Occasionally, we at WWEnd find ourselves debating the same topics. The fact that we can’t come to any resolution is interpreted by some to mean that we shouldn’t debate these topics at all. To us, it’s precisely the reason we have so much fun discussing them. One such topic is the perennial “Who was first?” question. Among those, the most heated tends to be “Who was the first SF author?” I, like many fans, have long argued that Mary Shelley ought to hold that distinction, while Dave (our fearless leader) holds that H. G. Wells deserves the title for actually sustaining a career in the genre over his lifetime.
We now have a new candidate for the for first SF author: one John Milton. Katy Waldman, over at Slate says that “the text of Paradise Lost is saturated in science.”
Milton met Galileo, for the first and only time, in a 1638 visit that Jonathan Rosen compared to “those comic book specials in which Superman meets Batman.” The “Tuscan artist” appears in Paradise Lost more than once. Book I compares Satan’s shield to the moon seen through a telescope. And the poem is studded with scientific details—“luminous inferior orbs” churning through outer space, descriptions of sunspots and seasons, creatures that evolve (according to divine plan, but still). Through it all, Milton, a storyteller, comes off as entranced by the laws governing the universe. (His mouthpiece in this regard is Adam, who cannot get enough of the angel Raphael’s disquisition on celestial motions in Book VIII.) There’s something very sci-fi about anyone who, while taking care to present his era’s astronomical theories as speculative, still likes to spin that speculation out into long descriptions of cosmic phenomena. Arthur C. Clarke would surely be proud.
Intrigued? In that same article, Waldman quotes a passage describing Satan’s journey through the cosmos on his descent from Heaven to Earth, where he flies past “other worlds,” but does not stick around long enough to find out “who dwelt happy there.” Perhaps Milton left those worlds unsung so that all the great authors we know and love could populate them one by one.