An Audio-Book Review: And On the Left We See Venus, Playing Shuffleboard with Mercury

The Man in the Moone

By Francis Godwin

Published by Librivox

Read by Thomas A. Copeland


The Book:

Those of you who have been following this blog (and are hopefully still following) will know I sometimes listen to very old books. I have listened to the Annals of Tacitus, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Cervantes Don Quixote and quite a few more. I do sometimes enjoy reading really old science fiction and the predecessors to the SF genre (such as Lucian of Samosata’s Trips to the Moon) because it is interesting how early attempts at fantastic literature evolved into modern Fantasy and Science Fiction.

The Man in the Moone may have been written in the late 1620’s (although some scholars believe it was later) but not published until after his death in 1638. It is a story about a Spaniard who might have been typical of his period named Domingo Gonsales. The story seems to have a lot of unnecessary build-up and denouement. Similar stories of this sort of proto-science fiction frequently start with a brief description of the character and what he does for a living and then quickly take off for parts unknown (usually by some mysterious agency), and then after the sojourn in fantasy-land, they find a way back. Happy ending.

This story, however, takes a while to build up. Gonsales is forced to leave Spain after killing a man in a duel (he could have stay had he lost?) and decided that the East indies is far enough away to be safe. He gets rich there and finally concludes it is time to go home (because now he can buy his way out of trouble?). He gets sick, however, so he is left on the island of St. Helena along with a negro servant (slave? Maybe) named Diego to take care of him, although for some pretty silly reasons they, at first, live on opposite ends of the island and Gonsales summons Diego with messages carried by trained birds. Apparently these bird must be pretty easy to train since Gonsales is still recovering from his illness and presumably does get around much.

Eventually, while waiting for rescue, Gonsales discovers some very strong swan-like birds (called gansas) he can train (showing his luck with the pigeons was not a once-off?) to fly in a harness of some sort and carry him around the island. Eventually he is rescued and he insists on taking his flock of birds with him and his ship is attacked by the British fleet and he escapes by taking flight and lands on Tenerife where he encounters hostile natives and rather than flying to the Spanish settlement, he allows his birds to fly to the moon, which according to this story is where birds migrate to each year since the gansas are not the only birds flying around up there.

I won’t go into the details of the voyage, but after 12 days he reaches the Moon which is inhabited by tall Christians (perhaps the Biblical “giants” so in vogue with Fringe historians these days?) living in paradise-like conditions. He spends some time with them but after a while his gansas start to get sick because they have not been allowed to migrate back to earth. So he leaves, carrying precious and magical stones he got from the supreme ruler of the Moone), and lands in China where the local Mandarin but he is allowed to visit a group of Jesuits who carry his tale back to Spain (so an English bishop could write down his story). I think the story spent more time on Earth than on the Moon.

Some critics call this one of the first bits of science fiction, but I think they must not have been aware of Lucian of Samosata. It is typical of proto and early SF in that it has a minimal plot (Lucian’s story had more plot and, come to think about it, better science… at least he did not expect us to believe in super-strong birds who could be trained to fly in a harness). It does go into more detail as to the mechanism of travel than a lot of early SF and perhaps the birds are easier to believe that Jules Verne’s notion of a comet made of gold that smashes into the Earth and carries off various bits of geography and people (who somehow don’t even realize they have left the Earth at first), However, like all other proto-SF and many early fantasy stories it is basically a travelogue with almost no plot but a lot of descriptions of strange people who live very different, usually opposite ways than the people of Earth live.

It was interesting from a scholarly point of view, but not much for originality. It was really just a platform for Godwin to expound on religion and the nature of language. Worth reading by anyone interested in the evolution of SF (it fits squarely between the ancient attempts and Verne’s stumbles through the field (note: I think Verne’s best stories are the ones in which he is not trying to be too fantastic. Around the World in Eighty Days being better written and easier to swallow than Off on a Comet.) leading up to the socialistic mumblings of H. G. Wells (seriously; stay away from Off on a Comet), but seems more like the attempts from the ancient world than the modern one. If that sort of study does not interest you, this story might not either.


The Audiobook:

Thomas A. Copeland performs a pretty darned good reading of this story. I don’t know if I would have gotten through it all if I were reading it. I doubt I would have detected the range of emotion Mister Copeland put into his reading. Not that there was a very wide range of emotion in the text itself. Much of the first person narrative was written in too much of a matter-of-fact manner, such as of course he was given a servant when put off the ship on St. Helena and of course he was the one who, although sick, trained the birds to send messages back and forth to Diego and of course the gansas just naturally flew to the Moon. But in there, Mister Copeland is able to instill a bit of a sense of wonder.

So we have a not-too-original tale of proto-science fiction based on notions that might have been accepted at the time (I have my doubts if actual scientists at the time would have agreed with Godwin, about it, but maybe) but now are fantastic at best. The reading, however, is very listenable and may well be better than reading it for yourself.

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