Was Voltaire the first sci-fi author?

Ada Palmer is a professor of European history at the University of Chicago. Her four-volume sci-fi series, Terra Ignota, was inspired by 18th-century philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot.

“I wanted to write a story that Voltaire might have written if Voltaire could read the last 70 years of science fiction and have all those tools at his disposal,” Palmer said in Episode 495 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy audio file.

Palmer says that Voltaire can actually be considered the first science fiction writer, thanks to a piece he wrote in 1752. “Voltaire had a short story called ‘Micromégas’ in which an alien from Saturn and an alien came from a star near Sirius, and they were huge, and they explored the Earth and had a hard time finding life forms because to them whales were the size of with a flea,” she said. “Finally they realized that the tiny piece of wood on the ground was a ship, and it was full of living things, and they communicated with each other. So that’s a first exposure story. ”

Mary Shelley’s 1818 Novel Frankenstein Often considered the first science fiction novel. Voltaire wrote much earlier than Shelley, so does he deserve the title instead? It depends on your definition of science fiction.

“[‘Micromégas’] unrelated to technology,” Palmer said, “so if you define science fiction as being dependent on technology — and currently, in Frankenstein feeling, ‘Will human knowledge give us access to powers far beyond what we had before? What does that mean? ‘ – it is not such a question. But aliens and first contact are a very core element of science fiction.”

So there is no clear answer to the question of who should be considered the first science fiction writer. Given a loose enough definition of the term, even a 2nd century writer would prefer Lucian of Samosata could be a candidate. Ultimately, Palmer says it’s more important to ask questions than come up with any specific answers.

“I don’t want to argue, ‘Sure, everyone’s history of science fiction should start with Voltaire,’” she said. “But I’d argue that everyone’s history of science fiction would be richer by discussing whether Voltaire was the beginning of science fiction, sooner or later. Because the question is what science fiction is. ”

Listen to the full interview with Ada Palmer in Episode 495 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Ada Palmer on sci-fi conventions:

The great thing about sci-fi and fantasy fandom, unlike a lot of other literary genres, is that when you go to conventions, the author isn’t in the green room and only shows up occasionally for an event and then disappeared; the authors are hanging out in the hall, and you can chat with people, and you get to know people through the internet. So I’ve known a lot of authors from meeting them at conferences, and from being a panelist before I was an author – because I’m going to talk about music, or I’m going to talk about music. about history, or I’ll talk about anime and manga and cosplay, those are all areas where I’ve worked. So I got to know people, and be known by everyone, through that wonderful and often supportive world.

Ada Palmer on Terra Ignota series:

There is this global network of flying cars so fast that they can get you from anywhere on Earth to any other place on Earth in about two hours. So suddenly everywhere on Earth there is travel distance. You can live in the Bahamas and have a lunch meeting in Tokyo and eat at a restaurant in Paris, and your spouse – who also lives in the Bahamas – can have a lunch meeting in Toronto and a meeting for lunch. another meeting in Antarctica, and this is a perfect day to go, especially with self-driving vehicles that allow you to work while in the car. So once that’s been true for a few generations, people don’t live in one place because they have political ties to it, they live in one place because there’s a wonderful home there that their parents really liked at the time their parents bought. a home, and no longer makes sense when geography becomes a determinant of political identity.

Ada Palmer on Terraforming Mars board game:

Each player is a corporation and the United Nations will grant you funding to encourage this, but you also make your own profits and you are competing with other corporations to make the best Mars terrain… I’ve noticed while playing Terraforming Mars that if you play it competitively, and then you play it collaboratively separately, when you say, “Okay, we’ll skip competing to win the points and we will work together to try to make sure that all resources end up in the hands of the company that will use them most efficiently”, you format Mars in a better, faster way So the board game is meant to celebrate this capitalist space business model, but in reality it also shows that just working together and everyone helping people get ahead makes everyone score more points and achieve more topography of Mars.

Ada Palmer on Diderot:

[Jacques the Fatalist] Is Diderot’s strange 18th-century philosophical novel about a man’s problems as a servant in his master’s company. It has a sophisticatedly warm prose style in which Diderot directly speaks to the reader with intimacy and vulnerability… Reading that book feels like reading a time capsule where you meet Diderot and became his friend, in a very different way than any book. Another book I’ve read. You will feel as if Diderot has shared your raw, incomplete, uncertain, deep and profound human thoughts and feelings with you, and responded to your thoughts and opinions. , in a very subtle way.

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