Imagens Dreams od Space Travel (4)

Q: What is Kepler’s ‘Somnium’?

A: Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was the author of the first science fiction story – Somnium, or The Dream – and one of the most important astronomers and mathematicians of the early scientific period in Europe. Following the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus more than 50 years earlier, Kepler looked for evidence that the planets of our solar system orbit the sun and not the earth. Using astronomical data gathered by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, Kepler found that the planets move in ellipses around the sun and change speed as they orbit according to a geometrical law  – discoveries that led to Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation over 50 years later.

Kepler wrote the Somnium in Latin before 1610, and the text suggests the completion date of the central story may be 1608. Some parts may have been written when Kepler was a student at the University of Tubingen from 1589 to 1594, where philosophy and theology, mathematics, astronomy and astrology were among his studies. Before his death in 1630, Kepler revised the Somnium with footnotes and added the framing structure of the “dream”. The revised version was first published by Kepler’s family in 1634.

Kepler’s Somnium relates a “dream” about an adventurer and student named Duracotus, who learns an ancient secret of space travel from space-dwelling “daemons” who can carry travelers between the moon and the earth during a solar eclipse. Kepler imagines our moon as an alien world – named Levania by its inhabitants – with weather and climate, and alien peoples adapted to life on the moon.

Somnium also contains an early astronomy lecture that describes how the sun, stars and planets would appear to the inhabitants of the moon as it orbits the earth – an echo of the idea that the earth orbits the sun, as theorised by Copernicus. By imagining that life could exist on the moon, in orbit around the earth, Kepler subtly challenged the 2000-year old theory, still favoured by university scholarship at the time, that the earth was the only inhabited world, immovable and located at the centre of the universe.

In 1615, Kepler’s mother Katharina Kepler was accused of witchcraft and spent years on trial for her life. Kepler himself suggested that descriptions in Somnium of magic performed by Duracotus’ mother Fiolxhilde may have contributed to the accusations against his own mother, Katharina.

When Kepler revised the original story in his later years he added footnotes explaining or justifying the details of the story. He also added the framing structure of the “dream” of the title, perhaps to suggest Somnium wasn’t intended as a direct challenge to the authorities of the time.


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

A:  Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd Century CE wrote a comic account of travelling to the moon on a ship caught in an ocean waterspout, where the ship’s crew encounter the exotic armies of the Moon, Sun and other planets, but there is no science in it. About 50 years earlier, the Greek historian Plutarch had written seriously about the possibility that the mottled appearance of the moon was caused by vegetation, weather or oceans on the lunar surface. In his footnotes, Kepler wrote that he was inspired by the writings of Lucian and Plutarch to write Somnium.

Plutarch also reported legends of an ancient gateway between the worlds, sited in the northern islands of Thule. Kepler adopted this idea for Somnium when he casts his main characters, the Icelandic journeyer Duracotus and his mother Fiolxhilde, who communes with spirits or “daemons” who have the power to travel over a bridge of shadow between the earth and the dark side of the moon during an eclipse. Even with this seemingly magical method of transport, Kepler’s Somnium is the first “hard” science fiction story: a tall tale of travel to the moon combined with descriptions of space travel and the lunar landscape, a radical scientific description of astronomy as seen from the moon, and inspired speculation about the climate of the moon and the experiences of the civilized Levanians who live there.

Somnium, written around 1608 but not published until 1634, after Kepler’s death, predates Francis Godwin’s “The Man in the Moone”, published in 1638 but thought to be written 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. A few decades later, the  French dramatist and duelist Cyrano de Bergerac wrote L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon) and Les États et Empires du Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun), which were published after his death in 1658 and 1662 respectively. In the first, Cyrano travels to the moon on a rocket powered by firecrackers and meets a race of four-legged moon men with musical voices and hunting weapons that also cook the game they kill.