Edgar Allen Poe’s Science Fiction

10 Jun

I just finished reading “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” last night. It is a short story by Edgar Allen Poe written in 1835. While reading it I was floored by how accurate the science was regarding a journey to the moon.

In it, a man decides to blow up his creditors and fly away to the moon with his cat in a hot air balloon. (And reading about Poe’s personal struggles with gambling and debt, this may have been a bit of a personal fantasy of his). He talks about the need for extra propulsion to allow the balloon to break free from the gravitation of earth and be pulled toward the moon, of the need for pressurized air in a sealed cabin, of fresh oxygen supplies and the need to filter out carbon dioxide. He got a lot right, considering it was 1835. 

It turns out this science fiction novel is one of the earliest in western literature, and influenced Jules Verne to write his “From the Earth to the Moon” 30 years later. Basically, Jules Verne gets too much credit for writing startlingly accurate science fiction, Poe deserves just as much credit.

Here is a short passage from the short story describing how earth looks from space:

“Then again I journeyed far down away into another country where it was all one dim and vague lake, with a boundary line of clouds. And out of this melancholy water arose a forest of tall eastern trees, like a wilderness of dreams. And I have in mind that the shadows of the trees which fell upon the lake remained not on the surface where they fell, but sunk slowly and steadily down, and commingled with the waves, while from the trunks of the trees other shadows were continually coming out, and taking the place of their brothers thus entombed.

“This then,” I said thoughtfully, “is the very reason why the waters of this lake grow blacker with age, and more melancholy as the hours run on.” But fancies such as these were not the sole possessors of my brain. Horrors of a nature most stern and most appalling would too frequently obtrude themselves upon my mind, and shake the innermost depths of my soul with the bare supposition of their possibility.”

– Edgar Allen Poe

and another about the nature of the moon, which has hints of horror:

“This is, in fact, the case. I have much—very much which it would give me the greatest pleasure to communicate. I have much to say of the climate of the planet; of its wonderful alternations of heat and cold, of unmitigated and burning sunshine for one fortnight, and more than polar frigidity for the next; of a constant transfer of moisture, by distillation like that in vacuo, from the point beneath the sun to the point the farthest from it; of a variable zone of running water, of the people themselves; of their manners, customs, and political institutions; of their peculiar physical construction; of their ugliness; of their want of ears, those useless appendages in an atmosphere so peculiarly modified; of their consequent ignorance of the use and properties of speech; of their substitute for speech in a singular method of inter-communication; of the incomprehensible connection between each particular individual in the moon with some particular individual on the earth—a connection analogous with, and depending upon, that of the orbs of the planet and the satellites, and by means of which the lives and destinies of the inhabitants of the one are interwoven with the lives and destinies of the inhabitants of the other; and above all, if it so please your Excellencies—above all, of those dark and hideous mysteries which lie in the outer regions of the moon—regions which, owing to the almost miraculous accordance of the satellite’s rotation on its own axis with its sidereal revolution about the earth, have never yet been turned, and, by God’s mercy, never shall be turned, to the scrutiny of the telescopes of man.”

– Edgar Allen Poe

Not only was this book a full 30 years before Jules Vernes journey to the moon, this was a few months before the famous “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835. Poe intended this story to be a hoax, he wanted people to believe it was real. But he was ripped off by Richard Adams Locke who did a far more succesful Moon Hoax.


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