Voltaire: The Father of Sci-Fi?
On the 21st of November 1694, François-Marie Arouet, known under the pen name Voltaire, was born in Paris. This French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher, who was also a great enthusiast of science and empirical knowledge, was probably one of the most prolific authors of all times. Throughout his life he produced about 2,000 books and pamphlets under at least 178 separate pen names. He wrote also more than 20,000 letters. Such a huge number of writings implies a certain routine, discipline and technique Voltaire most surely must have applied in his work. A small insight into his genial method is provided by his letters to a young Claude Adrien Helvétius. The writer-to-be was seeking to woo fame by the rhymed Epistles on The Love of Study and on Happiness. This is the advice Voltaire gave him:
Cirey, February 25, 1739
My dear friend – the friend of Truth and the Muses – your Epistle is full of bold reasoning in advance of your age, and still more in advance of those craven writers who rhyme for the book-sellers and restrict themselves within the compass of a royal censor, who is either jealous of them, or more cowardly than they are themselves…
If you will allow me to tell you where I think you can improve yourself in your art, I should say: Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose: only employ true similes: and be sure always to use exactly the right word.
Shall I give you an infallible little rule for verse? Here it is. When a thought is just and noble, something still remains to be done with it: see if the way you have expressed it in verse would be effective in prose: and if your verse, without the swing of the rhyme, seems to you to have a word too many – if there is the least defect in the construction – if a conjunction is forgotten – if, in brief, the right word is not used, or not used in the right place, you must then conclude that the jewel of your thought is not well set. Be quite sure that lines which have any one of these faults will never be learnt by heart, and never re-read: and the only good verses are those which one re-reads and remembers, in spite of oneself. There are many of this kind in your Epistle – lines which no one else in this generation can write at your age such as were written fifty years ago…
It turned out that Helvétius was not a naturally born poet and what worked for Voltaire did not really work for him. This testifies not only an exemplary skill but also a unique talent of Helvétius’ master. Voltaire produced many philosophical works, of which most commonly known are Letters concerning the English nation and Candide; plays, such as Oedipus and Socrates, and many historical books analyzing, among others, the reigns of Charles XII, King of Sweden, and French kings – Louis XIV and Louis XV. Voltaire was also one of those innovative writes who are not afraid of original ideas and allow themselves to play with new literary forms. It is justified then to treat Voltaire as ‘the father’ of the science fiction genre, as in 1752 he wrote the first ever book involving a subject of interplanetary travel and a human confrontation with aliens.
The title of the book, Micromégas, stands also for the name of the main character. Micromégas is 20,000 feet tall and comes from a planet 21.6 million times larger than Earth. After a short visit to Saturn, where he acquaints his slightly smaller in size (only 6,000 feet tall) future travel companion, he finally lands on Earth. By comparison to his gigantic planet, Earth seems to be a small playground for Micromégas and his Saturnian friend. They circumnavigate the planet within 36 hours. At first sight, the planet seems uninhabited. However, once standing ankle-deep in the Baltic Sea they spot small specks of life below them, which at closer inspection turn out to be a whale and a boat full of philosophers returning from an Arctic expedition. The initial conclusion of the two giants is that these forms of life are simply too small to posses any kind of intelligence or spirit. But with time they notice that these beings are capable of communicating with each other. Micromégas decides to build a hearing tube that allows both of them to listen to the tiny creatures on the boat and with time even to learn their language. This is when they start a philosophical conversation with the humans, who try to convince the giants that the world was created uniquely for mankind. Micromégas and his friend burst out laughing after hearing such a statement. It is then that Micromégas promises the humans to write a book, in which, he claims, he will explain the point of everything. Once the book is presented to the Academy of Science in Paris it turns out to have nothing but blank pages inside.
The book was probably intended more as a philosophical allegory than an intricately plotted sci-fi adventure story, as Voltaire refers in it to the philosophies of Aristotle, Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz and Thomas Aquinas. The main message in the book relates to our insignificance within the Universe and irrelevance of all philosophical doctrines in answering the burning question on the meaning of life. It is something that Voltaire must have believed in as he said once: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.”