Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Proto-science fiction: Voltaire’s Micromegas

In the short story "Micromegas" (1752), Voltaire takes the Lilliputian smallness and Brobdingnagian largeness of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and makes them larger and smaller still. Two visitors, one from a planet circling the star Sirius and another from Saturn, are incredibly large and the inhabitants of Earth are, by comparison, extremely minute.

At first the visitors have trouble detecting intelligent life. Eventually the devise better magnifiers and observe humanity and eventually to communicate with mankind. As the visitors discuss their discoveries and attempt to extrapolate, the visitor from Saturn says:
“I no longer venture either to believe or to deny; I no longer have any opinion about the matter. We must try to examine these insects, we will form our conclusions afterwards.”
If that sounds like a gloss on the scientific method, it is no mistake. This story has a scientific orientation and much is reasoned out by logic. Once communication is established with the tiny inhabitants of Earth an exchange of scientific knowledge is the first order of business, followed by notions of philosophy. It’s amusing and satirical, as can be expected from the author of Candide (1759).

"Micromegas" is written in conversation with Gulliver’s Travels, one of the most important proto-science fiction novels, and questions the conventions of science and society in similar ways. According to the edition at hand (Vanguard Press, 1929), Voltaire had a direct role in making sure the full text of Gulliver’s Travels was translated into French.

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