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Einstein proposed the theory of Special Relativity in 1905, and General Relativity in 1916. I knew that the use of Relativity as a story concept appeared in Heinlein’s “Time for the Stars” (1956), which got me wondering whether any authors had included it earlier. The earliest example I could find whilst searching is L. Ron Hubbard's 1954 story "To the Stars". I find this curious since Einstein’s theories had been around for decades by then.

Does anyone know of an earlier example? Especially if it was imagined before Einstein proposed the theories!

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This wikipedia page has a list of scifi that mention Black Holes (a consequence of Einstein's theory of relativity, discovered first in Schwarzschild's 1916 solution of Einstein's field equations). The early works start around 1950. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_holes_in_fiction –  UwF Jan 26 at 12:38
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3 Answers 3

Probably far from the earliest, but Robert H. Wilson's novelette "Out Around Rigel", first published in the December 1931 Astounding Stories and available in a Project Gutenberg etext, is a famous classic. It is the story of an ancient Lunarian spacefarer:

Even from afar off, I could see that it was desolate. Visible now that the water had gone down, the pillars supporting it rose gaunt and skeletal. Towers had fallen in, and the gleaming white was dimmed. It was a city of the dead, under an Earth leprous-looking with black spots where the clouds apparently had parted.

I came nearer to Nardos and the bridge, nearer to the spot where I had last seen Kelvar. Below the old water level, the columns showed a greenish stain, and half-way out the whole structure had fallen in a great gap. I reached the land terminus of the span, still glorious and almost beautiful in its ruins. Whole blocks of stone had fallen to the sand, and the adamantine pillars were cracked and crumbling with the erosion of ages.

Then I knew.

In our argument as to the possible speed of the Comet, Garth and I had both been right. In our reference frame, the vessel had put on an incredible velocity, and covered the nine-hundred-odd light-years around Rigel in six months. But from the viewpoint of the moon, it had been unable to attain a velocity greater than that of light. As the accelerating energy pressed the vessel's speed closer and closer toward that limiting velocity, the mass of the ship and of its contents had increased toward infinity. And trying to move laboriously with such vast mass, our clocks and bodies had been slowed down until to our leaden minds a year of moon time became equivalent to several hours.

The Comet had attained an average velocity of perhaps 175,000 miles per second, and the voyage that seemed to me six months had taken a thousand years. A thousand years! The words went ringing through my brain. Kelvar had been dead for a thousand years. I was alone in a world uninhabited for centuries.

I threw myself down and battered my head in the sand.

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A couple possibilities:

  • "The Tachypomp" by Edward Page Mitchell (1873) is in large part a fictional exposition of Galilean relativity (as distinct from Einstein's special or general relativity, so I'm not actually sure it counts).

  • Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland by George Gamow (1940) is about what we would see if our world was at a scale where relativity and quantum mechanics were immediately relevant.

    Mr Tompkins' adventures begin when he chooses to spend the afternoon of a day's holiday attending a lecture on the theory of relativity. The lecture proves less comprehensible than he had hoped and he drifts off to sleep and enters a dream world in which the speed of light is a mere 10 miles an hour. This becomes apparent to him through the fact that passing cyclists are subject to a noticeable Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction.

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The 1907 story "Wie der Teufel den Professor holte" by Kurd Lasswitz, published in English in 1953 as "When the Devil Took the Professor", revolves around the idea of a universe where 3D space is curved and finite, akin to the 2D surface of a sphere; the book SF: The Other Side of Realism has a synopsis on p. 300, available on google books here:

The first of these is the familiar bargain with the devil, who takes a professor on a tour of the universe in a vessel that exceeds the speed of light. The professor is a mathematician and suspects that the universe is curved, as it actually proves to be. So the voyagers circumnavigate the universe after a flight of several billion light-years.

This falls more into the category of anticipating an aspect of relativity rather than making use of the theory, because in 1907 Einstein hadn't yet published his general theory of relativity involving curved spacetime.

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