The Man in the Moone, by F.G.B. of H. by Godwin, Francis, 1638
Since the early years of genre criticism, two questions have always been asked, but never answered consistently. They are: 1) what is the definition of Science Fiction? and, 2) what was the first science fiction book ever published? I will eventually tackle the first question when I get around to reviewing my SF reference collection. I have some thoughts on the issue, as does everyone else who has ever thought on the topic. Unfortunately, I have yet to see any two definitions that are the same. But as for the second question, well...Science fiction as we understand it, and as differentiated from myth or religious story, really did not start until after Galileo and Copernicus wrote their works, and a better understanding of gravitation was developed. Published posthumously in 1638 or so, but written probably in 1599 (but maybe as late as 1603), Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither, by Domingo Gonsales*, is the very first book that I have been able to find that confirms the Copernican System and Galileo's observations (both considered religious heresy by the Spaniards in that day), and agrees that as one leaves the earth, gravity's effect diminishes. In other words, itís the first fantastic book that premises some part of the story on scientific theory of the modern era. Three stars out of five.
The book is the tale of a destitute Spanish nobleman who is conscripted in Spain's war in the Netherlands during the Inquisition. He makes a fortune at war by taking the property of a rich noble he accidentally killed in combat, then banishes himself on the newly discovered island of St. Helena. There he creates a craft that is basically a frame held aloft by a dozen or so large Do-Do sized birds. After living on St. Helena for a time he attempts to return to Spain, but is waylaid by pirates near the Canary Islands, then an independent nation, and escapes to the "Moone," in his contraption, where he explores and confirms the scientific principles noted above. Most interesting is his description of agriculture on the "Moone," and the atmosphere between earth and the moon. For these reasons, I am certain that it is one of the very first pieces that can be truly called SF, even if it is written more in the styles of fantastic-voyage, fantasy and scientific romance. Carl Sagan notes that a book called The Somnium, by astronomer Johannes Kepler, written in the mid-1600's is the first, but all evidence I am aware of places the penning of this novel earlier, even though it was probably published later. What makes this book different than the ones that came before it is that it is based more on the science of astronomy rather than the "science" of astrology. Both rely on observations of the sky, but astronomy relies on scientific principles to interpret that data, while astrology relies on mysticism. And although the science was brand new, it was based on objective observation rather than subjective interpretation.
In terms of modern SF, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published in 1818 by Mary Shelley is often credited as being the first true SF novel, and while it has SF elements to it, I personally think it pays more homage to the Jewish myth of the golem and is therefore rooted more strongly in fairy tale. Not many people agree with me on this, but I can understand their position. Following in the 1830's with Edgar Allen Poe and the 1850's or so with Jules Verne, the last real published proto-SF work before H. Rider Haggard's She, an important lost-world book, published in 1886 (and which started the pulp movement and true modern SF), was Sir George Chesney's The Battle of Dorking. That book was not really true SF, and despite its being quite boring it was the first real alternate reality piece, a sub-genre which today produces dozens and dozens of books yearly. There are of course other books that vie for early genre attention, and there is even a last-man-on-Earth book that came out before Shelley's work, but the books noted here are the big and important early ones.
This book was clearly written with a "flights of fancy" voice, and the prose is quite dated. Considered an important work at the time it was published, the character of Domingo Gonsales even turned up in the later works of Cyrano de Bergerac, and in fact de Bergerac wrote a sequel to this work. This is a very interesting book, but itís very hard to get a hold of. I have one of the only 1000 modern copies ever printed, by Advertisers Composition Company, although I have heard rumor of a paperback in the mid-90's or so. If you are interested in reading it, I recently noticed a few used copies on Amazon, or you can find a copy of it on line at the Gutenberg site. I think that the original is in the Prado. The second edition, which was the first in English and was published in London, is in San Marino, CA, where it can be viewed by the public.
*Domingo Gonsales is a character, not an author.
Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell