Blazing trails

Fiction, especially science fiction, requires vision and imagination. Familiar themes of the modern SciFi, of travel to strange new worlds with outlandish peoples, are found in the work of Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle, The Blazing World. It has been called the first work of science fiction, but while it has science and fiction, it is not science fiction.

The nature and origin of science fiction is a whole article. Margaret Cavendish deserves her own.

Many an educated lady read well, but Margaret, unusually, wrote also. She wrote a number of volumes on sciences and philosophy. The work by which she has become best known, The Blazing World, was minor in comparison and written as an amusement and a companion to her philosophical work: it is dedicated to other ladies who have read her philosophical work.

A slip of a girl when she married Thomas Cavendish, she knew Thomas Hobbes well – her brother-in-law was his patron and they were all with King Charles’s court in exile in Paris together. She read and became familiar with the ancient and modern philosophers, in particular Hobbes, though his picture of mankind was perhaps too uncomfortable in its reality.

The book is a fantasy, travelling to another world. There are strange creatures there and a strange mode of life, and a place of peace and paradise in comparison to our own war-torn world. The book is a thought-experiment. Most of the book concerns not adventures as one would expect in a science fiction novel, but dialogues and reflections on theories and discoveries in science. Overall, it poses the question “If a world had no previous experience of philosophy or science, and schools were erected to answer scientific questions, how would they answer without drawing on the understanding or the baggage of the ages?”

It is an odd world, certainly; calmer and without the torments as ours. Here the bird-men can fly up and dismantle a star in order that the Empress can light her temple and her headdress with star stones.

One new world is not enough: the Empress sets out to create worlds in her mind, and this is where the rival schools of philosophy play, the ideas of Descartes and Hobbes amongst them:

she endeavoured to make a World according to Des Cartes Opinion; but when she had made the Æthereal Globules, and set them a moving by a strong and lively imagination, her mind became so dizzie with their extraordinary swift turning round, that it almost put her into a swoon; for her thoughts, but their constant tottering, did so stagger, as if they had all been drunk: wherefore she dissolved that World, and began to make another, according to Hobbs’s Opinion; but when all the parts of this Imaginary World came to press and drive each other, they seemed like a company of Wolves that worry sheep, or like so many Dogs that hunt after Hares; and when she found a re-action equal to those pressures, her mind was so squeezed together, that her thoughts could neither move forward nor backward, which caused such an horrible pain in her head, that although she had dissolved that World, yet she could not, without much difficulty, settle her mind, and free it from that pain which those pressures and reactions had caused in it.

The world constructed by the opinions of Hobbes sounds just like our own, if not like the ordered society of Bolsover Castle.

Because of the fantasy and other-world element, the book has been looked at as a as a science fiction book, but it is not. Comparison is made with a satirical fantasy work by Lucian in the 2nd century : not only was Margaret Cavendish familiar with Lucian but refers to him. At the same time she takes a swipe at ideas from the fevered brain of Jan Baptist van Helmont, from which in fact the name of the book ultimately comes.

Lucian’s World of Lights, had been for some time in a snuff, but of late years one Helmont had got it, who since he was Emperour of it, had so strengthened the Immortal parts thereof with mortal out-works, as it was for the present impregnable.

Lucian again may need another article, and I would not want to lessen the lamp of Margaret Cavendish by comparison.

It has science and it has fiction, but The Blazing World is not science fiction. It is a philosophical game and a love-letter to her husband, and that is a fine think indeed.

See also


Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short