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Fantastic Voyages

Entry updated 9 February 2022. Tagged: Theme.

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The fantastic voyage is one of the oldest literary forms, the first paradigm instances of its use being the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, from the third millennium BCE, and Homer's Odyssey (circa sixth century BCE); it remains one of the basic frameworks for the casting of literary fantasies. Of the prose forms extant before the development of the form of nonfantastic prose fiction that became identified as the novel in the eighteenth century, the fantastic voyage is the most important in the ancestry of sf (see Proto SF). Among others, Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1634), Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (bound in with Sylva Sylvarum 1626; 1627 chap), Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1623), Cyrano de Bergerac's Other Worlds (1657-1662), Denis Vairasse D'Alais's History of the Sevarites or Sevarambi (1675-1679) and Miles Wilson's The History of Israel Jobson, the Wandering Jew (1757 chap) all take this form.

The fantastic voyage continued to dominate speculative fiction and the Scientific Romance long after the rise of the novel, whose basic pretence was the painstaking imitation of experience (what the critic Ian Watt calls "formal realism"). It is partly because of this formal separation of speculative literature from the development of nineteenth-century social literature that there remains something of a gulf between speculative fiction and the literary Mainstream today. Among the important fantastic voyages which may be classified as Proto SF are: The Man in the Moone (1638) by Francis Godwin, Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735) by Jonathan Swift, Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum (1741 in Latin; exp 1745; trans as A Journey to the World Under-Ground 1742) by Ludvig Holberg, A Short Account of a Remarkable Aerial Voyage and Discovery of a New Planet (1813) by Willem Bilderdijk, Symzonia (1820) by Adam Seaborn and A Voyage to the Moon (1827) by Joseph Atterley, The first sf story cast in the form of a novel – whose presumptions it both honours and "betrays" – was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), but there were very few comparable works written in the succeeding century. The bulk of Jules Verne's imaginative work – conspicuously Voyage au centre de la terre (1863; exp 1867; trans as Journey to the Centre of the Earth 1872) and Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870; trans as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea 1872) – falls in the category of voyages imaginaires. Across the Zodiac (1880 2vols) by Percy Greg is a late example of a voyage lacking much novelistic texture. These voyages took their heroes over the Earth's surface, into worlds Underground and Under the Sea, to the Moon and to other planets, often exposing themselves to successive venues, usually connected physically into some form of Archipelago.

Important new scope for the fantastic voyage was revealed in the last few years of the nineteenth century by H G Wells in The Time Machine (1895), which opened up the limitless vistas of the future to planned tourism, and by Robert W Cole in The Struggle for Empire (1900), the first major interstellar adventure story. These new imaginative territories were to prove immensely significant for twentieth-century imaginative literature. The fantastic voyage has, of course, also remained central within the literature of the supernatural imagination, much of which was also ill adapted to the form of the novel. As supernatural fantasy has been influenced and infiltrated by the scientific imagination it has been the fantastic voyage, far more than any other narrative form, that has provided a suitable medium for "hybrid" works; thus a considerable number of twentieth-century fantastic voyages are difficult to classify by means of the standard genre borderlines (see Equipoise). In this no-man's-land within the territories of imaginative literature exist virtually all the works of writers such as William Hope Hodgson, Edgar Rice Burroughs and A Merritt, and various individual novels of note: Frigyes Karinthy's Gulliverian Voyage to Faremido and Capillaria (1916 and 1922; trans omni 1966), David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), Ruthven Todd's The Lost Traveller (1943), the title story of John Cowper Powys's Up and Out (coll 1957), The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster (1929-2021) and Michel Bernanos's The Other Side of the Mountain (1967; trans 1968).

When Hugo Gernsback first demarcated sf as a genre in the 1920s he co-opted Verne, Wells and Merritt, and also Ray Cummings, author of fantastic voyages into the atomic microcosm (see Great and Small). It was not long before E E "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946) took Pulp-magazine sf, at Faster-than-Light speeds, into the greater Universe beyond the limits of the solar system. Other milieux were quickly introduced. Edmond Hamilton's "Locked Worlds" (Spring 1929 Amazing Stories Quarterly) adapted the notion of Parallel Worlds from supernatural fantasy, and the first pulp sf voyages into a future replete with Alternate Worlds were undertaken in Jack Williamson's The Legion of Time (May-July 1938 Astounding; 1952). A significant refinement in the interstellar fantastic voyage, the Generation Starship, was introduced a few years later, most significantly in Robert A Heinlein's "Universe" (May 1941 Astounding).

Voyages into the Inner Spaces of the human mind had also long been commonplace in supernatural fantasy, but a science-fictional jargon of support for such adventures was slow in arriving. Notable early examples are "Dreams are Sacred" (September 1948 Astounding) by Peter Phillips (see Dream Hacking) and "The Mental Assassins" (May 1950 Fantastic Adventures) by Gregg Conrad (Rog Phillips).

Most of these milieux were reachable only by means of literary devices whose practicability was highly dubious if not flatly impossible. Space travel was the one hypothetical variant of the fantastic voyage into which it was possible to introduce rigorous attempts at realism (see Spaceships), although the technologies involved have inevitably became dated with the passage of time. Notable attempts from various periods include Verne's De la terre à la lune (1865) and Autour de la lune (1870), Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's Beyond the Planet Earth (1920; trans 1960), Laurence Manning's "The Voyage of the Asteroid" (Summer 1932 Wonder Stories Quarterly) and Arthur C Clarke's Prelude to Space (1951). The purely facilitative character of devices like Time Machines and interdimensional portals should not, however, be deemed to disqualify them as means to be deployed in serious speculative fictions; indeed, they are vitally necessary.

The opening up of these vast imaginary territories gave sf writers limitless scope for invention. There is no speculation – whether physical, biological, social or metaphysical – that cannot somehow be made incarnate and given a space of its own within the conventions of sf. Voyages into fluid worlds where anything and everything may happen – where the characters become helpless victims of chaos or godlike creators – may be envisaged, as in M K Joseph's The Hole in the Zero (1967), as may voyages into mathematical abstraction like "The Mathenauts" (July 1964 If) by Norman Kagan. Sf has drawn up a framework of conventions and a vocabulary of literary devices which not only makes such adventures conceivable but renders them relatively comfortable. It is a potential that sf writers have, for various reasons, been greatly inhibited from exploiting to the full, but they have – whatever their failings – established significant signposts within all these hypothetical realms.

At its simplest the fantastic voyage is a set of episodes whose function is simply to present a series of dramatic encounters, but it is rare to find the form used with no higher ambition than to offer a pleasant distraction. Many voyages which pretend to be doing that – like Lewis Carroll's Alice books – actually present worlds whose bizarre aspects reflect the real world ironically and subversively; even more conspicuously, the quest voyage in The Hunting of the Snark (1876 chap) climaxes in telling nullity. The same is true even of many relatively crude pulp sf stories like Francis Stevens's The Heads of Cerberus (15 August-15 October 1919 Thrill Book; 1952), Garret Smith's Between Worlds (11 October-8 November 1919 Argosy Weekly; 1929), John Taine's The Time Stream (December 1931-March 1932 Wonder Stories; 1946) and Stanton A Coblentz's Hidden World (March-May 1935 Wonder Stories as "In Caverns Below"; 1957), and in such unconvincing films as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Fantastic Voyage (1966). In very many cases the fantastic voyage has allegorical implications, which are most obvious when the voyage is also a quest, as it very often is in modern genre fantasy, which tends to follow the paradigm of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (3 vols 1954-1955). The quest may be for a person, an object or a place, but the movement through a hypothetical landscape is usually parallelled by a growth towards some kind of maturity or acceptance in the protagonist's mind. The growth is towards self-knowledge or Conceptual Breakthrough in the psychologically oriented variants which lie within or close to the borders of sf; examples include Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson, Non-Stop (1956 Science Fantasy #17; exp 1958; cut vt Starship 1959) by Brian W Aldiss, The Drowned World (January 1962 Science Fiction Adventures; exp 1962) by J G Ballard and Inverted World (1974) by Christopher Priest. In stories of this kind the relationship between the environment of the story and the inner space of the protagonists' psyche is often complex and subtle; in the work of Philip K Dick, from Eye in the Sky (1957) to A Scanner Darkly (1977), characters are continually forced to undertake nightmarish journeys into milieux where the distinction between real and unreal is hopelessly blurred and their personal inadequacies are painfully exposed.

Any list of notable fantastic voyages in modern sf is necessarily highly selective, but some of the most important and interesting which have appeared since 1926 are as follows: The World Below (1929) by S Fowler Wright, Out of the Silent Planet (1938) by C S Lewis, The Voyage of the Space Beagle (stories July 1939-August 1943 Astounding, May 1950 Other Worlds; fixup 1950; vt Mission: Interplanetary 1952) by A E van Vogt, Big Planet (September 1952 Startling; 1957) by Jack Vance, "Surface Tension" (August 1952 Galaxy) by James Blish, Mission of Gravity (April-July 1953 Astounding; cut 1954; text restored with additions and one added story, as coll 1978) by Hal Clement, The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956) by Arthur C Clarke, The Einstein Intersection (1967) and Nova (1968) by Samuel R Delany, Picnic on Paradise (1968) by Joanna Russ, Space Chantey (1968 dos) by R A Lafferty, Tau Zero (June-August 1967 Galaxy as "To Outlive Eternity"; exp 1970) by Poul Anderson, Downward to the Earth (1970) and Son of Man (1971) by Robert Silverberg, Ringworld (1970) by Larry Niven, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (1972; vt The War of Dreams 1974) by Angela Carter, Hiero's Journey (1973) by Sterling E Lanier, Orbitsville (1975) by Bob Shaw, Galaxies (1975) by Barry N Malzberg, The Balloonist (1976) by MacDonald Harris, Galatea (1978) by Philip Pullman, Engine Summer (1979) by John Crowley, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) by Douglas Adams, The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) by Gene Wolfe, The Void Captain's Tale (1983) and Child of Fortune (1985) by Norman Spinrad, The Memory of Whiteness (1985) by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Travails of Jane Saint (1986) Josephine Saxton, Vacuum Flowers (1987) by Michael Swanwick, Hyperion (1989) by Dan Simmons, the Book of the Short Sun (1999-2001 3vols) by Gene Wolfe, The Ceres Storm (2000) by David Herter, the Great Ship sequence (2000-2014) by Robert Reed, the Golden Age sequence (2002-2004) by John C Wright, Brain Theft (2010) by Alexander Jablokov, the Long Earth sequence (2012-2015) by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett, and Lockstep (2014) by Karl Schroeder. [BS]

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