((Friday blog crossposted to Dreamwidth / Livejournal.))
A week or so ago, I chanced across someone responding to a claim that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel with the comment that "I appreciate what you're doing, but try to do it without erasing Margaret Cavendish".
'Who?' thought I, and - taking advantage of the bizarre futuristic world we lived in - looked it up on the internet.
Margaret Cavendish was the Duchess of Newcastle in the 17th century. She served as a lady in waiting to the wife of King Charles I (he of the got-his-head-chopped-off), went into exile in France with her, and later returned to England to marry the Duke of Newcastle.
Wikipedia describes her as 'a poet, philosopher, writer of prose romances, essayist, and playwright who published under her own name at a time when most women writers published anonymously', and her masterpiece was The Blazing World, written in 1666 (the year of the Great Fire of London, one year after the Great Plague). This book recounts the adventures of a young woman who sails to the North Pole, and transfers from there to the pole of an adjacent world. There she meets the various inhabitants - Bear-Men, Fox-Men, Bird-Men and so forth - learns their language, and marries their Emperor.
The book was written to be a philosophical treatise: the bulk of it seems to be taken up with the new empress discussing scientific concepts with her subjects. She revamps their religion, meets the Spirits and debates Kabbala with them, and also, quite hilariously, summons the soul of one Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, to be her companion and scribe. ("...she asked her whether she could write? Yes, answered the Duchess's Soul, but not so intelligibly that any Reader whatsoever may understand it, unless he be taught to know my Characters; for my Letters are rather like Characters, then well formed Letters. Said the Empress, you were recommended to me by an honest and ingenious Spirit. Surely, answered the Duchess, the Spirit is ignorant of my hand-writing. The truth is, said the Empress, he did not mention your hand-writing")
The book is unquestionably science fiction. Early on, we're introduced to the jet-powered boats of the Blazing World, and later on the Duchess helps them invent submarines (in the course of launching a wildly successful invasion of Earth, as it happens). But is it the first scifi novel?
Arthur C. Clarke would have us credit The Other World, published 1657, as the inventor of rocket ships, and it certainly has a scifi ring to its voyage to the moon: "When I had, according to the computation I made since, advanced a good deal more than three quarters of the space that divided the Earth from the moon, all of a sudden I fell with my Heels up and Head down... For, said I to my self, that Mass being less than ours, the Sphere of its Activity must be of less Extent also; and by consequence, it was later before I felt the force of its Center."
The Other World itself pays tribute to 1638's The Man in the Moone, by poaching its protagonist (who paid his own trip to the moon, and met, um... Moon Christians). Or perhaps we should look back to 1608, and astronomer Johannes Kepler's Dream, wherein a demon describes the creatures which live on the moon, including a distinction between Nearside and Farside, and apparently includes a description of the Earth as seen from the Moon.
But is this still scifi? Well, Sagan and Asimov said it was... but the only space travel occurs by daemonic magic, so is it really?
If so, then we have nothing to stop us from going back another 1500 years, to second century writer Lucian of Samosata's True History. If travelling to the Moon by magic makes for sci-fi, then surely this also qualifies:
"Upon a sudden a whirlwind caught us, which turned our ship round about, and lifted us up some three thousand furlongs into the air, and suffered us not to settle again into the sea, but we hung above ground, and were carried aloft with a mighty wind which filled our sails strongly. Thus for seven days' space and so many nights were we driven along in that manner, and on the eighth day we came in view of a great country in the air, like to a shining island, of a round proportion, gloriously glittering with light, and approaching to it, we there arrived, and took land, and surveying the country, we found it to be both inhabited and husbanded."
While on the Moon, Lucian's protagonist gets caught up in a war between the Moon and the Sun; he describes strange creatures such as Lachanopters and Hippomyrmicks, and has armies coming from assorted stars to join the Moon's forces; and in the end the Heliotans and Selenitans establish a joint colony on Venus (which they reach by giant spider web). With very minimal reworking, this portion of the True History could pass as 1950s science fiction... but does that mean it is?
What it means, I think, is that fiction is like the world: much stranger than we imagine, and not easy to put into boxes. Lucian, Kepler, Cavendish, Shelley - all of these authors stand as pioneers in science fiction. To try and pick who 'invented' the genre, and who was just taking steps towards it, seems to be missing an opportunity to embrace them all.
PS: I've read all of the True History, and can highly recommend it; The Blazing World I've begun, but Cavendish's paragraphs are unholy things that make reading her work quite a challenge. I checked out when she started debating microscopes.