Skulls in the Stars

Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666)


It is somewhat fascinating to note that certain genres of fiction have their beginnings much earlier than generally appreciated.  Two years ago, I blogged about Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s unusual 1871 novel, The Coming Race, a utopian novel that counts as one of the earliest science fiction stories ever written.  In researching that post, however, I came across a proto-science fiction tale that is much older: The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish:

As one can see from the title page, this work is much older than The Coming Race — it was first published in 1666!  Though there wasn’t even much “science” in that era, The Blazing World is arguably one of the earliest science fiction novels ever written.

One would expect that such a groundbreaking novel would have been written by an equally groundbreaking personality.  This is certainly true of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), who was a prolific author of everything from poetry to plays to natural philosophy.  Born the eighth child of Sir Thomas Lucas, she was educated in the typical “feminine arts” of the time (singing, dancing, music) but developed an exceptional interest in reading and writing and apparently wrote short books in her youth.

Margaret’s family were Royalists, devoted to the monarchy, and when Civil War broke out in 1640 Margaret and her siblings fled to Oxford, where Charles I and their court were in exile.    Margaret became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, and ended up fleeing with her in 1644 to further exile in France when the war turned further against the Royalists.

It was in France that Margaret met William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle, and they were married in 1645.  Cavendish had led part of Charles’ armies in the Civil War and was also essentially in exile.  He had lost most of his estate in the flight and, though the couple were able to return to England in 1651, they lived in relative poverty until the 1660 Restoration which brought back the monarchy under Charles II and with it Cavendish’s estates.

Margaret started writing in 1651, on return to England.  She wrote under her own name, quite a faux pas at the time for women, and brought quite a bit of criticism upon herself.  Nevertheless, she wrote some 14 books during her life, including works of what might be called proto-feminism.

The Blazing World, first published in 1666, is a curious mixture of themes and styles: part science fiction, part fantasy, part scientific musing, part political tract, part social commentary, and part autobiography.  It jumps quite frequently from one aspect to another without warning, as well!

The story follows the exploits of a young Lady of an unknown land, stolen away from her home by an amorous traveling merchant.  This injustice is soon rectified, when the ship is blown by a fierce wind to the North Pole, and the thieving crew freezes to death.  The ship continues on, being pushed to another world altogether,

for they were not only driven to the very end of point of the Pole of that world, but even to another Pole of another world, which joined close to it; so that the cold having a double strength at the conjunction of those two Poles, was unsupportable; at least, the boat still passing on, was forced into another world, for it is impossible to round this world’s globe from Pole to Pole, so as we do from East to West; because the Poles of the other world, joining to the Poles of this, do not allow any further passage to surround the world that way; but if any one arrives to either of these Poles, he is either forced to return, or to enter into another world…

The world is known as the Blazing World due to the vast amount of blazing stars in the sky, which make night almost as bright as day itself.  Combined with the observation that the Blazing World has its own Sun and Moon, and it is clear that the young Lady has truly traveled to another world!

The young Lady encounters strange creatures — bear-men, fox-men, bird-men, even lice-men — who welcome her and convey her to the Emperor of this Blazing World.  She is revered very nearly as a god, and becomes Empress, making radical changes to the society and scientific thinking of the world.

There is a long, lengthy passage in which she questions the various natural science experts of the Blazing World, such as the astronomer bird-men and the chemist ape-men.  This is clearly a collection of Cavendish’s own musings on natural science; in 1668, The Blazing World was in fact reprinted together with Cavendish’s Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy.

It would be reasonable to assume that the Empress represents Cavendish herself; this hypothesis is somewhat muddled, however, by the appearance of the Duchess of Newcastle as a separate character!  When the Empress decides to write her own religious text, she implores the spirits of the Blazing World to seek a worthy author to dictate her memoirs.  The spirit of the Duchess is summoned from her own world (not the same world that the Empress heralded from; this seems to bring the world count to 3) and the two bond over matters of life and governance.

It is hard to explain exactly where the story goes, as it doesn’t really have a solid direction!  Only near the very end of The Blazing World do we get focus again; the homeland of the Empress on her original world is threatened by surrounding nations, and the Empress takes it upon herself to bring her armies across the gap in worlds and come to the rescue.

I suspect that the entire story was written in large part to console Cavendish’s husband and his clearly bad luck in life and politics.  The story of the homeland being overwhelmed unfairly by external threats mirrors the story of the defeat of the monarchy that resulted in Cavendish’s exile.  Even the Duke of Newcastle makes an appearance later in the story, when the Empress arranges a trial between the Duke and Fortune herself to resolve their differences!

The Duke apparently appreciated the attention, as he wrote a very loving sonnet to introduce her work:

To The Duchesse of Newcastle, On Her New Blazing-World.

Our Elder World, with all their Skill and Arts,
Could but divide the World into three Parts:
Columbus, then for Navigation fam’d,
Found a new World, America ’tis nam’d;
Now this new World was found, it was not made,
Only discovered, lying in Time’s shade.

Then what are You, having no Chaos found
To make a World, or any such least ground?
But your Creating Fancy, thought it fit
To make your World of Nothing, but pure Wit.
Your Blazing-World, beyond the Stars mounts higher,
Enlightens all with a Cœlestial Fier.

So where is the science fiction in the story?  There is very little, overall, in large part because there was hardly any science to speak of in the Duchess’ time!  There are a number of fanciful technological advances described, however, including a submarine that transports the Empress’ armies from the Blazing World, a mysterious “fire stone” that combusts when brought into contact with water, and a wind cannon powered ship:

but, above the rest, they had an extraordinary Art, much to be taken notice of by Experimental Philosophers, and that was a certain Engin, which would draw in a great quantity of Air, and shoot forth Wind with a great force; this Engine in a calm, they placed behind their Ships, and in a storm, before; for it served against the raging waves, like Cannons against an hostile Army, or besieged Town; it would batter and beat the waves in pieces, were they as high as Steeples; and as soon as a breach was made, they forced their passage through, in spight even of the most furious wind, using two of those Engins at every Ship, one before, to beat off the waves, and another behind to drive it on; so that the artificial wind had the better of the natural; for, it had a greater advantage of the waves, then the natural of the Ships: the natural being above the face of the Water, could not without a down right motion enter or press into the Ships; whereas the artificial with a sideward-motion, did pierce into the bowels of the Waves: Moreover, it is to be observed, that in a great Tempest they would join their Ships in battel-aray: and when they feared Wind and Waves would be too strong for them, if they divided their Ships; they joined as many together as the compass or advantage of the places of the Liquid Element would give them leave. For, their Ships were so ingeniously contrived, that they could fasten them together as close as a Honey-comb, without waste of place; and being thus united, no Wind nor Waves were able to separate them.

Overall, The Blazing World is a fascinating story, though not one I would recommend to most people.  The writing is quite meandering, and the entire tale reads more like a child’s wish-fulfillment rather than a novel with a plot and conflict.  Nevertheless, it is a fascinating story, and of great interest to those who are interested in the origins of science fiction.