hangers-on, troublesome soldiers, sexy servants, a gaggle of superannuated prostitutes, refugees from other times, and more. Unlike Wells, who sent his traveller forward in time, Gaspar used the time machine like most subsequent authors to go back into history. So we get a series of brief visits to the siege of Granada, the court of the Chinese Emperor, the eruption of Vesuvius, and even to the Great Flood. All of which is little more than colourful background to a farcical tale of the inventor trying to marry his ward, and the ward trying to get together with her soldier boyfriend.Why it"s on the list: Gaspar was a struggling writer who never earned the fortune or fame he felt his talents deserved, and this rather laboured comedy didn"t do anything to improve his luck. But it is of interest as the very first time machine in history.

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The most characteristic aspect of the science fiction we all know is that it is set in the future. Far and away the vast majority of science fiction stories are set anything from five minutes to five millennia in the future. And yet, for a long time authors didn't think to set their work at any time other than the here and now. In fact the first work of fiction to be set in the future was only published in 1648, towards the end of the English Civil War. Samuel Gott was one of the Members of Parliament excluded in what was known as Pride's Purge, and Nova Solyma is one of the most significant utopian fictions to appear during the Commonwealth era. It is basically a romantic adventure that features piracy and bandits, kidnappings, cross-dressing, mistaken identity, duals, and a love story in which the two heroes seem to fall for the same girl, until right at the end when it is revealed that they are twin sisters. But it is set fifty years in the future, when the Jews have all converted to Christianity, and Nova Solyma (Jerusalem) has become a peaceful and prosperous utopia. Why it's on the list: Nova Solyma is essentially a work of religious propaganda; millenarians like Gott believed that the conversion of the Jews was a sign of the Second Coming of Christ, so this novel is clearly intended as a model for the new Commonwealth in Britain, with education, industry and good Christian values leading the way to a better world.

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Finally, one to avoid: Yes, that Casanova. The famous libertine was also an author, who somehow found time between his innumerable conquests to write this 1,700-page novel. It's another hollow Earth saga in which a brother and sister join an Arctic expedition, get caught in a maelstrom, and are sucked right through to the interior of the Earth. Here, on the underside of the crust, they encounter a world of 80 kingdoms and ten republics inhabited by millions of tiny, multi-coloured humans. Casanova goes into great detail about the different realms and the peoples and the technologies and their language and sex and on and on. Okay, a science fiction novel by Casanova is a curiosity, but life's too short to wade through all of this verbosity.