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Though science fiction as a genre has its origins in the many tales of the incomparable Jules Verne, or earlier in Poe’s Hans Pfall, the first science fiction story ever was undoubtedly The New Atlantis  by Francis Bacon, published first in Latin in 1624.  At that time, the very idea of science as a coherent enterprise was more or less a fiction.  The first lucid description of the scientific method was the Novum Organon Scientiarum, also by Bacon, published a few years earlier.

The New Atlantis relates the story of a group of Europeans on a sailing ship who had lost their way in the Pacific somewhere west of Peru.  Sick and without provisions, they chance upon the island of Bensalem, which happily is a kind of Christian Utopia blessed with material abundance.   After their recovery, they are given the run of the island.  The pre-eminent institution on the Bensalem is Salomon’s House, which is the medieval equivalent of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health rolled into one, “dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.”   This unique institution has allowed the island to prosper by the introduction of new technology.   Biotech had been particularly fruitful—the islanders ”have means to make divers plants rise by mixtures of earths without seeds, and likewise to make divers new plants, differing from the vulgar, and to make one tree or plant turn into another.”  They apparently had no problems with animal rights advocate—they had “beasts and birds... for dissections and trials, that thereby may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man.”  Optics were a research priority—there were  “demonstrations of all lights and radiations and of all colors; and out of things uncolored and transparent we can represent unto you all several colors, not in rainbows, as it is in gems and prisms, but of themselves single (the first lasers!). We represent also all multiplications of light, which we carry to great distance, and make so sharp as to discern small points and lines.”

Bacon’s plot is minimal and his stilted prose should be exhibit number one as to why Bacon could never have been, as has been claimed, the true author of Shakespeare’s works.   Bacon sought not to entertain but to make a large point; that science should be the centerpiece of society.  Salomon’s House eventually became the model for the Royal Society of London, founded in 1660, the oldest learned society in existence.  Robert Hooke was the first Curator of Experiments.  The Royal Society is a big player in writer Neil Stephenson's excellent trilogy, The Baroque Cycle.

The New Atlantis is also the name of an Ursula K. Le Guin novella, an echo across the ages.  She describes a dystopia stifled by an all-powerful state, very much the negative image of Bacon’s optimistic vision.  But her story is well worth reading, for an opposite perspective.

This diary was originally published in Scientia, a blog from the American Association for the Advancement of Science members webpage.  That page requires membership in the AAAS to view.  I get the copyright back after six months so I thought I would share some of them with dKos, where I know there are a lot of science geeks.
The first Daily Kos diary in this series was:

Back to the Future: Haldane’s Daedalus Revisited

Originally posted to MadScientist on Sat Nov 17, 2012 at 03:59 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  What to call early 'sci/fi' is tough... (5+ / 0-)

    I deal in rare and collectible books so this is a topic of some importance to em.

    The farther you go back the more fantastic writings can be, but many of these are more religious in intent than supernatural fiction.

    No one argues that Frankenstein was written with the intent of science fiction, but its hard to pin point any earlier work with out any ambiguity.

    If ambiguity doesn't bother you then its hard to get earlier than the Mahabharata.

    Not only can a small group of dedicated people change the world, its the only thing that ever has.

    by fToRrEeEsSt on Sat Nov 17, 2012 at 04:10:14 PM PST

  •  "Undoubtedly"? Try Ibn al-Nafis' (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MadScientist, Aunt Pat, MT Spaces

    Theologus Autodidactus (ca. 1270).


    The protagonist of the story is Kamil, an autodidactic adolescent feral child who is spontaneously generated in a cave and living in seclusion on a deserted island.[2] He eventually comes in contact with the outside world after the arrival of castaways who get shipwrecked and stranded on the island,[3] and later take him back to the civilized world with them. The plot gradually develops into a coming-of-age story and then incorporates science fiction elements when it reaches its climax with a catastrophic doomsday apocalypse.

    Ibn al-Nafis uses the plot to express many of his own religious, philosophical and scientific themes on a wide variety of subjects, including biology, cosmology, empiricism, epistemology, experimentation, futurology, geology, Islamic eschatology, natural philosophy, the philosophy of history and sociology, the philosophy of religion, physiology, psychology, and teleology. Ibn al-Nafis was thus an early pioneer of the philosophical novel. Through the story of Kamil, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to establish that the human mind is capable of deducing the natural, philosophical and religious truths of the universe through reasoning and logical thinking. The "truths" presented in the story include the necessary existence of a god, the life and teachings of the prophets of Islam, and an analysis of the past, present, and future, including the origins of the human species and a general prediction of the future on the basis of historicism and historical determinism. The final two chapters of the story resemble a science fiction plot, where the end of the world, doomsday, resurrection and afterlife are predicted and scientifically explained using his own empirical knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology. One of the main purposes behind Theologus Autodidactus was to explain Islamic religious teachings in terms of science and philosophy through the use of a fictional narrative, hence this was an attempt at reconciling reason with revelation and blurring the line between the two.
    He also was the first to describe the pulmonary circulation of the blood. An empiricist, he may be said to have discovered the scientific method.

    "I was a big supporter of waterboarding" - Dick Cheney 2/14/10

    by Bob Love on Sat Nov 17, 2012 at 04:56:57 PM PST

    •  O.K. This is 13th century fantasy (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Aunt Pat, MT Spaces

      This is new to me and I want to know more.  But its hard to see any science in there.  Sci-fi in the 21st century ( if you believe in book clubs) has been degraded to the point that we think that vampires are sci-fi.  But I'm not there yet.  Sci-fi has to involve so sort of believable if hopelessly extended science.  I don't think this it is.

      But thank you for bringing this out.  I never heard of this before.

      The sleep of reason brings forth monsters. --Goya

      by MadScientist on Sat Nov 17, 2012 at 05:11:33 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  There's also Lucian. I've never seen a discussion (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        quarkstomper, Brecht, MT Spaces

        early science fiction that didn't mention Lucian.

        wikipedia again:
        Lucian was also one of the earliest novelists in Western civilization.  He anticipated "modern" fictional themes like voyages to the moon and Venus, extraterrestrial life and wars between planets, nearly two millennia before Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. His novel is widely regarded as an early, if not the earliest science fiction work.[7][8][9][10][11]

        "I was a big supporter of waterboarding" - Dick Cheney 2/14/10

        by Bob Love on Sat Nov 17, 2012 at 05:27:28 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  But the Title Says It's True! (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        MT Spaces, Bob Love

        If believable science is a neccessary prerequisite for science fiction, then I'm afraid True Story, written by the 2nd Century writer Lucian of Samosata, won't count.  In his satire, a boatload of sailors are hurled to the Moon by a tremendous tidal wave.

        "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

        by quarkstomper on Sat Nov 17, 2012 at 05:30:18 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Great Diary! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, MT Spaces

    I've taken the liberty of re-posting it to the Readers & Book Lover's group and adding it to my Sci-Fi/Fantasy Index.

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Sat Nov 17, 2012 at 05:31:54 PM PST

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