Welcome to The Time Machine, a monthly column that will take you on a journey through the science fiction literary genre! New to science fiction and looking for an introduction? Super into the genre already but feel like you missed out on some of the classics? Or maybe you just want to learn a little bit of history from someone who is 100% not a historian. Well, you've come to the right place. Each month, I'll introduce you to a new era or decade of science fiction, along with some foundational works and influential authors of the time period.
Full disclosure: I claim absolutely no literary training or expertise. While I have read a good handful of science fiction books, I will be learning about the genre and reading some new works right alongside the rest of you!
Where to Begin?
When I began thinking about the structure of this new series, I knew that I wanted to start at the beginning. Where that beginning exists is another matter altogether. So, I did what any respectable millennial would do and I turned to the all-knowing Google search. As I have written previously, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), is often argued to be the first science fiction novel ever written, with some even claiming that she invented science fiction [Book Riot]. Given that the origin of the novel as a literary form is often credited to the 18th century, it makes sense why Frankenstein would take the title of the first ever science fiction novel. However, it is hardly the first ever science fiction story that has been told. As argued by some fairly smart journalists in some fairly respected magazines, other contenders for the “first” award include (not an exhaustive list):
Johann Valentin Andreae's The Chemical Wedding (1616) [The Guardian]
Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634) [Open Culture]
Francis Goodwin's The Man in the Moone (1638) [The Atlantic]
Cyrano de Bergerac’s “A Voyage to the Moon” (1650) [various sources]
Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) [Atlas Obscura]
Symzonia; A Voyage of Discovery (1820, true author unknown) [The New Yorker]
Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869) [various sources]
As I will get into more next month, in the introduction to the 1968 edition of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, science fiction-great Isaac Asimov nominated Johannes Kepler’s Somnium as the first work of science fiction writing; however he also identified Jules Verne as the first author to truly make science fiction their mainstay. My respect for Asimov inclines me to trust him, but the verdict is still out. This debate will undoubtedly carry on, probably from now until the end of time, but as we will see in the coming months, there is an undeniable influence that each of these works has had on the formation of science fiction as a literary genre.
So, through an entirely unscientific process, I decided to begin with Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666). It was a book that I was previously unaware of, and it is one of the few early science fiction stories written by a woman. As will be true for my selection every month, I chose a book that: 1) I already had access to, 2) seems to be a pretty important piece to the time period, and 3) I am genuinely interested in reading. Where possible, I will list additional books that are influential but have yet to make it to my bookshelf.
As you can tell from the "origin" debate, science fiction can get a bit messy. What does and does not get classified as science fiction is also hotly contested, with some authors even rejecting the designation (just wait until we start talking about Ray Bradbury). In fact, some of the books that I've chosen to read this year tiptoe along the border of speculative and utopian/dystopian fiction. I tried to stick with books that have been recognized by other members of the genre as science fiction, and I occasionally conferred with awards lists (namely the Hugo and Nebula awards). But I also didn't rule out books that have sort of a colloquial acceptance as science fiction even if they aren't formally classified that way.
So let's get into it!
My Journey Into The Blazing World
Whoa boy, where do I even start when talking about Margaret Canvendish (i.e., the Duchess of Newcastle) and her 1666 book The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World?
Aside from The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf in high school English Lit, I don’t remember the last time I read something published before the 1800s. It’s just not really my thing. In pure page count, this book is short, but for some reason, it felt like it took forever to read. In all fairness, while the first half was difficult to get into, I did eventually find a rhythm in the second half.
I am also too unfamiliar with 17th century writing to make any sort of comparison, but in my honest opinion, Cavendish had a true love affair with run-ons. The entire story was composed of long, wordy sentences strung together with colons, semicolons, and commas. One can go multiple pages before stumbling upon a single period. Honestly, that type of writing makes me feel a bit panicky when I'm reading it, almost like I have to force myself to pause and breathe every once in a while. Yes, I did get used to it about a quarter of the way through, but it took a serious mental adjustment. There were also no chapter breaks. Just 100 pages of semi-colons. If you don’t believe me, you should at least believe this guy named Jim on Amazon who wrote in his review:
“Imagine being force-fed hallucinogenic mushrooms and writing in a stream of consciousness for a few hundred pages. The semi-colon has never done such heavy lifting.”
But that’s enough of my griping. This book, without a doubt, had a massive influence on the science fiction genre, and it is clear how much of an accomplishment it was for 17th century literature. Margaret Cavendish was an English writer and philosopher, and she was one of the few female writers of the time to publish under her own name. While her writing style is a bit challenging to read, the philosophical arguments woven throughout her writing make her stand out against a backdrop of serious early-Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes and Newton.
In The Blazing World, Cavendish tells the story of a young woman stolen from her home, whose boat is transported through the earth’s pole into another world, a Utopia of sorts. She eventually becomes the Empress to the world’s Emperor, who then grants her complete domain over the world. Most of the rest of the story is spent on her conversations with the animal-human hybrids that make up the various races (bird-men, worm-men, fish-men, etc.) in this other world. Through these conversations, we see Cavendish envision a new world at the same time that the Western world was figuring out our real one.
Science fiction is often classified as an imagination of what our world could be with uninhibited scientific and technological advancement, and Cavendish does just that by imagining a parallel world to our own. The Blazing World was an incredible piece of 17th century feminist writing, as the story follows an Empress who rules and knows and learns; but it's also an illuminating look into how thinkers in the 17th century were trying to make sense of the world around them through observation and logic.
Most importantly, Cavendish also introduced me to my new favorite phrase. After some particularly circular arguments from the professed orators and logicians of the Blazing World (i.e., the magpie-men, parrot-men, and jackdaw-men), the Empress cuts them off with, "I have enough, said she, of your chopped logic, and will hear no more of your syllogisms; for it disorders my reasons, and puts my brain on the rack.” After a bit of research, I learned that “puts my brain on the rack” is an early version of the phrase "rack my brain”, which is typically used by someone struggling to remember something. Likewise, both of these versions refer to a medieval torture device called a rack that was used to slowly and painfully stretch someone’s body, often in an attempt to extract information from them. So, I’ve concluded that “puts my brain on the rack” is essentially the 17th century version of "that made my brain hurt".
Anyway, if you're just getting into science fiction, and you're looking to add to your reading list, I do not recommend reading this book. However, if you're super into the history of the science fiction genre and/or 17th century feminist literature, knock yourself out. I was happy to take one for the team this time, but I think once is enough for me.
Whether The Blazing World was the first true work of science fiction or not is of little concern to me. I urge you to explore the selection above and form your own conclusion (or don’t, no one will judge you). I will, however, argue for its rightful place within the debate. The care with which Cavendish used the voyage into the Blazing World to explore and critique the modern world (the real one) rightfully set the stage for the burgeoning science fiction literary genre to do the same. As you will undoubtedly see, science fiction is as much about the possibilities of human existence as it is about robots, aliens, and time travel.
Thanks for joining me on the first leg of this journey! Over the next eleven months, we’ll explore the science fiction literary genre, and all of its influential authors and stories, together. Tune in next month for the man who propelled science fiction into the 20th century: H.G. Wells.
- JL Snyder