Science fiction is a broad label, and falls under the even larger umbrella term speculative fiction, that can encompass a wide variety of stories with themes ranging from space travel to cloning dinosaurs. It may seem like a modern genre but its roots go back to ancient times.
Chariots of Science Fiction: The Ancient World
The earliest we see themes considered science fiction, or proto-science fiction, can be found in the Hindu Rigveda, a collection of Sanskrit hymns (17th to 11th century BC), there are “mechanical birds” that are seen “jumping into space speedily with a craft using fire and water.” Later, in the epic Ramayana (5th to 4th century BC) there are flying machines that can travel in space and deep underwater, with weapons that can destroy entire cities.
In the satirical work True History, 2nd-century Syrian-Greek writer Lucian writes about voyages to outer space, alien life forms (including first contact), interplanetary warfare, planetary imperialism, and creatures created by human technology.
One of the earliest stories of time travel is Urashima Tarō, the 8th century Japanese tale of a fisherman who travels forward in time 300 years.
At first One Thousand and One Nights may not seem like a mainstay of science fiction but certain stories do have scifi elements. Lost technologies, advanced ancient civilizations that went astray, catastrophes which overwhelmed them, robots of human and animal forms, and space travel.
Knights and Robots: Medieval Scifi
Zakariya al-Qazwini was a Persian scientist in the 13th century who wrote the futuristic tale Awaj bin Anfaq about a man who travelled to Earth from a distant planet.
In Europe some elements of science fiction run through the chivalric romances but they tend to blur with fantasy ideas. As in One Thousand and One Nights, we see automata in human form or even a bronze horse. These mechanical contrivances tend to be driven by magic rather than by some scientific means. Scientific knowledge was limited at the time. For medieval authors magic was science.
Let’s Get Reasonable: Scifi in the Age of Enlightenment
It’s during the late 17th and 18th century with the rise of rational thought and scientific discovery that we see the first real inklings of science fiction or rather proto-science fiction. During the period several themes were developed and grew. Space travel, futurism, hollow Earth, lost world, and utopian stories that were first introduced in the previous century.
In 1516 Thomas More wrote Utopia (1516), about an island nation that has perfected their society. The name of the island was Utopia and the name became a term synonymous with perfection. Utopia was a popular topic during the time, The City of the Sun (1623) by Tommaso Campanella, New Atlantis (1627, unfinished) by Sir Francis Bacon, The Isle of Pines (1668) by Henry Neville, to name just a few.
Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (The Dream, 1634) depicts a man’s journey to the moon in a space travel tale. The Man in the Moone (1638) by Francis Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac’s Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1656) are also about space travel. Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752), suggests that people of other worlds may be more advanced than those of earth.
Novels that featured a lost world or a hollow Earth include Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World (1666), Simon Tyssot de Patot’s Voyages et Aventures de Jacques Massé (1710) features a Lost World and his La Vie, Les Aventures et Le Voyage de Groenland du Révérend Père Cordelier Pierre de Mésange (1720) features a hollow earth. Ludvig Holberg, Niels Klim’s Underground Travels (1741) and Giacomo Casanova’s Icosameron (1788) both use the hollow earth device.
Examples of futurism are Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) in which a guardian angel in 1728 gives the narrator some documents from 1997–1998. And Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An 2440 (1771) imagines life in the 25th century.