Johannes KeplerKopie eines verlorengegangenen Originals von 1610Q: What is Kepler’s Somnium?

A: Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was the author of the first science fiction story – Somnium, or The Dream - and among most important astronomers of the very early scientific period in Europe. Along with Copernicus and Galileo, Kepler helped establish that the planets of our solar system orbit around the sun and not the earth. Kepler discovered the planets move in ellipses, not circles, and inspired Isaac Newton’s studies of gravity.

Somnium was written in Latin after 1589, when Kepler was a Theology student at the University of Tuebingen in Germany. It circulated as a manuscript around 1610, and Kepler revised it with footnotes before his death in 1630. It was first published by Kepler’s family in 1638.

In the story, Kepler describes a dream (somnium in Latin) about an astronomy student who travels to the moon, propelled by “daemons” who can carry travellers between the moon and the earth during an eclipse. Kepler describes our moon as an alien planet – named Levania by its inhabitants, with weather, exotic lunar animals and plants, and alien peoples.

Somnium also contains an early astronomy lecture that outlines Kepler’s theories about the relation of the planets to the sun – and the question of whether the earth itself was in orbit around the sun, suggested earlier by Copernicus. By imagining how life could exist on the moon in orbit around the earth, he challenged the 2000-year old theory (and the favoured doctrine of many scholars and churchmen) that the earth must be at the centre of the universe.

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Q: Didn’t {Someone Else} write the first science fiction story?

A: That depends. Lucian of Samasota in the 1st Century wrote a deleberately comical account of travelling to the moon on a ship caught in an ocean waterspout, but there wasn’t much science involved. Plutarch in the 1st and 2nd Centuries wrote about the possibility that vegetation, weather or oceans on the lunar surface gave the moon its mottled appearance.

Kepler’s Somnium is first “hard” science fiction story, combining a fictional tale of travel to the moon, descriptions of space travel and the landscape of Levania, combined with reasoned speculation about what life might be like for the inhabitants of this other world.

The Somnium, first written around 1610, probably pre-dates Francis Godwin’s “The Man in the Moone”, completed around 1620. Godwin’s story relates a voyage in a gondola harnessed to a team of lunar geese – gansas – that migrate between the earth and the moon.