A Short History of Space Travel in Early Sci-Fi Literature

| April 11, 2014 | 0 Comments

Long before the Apollo 11’s flight and even before the idea of space flights seemed something more than a fantasy, people dreamed of going to space. And the best proof of that are the exotic flying machines created by the early science fiction writers. So let’s check some of them out just to see how far we have come.

One of the earliest examples of something similar to science fiction literature is ancient Indian poetry such as the Hindu epic Ramayana, which describes ancient flying machines or “mechanical birds” that could travel through air, earth and even fly into outer space. While not being even remotely realistic, the design of these “mechanical birds” illustrates a belief that space travel could be achieved in mechanical means rather than magic or godly intervention. Interestingly, these ancient flying machines, as the reader will see, are much more sophisticated than many of the travel methods created by science fiction authors in the medieval era or even the enlightenment.

The journey to the Moon as described in “True History”

Another literary work often mentioned among the oldest references to space travel is True History, written in 2nd century by Lucian of Samosata. True History is a satire and a parody of ancient literary sources, which, among other amusing topics, described a journey to the Moon using a … whirlwind. While the method of space travel is not that interesting, the book itself is quite amusing — it’s like a bizarre version of Odyssey. 

Another early source that has certain elements of science fiction and space travel is The Ebony Horse, one of the stories from the One Thousand and One Nights. In particular, the story features a mechanical horse, which is capable of space travel. Once again, this example is not that imaginative, however, it illustrates the spreading belief in the possibility of space travel using purely mechanical means.

Vimanas as described in “Ramayana”

With the end of the medieval era, things started getting interesting. In the light of the important scientific achievements that took place during the enlightenment era, works of literature, that are often described as proto-science fiction, appeared.  Such works of literature included the Utopia by Thomas More and Bacon’s New Atlantis, both of which  described utopias  built through scientific development.

A mechanical horse used to ride to the Moon in “The Ebony Horse”

In the first half of 17th century, Johannes Kepler wrote Somnium, which is often regarded as the first real work of science fiction. The book describes a journey to the Moon and how the Earth would look  as observed from there. The Man in the Moone, published only 4 years later is also among the first real science fiction works. This book, written by Francis Godwin, as you might guess from the title, describes a journey to the Moon. The author, similarly to many other early pioneers of science fiction, was influenced by the astronomical discoveries of the day, including work by such people as Kepler, Copernicus, Gilbert and others.  Despite of such fascination with early science, Godwin’s chosen method of travel to the Moon was huge wild swans, which were connected together in a sort of a kite. Not very scientific, but, hey, let’s give this guy some extra points for creativity. 

The 19th century saw a plethora of early science fiction works, the most famous of which were Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, From Earth to the Moon and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne and, of course, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. For us the most important work of these is the mentioned Verne’s story of an incredible journey from Earth to the Moon using a space gun — a cannon that is used to shoot a projectile into space. This projectile could then carry 3 people, including food water, oxygen and other crucial cargo. Verne even included some basic calculations on the requirements for the cannon, which appeared to be surprisingly accurate. As it can be seen from the picture below, the projectile even resembles a modern space shuttle a bit, illustrating how far science fiction has evolved since the beginning of the genre.

Verne’s projectile used to travel to the Moon (“From the Earth to the Moon”)

Given the sheer amount of sci-fi works that appeared in the 20th century, it would take forever to describe how space travel evolutionized in recent works of literature. It’s enough to say that the 20th century is often described as the century of science and technology, which is obvious in the works of sci-fi as well. The space travel in recent novels incorporates the current understanding of the physics of space-time and quantum mechanics. Even today, however, some of the early science fiction stories are fascinating and still remind us that even the final frontier is not the limit to the human imagination. 



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