Micromegas. Voltaire, 1752. Short story.
“But there was, unfortunately, a little animalcule in a square hat who interrupted all the other animalcule philosophers. He said that he knew the secret: that everything would be found in the Summa of Saint Thomas. He looked the two celestial inhabitants up and down. He argued that their people, their worlds, their suns, their stars, had all been made uniquely for mankind. At this speech, our two voyagers nearly fell over with that inextinguishable laughter which, according to Homer, is shared with the gods. Their shoulders and their stomachs heaved up and down, and in these convulsions the vessel that the Sirian had on his nail fell into one of the Saturnian’s trouser pockets.”
Background of Micromegas
This one is the first. It’s the first short story about aliens, the first short story questioning the position of humans in the universe relative to extra-terrestrials, and the first to suggest that aliens might be our equals, even our superiors. It’s also, being 260 years old, one of the first science fiction texts out there.
This is aliens-come-to-earth, sci-fi Patient Zero right here, and it certainly didn’t keep its ideas to itself.
Since it’s one of the founding science fiction works, you can see quite a few quintessential elements throughout it: aliens think a bit differently than we do (though anthropomorphism is a bit rampant), Voltaire uses the aliens to make a point about human civilization, and it raises questions about why we matter, philosophy in general, and what else is out there.
Plus, it’s Voltaire. He unashamedly pokes at war, religion, romance, and arrogance, and has quite a bit of fun doing so.
Premise of Micromegas
The story begins with the introduction of Micromegas, a 120,000 feet tall alien from some unnamed planet around the star Sirius, and a much shorter (6,000 feet tall) and less sensorially advanced (at 72 senses, as opposed to Micromegas’s almost 1,000 senses) Saturnian. They come to Earth and, due to their rather unimaginably huge size compared to our typical height, at first believe the planet is uninhabited.
Soon, however, they see a whale and believe it to the top, if not only, form of life on Earth. But then they come across a boat of explorers in the Baltic Sea and spend a while discussing philosophical and scientific differences with the humans.
Voltaire being Voltaire, he primarily focuses on the stupidity of war. He prefaces it by wowing the aliens with our practical science, which wasn’t too shabby in the 18th century, but then turns to our penchant for fighting and the dozens of conflicting philosophies about meaningful existence. This contrast confuses the aliens quite a bit – they know we’re intelligent but can’t figure out why we’re also so stupid – and then leave, presumably to continue exploring the universe.
The story is short (half an hour, tops), to the point, and spotted with quite a few digs at established authorities. It also uses a few conventions that writers today can’t, like unabashed anthropomorphism, unexplained alien powers, and humans rationally accepting the existence of aliens and talking politics with them while being trapped on a fingernail at least 60,000 feet above the ground, but it’s the first alien, fictional anything: we’ve got to give a little leeway.
Who Should Read This Story?
Everyone. Seriously. Not only is Micromegas ground-breaking alien fiction and a short glance into the 18th century and Voltaire’s philosophy, it’s free. More specifically, I suppose, I’d recommend this short story to anyone interested in the intersection of extra-terrestrials and philosophy, as well as anyone looking for Voltairian political snark.
Final Verdict on Micromegas
While Micromegas probably isn’t the kind of short story you’d want to curl up with and reread on a rainy after noon, it’s definitely worth your time. I really like the implications Voltaire raises, as well as the opportunity to examine them without a war-torn or potentially explosive backdrop. There are also quite a few good one-liners about whales, hats, and self-importance.
The short story is free (and in English) courtesy of ReadBookOnline.com. Also, LibraVox has a free recording of it alongside of a few other science fiction short stories.