The Man in the Moone, or a discourse of a voyage thither is considered to be the first work of science fiction in English. Written by Francis Godwin, bishop of Hereford, the story was first published posthumously, under an assumed name, in 1638. This richly illustrated edition was published in 1657.
Godwin’s hero, Domingo Gonsales, finds his way to the moon in a flying machine pulled by ‘gansas’ (wild swans). His journey is illustrated on the title page, and his landing on the moon is described on pages 63–64.
Putting the science in fiction
The 16th and 17th centuries were characterised by an intense period of exploration and discovery, both geographically and scientifically. As the known borders of the map grew, so too did human understanding. The work of Christopher Columbus, Sir Francis Drake, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus and Sir Isaac Newton expanded humanity’s physical and intellectual horizons, and inspired imaginative literature for centuries to follow. The Man in the Moone is arguably the earliest fictional work to be influenced by the scientific discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The opening letter – ‘To the most Ingenious Reader’ – gives an insight into the sense of wonder and excitement felt during this time of great discovery (digital images 5–6):
That there should be Antipodes was once thought as great a Paradox as now that the Moon should be habitable. But the knowledge of this may seem more properly reserved for this our discoursing age: in which our Galilaeusses, can by advantage of their spectacles gaze the Sun into spots & decry mountains on the Moon.
Within the story, Godwin incorporated Copernicus’s theory that the earth turns on its axis; however, he failed to commit to the controversial idea that the sun, and not the earth, was at the centre of the universe. The theory that the world was a giant magnet, as conceived by William Gilbert, an English doctor and scientist, also featured in the narrative: the extreme magnetic pull of the earth almost prevents Gonsales and his gansas from reaching the moon.
The literary influence of The Man in the Moone
The Man in the Moone was printed across Europe, in multiple languages. Its popularity may have inspired Margaret Cavendish to fictionalise her own, original scientific theories in her 1666 novel The Blazing World.
It certainly influenced Aphra Behn’s farce The Emperor of the Moon (1687), and paved the way for later works of fantastical travel fiction, such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).