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The first science fiction

Though science fiction as a genre has its origins in the many tales of the incomparable Jules Verne, or earlier in Edgar Allan Poe's Hans Pfaall, the first science fiction story ever is often thought to be The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon, published first in Latin in 1624. At that time, the very idea of science as a coherent enterprise was more or less a fiction. The first lucid description of the scientific method was the Novum Organon Scientiarum, also by Bacon, published just a few years earlier.

The New Atlantis relates the story of a group of Europeans on a sailing ship who had lost their way in the Pacific somewhere west of Peru. Sick and without provisions, they chance upon the island of Bensalem, which happily is a kind of Christian Utopia blessed with material abundance. After their recovery, they are given the run of the island. The pre-eminent institution on the Bensalem is Salomon's House, which is the medieval equivalent of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health rolled into one, "dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.\" This unique institution has allowed the island to prosper by the introduction of new technology. Biotech had been particularly fruitful—the islanders "have means to make divers plants rise by mixtures of earths without seeds, and likewise to make divers new plants, differing from the vulgar, and to make one tree or plant turn into another."

They apparently had no problems with animal rights advocates—they had "beasts and birds... for dissections and trials, that thereby may take light what may be wrought upon the body of man." Optics were a research priority—there were "demonstrations of all lights and radiations and of all colors; and out of things uncolored and transparent we can represent unto you all several colors, not in rainbows, as it is in gems and prisms, but of themselves single (the first lasers!). We represent also all multiplications of light, which we carry to great distance, and make so sharp as to discern small points and lines."

Bacon's plot is minimal and his stilted prose should be exhibit number one as to why Bacon could never have been, as is sometimes claimed, the true author of Shakespeare's works. Bacon's sought not to entertain but to make a large point; that science should be the centerpiece of society. Salomon's House was the model for the Royal Society of London, founded in 1660, the oldest learned society in existence. Robert Hooke was the first Curator of Experiments.

The New Atlantis is also the name of an Ursula K. Le Guin novella, an echo across the ages. She describes a dystopia stifled by an all-powerful state, very much the negative image of Bacon's optimistic vision.

Related Links:

Oregon State University: The New Atlantis

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