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This is no doubt one of the earliest example of science fiction, written around
1649-50 by Cyrano de Bergerac. Yes, that Cyrano de Bergerac, you know, the guy with the big nose that wrote love poems.
He was a real person who actually wrote a great deal, but this is not only the only book of his I could find digitized
in English, it is in fact the only one I could find translated to English in any form. Guess I should brush up on my
In any case, the free Project Gutenberg edition contains a lengthy introduction about Cyrano himself, and Rostand really did a pretty good job of portraying him quite accurately in his play, Cyrano de Bergerac. Did he really have an uncommonly large nose? Yes. Was he a hot-tempered, swashbuckling swordsman and poet? Yes. Was he really in love with Roxanne? Nope. The real Cyrano preferred guys.
The original full title of the story was Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon. (He wrote one about the sun, too, and hopefully that will be available at some point. Unlike other authors who went to the moon a couple centuries later, like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and even Edgar Allan Poe, Cyrano spent little effort developing his spacecraft. He first attaches to himself numerous bottles filled with dew, and as the sun comes out, it draws him high up in the air (well, the sun does draws up moisture—you can see it over lakes). However, he only makes it to Canada, where he engages in a long discussion about the earth rotating around the sun and not vice-versa, as people from his era still disputed, which is why he went up in France and came down in North America. So he builds a new contraption, which dumps him in a valley rather than sending him to the moon.
After he recovers a bit, he seeks his vehicle, only to find the Canadians are set to burn it. It is surrounded by firecrackers. So he rushes in, and blasts off. He doesn't give us any details of the journey, but he soon finds himself in a sort of Garden of Eden—on the moon! He in fact, lands in an apple tree branch and a stray apple squirts into his mouth, immediately satisfying his hunger. When he touches ground, he finds the stones soften themselves as he steps on them. Then he very poetically describes the beauty of the flowers and their perfume where "no poysonous Plant sprouts forth but is as soon destroyed." His hair all falls out, being replaced by thicker and softer locks, and he grows fourteen years younger!
He looks up to find a beautiful youth (who turns out to be the Prophet Elijah, grown young again). The footnote says a long passage has been lost here (Cyrano's writings were tampered with because much of what he said was—eh—not politically correct for the time . . . , but apparently Elijah explains that they are in the original Garden of Eden, and that apple that squirted into Cyrano's mouth restored his youth.
Cyrano and Elijah have a long conversation, and Elijah's method for reaching the moon is even sillier than Cyrano's. And so they chat until Cyrano says something insulting, and Elijah expels him from the Garden of Eden. But not before he grabs another apple.
We know that in real life, Cyrano wasn't shy about expressing his opinions, which led him down a rough road for life, and there is speculation, to perhaps even his death at the early age of 36. This book is filled with smart-ass and offensive wit, especially keeping in mind the era in which he lived. I wish someone would do a modern, accurate and uncensored translation of this and other of Cyrano's works, because as I read, I get the feeling that the awkwardness of the text is due to an uncomfortable translation, making it difficult to comprehend, and worse yet, missing some of the jokes. In any case, Cyrano now finds himself in the midst of humanish beings who walk on all fours and think he is the female mate of the Queen's Animal. Meanwhile, he is visited by the Spirit of Socrates who, as it turns out is actually from the Sun. He befriends Cyrano, and eventually disguises himself into the body of a beast, throws Cyrano on his back and off they go. Then he speaks to him in French, and informs him that it is really he, Socrates, who got himself a body. And so they escape.
And speaking of language, he explains that the higher beings often communicate through musical instruments, along with their voices. However, the lower class, the Vulgar, communicate by a "shivering of their Members," (meaning parts of their body), and since they basically go naked, one can well see what each member is doing. However, they think Cyrano's nothing more than an animal, (because he walks on two legs), so he's even lower than the Vulgar. When he finally meets the Queen, all agree that he is the female mate of the Queen's Animal. And the Queen's Animal turns out to be a little Spaniard. (It seems to me that Cyrano may be poking fun at his own homosexuality!) Anyways, the Spaniard is Domingo Gonsales, from Francis Godwin's book, The Man in the Moone (1638). And yes, that one is also available from Project Gutenberg.
Anyways, now Cyrano has someone with whom he can converse, and they speak of deep scientific and philosophical matters. I found it interesting that the Spaniard gives a long lecture on Matter—that it is all made from the same materials: Fire, Water, Air, Earth, and a Nothing, or Vacuum. That's pretty early in history to be talking about atomic particles—really—he calls them "Atomes," at least I thought it was early until I did some research and found that, in theory, the earliest knowledge of elemental particles was the 6th century B.C.!! Amazing. However, keep in mind that this was an era where people still struggled with the idea that the earth revolved around the sun, and not vice-versa. Having said all that, however, they still had some fairly incorrect and downright silly notions about the nature of matter, for instance, as when a piece of wood burns, it doesn't become fire, but the fire that was hidden inside escapes. The Spaniard says:
And therefore take a Billet, or any other combustible stuff, and set Fire to it, they'll say when it is in a Flame, That what was Wood is now become Fire; but I maintain the contrary, and that there is no more Fire in it, when it is all in Flame, than before it was kindled; but that which before was hid in the Billet, and by the Humidity and Cold hindered from acting; being now assisted by the Stranger, hath rallied its forces against the Phlegm that choaked it, and commanding the Fields of Battle, that was possessed by its Enemy, triumphs over his Jaylor and appears without Fetters. Don't you see how the Water frees out at the two ends of the Billet, hot and smoaking from the Fight it was engaged in.
Spoken as a true poet!
Incidentally, the Moon beings have an amusing way of perceiving themselves as superior because they walk on all fours, rather than two legs, and that is that "God would not trust so precious a thing upon weak Supporters, and he was afraid least marching otherwise some Mischance might befall Man; and therefore he took the pains to rest him upon four Pillars, that he might not fall . . . ." In the end, the Moon beings determined that Cyrano was a Parrot without Feathers and put him in a cage. Even though he learns to speak their language, and displays great wit and knowledge, the Moon people say it is merely instinct. This was no doubt a tongue-in-cheek satire of Cyrano's view of the society in which he lived.
In fact this story is filled with scathing satire; it will keep you chuckling. Cyrano finally escapes the bird cage, and extreme punishment because he dared to say that he was from Earth which is a World, and he is now on the Moon. (The Moon people think they live in the World, and the Earth is but a Moon.) But his old friend, the Spirit of Socrates steps in (in disguise again), and finally gets him out of the cage and the Court all together, where they chat with other Moon beings.
He now listens to philosophical discussions, and the beliefs of the Moon people. For instance, they believe that youth should command the parents, because old people are has-beens and lack energy and fire, and it is up to youth to keep things running.
For say, in your Conscience, when a brisk young Man is as his Prime in Imagining, Judging, and Acting, is he not fitter to govern a Family than a Decrepit piece of Threescore Years, dull and doting, whose Imagination is frozen under the Snow of Sixty Winters. . .
Hey, wait a minute here. . . I don't think I like that. I'm Threescore Years. . . .
Then they discuss the soul of plants and don't believe in eating flesh or herb until they die of natural causes. A long discussion ensues over the murder of a head of cabbage: "And moreover, Man cannot be born Innocent, being a Part of the first Offender: But we know very well, that the first Cabbage did not offend its Creator." They also believe Cabbages can communicate with each other, but our senses are just too dull to understand it. When they go to sleep, perhaps they say: "Good Night, Master Cole-Curled-Pate; your most humble Servant, good Master Cabbage-Round-Head."
They also discuss the theory that universes exist at all levels, and just as we live on world, with the sky and stars and sun and planets, so there is also a little society of Nits, Lice, and Hand-worms living on us, thinking our pimples are lakes and ponds and our hair is a forest. And there are little Bodies flying around that carry the images to our eyes and sounds to our ears. At night, the physician, or rather Phisiognomist prescribes each person's night chamber needs. They all sleep on flowers. Tonight, Cyrano gets Violets and Lillies, and, as usual, he is to be tickled.
And only two more points I have to mention—when Cyrano is ready to depart, and the Spirit of Socrates is preparing his vehicle, he gives him some books. But they don't have pages or words, they are . . . audio books! And the people of the Moon all have big noses, which act as a sundial, casting a shadow on their teeth and enabling them to know what O'clock it is.
. . . after thirty Ages experience we have observed, that a great Nose is the mark of a Witty, Courteous, Affable, Generous and Liberal Man; and that a little Nose is a Sign of the contrary.
When a child is born, his nose is measured, and if it's not up to standard, he is castrated. They don't want that type to
reproduce, you know.
Well, I could go on and on, but I'll let you read it instead. It isn't a long book, but I found I had to go back and re-read many passages to comprehend. The atrocious 17th century spelling, which I have kept intact, can be annoying.
There was one other problem I experienced, and I'm not sure if it was my reading device, or the conversion to .mobi format (Kindle), but sometimes the pages would skip, but if I turned back a couple pages, they would correct themselves. I found this to occur when I clicked on the footnotes links which would take me to the end of the chapter, then back again, and there are lots of footnotes. When I stopped doing that, I had no more problems with the missing pages, and just read the footnotes at the end of each chapter. Of course, you may also download this as .epub, for Nook or other devices, so the problem may or may not occur in other formats. (I have both apps, so I rotate.) I also got the version with images, and there are only a few, but they display very nicely.
I do recommend reading this very funny, fascinating, and strange novel, which is certainly of historical importance.
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