When Astronomer Johannes Kepler Wrote the First Work of Science Fiction, The Dream (1609)

The point at which we date the birth of any genre is apt to shift depend­ing on how we define it. When did sci­ence fic­tion begin? Many cite ear­ly mas­ters of the form like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as its prog­en­i­tors. Oth­ers reach back to Mary Shelley’s 1818 Franken­stein as the gen­e­sis of the form. Some few know The Blaz­ing World, a 1666 work of fic­tion by Mar­garet Cavendish, Duchess of New­cas­tle, who called her book a “her­maph­ro­dit­ic text.” Accord­ing to the judg­ment of such experts as Isaac Asi­mov and Carl Sagan, sci-fi began even ear­li­er, with a nov­el called Som­ni­um (“The Dream”), writ­ten by none oth­er than Ger­man astronomer and math­e­mati­cian Johannes Kepler. Maria Popo­va explains at Brain Pick­ings:

In 1609, Johannes Kepler fin­ished the first work of gen­uine sci­ence fic­tion — that is, imag­i­na­tive sto­ry­telling in which sen­si­cal sci­ence is a major plot device. Som­ni­um, or The Dream, is the fic­tion­al account of a young astronomer who voy­ages to the Moon. Rich in both sci­en­tif­ic inge­nu­ity and sym­bol­ic play, it is at once a mas­ter­work of the lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion and an invalu­able sci­en­tif­ic doc­u­ment, all the more impres­sive for the fact that it was writ­ten before Galileo point­ed the first spy­glass at the sky and before Kepler him­self had ever looked through a tele­scope.

The work was not pub­lished until 1634, four years after Kepler’s death, by his son Lud­wig, though “it had been Kepler’s intent to per­son­al­ly super­vise the pub­li­ca­tion of his man­u­script,” writes Gale E. Chris­tian­son. His final, posthu­mous work began as a dis­ser­ta­tion in 1593 that addressed the ques­tion Coper­ni­cus asked years ear­li­er: “How would the phe­nom­e­na occur­ring in the heav­ens appear to an observ­er sta­tioned on the moon?” Kepler had first come “under the thrall of the helio­cen­tric mod­el,” Popo­va writes, “as a stu­dent at the Luther­an Uni­ver­si­ty of Tübin­gen half a cen­tu­ry after Coper­ni­cus pub­lished his the­o­ry.”

Kepler’s the­sis was “prompt­ly vetoed” by his pro­fes­sors, but he con­tin­ued to work on the ideas, and cor­re­spond­ed with Galileo 30 years before the Ital­ian astronomer defend­ed his own helio­cen­tric the­o­ry. “Six­teen years lat­er and far from Tübin­gen, he com­plet­ed an expand­ed ver­sion,” says Andrew Boyd in the intro­duc­tion to a radio pro­gram about the book. “Recast in a dream­like frame­work, Kepler felt free to probe ideas about the moon that he oth­er­wise couldn’t.” Not con­tent with cold abstrac­tion, Kepler imag­ined space trav­el, of a kind, and peo­pled his moon with aliens.

And what an imag­i­na­tion! Inhab­i­tants weren’t mere recre­ations of ter­res­tri­al life, but entire­ly new forms of life adapt­ed to lunar extremes. Large. Tough-skinned. They evoked visions of dinosaurs. Some used boats, imply­ing not just life but intel­li­gent, non-human life. Imag­ine how shock­ing that must have been at the time.

Even more shock­ing to author­i­ties were the means Kepler used in his text to reveal knowl­edge about the heav­ens and trav­el to the moon: beings he called “dae­mons” (a Latin word for benign nature spir­its before Chris­tian­i­ty hijacked the term), who com­mu­ni­cat­ed first with the hero’s moth­er, a witch prac­ticed in cast­ing spells.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties between Kepler’s pro­tag­o­nist, Dura­co­tus, and Kepler him­self (such as a peri­od of study under Dan­ish astronomer Tycho Bra­he) led the church to sus­pect the book was thin­ly veiled auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal occultism. Rumors cir­cu­lat­ed, and Kepler’s moth­er was arrest­ed for witch­craft and sub­ject­ed to ter­ri­tio ver­balis (detailed descrip­tions of the tor­tures that await­ed her, along with pre­sen­ta­tions of the var­i­ous devices).  It took Kepler five years to free her and pre­vent her exe­cu­tion.

Kepler’s sto­ry is trag­ic in many ways, for the loss­es he suf­fered through­out his life, includ­ing his son and his first wife to small­pox. But his per­se­ver­ance left behind one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing works of ear­ly sci­ence fiction—published hun­dreds of years before the genre is sup­posed to have begun. Despite the fan­tas­ti­cal nature of his work, “he real­ly believed,” says Sagan in the short clip from Cos­mos above, “that one day human beings would launch celes­tial ships with sails adapt­ed to the breezes of heav­en, filled with explor­ers who, he said, would not fear the vast­ness of space.”

Astron­o­my had lit­tle con­nec­tion with the mate­r­i­al world in the ear­ly 17th cen­tu­ry. “With Kepler came the idea that a phys­i­cal force moves the plan­ets in their orbits,” as well as an imag­i­na­tive way to explore sci­en­tif­ic ideas no one would be able to ver­i­fy for decades, or even cen­turies. Hear Som­ni­um read at the top of the post and learn more about Kepler’s fas­ci­nat­ing life and achieve­ments at Brain Pick­ings.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mary Shelley’s Hand­writ­ten Man­u­script of Franken­stein: This Is “Ground Zero of Sci­ence Fic­tion,” Says William Gib­son

Stream 47 Hours of Clas­sic Sci-Fi Nov­els & Sto­ries: Asi­mov, Wells, Orwell, Verne, Love­craft & More

The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Sci­ence Fic­tion: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Free Sci­ence Fic­tion Clas­sics Avail­able on the Web (Updat­ed)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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