Friday, February 7, 2014

Micromégas by Voltaire

Science fiction in the Age of Enlightenment
I have the utmost respect for Voltaire as a thinker, a historical personage, and an outspoken advocate of reason and freedom. During the Age of Enlightenment, he may very well have been the most influential man in the Western world. He left his indelible mark in the realms of philosophy, literature, politics, history, culture, and science. Nevertheless, despite my admiration for the man, I don’t usually enjoy his writings all that much. Most of his literary output was satirical, and regrettably his humor has not held up well over the last quarter of a millennium. This work, however, is a notable exception.

Micromégas, originally published in 1752, is a short story consisting of seven brief chapters. Despite being written almost three centuries ago, it is a work of science fiction, and remarkably innovative for its time. The story, in a nutshell, could best be described as Gulliver’s Travels in outer space. In this case the traveler is a being from a gargantuan planet in the Sirius star system. Named Micromégas, this creature is of a colossal size proportionate to his home world, being 120,000 feet tall. Upon arriving in our solar system his first stop is the planet Saturn, where he makes the acquaintance of a local scholar of only 6,000 feet in stature. After some conversation on the nature of their two worlds, the two decide to go traveling together. They make a trip to Earth, where they encounter mankind.

Voltaire’s humor is hilarious and thought-provoking throughout, even for the 21st-century reader. Micromégas and his Saturnian companion prove to be quite adept at cultural criticism. The difference in perspective between the three planetary cultures is analogous to the difficulties in foreign relations between the giant empires of Europe and the tiny kingdoms they dominate, or the insensitivity of the wealthy aristocracy to the unwashed masses. Despite their obvious superiorities, these beings are not without their own problems and faults. The Saturnian possesses 72 senses; the Sirian 1,000. Yet, they both have “plenty of time to be bored.” Their life spans are proportionately long, and their worlds are blessed with a corresponding abundance, yet, much like their human counterparts, neither is satisfied with their lot and only wants more. Initially, the two extraterrestrial visitors can’t even perceive the existence of life on earth, and once they do make contact with the earthlings, they doubt that the tiny beings possess any intelligence whatsoever. Through this outsider perspective, Voltaire points out the insignificance and pettiness of much of our earthly affairs. Out of the scientific awakening of the Renaissance arose a realization that mankind is nothing but a speck of dust amid the workings of the universe. This rejection of the anthropocentric view that had persisted for centuries rocked the religious establishment. Voltaire, on the other hand, revels in such iconoclasm.

His enthusiasm and humor is infectious. Micromégas is a thoroughly entertaining read. Like any work from the 18th century, some of the cultural references may be lost on today’s reader. The ending of the story is also weak. Voltaire wraps it up too abruptly. The last few sentences comprise a punchline that’s not equal to the joke that came before. Yet there’s plenty to enjoy in this little story, and its importance as one of the earliest works of science fiction is undeniable. Even those who would never dream of reading any literature of the French Enlightenment should give Micromégas a try. It’s truly in a class by itself.

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