Introduction by Boyd White

On February 6, 2018, Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation became the first private company to launch an object into orbit around the sun—a 2008 Tesla Roadster convertible with a space-suit-clad human mannequin named Starman in the driver’s seat, a copy of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glovebox, a digital copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series on a 5D optical disk, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” playing on a continuous loop via the vehicle’s sound system.  The roadster’s circuit board carries the simple message, “Made on Earth by humans.”  Musk’s stunt succeeded in demonstrating that SpaceX’s new Falcon Heavy rocket could carry a payload as far as the orbit of Mars.  A savvy entrepreneur and ambitious technological visionary, Musk hopes to facilitate the eventual colonization of Mars with the first human landing scheduled for 2025.  SpaceX’s colonization plans include fully reusable launch vehicles, human-rated spacecraft, and a Sabatier propellant plant to synthesize methane and liquid oxygen on the surface of Mars.

Musk is not alone in his desire to extend humankind’s reach deep into the solar system.  This year, NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services begins accepting formal corporate proposals for sending small robotic landers and rovers to the Moon as an initial step towards exploring and using its natural resources.  Likewise, NASA’s own Mars Exploration Program is in the midst of Mars 2020, an astrobiology rover mission to investigate the planet’s geology and assess its past habitability.  Similar research involving the exploration of the solar system is also being undertaken by the European Space Agency and The Planetary Society.  Similarly, New Horizons, an interplanetary space probe, has just completed the most-distant planetary flyby in the history of space exploration, passing over Ultima Thule in the Kuiper Belt, a realm of icy objects at the edge of the solar system, well beyond Pluto.

Our obsession with exploring other worlds is as old as time itself.  Centuries before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in 1969, astronomers, philosophers, mathematicians, and physicists were contriving often outrageous methods for visiting not only the Moon but other planets, imagining the unique lifeforms, cultures, and civilizations that they could encounter.  In Lucian of Samasota’s second-centrury Verae Historiae (“The True History”), the earliest surviving fictional narrative to include interstellar voyages, aliens, and interplanetary warfare, Lucian and his shipmates are carried by a whirlwind to an inhabited Moon where Endymion, the king of the Moon, is at war with Phaeton, the king of the Sun, who is opposed to the former’s plans for colonizing Venus.  As E. F. Bleiler notes in Science Fiction: The Early Years, Lucian’s parody of the traveler’s tales of his time is “the prototype for Renaissance and Baroque lunar voyages and also for later terrestrial imaginary voyages.”  The most significant Renaissance piece of proto-science fiction is, of course, Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, Seu Opus Posthumum De Astronmia Lunari (“A Dream,” 1634), a remarkable work that presents advanced ideas in astronomy, lunar geography, and physics in the form of a dream narrative in which a demon from the Moon describes in detail its geography and biology, including how lunar lifeforms, both plants and animals, are able to survive in extreme heat and extreme cold.  Of nearly equal significance is John Wilkins’ The First Book.  The Discovery of New World Or: A Discourse Tending to Prove That ‘Tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World in the Moone (1638) an early work of popular science aimed at explaining to a general audience the new science of astronomy as expressed by Kepler and Galileo through Wilkins’ speculations about lunar inhabitants and interplanetary travel.  Because of his foundational ideas concerning the plurality of worlds and lunar flight, as scholar Marjorie Hope Nicolson asserts, The First Book, along with Somnium, “established the conventions of the Moon voyage for more than a century.  There is not one of the full-length English voyages that did not draw from it.”

Lloyd Currey’s Imaginary Places: Other Worlds 1595 -1900 is an astonishing gathering of early interplanetary fiction, the finest such offering in the trade.  In addition to the Lucian, Kepler, and Wilkins, Lloyd’s listings include other seminal works that provide the foundation for modern and contemporary science fiction. Each entry is a wealth of information, providing numerous insights into how specific tropes in the genre have developed over the centuries, highlighting the significance of rare books that will be new to many readers and collectors.  The catalog also clearly illustrates how science fiction has always been a keen tool for criticizing social and political structures since the time of the ancient Greeks, not just the post-World War II SF satirists.  Early interplanetary or cosmic voyages are often vehicles for questioning the religious views, philosophical musings, scientific theories, and social institutions of the periods in which they were written, including government, commerce, colonialism, education and child-rearing.   The titles themselves can be worth the price of the ticket, announcing their authors’ grandiose, complex designs.  How can anyone resist Chrysostom Trueman’s The History of a Voyage to the Moon, with an Account of the Adventurer’s Subsequent Discoveries.  An Exhumed Narrative, Supposed to Have Been Ejected from a Lunar Volcano (1864) or Willis Brewer’s The Secret of Mankind With Some Singular Hints Gathered in the Elsewheres or After-Life, from Certain Eminent Personages as also Some Brief Account of the Planet Mercury and Its Institutions (1895)? 

As varied and entertaining as the titles themselves are the ingenious methods of interstellar travel devised by the authors in the centuries before reaction engines, liquid oxygen, and rocket-grade kerosene propellants.  These include spirit voyages, transport by angels or fairies, balloons, spacecrafts constructed from feathers, a steam-driven North Pole, a steel globe insulated from the Earth’s gravity, and a fiery chariot.  The most insane means of lunar transport, however, occurs in the pseudonymous A Voyage to Cacklogallinia: With A Description of the Religion, Policy, Customs, and Manner of That Country (1727) in which Samuel Brunt, a former slave trader, travels to the Moon in hopes of exploiting the gold reserves he believes to be found there via a covered litter carried aloft by sentient, flying, human-sized chickens that talk. 

Equally engaging are the alien lifeforms encountered by early interplanetary explorers.  In Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Worlds of the Moon and the Sun (1687), credited by Arthur C. Clark as the first narrative containing rocket-powered space flight, M. Drycona lands in the Garden of Eden, which is located on the Moon, a familiar trope of the time period.  In addition to meeting the biblical prophets Elijah and Enoch, Drycona discovers a race of highly civilized nude giants that move about on all fours with weapons that cook game for meals as its being shot and talking earrings that educate their offspring.  Many interplanetary romances of the 17th and 18th centuries imagine the Moon as being inhabited by the spirits of dead Earth people or their reincarnated souls, and invariably, aliens in such narratives are typically humanoid.  In Arthur Penrice’s Skyward and Earthward (1875), for example, the Moon is inhabited by genderless telepaths who neither eat nor sleep, and Mars is inhabited by beautiful rose-skinned vegetarians with birds trained to pick fruit.  Florence Carpenter Dieudonne’s Rondah; Or, Thirty-Three Years in a Star (1887) is noteworthy for its attempt to create a lifeform with a truly alien biology—a race of flying people who are actually vegetables that hatch from pods.

Imaginary Places: Other Worlds 1595 -1900 is replete with landmark works that provide the earliest examples of some of science fiction’s most defining elements.  As Bleiler notes, the “first. . . scientific account of an interplanetary voyage, and the first hard science fiction story” is J. L. Riddell’s Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Aerial Navigation, with a Narrative of His Explorations in the Higher Regions of the Atmosphere, and His Wonderful Voyage Round the Moon! (1847), the printed version of a lecture supposedly read at a New Orleans lyceum recounting Lindsay’s construction of spacecraft from magnetized plates that are an amalgamation of mercury and steel, and his two trips into space using compressed tubes of oxygen for an air supply.  The narrative concludes with Lindsay’s plan to travel to Mars, which he believes could be inhabited by intelligent life, in hopes of opening interplanetary commerce.  Camille Flammarion’s “Lumen,” the story of the soul of a dead 19th-century Frenchman that has traveled around the universe and witnessed the birth of entire planets and civilizations (1873), is a ground-breaking work that conceptualizes the universe on a vast scale, considering the finite speed of light and applying evolutionary theory to the development of alien lifeforms, examining how different planetary environments lead to the development of radically different creatures.  Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac: The Story of A Wrecked Record (1880) engages in the kind of world building that characterizes much contemporary fantastic fiction, devoting considerable detail to a Martian culture rooted in rationalism and scientific achievements that have led to the extinction of disease and old age.  Pre-dating H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898) by six years, Robert Potter’s The Germ Growers.  An Australian Story of Adventure and Mystery (1892), is considered to be the first alien invasion story, an “aliens among us” tale of indestructible shape-shifting beings who have established hidden outposts in remote locations around the Earth and plot to destroy mankind by breeding and releasing new virulent diseases.

For sheer scope and scale, however, Kurd Lasswitz’s Auf Zwei Planeten (“Two Planets,” 1897) and Robert William Cole’s The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236 (1900) are unbeatable.  One of the great classics of interplanetary fiction, Auf Zwei Planeten is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, but exerted a tremendous influence not only on German science fiction but also German science, providing inspiration for an entire generation of rocketry pioneers, such as Wernher von Braun, who obsessively read Lasswitz’s novel.  For the time period, the set-up itself is mind-boggling.  With the aid of enormous space stations 6,500 miles above each of the Earth’s poles, Martians have constructed scientific installations in the Arctic and the Antarctic in hopes of conducting trade with humans for the wasted solar radiation that strikes the Earth.  War unfortunately breaks out between Mars and the British Empire, and after the destruction of the latter, Mars turns the Earth into a protectorate under Martian rule, a situation that leads to the cultural and social degeneration of both Martians and humans with resistance movements brewing on each side.  An equally impressive warning of the dangers inherent in colonial exploitation, Cole’s The Struggle for Empire is essentially the first space opera, complete with galactic empires and interstellar military tactics.  In Cole’s novel, the Anglo-Saxon Federal Union (the United States, Great Britain, and the Germanic states of Europe) rule the solar system, conquering entire planetary systems using energy weapons and vast interstellar ships that travel ten million miles per hour.  Armed conflict breaks out between Earth and Kairet, a planet orbiting Sirius, and Cole’s detailed depictions of space battles, complete with metal fragments, chunks of flesh, and spouts of blood are, according to Bleiler, “the most gruesome and most powerful prepared up to modern times.”  Other striking imagery includes “the Earth surrounded by a barrage of space torpedoes and mines.”

Over a five-year period in the 1640s, working from his homemade rooftop observatory in what would become the modern city of Gdańsk, Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius produced Selenographia (1647), the first detailed atlas of the Moon, documenting every crater, slope, and valley that Hevelius could see through his telescope.  Even today, the level of detail in Selenographia is staggering.  Over 300 years would pass until the first manned mission to the Moon, but as Imaginary Places: Other Worlds 1595 -1900 emphasizes, humankind certainly did not allow its imagination to stagnate in the interim with regards to the universe and the stars.  As of this writing, we have not had a manned Moon landing since 1972.  For many of us, the dreams of Elon Musk and his like-minded visionaries for extended interstellar exploration are surely the stuff of science fiction, but when has that not ever been the case?