I normally don't read SF Signal, and I don't expect many of my blog readers do either. However, last week, a controversial post stirred up discussion among some of my Facebook friends and writer groups. This post, called "Staying on the Cutting Edge of Science Fiction," discussed only white male authors. (The author said later in the comments section that he didn't remember reading any women authors. I guess I should send him a free copy of SF Women A-Z.)
What especially caught my attention about this post was that the author credited Kepler with writing the first science fiction story, a piece called Somnium. (You can find it online here.) As a member of Broad Universe, I have always considered Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to be the first science fiction novel, and I do take pride in having her as an role model. (At one point, BU had buttons that had an image of Shelley with the slogan, "Who's Your Mama?") Obviously, however, Kepler predates her considerably. Does the history of science fiction matter today? Well, we can only view the past (and future) through the lens of our own present-day views. If that lens is distorted, we miss a lot of detail and voices that enrich history.
Kepler's work describes a trip to the moon (the traveler is carried by daemons) and what he imagines life on the moon to be like. The story is framed as a dream, perhaps to make it less challenging to authority.
As I read some more about the history of science fiction on Wikipedia (OK, it's a starting place, not the be-all and end-all of research), I came across another early forerunner of science fiction: The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish, who was not just a duchess, but a scientist and writer. Her work is from 1666, a few decades after Kepler's. Her work also describes a trip to another world (the lady traveler is taken from her home and travels by boat to the North Pole, where she crosses into a utopia and becomes its empress).
One odd thing about the history of science fiction is that the Wikipedia article lists a couple of 17th century works and several 19th century works, but only one from the 18th century, when the modern novel started to take shape. Was there less interest in scientific fiction during this period? If so, I'd like to know why.
I'm currently reading The Blazing World, despite the long, rambling sentences and changes in spelling over the centuries. I also plan to read Kepler's Sonmium so I can evaluate how well both books match what I think of as science fiction. Since I'm used to more recent works, my bias may still incline me toward favoring Shelley. Even if her work may not be the first to be based on science, the way she used contemporary scientific knowledge for a novel application is a step beyond what earlier works did. However, even if Shelley may not be the "mother of all science fiction," thanks to the article in SF Signal, I've rediscovered the grandmother of science fiction, and she seems like a very accomplished woman. Let's not forget any of the voices that helped shape this genre.