Ben Jonson, Brian Aldiss, Francis Bacon, Francis Godwin, Henry Wessells, John Clute, Joseph Hall, Margaret Cavendish, Samuel Gott, Thomas More
Yesterday evening, I began dipping into A Conversation Larger than the Universe by Henry Wessells, a very personal history of science fiction, or, more broadly, of fantastika. It’s a wonderful book, engagingly written and delightfully illustrated, with just the right level of idiosyncracy to convince you that you are engaging in a long conversation with someone who is widely informed but also has his own distinctive views and tastes. It’s a lovely book, I recommend it strongly.
But I have one small niggle, set off by an almost throw-away remark. He comments, aligning himself with Brian Aldiss and John Clute on this, that fantastika had its roots in the Gothic.
This is something that Aldiss began peddling when he started to claim that Frankenstein was the first work of sf. He very carefully worded his definition of science fiction in order to make this case. His definition has long been superceded, but you still see the claim about Frankenstein being trotted out. Most recently, given that Frankenstein was first published exactly 200 years ago, I’m seeing people suddenly announcing that science fiction is now 200 years old. Nonsense!
And Clute’s claim, in Pardon This Intrusion, that fantastika began with the French Revolution is part of the same thing. (I remember arguing in a review of that book that the French Revolution wasn’t the start of anything, but the end point of a process, the delegitimizing of a particular form of aristocratic rule, that began over 100 years earlier with the execution of Charles I. If Clute said that fantastika began with the English Revolution I might be slightly more inclined to agree with him.)
Let’s take fantastika as catch-all term for a variety of non-realist literatures that include science fiction, fantasy, horror, probably postmodernism and a few other less readily identifiable forms. To say that they began in the Gothic, that their roots lie there, is just plain wrong. It would, I think, be more accurate to say that the Gothic was when the various branches of fantastika began to sprout out from the trunk. That’s not the whole story, of course. Postmodernism is a form of the fantastic that only began be a distinctive form in the last half-century or so (and, to make the arboreal analogy more complex than it needs to be, was possibly grafted on to the root stock from elsewhere). In other words, I’m saying that the Gothic was when the separate elements of fantastika began to take on their separate and distinctive forms, but it was not when they were born.
To say that a branch is born when it separates out from the tree trunk is nonsense, trunk and branch are of one substance, and that’s what I feel about the various elements of fantastika.
The trunk itself, when science fiction and satire and horror and fantasy were all inextricably united, probably grew during that radical reimagining of our place in the world that was the renaissance and the reformation. But the roots reach back much further, to medieval legends of Cockayne and Christian symbolism and ancient Greek novels and all sorts of other places. Fantastika is a world tree, its roots possibly reach back to the very beginnings of human consciousness. But its emergence into the light, its rise above ground into a shape that we can recognise today, happened long before the rather petty little upset in literary history that was the Gothic.
All of which is an expression of my ongoing distress at a rather pernicious view of literary history that Aldiss foisted on the sf critical community. But to say that science fiction only began with the Gothic is to dismiss a whole string of earlier work that was essential to the making of sf:
The first Utopia – Thomas More 1516
The first anti-utopia – Mundus Alter et Idem, Joseph Hall, 1605
The first aliens – Newes from the new world discover’d in the Moone, Ben Jonson, 1620
The first scientific society – New Atlantis, Francis Bacon, 1627
The first mechanical voyage to the moon – The man in the moone, Francis Godwin, 1638
The first novel set in the future – Nova Solyma, Samuel Gott, 1648
The first parallel world (with distinct postmodern elements) – The Blazing World, Margaret Cavendish, 1666 (Aldiss dismisses Cavendish as unreadable, she is not.)
And so on. I would hate to say that any of these was the first science fiction work, but collectively they constitute an active and engaging science fiction long before the Gothic came along.
What I’m saying is, there’s a need to see the whole tree rather than just concentrate on the branches