Throwback Thursday has always been ScienceFiction.com’s tribute to the great science fiction of the past, but I think until this point, the earliest we have gone is the 1960s. So, when I say this is a throwback, I think I really mean something far more lengthy. What’s another word for throw that has more power? Hurl? A hurlback?
Sure. A hurlback.
This week’s hurlback is a short story written by Voltaire.
Now, I understand this may strike some of you as a bit odd. Voltaire? The man who wrote ‘Candide’, the shortest book you ever had the pleasure to read for a literature class? Well, let me tell you, that book is not short if you accidentally took a too-high-of a level French class for your then reading ability, but yes. By and large, the self-same man.
Still, it is hard to imagine that someone of such literary fame would be the author of one of the earliest known works of science fiction, entitled, “Micromégas”. It goes to show that those who choose to dismiss science fiction as a pulp genre have sorely got it wrong.
Anyway, “Micromégas” is a little short story about 20,000-foot tall alien from a planet that orbits Sirius, and his traveling companion, a 6,000-foot tall secretary from the planet Saturn. The eponymous alien, Micromégas, had been exiled from his home for writing a heretical book about insects that were 100-feet tall, and were undetectable by their microscopes, and spends most of his time in the story traveling the galaxy in order to learn more about it.
The short story, unfortunately, reads a bit like the bible in the beginning (especially if you are reading it in French), meaning it hurls incomprehensible measurements at you. Once you get past those annoying little details that are hard to really put into a modern perspective (leagues, paces, and geometers not being things I use in daily conversation) it gives an interesting glimpse into the very earliest conceptions of science fiction, namely the use of an alien character in order to comment on current society.
When the two travelers happen on to Earth, they assume it’s too small to have life, let alone intelligent life, until they come across a boat and devise a listening device (out of their nail clippings….). From there, the Earthlings and the aliens discuss philosophies from largely Continental thinkers, including Thomas Aquinas, which sends the aliens into fits of laughter (an obvious dig at religion). The story ends with a book Micromégas gives to Earth explaining what life is really all about.
When they open it, it’s….. SPOILERS!
Really, I’m not going to tell you the ending! You have to read about it yourself!
When you get right down to it, it’s one of the earliest pieces of true science fiction that depicts aliens as an actual alien creatures. It also indulges in the earliest, most used tropes of science fiction: using the alien to comment on the ordinary. It’s an interesting read for any science fiction or literature fan, and a short one at that.