THE COPERNICAN REVOLUTION
This chapter is a small example of “long history” sf. The “long history” assumes, as its name might suggest, that sf is a cultural mode of relative antiquity, a view held by some commentators, though not, it should be noted, by most. The majority of critics are more comfortable with a “short history” model, seeing sf as a relatively recent development in human culture, beginning (according to some) with Gothic Romanticism —Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) is sometimes cited as the “first sf novel”—or (others say) beginning later still, with the work of Jules Verne and H.G.Wells in the later nineteenth century, or (according to yet others) even later than that, with Hugo Gernsback in the 1920s (see, respectively, Aldiss with Wingrove 1986; Luckhurst 2005; Westfahl 1998). These various accounts chime for many with the sense that sf is a characteristically modern phenomenon, one that does not truly flourish until the twentieth century.
But the “short history” leaves commentators with the problem of accounting for a large body of work of much greater antiquity that contains many of the features and tropes we all recognize as sf: travel to other planets, encounters with extraterrestrial lifeforms, utopian social speculation, and futuristic extrapolation. To call such works “proto-sf,” “ur-sf,” or “precursors to the genre” may be thought to beg the question (as if one decided that sculpture began with the work of Henry Moore, and so classified all earlier sculptural work as “proto-sculpture”). A simpler approach would be to note that if something walks like a cyberduck, and quacks like a cyberduck, then we might as well include it in our science-fictional aviary. That is a flippant way of putting it; but, as this chapter will try to show, there are in fact more important issues at stake in identifying the origins of sf with the Copernican revolution. To read the genre in that light is to see it as being determined by the forces present at its birth: the rapid and conceptually dizzying expansion of the cosmos, the encounter with alienness, a new way of thinking about time, and above all a cleavage between longstanding religious ways of understanding existence—which is, in essence, a magical apprehension of the cosmos—and the newer materialist, non-magical discourses of science.
Certainly it makes sense to separate out “science
fiction” from “fantasy” on the grounds that the latter is magical; it always includes an excess that cannot be reconciled with
or explained in terms of the world as we know it really to be. The consensus as to how the world actually works is called “science”; and just as “fantasy” exists in some sort of defining relationship with magic, so “sf” exists in some sort of defining relationship with science. This is true, even insofar as sf is in the business of exploring, and often transgressing, the boundary between what counts as science and what goes beyond (variously called “pseudoscience,” “parascience,” “mumbo jumbo,” and so on). Of course, this boundary has not remained stable over the past few centuries; discourses now seen as pseudoscientific such as “mesmerism” or “spiritualism” were once counted as science but are no longer. But broadly speaking we can argue that sf begins at the time that science, as we understand the term today, begins. Copernicus has become emblematic of this sea-change in Western science. Howard Margolis (2002) lists nine “fundamental scientific discoveries” made around the year 1600 (including the laws of planetary motion, the magnetism of the Earth, and the distinction between magnetism and electricity) that together represent an unprecedented advance in scientific understanding. The title of his history of science sums up his thesis: It Started with Copernicus
What was the Copernican revolution?
The second-century Alexandrian astronomer Claudius Ptolemy argued that the Earth lies at the center of the solar system, and that the Sun, Moon, five planets, and a sphere of fixed stars revolve diurnally about us, all of them embedded in transparent, crystalline, perfectly spherical shells. Medieval Europe found this model consonant both with people’s common sense and with the biblical account of the cosmos. It is in this universe that early stories of interplanetary travel take place: for instance, Roman writer Cicero’s Dream of Scipio (51 bc), in which the narrator dreams of roaming through the solar system, or Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Paradise (c. 1307–21), in which the narrator moves outwards from the Earth to the Moon, planets, and finally to the sphere of the fixed stars. Dante’s poem makes plain that this Ptolemaic cosmos is a spiritual, and indeed theological, rather than a material place. Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto’s poetical romance Orlando Furioso (1532) includes the journey of a chivalric hero to the Moon (helped up by John the Baptist) that makes no concessions to plausibility.
In fact the Ptolemaic model cannot explain all the observable astronomical data; but because this model was endorsed by the Church, challenging it was considered heresy. Miko
aj Kopernik, better known by his Latin name Nicolaus Copernicus, was a Catholic churchman and astronomer from Ermland (now part of Poland). His On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs
(1543) argued on the basis of careful astronomical observation that the Sun, not the Earth, is at the center of the cosmos. He was not the first to argue this—the medieval philosopher Nicholas of Cusa had suggested it in On Learned Ignorance
(1440)—but Copernicus was the first to make the case on the back of properly collated scientific data, and it was his book that changed the way scientific culture conceptualized humanity’s place in the universe.
Talk of a “Copernican revolution” is, perhaps, misleading; few “revolutions” in human affairs have been so cautious and, in some senses, conservative. Copernicus
believed, for instance, that the planets moved in circles
about the Sun, not because there was any observational evidence to this effect but because circles were assumed to be more “perfect” than any other shape, and Copernicus had not shaken off the medieval notion that idealized perfection was the true idiom of the heavens. Similarly, he believed like Ptolemy that the planets were embedded in crystalline spheres, rather than being bodies in ballistic motion. Again, where we might expect a revolution
to happen rapidly, Copernicus’s theories spread only very slowly, hampered by the Church’s hostility, the small print run of his book and the inertia of the learned scholastic traditions. By the end of the sixteenth century most European scholars, whether they accepted or rejected it, knew about the theory, although the Catholic Church continued persecuting the theory well into the seventeenth century. So, for example, when Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei published a scientific work arguing in Copernicus’s favor in 1632, he was condemned by the inquisition and compelled to recant. Johannes Kepler, as a Protestant, avoided the direct fury of the Catholic Church, although he faced other obstacles and hostility as he refined Copernicus’s model, proving many things, not least (in New Astronomy
(1609)) that planetary orbits follow ellipses rather than circles. By the end of the seventeenth century, English scientist Isaac Newton supplied, with his laws of motion and gravitation, the theoretical and mathematical necessities to make the fullest sense of Copernicus’s cosmos. By Newton’s time, science had become much more recognizably modern. In the words of A.R.Hall, Copernican science was “a growth, an intensification of the trend of medieval science, rather than a deflection from it. Almost everything that happens in the history of science in the 16th century has a medieval precedent, and would have been comprehensible, if repugnant, to earlier generations in a way that the science of the age of Newton was not” (Hall 1990: 449–50).
We might wonder, then, why it is conventional to talk of a Copernican revolution, rather than (say) a Keplerian or Newtonian one? In part, Copernicus gets credit as the first individual to advance heliocentrism on the basis of detailed research. But more importantly, it was Copernicus’s theory that became the locus of opposition to the Church’s domination of knowledge. The Copernican revolution is bound up with the ways in which science supplanted religion and myth in the imaginative economy of European thought; and sf emerges from, and is shaped by, precisely that struggle. Contemporaries certainly saw the new cosmology in these terms, and many of the earlier writers of sf were Protestants. John Donne’s satirical work Ignatius his Conclave (1611) mocks the Pope for continuing to persecute the new science: Donne is surprised to meet Copernicus in Hell (“For though I had never heard ill of his life, and therefore might wonder to find him there; yet when I remembered, that the Papists have extended the name, & the punishment of Heresie, almost to every thing” (Donne 1969: 188)), but this is revealed to be a symptom of Ignatius Loyola’s Jesuitical bigotry rather than Divine displeasure. Copernicus, on the other hand, is unfazed; when baited by Lucifer, he retorts that Lucifer is only a sort of alien lifeform (“I thought thee of the race of the starre Lucifer, with which I am so well acquainted” (Donne 1969: 188)). At the end of this satire Copernicus goes free and the Jesuits are all sent off to colonize the Moon, where, the narrator suggests, they can do less mischief.
Seventeeth-century interplanetary tales
Donne’s speculative tale of lunar colonization was one of the earliest examples of what became a vigorous strand of seventeenth-century interplanetary romances (Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1960) lists some 200 of these, and hers is an incomplete list). Copernicus had opened up the cosmos, and writers rushed to fill the imaginative vista in radically new and materialist ways. The solidly science-based imaginative extrapolation of Johannes Kepler’s A Dream, or Lunar Astronomy (1634; written c. 1600) captures exactly the shift in sensibility that enabled sf to come into being. It starts fantastically enough, with the narrator dreaming of meeting a witch, who in turn summons a demon to carry them both to the Moon; but once there, the story is given over to detailed scientific speculation about what life might actually be like in that place, where each day and each night lasts a fortnight. Kepler imagines weird utterly inhuman alien lifeforms, serpentine and estranging, forced to hide from the heat of the day in caves; and he backs up his speculation with detailed and carefully researched scientific appendices. Indeed, the appendices are four times the size of the brief prose narrative, a ratio which articulates a sense of the respective importance of the scientific and the imaginative in this work. This is the first genuine attempt at imagining alien life in terms of radical otherness, and some see A Dream as the first true sf novel (Roberts 2006: 42–5).
More commercially successful was Francis Godwin’s space-journey adventure The Man in the Moone or, a Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger (1638). The first bestseller of this new sort of Copernican fantastic voyage, it went through 25 editions in the remainder of the century, and was translated into several languages. It is not hard to see why it was so successful, for it combines a solid narrative drive with a nicely handled apprehension of the marvelous. Godwin’s Spanish protagonist flies up from the island of St Helena to the Moon by harnessing a flock of geese—no ordinary geese, these, but an unusual breed that migrates into outer space. On the Moon, he encounters a utopian society of humanoid creatures, before returning to Earth, landing in China. The whole thing is told with verve and a winning attention to detail, with enough verisimilitude that some contemporary readers believed it a true account.
Cyrano de Bergerac read the French translation of Godwin’s book before writing his own sprightly and witty lunar voyage, The Other World, or the States and Empires of the Moon (1657). Cyrano’s protagonist flies from France to Canada and thence to the Moon by employing a series of imaginative modes of transportation, including one craft powered by the evaporation of dew, and another by fireworks—this last device effectively a rocket that moves the logic of spaceflight from fantastical into plausibly technical idioms. Cyrano’s lunarians, huge four-legged beings, refuse to believe that this tiny biped is a man (they eventually classify him as a kind of bird). In a sequel, Comical History of Mr Cyrano Bergerac, Containing the States and Empires of the Sun (1662), Cyrano builds yet another spaceship, this time using mirrors to focus the Sun’s rays into hot blasts, and visits the Sun.
The Moon was a common destination. The anonymous Spanish work Crotalón
(1552) looks down upon the Earth from the Moon in order satirically to critique human stupidity. In the anonymous manuscript tale Selenographia: the Lunarian
(1690), the Moon is reached with a giant kite. Daniel Defoe’s The Consolidator, or, Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon
(1705) is similarly satirical. Other worlds were also approached. The female protagonist of Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World
(1666) finds a new planet attached to the Earth at the North Pole, and, exploring it, is eventually made its empress. Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene
(1590–6) is set in “Fairyland”; but the second book opens with a rebuke to those who had read the first book and claimed not to know where “Fairyland” is. Previously, Spenser insists, nobody had heard of Peru or America. Fairyland might be a similar case, perhaps located on the Moon or on another star (“What if within the Moones faire shining spheare? / What if in euery other starre vnseene?” (Spenser 1970: 71)). Imagining human travel to the Moon inevitably suggests reciprocation: lunar aliens coming to Earth. French writer Charles Sorel’s novel The True Comic History of Francion
(1623), perhaps the bestselling French novel of the century, wonders if there might be “a prince like Alexander the Great up there, planning to come down and subdue this world of ours,” and speculates about the “engines for descending to our world” such an invader might be assembling (Sorel 1909: 425).
All the works so far mentioned are “scientific” romances in the sense that they try, with varying degrees of attention, to ground their speculation in the science of the day. But those very theories of science were deeply implicated in new theories of religion, such that the Renaissance (associated with the former) and the Reformation (associated with the latter) can be considered aspects of the same underlying cultural logic. This fact shapes the sf of the seventeenth century, just as it continues to shape the sf of the twenty-first. Certainly none of the earliest interplanetary stories were what we might call “secular.” On arriving on the Moon and seeing its inhabitants, the hero of Godwin’s The Man in the Moone cries out “Jesus Maria,” which causes the lunarians to “fall all down upon their knees, at which I not a little rejoiced” (Godwin 1995: 96). John Wilkins’s The Discovery of a World in the Moone. Or, A Discourse Tending to Prove that ’tis Probable There May be Another Habitable World in t...