For this week's column, let's go back in time quite a bit. When I first started writing for Kirkus a couple of years ago, I started with Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Shelley has remained a durable starting point for the modern science-fiction genre, but other scholars note that science fiction didn't emerge out of a vacuum: numerous authors experimented with mixing fantastic and realistic elements together into fiction, over the years producing the romantic and gothic genres in literature. Attempting to discover the “first” fantasist is really a no-win situation. Scholars such as Adam Roberts in his History of Science Fiction and Brian Aldiss in his Trillion Year Spree both point to a complicated evolution of speculative authors that date back to antiquity.
That being said, there are many examples of people who we can point to in that history as good predecessors to a larger science-fiction genre. One such author is Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who wrote a forerunner novella titled “The Blazing World.” Born in 1623 as Margaret Lucas, she received no formal education, but later became a lady in waiting for Queen Henrietta Marie of France, the wife of Charles the First, King of England. It was in this capacity that she ended up in France when the King and Queen fled in 1644. In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, her flight is described as a "desperate adventure that involved escaping from Exeter in disguise and being chased across the Channel by a Parliamentarian naval ship," elements that would later impact her writing. Until 1660, she remained in France in exile, where she met her husband William Cavendish.
It was through her husband's circle of relatives and friends that she inserted herself in the scientific community: "Margaret joined an intellectual circle that included Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, Pierre Gassendi and John Evelyn, becoming well-acquainted with the leading scientific and philosophic ideas of the day, in particular the atomist ideas of Lucretius and Epicurus that were enjoying a vogue in France at this time." The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction also notes that she incorporated this imagery into her poetry, notably with a sequence known as Atomic Poems. In 1660, she returned to England to regain her former fortunes and began to actively write.
During this time, as Brian Aldiss notes in his Trillion Year Spree, Margaret was highly "interested in science. She argued with Thomas Hooke over his experimental methods. Her Philosophical Letters; or, Modest Reflections upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy was published in 1664. It is a response to the works of Hobbes, Descartes and others. Her strong analytical mind preferred 'untrammeled speculation' to the growing experimentation of her age." Her entry into the science world was a rare thing at this time, even though she seems to have remained at the fringes.
In 1666, Cavendish published Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, where she essentially rejects Aristotle’s line of thinking when it came to observing the natural world. It was with this work that she attached a short novella, “The Description of a New World, called The Blazing World,” which is widely considered a forerunner to science-fiction literature.
Cavendish incorporated some of her scientific thinking into her story, in which a young woman is kidnapped and brought through a portal at the Earth's North Pole to a new world. There, she is made Empress of the society she finds there, populated by talking animals, and forms a telepathic connection with the Duchess of Newcastle (Cavendish herself) back on Earth, who provides her with advice on how she can fend off an invasion. The book itself was published as a stand-alone volume two years later in 1668.
Aldiss points to her Cavendish’s own intentions in the introduction to The Blazing World: "That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet I will endeavour to be, Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time, nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Caesar; yet, rather than not be Mistress of a World, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own."
The Blazing World is an interesting work in science fiction. In The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts recounts that the book "is at once a utopian experiment, a romance adventure, an unconventional autography and a philosophical/science exposition. Clearly, Cavendish is articulating a sense of the dialectic of the sexes through her fable of two separate worlds, and it might be argued that the sheer weirdness of their cosmological relations is expressive of a metaphorical dislocation of cultural profundity."
In many cases, The Blazing World sets a certain amount of precedent for future scienc- fiction authors, many of whose work incorporates utopian experiments, romantic adventures, and the science of the day. While Cavendish might not have been widely read by science-fiction authors, she nonetheless clearly demonstrated that authors were interested in mixing the fantastic, realistic and experimental into fictional works.
Cavendish’s reception in society was complicated: she was frequently described as eccentric and even mad at points, and was never permitted to join the Royal Society, even as she was invited. According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, "it is likely that she was a bigger attraction than the experiments, however, for by this time she already had a reputation for eccentricity that had gained her the nickname ‘Mad Madge.’ None of the idiosyncrasies for which she became notorious should, however, detract from her significance as one of the founders of what has come to be known as feminist science fiction." Cavendish died at the Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire in England on the 15th of December in 1673, leaving behind the seeds of a greater legacy.