Anthony Le Donne suggested on his blog (and in a recent conference paper) that a story in the Babylonian Talmud, in b. Menaḥoth 29b, might be the first science fiction story. In it, Moses time travels to Rabbi Akiba’s time. But is time travel enough to make a story science fiction?
I’ve long pondered this topic, namely when the phenomenon we label sci-fi first begins. Is the appearance of science in the modern sense essential to the definition? It is because of the assumption that the answer to that question is “yes” that the usual contenders for the title of the “first” work of science fiction are relatively recent. Many would start the history of science fiction with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
But whatever one’s view on whether there can be “science fiction” prior to the rise of modern science, it should be agreed that the development of modern science does not lead to a complete disjuncture in the history of human storytelling – as the Akiba story from the Talmud makes clear.
An even earlier example I often appeal to is 1 Enoch, with its account of a human who is “abducted” by celestial beings, learns that there is interbreeding taking place between celestials and terrestrials, and that the former are behind a number of major technological innovations among humans. That narrative scenario is the mythological underpinning not just of that ancient Jewish story but also of the X-Files.
A commenter on Anthony’s post suggested that the story of Daedalus and Icarus ought to also be considered, since it explicitly involves technology.
If one avoids making too sharp a cut-off in the era of modern science, then what would you propose as the first work of science fiction? And could one suggest that, if one doesn’t draw a dividing line in the modern era, then in bygone ages religion and science fiction were essentially one and the same? It was in religion, after all, that traditions of telling stories about visitors from a world above – and occasionally travels by humans to those realms – seem to have first flourished.
Those interested in this topic may also be interested to know that the introduction to the volume I edited, Religion and Science Fiction, is now available online as a pdf book sample, courtesy of Lutterworth Press, who will be releasing an edition of the volume. There I mention, among other things, the connection of 1 Enoch to science fiction. Also available online as a pdf sample chapter from the book is Allison Bright MacWilliams’ chapter on Frankenstein, “Scientists Playing God.” Since both are related to the topic of this post, I thought I should mention them!