Is “Who is ‘Nobody’?” a reasonable answer, Mr Trebek? Genres of popular fiction usually evolve like animals – very slowly, in increments. Elizabethan theatre becoming romantic fiction, romantic becoming gothic, gothic becoming horror, etc, each one marked by a poorly-defended border with lots of works escaping on either side.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is often cited as the first one. The hero is a scientist, he uses a laboratory, he has to deal with the ramifications of his actions. It’s the archetype of the “monkey brain + futuristic tools + disaster” story.
There’s earlier works that I’d consider science fiction. But how earlier?
Various ancient works sometimes get “grandfathered in” as SF or proto-SF: similar to how Los Sarcos is an incongruous punk rock band ten years before the genre existed. Ezekiel 1:16 in the Bible is sometimes interpreted as a UFO visitation, largely due to the imagery of crystalline, intersecting wheels:
“This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel”
The Hindu text The Mahabharata contains vivid descriptions that adumbrate nuclear war.
“Gurkha, flying a swift and powerful vimana / hurled a single projectile / charged with the power of the Universe / An incandescent column of smoke and flame, / as bright as ten thousand suns, rose with all its splendour. / It was an unknown weapon, / an iron thunderbolt, / a gigantic messenger of death, / which reduced to ashes / the entire race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas. / The corpses were so burned /
as to be unrecognizable. / Hair and nails fell out; / Pottery broke without apparent cause, / and the birds turned white. / …After a few hours / all foodstuffs were infected… / …to escape from this fire / the soldiers threw themselves in streams”
The last part is striking – it reminds me of the firebombing of Tokyo, where the air grew so hot that people threw themselves into the canals.
More recent examples include Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), particularly the third book (which was actually the one written first). Gulliver journeys to the floating island of Laputia, and various other places. He meets learned men who busy themselves with strange tinkering and experiments, eg:
“At the Grand Academy of Lagado, great resources and manpower are employed on researching completely preposterous schemes such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, softening marble for use in pillows, learning how to mix paint by smell, and uncovering political conspiracies by examining the excrement of suspicious persons”
Swift is obviously making fun of scientists here, but I’ve always thought scientists in books are too dignified and successful – fuck Jubal Harshaw, we need more works starring Dr Oz.
The earliest work I know of with an unambiguous ring of SF is Voyage to the Moon (1657) by Cyrano de Bergerac. The hero eventually reaches the moon via fireworks, but the interesting part is in chapter 2, where he creates some sort of apparatus or carriage powered by the sun.
“I planted my self in the middle of a great many Glasses full of Dew, tied fast about me; 6 upon which the Sun so violently darted his Rays, that the Heat, which attracted them, as it does the thickest Clouds, carried me up so high, that at length I found my self above the middle Region of the Air. But seeing that Attraction hurried me up with so much rapidity that instead of drawing near the Moon, as I intended, she seem’d to me to be more distant than at my first setting out; I broke several of my Vials, until I found my weight exceed the force of the Attraction, and that I began to descend again towards the Earth.”
May all our journeys into space have that ending.