Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #20: "Voyages to the Moon",
by Marjorie Hope Nicolson

For #20 I'm going to toss in a joker. "Voyages to the Moon" (****), by Marjorie Hope Nicolson, is not a book that long-term readers are generally familiar with and that newer readers typically slide their eyes over in used bookstores. It's relatively hard to find. It's also not fiction. It's definitely belated, though: This 1948 book is a history of space-travel fiction (particularly, but not exclusively, travels to the moon) before the nineteenth century. Strongly recommended for readers with an interest in the subject.

There is a long but sparse history of fictional space travel stretching back to classical times, and Nicolson does not ignore it. The publication of Galileo's astronomical discoveries in 1610, however, seized the imagination of Europe, and turned what had been a trickle of such stories into a flood. People started thinking of the moon and planets as actual places that might be visited, that might be inhabited.

"There are but three ways of going thither," said a Herald in Ben Jonson's 'News from the New World'. "One is Endymion's way, by rapture in sleep, or a dream. The other Menippus's way, by wing, which the poet took. The third, old Empedocles's way; who, when he leapt into Aetna, having a dry sear body, and light, the smoke took him, and whift him up into the moon." Jonson harked back to old legend and tradition, but John Wilkins, who in 1638 published his 'Discovery of a New World in the Moon', looked forwared to a scientific future much more than back to a literary past. "There are," he declared, "four several ways whereby this flying in the air hath been, or may be attempted. Two of them by the stregth of other things, and two of them by our own strength. 1. By spirits, or angels. 2. By the help of fowls. 3. By wings fastened immediately to the body. 4. By a flying chariot."

Insofar as serious writers attempt to be in agreement with the best understanding of their day, it was hardly inconsistent to include spiritsand angels in the list. Indeed, one of the most significant lunar voyages of this time was Kepler's "Somnium", published posthumously in 1634, in which the astronomer combines a demon-powered trip to the moon with concerns about gravity, the availability of air, and extremes of temperature.

Nicolson uses Wilkins's typology to structure her book thematically. Afterdiscussing the supernaturally-powered voyages invented by Kepler and others, she proceeds to cover the topic (too frequently neglected by writers of modern science fiction :) of bird-powered space flight. Among the most significant of these is Francis Godwin's "Man in the Moone: or A Discourseof a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales", published shortly after Somnium. Domingo had no intention of visiting the moon when he trained his swans tocarry him. (Unlike many later fictional inventors who never seemed to allow for the possibility of failure, Domingo was cautious enough to let a lamb be the first passenger.) What he didn't realize was that swans fly to the moon, come fall, to hibernate.

Scientific details play a smaller role in Godwin's tale than in Kepler's. Like many of his successors, Godwin used the moon primarily as a convenient place in which to set a Utopia, and much of the book deals with his description of a society which -- but for certain physical quirks -- might as well have been located in El Dorado.

Flight by the use of artificial wings attracted the most literary interest before the nineteenth century, since it appeared at the time to offer the most realistic prospect for human flight. Most of the tales Nicolson discusses in this section, while possibly important to the literary tradition, do not actually involve space flight. She has a great deal of fun describing Restif de la Bretonne's 1781 "La Cecouverte australe Par un Homme-volant, ou Le Dedale francais" (call it "The French Daedalus"). This is the tale of Victorin, who determines to develop usable wings so that he can take his Christine away from the society which forbids their love. Years -- and about a third of the novel -- go by while he painstakingly studies birds and insects, builds models, and finally develops working wings. He locates an inaccessible mountain, stocks it with the basic necessities (plants, animals, servants), and finally swoops down and carries Christine off. (He seems to have neglected to tell her that he was planning to do this, but fortunately she proves sympathetic. They are married by a priest that he also had the foresight to fly off with.)

There are many kinds of chariots, or artificial conveyances one might use. The best remembered of the seventeenth century are those of Cyrano deBergerac, whose 1656 "Histoire Comique des Estats et Empires de la Lune" (published in translation in 1687 as "The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Worlds of the Moon and Sun") is distinguished by the author's insistence on travelling by as many different conveyances as possible. His first attempt involved strapping vials of dew to his body. Since the sun sucks up the dew in the morning, it stood to reason that he might be carried with it. This approach actually proved *too* effective (he broke too many vials in his efforts to keep from overshooting the moon), and his second attempt involved the use of fireworks to propel the first fictional rocket ship. His most ambitious vehicle was solar-powered in a more modern sense, and used a giant magnifying glass to drive an air stream strong enough to sustain space travel.

The last chapter is devoted to travels by means which Wilkins overlooked. The most priceless of these is the 1666 "The Description of a New World, called The Blazing World", by the Duchess of Newcastle. The heroine of this story is kidnaped and taken to the North Pole where all aboard theship freeze to death, "the young Lady onely, by the light of her Beauty, the heat of her youth, and Protection of the Gods, remaining alive." It turns out that there is no Northwest passage: The North Pole provides passage to another world, instead. Our intrepid heroine enters this world, where she eventually becomes its philosopher-empress. (One gathers from Nicolson's description that the book, however delightful its premises, is painful to read beyond this point.)

The influence of the space romances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries upon modern science fiction is indirect, but profound. Nicolson shows how the writers whose works most directly affected modern space-travel fiction -- writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells -- were in their turn influenced by these earlier works. She deplores, however, the often-ponderous technological orientation that these writers gave the genre.

(This is not to say that the older, non-technological literary traditionsof space flight ever died. We still get John Carter wishing himself toMars, Tycho Bass being blown off the planet, Dr. Dolittle riding to the moon on a butterfly (one of my personal favorites), and no detectable reduction in the incidence of out-of-body space-travel. And we still get destination worlds which -- beyond serving as locations for whatever society the author wishes to espouse -- are a lot more like Kansas than like Oz.)

I never though much about the pre-industrial contribution to the genre. I knew that Daedalus flew with wings, that Cyrano used dew, that Gulliver travelled on a flying island, that Thor and Astolfo drove chariots. If I'd though about it, which I didn't, I'd have assumed that these classics had had some influence on science fiction, but wouldn't have realized that these were the tip of the iceberg. "Voyages to the Moon" is a window upon an extensive literature which served as a rich source of inspiration for the authors we consider the "early" writers of science fiction.

Nicholson, Marjorie Hope
Voyages to the Moon
297 pages
MacMillan, New York, 1948
(I believe there was a later paperback edition, as well)


Standard introduction and disclaimer for Belated Reviews

Dani Zweig
If you're going to write, don't pretend to write down. It's going to be the best you can do, and it's the fact that it's the best you can do that kills you! -- Dorothy Parker