Who wrote the first science fiction story? Most people may mention authors like Mary Shelley or Jules Verne. A few may remember A True Story; a parody of travel tales set on the moon, written by the Greek-speaking Assyrian author Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century AD.
Remarkably few, however, will remember Lady Margaret Cavendish. Born in 1623, she was an outspoken aristocrat who traveled in circles of scientific thinkers and broke ground on proto-feminism, natural philosophy (the 17th-century term for science), and social politics. In her lifetime, she published 20 books, mostly poetry and essays, including the seminal The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World, published in 1666.
Women in Science Fiction: A New World
In her book, a woman is kidnapped by a lovesick merchant sailor, and forced to join him at sea. After a windstorm sends the ship north and kills the men, the woman walks through a portal at the North Pole into a new world: one with stars so bright, midnight could be mistaken for midday. A parallel universe where creatures are sentient, and worm-men, ape-men, fish-men, bird-men and lice-men populate the planet. They speak one language, worship one god, and have no wars. She becomes their Empress, and with her otherworldly subjects, she explores natural wonders and questions their observations using science.
The good Lady’s imagination helps her foretell a great few inventions and staples of science fiction. The people of the Blazing World, as her universe was called, came in colors ranging from green to scarlet, and had what we might now call alien technology. Cavendish writes that “though they had no knowledge of the Load-stone, or Needle or pendulous Watches,” Blazing World inhabitants were able to measure the depth of the sea from afar; a technology that wouldn’t be invented until nearly 250 years after the book came out.
As if that weren’t enough, Cavendish then describes a fictional, air-powered engine that moves golden, otherworldly ships, which she says “would draw in a great quantity of Air, and shoot forth Wind with a great force.” Yes, she anticipates a jet engine and goes on to describe the mechanics of this steampunk dream world in precise technical detail. All at once, in Cavendish’s world, the fleet of ships links together and forms a golden honeycomb on the sea to withstand a storm so that “no Wind nor Waves were able to separate them,” much like that famous battle scene from Guardians Of The GalaxyTM.
In the middle of the story, the Empress is offered the soul of anyone living or dead as a trusted advisor and familiar. She rejects Plato and Aristotle, going meta instead: she inserts herself as a character called the Duchess in her own book, and befriends the Empress as “platonic friends.” The Duchess and Empress then learn to create mini-worlds of their own using their thoughts.
Just like all good science fiction, her book fleshes out ideas about the politics and scientific theories of her time. In her literary world, souls can inhabit different bodies, man can’t comprehend God, and souls are genderless, traveling as thoughts on “vehicles of the wind.”
Who was Lady Cavendish?
Such an unusual book had to have come from an extraordinary person. Growing up during the English civil war, Cavendish had an unusual upbringing for a woman in the 17th century. Described as a “shy” child, she lived for years with other royals in exile. Upon her return to England as a Duchess, she gained entry to a scientific world that most women of her time could not access. Her husband, who was also involved in natural philosophy, supported her interests and connected her with Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, and René Descartes.
Cavendish was recognized as the first female natural philosopher, or scientist, of her time. She was also the first woman to be invited to observe experiments at the new British Royal Society, a forum for scientists, in light of her contributions to natural philosophy in her poems and plays. (Unfortunately, she was the last woman for over a century: a ban on women was soon instituted, lasting until 1945.)
Despite her shyness and “melancholic episodes,” Cavendish challenged society’s view of women, which made her subject to ridicule. She wore her own inventive style of dress and was seen as too outspoken and bawdy for a true Lady. She not only believed in animal rights, she criticized values of her society, including its obsession with constant technological advancement. This, among other beliefs, earned her the nickname “Mad Madge.”
Science Fiction, Proto-feminism and Natural Philosophy
None of her peer’s ridicule discouraged Lady Cavendish from participating in natural philosophy. She confidently wrote volumes, sending them to contemporaries in her field. In The Blazing World, written six years after the British Royal Society formed, Cavendish’s protagonists question popular beliefs about the universe and use reason to examine scientific theories. The two main characters, the Empress and the Duchess, are both women.
As Cavendish’s critiques of science mingled in her own fictional universe, she imagined a place where women could rule and be respected. She was well aware of the limitations placed on her gender, and as one of the first science fiction authors and characters, she was up for the challenge. “I am not Covetous, but as Ambitious as ever any of my Sex was, is, or can be,” she writes.
The reader is meant to conclude that when the beliefs of others do them no good, they might as well create their own worlds. In this, as in so much more, The Blazing World is still relevant 350 years later.
You can find out more about this extraordinary Lady in this fascinating post by Natalie Zarrelli in Atlas Obscura.
Ursula K LeGuin? Octavia Butler? Who are some of your favorite female science fiction authors?