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I have been reading a lot of Jules Verne's work written in the 1800's. Very clearly science fiction. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) has some serious science in it also.

What is the earliest work that is recognized as being science fiction?

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    How do you define science fiction? – Izkata Dec 24 '13 at 0:16
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    Recognized today, with hindsight, or recognized at the time? Works that today fall under the (poorly-defined) umbrella of "science fiction" were being written long before anyone considered that kind of thing a genre--much less before it was given that name. – BESW Dec 24 '13 at 0:16
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    The Epic of Gilgamesh. – user14111 Dec 24 '13 at 2:18
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    Recognized/considered by whom to be science fiction? The question is unanswerable without that clarification. – Mike Scott Dec 24 '13 at 20:26
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    Back when people thought Gods and Magic were real, you could argue that all fantasy and myth was 'science fiction'. – Oldcat Feb 27 '14 at 19:29
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As a fan of history and astronomy I had learned that Johannes Kepler wrote what was widely accepted as the 1st Science Fiction story.

Somnium (Latin for "The Dream") was written in 1608, in Latin, by Johannes Kepler. The narrative would not be published until 1634 by Kepler's son. It is the story of an Icelandic boy who learns of an island named Levania (or The Moon) from a daemon (demon). Still Somnium presents a detailed an imaginative description of how the Earth might look when viewed from the Moon, and is considered the first serious scientific treatise on lunar astronomy. Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov have referred to it as the first work of science fiction.

Though when I searched the internet I found that some contention exists as to what could be the 1st SF tale.

Lucian's True History in the 2nd century, some of the Arabian Nights tales, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter in the 10th century and Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus in the 13th century all have some elements of SF in them.

While in Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction Brian Aldiss argues that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) was the first work of science fiction, there's also the 1666 Blazing World, written by Margaret Cavendish and the 1726's Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift which have claims to that title.

Still... many of those stories in the above works are presented as fantasy or have a decidedly "mysterious" aspect to them, for instance Dr. Frankenstein's methods for building his creature. We are not given specifics, indeed Frankenstein seemed to be feverish -even possessed- while he was building his abomination.

It's not until writers like H. G. Wells and Jules Verne arrive on the scene that what most recognize as Science Fiction emerges in stories presenting themselves as almost believable and extrapolated from trends new technologies made possible while laden with social satire.

To that end something like the 1864 Adventures of Captain Hatteras by Vern or even Wells' 1888 Chronic Argonauts might be considered the 1st SF stories in the more popularized context. Despite all that, it wouldn't be until the 1930's that the Golden Age of Science Fiction would begin.

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    I was going to vote to close this question. But this answer changed my mind. – DampeS8N Dec 24 '13 at 16:40
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    Why so limited, why not flying Vimana from sanskrit texts from 4000BC? Or immortality potions and flying on clouds from China's early history. What criteria differentiates "science fiction" in this list from "fantasy" or "myth?" – Patrick Hughes Dec 24 '13 at 21:22
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    @PatrickHughes : First of, it should be obvious for both the author and the target audience, that the story is fictional. This excludes all religious texts, and probably most of mythology as well. The non-real elements of the story should have at least some amount of scientific explanation, not just "it's magic", this differentiates SF from fantasy. – vsz Dec 25 '13 at 19:13
  • Lucian's True History describes a voyage to the moon by a ship lifted up in a waterspout, but it quickly goes off this science fiction idea and into farce, with descriptions of battles between the vegetable armies of the warring Kingdoms of the Moon and Sun standing for the supposed 'histories' of writers such as Herodotus, who Lucian is mocking: "and it's all absolutely true" being the punchline. The Arabian Nights and earlier sources - including Homer - have elements of stories ideas that have been recycled by science fiction authors over the years, but they are pre-scientific stories. – Kepler's Somnium Feb 27 '14 at 17:46
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    @PatrickHughes 4000 BC is at least about 2,500 years too early. There wasn't even any such thing as Sanskrit in 4000 BC, much less Sanskrit texts. The Rigveda (where the Indo-Aryan form of Vimāna originates) was composed some time around 1500–1200 BC. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 7 '16 at 0:08
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Modern Europe had early contributors, but SciFi is much older probably dating as far back as the 5th century BCE

It is certainly hard to decide which is the first SciFi work, since the very concept of SciFi as a litterary genre is rather recent, and even now only loosely defined. What is Sci-Fi and what is simple fantasy? If deamons play a role in your work, is it still SciFi? Depending on where we place the boundary, we can come with one work or another as the earliest ancestor of the genre. Of course, the genre was recognized as such only fairly recently, but the hallmarks that we may use to recognize SciFi works can be found in very ancient works. They did not know the technology, but neither do we when we create Star Trek stories, and I read somewhere that the Star Trek scripts often use standard stop-gap words for technology references, to be filled later by specialists.


Very early modern contributor

Among the very early modern european work that could qualify, there are two (three according to another source) works by Hercule Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655), a French writer who published among other works

I think the former is the first work contains several "ideas" to fly to the moon. Quoting wikipedia:

The Other World: Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (L’Autre monde ou les états et empires de la Lune) was the first of three satirical novels written by Cyrano de Bergerac, that are considered among the first science fiction stories. Arthur C Clarke credited this book with being the first example of a rocket-powered space flight, and for inventing the ramjet. It was published after the author's death, in 1657.

Excerpts from a published English translation by Geoffrey Strachan are available on a private site. They show Cyrano de Bergerac's interest for very informed cosmological speculation (politically very dangerous at the time), and for technological speculation. For example the people of the Moon use speaking books that look very much, from his presentation, like the early mechanical phonographs, actually invented more than 200 years later. This is clearly beyond fantasy and part of science-fiction.

By the way, this author inspired the character Cyrano de Bergerac in the play by Edmond Rostand, which has been adapted to cinema countless times,

Another early candidate as early science-fiction, though probably more on the fantasy side, if any such distinction makes sense, is The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen published in 1785, by Rudolf Erich Raspe.


Ancient works

The above is from my own knowledge of the topic, with precisions taken from wikipedia.

But if you look at the History of Science-Fiction in wikipedia, the genre is much older. Without going back to the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (supported as first SciFi by several SciFi authors), there are very ancient works that clearly qualify as members of the genre.

I do think the best is to go read the wilipedia article, and there is no point in copying it here. I will only quote a few excerpts about very ancient works that can qualify:

Ancient Indian poetry such as the Hindu epic Ramayana (5th to 4th century BCE) includes Vimana flying machines able to travel into space or under water, and destroy entire cities using advanced weapons. In the first book of the Rigveda collection of Sanskrit hymns (1700–1100 BCE), there is a description of "mechanical birds" that are seen "jumping into space speedily with a craft using fire and water... containing twelve stamghas (pillars), one wheel, three machines, 300 pivots, and 60 instruments." The ancient Hindu mythological epic, the Mahabharatha (8th and 9th centuries BCE) includes the story of King Revaita, who travels to heaven to meet the creator Brahma and is shocked to learn that many ages have passed when he returns to Earth, anticipating the concept of time travel.

Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes' has several works that include elements often associated with the "fantastic voyage", including air travel to another world. Examples include his The Clouds (423 BCE), The Birds (414 BCE) and The Peace.

One frequently cited text is the Syrian-Greek writer Lucian's 2nd-century satire True History, which uses a voyage to outer space and conversations with alien life forms to comment on the use of exaggeration within travel literature and debates. Typical science fiction themes and topoi in True History include: travel to outer space, encounter with alien life-forms (including the experience of a first encounter event), interplanetary warfare and planetary imperialism, motif of giganticism, creatures as products of human technology, worlds working by a set of alternate physical laws, and an explicit desire of the protagonist for exploration and adventure.7 In witnessing one interplanetary battle between the People of the Moon and the People of the Sun as the fight for the right to colonize the Morning Star, Lucian describes giant space spiders who were "appointed to spin a web in the air between the Moon and the Morning Star, which was done in an instant...

There is a lot more in that wikipedia article, and I hope this is a good incentive to go read it.

There is no doubt that, despite good claims, both Kepler and Cyrano de Bergerac had predecessors.

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    I think that most ancient societies that developed a certain degree of technology enough to afford some leisure time to enough people developed a form of science fiction/fantasy. You've highlighted some great examples here. – jfrankcarr Dec 25 '13 at 4:18
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    Also check out the Science Fiction Encyclopedia's excellent article on Proto SF. – sjl Dec 26 '13 at 20:51
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    How is the Epic of Gilgamesh considered sci-fi? What sci-fi elements does it contain? – Matt Feb 27 '14 at 18:18
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    @Matt I am only stating that it is often considered such. If you agree that super-heroes are scifi, then the best answer to your question is probably the following: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/49690#49695 There may be other reasons to consider it SciFi, but I do not know it enough to tell. – babou Feb 27 '14 at 20:03
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    Yeah, I only meant to ask why it's considered such. I'd classify it as fantasy for sure, but I'm confused as to why some would consider it sci-fi. – Matt Feb 27 '14 at 20:41
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I offer this slightly tongue-in-cheek, but Larry Niven proposes that Dante's Divine Comedy from the 14th century was the world's first hard science fiction, and based on the other suggestions here that would make it the first science fiction.

"The Divine Comedy is an immortal fantasy, but only time has made it so. It was the first hard science fiction novel!

It has all the earmarks. It's a trilogy. Its scope has never been exceeded. The breadth of the author's research is very apparent: theology, the classics, architecture, geography, astrology, all of the major fields of study of Dante's day."

(this quote is second-hand, so if anyone has the original please correct me)

I think the last part of the quote is the most material: what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy, IMHO, is that sci fi examines the possible impact of emerging technologies on society. While what constitutes the cutting edge has changed dramatically over the years, Divine Comedy took full advantage of the novel possibilities of its time.

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I would agree with 22nd Century Fza on Somnium, but if we exclude stories with fantasy elements then E.T.A Hoffmanns "Der Sandmann" from 1816 deserves at least a mention since it features a robot/automaton (Olimpia).

However what is recognized as Science Fiction depends largely on who is doing the recognizing, so I'm not sure there is a clear cut answer to that question.

  • That seems like a really interesting story, I'll have to add it to my 'to read' list. – 22nd Century Fza Dec 24 '13 at 14:52
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I consider Frankenstein to certainly be within the realm of science fiction, though with elements of fantasy... the monster in the book is more of a homunculus than the reanimated corpse of the films. The only thing that redeems it as science fiction is that it attempts to explore the philosophical implications rather than making this a morality tale of an evil wizard and his just desserts.

I know of no earlier candidate that is plausible.

Other stories/myths with elements of science fiction in them clearly are not so. Talos is more of a magically-alive bronze statue than it is a robot. All other early mythologies are as easily dismissed.

Wells and Verne are the popularly-known early authors (wrote primarily in the second half of the 19th century), though I've occasionally stumbled across those in the first half. These invariably seem to be written in the 1840s. None were memorable, they're only true credit is how early they were written, they were that day's equivalent of the airport thriller paperback. Frankenstein predates these by several decades.

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Lucian's True History describes a voyage to the moon by a ship lifted up in a waterspout, but it soon abandons this science fiction idea for a farce, with descriptions of battles between the vegetable armies of the warring Kingdoms of the Moon and Sun standing for the 'histories' of writers such as Herodotus, whom Lucian is mocking: "and it's all absolutely true" being the punchline.

The Arabian Nights and even earlier sources - including Homer and the Vedas - are sometimes seen as having science fiction elements, or contain story ideas that have been recycled by science fiction authors over the years, but since they predate the development of science itself maybe they should be called pre-scientific or pre-science fiction.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein comes too late, in the 1810s, when literature describing fantastic "scientific" & philosophical explorations has been around for 200 years - including Johannes Kepler's Somnium in about 1608.

The Somnium is the earliest possible candidate to be the first science fiction story since the early scientific period in Europe - it's author, Kepler himself, was the astronomer who helped lever the earth from the centre of our universe, and Somnium contains the first fruits of this idea: the first 'scientific' description of space journey to observe an alien world and its inhabitants.

You can read a new English translation of Kepler's Somnium at http://somniumproject.wordpress.com and follow @SomniumProject on twitter for line-by-line tweets from the full text of the story. More on the origins of Kepler's Somnium and other early science fiction: http://somniumproject.wordpress.com/faq/

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I say the story of Icarus and Daedalus. Dude made a flying apparatus, and his son stole it - and, putting too much trust in technology, ended up in close proximity to a star and got killed. If that isn't Sci Fi, I don't know what is.

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