So, who INVENTED science fiction?
(Clue. It involves flying machines that predate Islam and Christianity)
So I logged onto twitter the other day. This was of course a terrible decision.
I found a tweet replying to a New York Times article about H.G.Wells, author of The Time Machine (and therefore the guy who made it impossible for future authors to write books with such a stylish title, which I personally think is unfair).
The NYT article had claimed that Wells invented science fiction with the help of Isaac Asimov and Hugo Gernsback (the editor of the world’s first science fiction magazine) which is a fair point to make. All three men popularized the genre, each with their own tremendous contributions to it. But I wasn’t too sure if they invented it, and according to twitter, neither was anyone else. Some people seemed quite upset about the assertion. Some pointed at Mary Shelley as the originator of Science Fiction, arguing that Frankenstein was the first Sci-Fi novel. But I wasn’t buying it.
What follows is my disagreement with almost everyone, chiseled together from a Facebook response I wrote to a tweet about an article that was screenshotted from yet another app. You can see why I am telling you about it rather than providing that loop of social medias, I am not in the business of giving people headaches.
To put it simply, Science Fiction predates the industrial revolution, and I’m about to explain why.
So, who started Science Fiction?
Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered the first science fiction novel by a lot of people, and one NYT article pointing in Wells’ direction shouldn’t shake that conviction. Likewise, people who think Wells did it first won’t care much if I said Shelley was first, but what got to me is that really, neither of them were first.
To find the origins of Science Fiction, we may need to look further in time and in space (insert bad Tardis joke here).
People consider Frankenstein to be the first due to the era in which it was written: Its portrayal of artificially created life - and the relentless pursuit of life after death - was penned during the industrial revolution, a time which many scholars argue is the first moment where "Science Fiction" became possible, because of the rise of automation and philosophies evolving around that automation. It was also around the same time the French were building advanced clockwork displays, and the French people began joking that their elite were no better than clockwork automata; that free will in the higher reaches of society was an illusion, that the rich were fake in some way, inhuman in their actions and rigid conformity.
But to see the industrial revolution from our perspective today, and to place an arbitrary barrier at that point in history, before which you imply no writing is true Science Fiction, is deliberately limiting. It feels like a plot taken from a dystopian sci-fi itself. We shall call it THE SCHOLARS WHO FORGOT TIME
And yet there is another erasure behind all this. Behind Wells and Shelley. I could make the argument other writers from other places are being overlooked or neglected, that this is an argument where both sides are talking from an anglocentric viewpoint. And annoyingly, I'd be right. Both Wells and Shelley are English writers from a similar time period (Shelley died 15 years before Wells was born, having lived through most of the industrial revolution). They both popularized Sci-Fi, but they didn’t invent it.
The Vimanas are arguably the first Science Fiction creation: Flying machines with advanced weaponry, that first arose in Hindu literature (in the Ramayana) about five centuries before Christianity, and even longer before Islam or Wells or Shelley. The Vimanas don't show up in many arguments over who was first however, and that’s a shame. Sometimes it feels like only those weird Ancient Aliens documentaries are bothered with them.
Slightly later in the timeline, in another Hindu text (the Mahabharata), there is a story of King Kakudmi, who goes to another dimension to meet with Brahma, and returns to see that many years have passed for Earth. This is inarguably the first recorded story which features Time Dilation and by proxy Time Travel, two massive concepts that physics would only adopt centuries later, and the rest of the world's Science Fiction writers would soon follow.
So the Ramayana gave us spaceships, and the Mahabharata gave us time travel.
Time Dilation/Time Travel is one of the earliest known Science Fiction tropes, and was, as far as we know, invented by Hindu poets.
These were poets who described their flying machines in intricate detail, and had explanations for the time travel experienced by the protagonist.
The fact that these mechanical beings and time travel stories are explained in such detail by the writers places them firmly in the realms of Science Fiction. They were not merely concerned with telling a story or making a social point, but in creating a world and knowing its physics. You very rarely find that in any other genre. There were internal laws to these fictional worlds, and they were explained and adhered to.
So no, if you are looking for the first Science Fiction stories, you should not look to Wells or Shelley, nor should you point a controversial finger at biblically accurate angels being UFOs or theories of Islamic Djinnbeing aliens.
you should look instead to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. You should look to the sky for the Vimanas and for strange pocket dimensions where time flows more slowly. It is there that you will find what I consider to be the earliest Science Fiction stories, and the writers who created them…
You might also be interested in A True Story, which seems to be either satirical fantasy or proto-science fiction, depending on who you ask. That one was written in the 2nd century, contains the typical SF elements of conquest, discovery and descriptions of wacky new worlds, and from what little I’ve read about it so far, I think it is a weird hybrid of Sci-Fi and satire. For that reason people seem to struggle to categorize it. I know that feeling, my book has the same problem.
Science Fiction has a history far greater than most people are aware of, far greater than many care to comprehend.
But, I guess that’s fine. I have a particular fondness for Vimanas because of how beautiful they are, because they were written (or observed?) firstly by poets who became Science Fiction writers. Because the trajectory of these writers matches mine, so many centuries later. And I wish that I could have met them.
Perhaps another time. ( < I love that link, click it )
It’s worth noting that automatons predate the industrial revolution, and showed up in Greek and Egyptian mythology, but that’s a story for another day
King Kukudmi is also known as Kakudmin, or Raivata, son of Revata
As I was researching this post, I found out that Djinn/Jinn actually predate Islam, but that wasn’t important enough to mention in the main text, so have this footnote instead
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A fascinating look at the origins of science fiction. It's fun to see how literature and its genres have evolved through the centuries.
Wonderful article Philip! And there were the South American indigenous peoples too….but probably not as ancient as the Indian sacred texts you mention. I loved reading this and the starring role Mary Shelley kind if dud and didn’t have. Your newsletter is always fascinating! I want to recommend it with words but can’t remember how! Working on it! Love your great many varieties of work! —jennifer