Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ludvig Holberg and early sci-fi

Ludvig Holberg
December 3rd, 1684 to January 28th, 1754

Not exactly a well-known figure in the genre of science fiction literature but certainly a contributor is Ludvig Holberg and his sci-fi entry Niels Klim's Underground Travels.

Niels Klim's Underground Travels is significant in the history of science fiction being one of the first science-fiction novels in history, along with Lucian's A True Story, Johannes Kepler's Somnium [The Dream, 1634], Cyrano de Bergerac's Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon [1656], Voltaire's Micromégas [1752], and [1726] Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

Plot synopsis [Wikipedia]...

The novel starts with a foreword that assures that everything in the story is a real account of the title character's exploits in the Underworld. The story is set, according to the book, in the Norwegian harbor town Bergen in 1664, after Klim returns from the university in Copenhagen, where he has studied philosophy and theology and graduated magna cum laude. His curiosity drives him to investigate a strange cave hole on the mountain above the town, which sends out regular gusts of warm air. He ends up falling down the hole, and after a while he finds himself floating in free space.

After a few days of orbiting the planet which revolves around the inner sun, he is attacked by a gryphon, and he falls down on the planet, which is named Nazar. There he wanders about for a short while until he is attacked once again, this time by an ox. He climbs up into a tree, and to his astonishment the tree can move and talk (this one screamed), and he is taken prisoner by tree-like creatures with up to six arms and a face right below the branches. He is accused of attempted rape on the town clerk's wife, and is put on trial. The case is dismissed and he is set by the Lord of Potu (the utopian state in which he now is located) to learn the language.

Klim quickly learns the language of the Potuans, but this reflects badly on him when the Lord is about to issue him with a job, because the Potuans believe that if you perceive a problem at a slower rate, the better you can understand and solve it. But, since he has considerably longer legs than the Potuans, who walk very slowly, he is set to be the Lord's personal courier, delivering letters and suchlike.

During the course of the book, Klim vividly chronicles the culture of the Potuans, their religion, their way of life and the many different countries located on Nazar. After his two-month long circumnavigation on foot, he is appalled by the fact that men and women are equal and shares the same kind of jobs, so he files a suggestion to the Lord of Potu to remove women from higher positions in society. His suggestion is poorly received and he is sentenced to be exiled to the inner rim of the Earth's crust. There he becomes familiar with a country inhabited by sentient monkeys, and after a few years he becomes emperor of the land of Quama, inhabited by the only creatures in the Underworld that look like humans. There, he marries and fathers a son. But again he is driven from hearth and home due to his tyranny and as he escapes he falls into a hole, which carries him through the crust and back up to Bergen again.

There, he is mistaken by the townsfolk to be the Wandering Jew, mostly due to a lingual misunderstanding (he asks a couple of young boys where he is in quamittian, which is Jeru Pikal Salim, and the boys think he talks about Jerusalem). He learns that he has been away for twelve years, and is taken in by his old friend, mayor Abelin, who writes down everything Klim tells him. He later receives a job as principal of the college of Bergen, and marries.

Kepler's Somnium and Bergerac's Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon as well as Holberg's Niels Klim's Underground Travels are not available online but for purchase from various retailers or at one's local library.

Holberg is also responsible for the Norwegian Holberg International Memorial Prize [for outstanding scholarly work in the arts and humanities, social sciences, law and theology].

Earliest science fiction

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