Cyrano de Bergeracs novel, LAutre Monde ou les états et empires de la lune, is one of the most frequently referenced examples of early science fiction. It is also practically unknown to the general public, and no English version has existed on the Internet. Until now.
The history of the novel itself is tragic. It was already being talked about five years before Cyranos death in 1655. In Cyranos last days he was cared for by a long-time friend, Henry Le Bret. Though a friend, Le Bret was also a pious curate, and he could not bring himself to publish LAutre Monde as Cyrano had written it. Instead, Le Bret expurgated everything he found politically and philosophically incorrect — what we would find most interesting — and retitled the novel as a comic story. LAutre Monde is the title Cyrano preferred. Fortunately, two original manuscripts survived: a German translation of the one in Munich was published in Dresden in 1910; a French edition of the Paris manuscript followed in 1921. Sadly, Cyranos sequel, Les États et empires du soleil, did not survive intact.
As a libertin (free-thinker), Cyrano was among the first and foremost of the 17th-century modernes: a vocal partisan of intellectual freedom at a time when all but the boldest found it safer to use many words to say little, and an exponent of progress in a conservative age.
He takes on almost everything: the church, pedants, law, the army, family life, sexuality and Aristotelian philosophers. His ideas place his novel in the genre of utopias and dystopias along with Rabelais abbey of Thélème in Gargantua, Montaignes essay On Cannibals, Sir Thomas Moores Utopia, and many others. The novel can be read in many different ways, but Cyrano’s inventions and imaginary travels alone qualify the story as an early classic of science fiction.
Cyrano was to have many philosophical friends in the century to come. Among the most illustrious: Fontenelle (Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds), Montesquieu (Persian Letters), Voltaire (Candide, “Micromégas”), Diderot (Encyclopedia), not to mention Swift and his Gullivers Travels.
Misfortune denied Cyrano to his later contemporaries and successors. At least today he shows us that the current of liberal thought that stretches from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment was very much alive even in the age of Louis XIVs absolute monarchy.
And yes, 242 years after Cyranos death, Edmond Rostand was right to depict him as having a big nose.
1 : Have Cardanos visitors left an invitation?
The Moon was full and the sky was clear. It was 9 oclock in the evening, and four friends and I were returning from a house near Paris. The saffron-colored ball in the sky made us tarry on the way and set us to thinking. Staring up at this great orb, one of us took it for a window in Heaven through which we could see the glory of the blessed. Another protested that it was the stand on which Diana laid out Apollos wide falling collars. Yet another exclaimed that it might be the Sun itself, which had removed its radiance for the night and was watching through a peep-hole to see what people were doing when he was no longer around.
And I, I replied, would like to join your fanciful musings. But I wont limit myself to the pointed images that you use to tickle time and make it go faster. I think the Moon is a world like this one, and the Earth is its moon.
My friends greeted this with a burst of laughter. And maybe, I told them, someone on the Moon is even now making fun of someone else who says that our globe is a world. I told them that Pythagoras, Epicurus, Democritus and, in our time, Copernicus and Kepler had been of the same opinion, but it was no use; they just hooted all the more.
My mood was strengthened by contradiction, and my thought engrossed me so much that all the rest of the way home I was bursting with ideas about the Moon but could not quite give birth to them. I supported my comical belief with such serious arguments that I almost convinced myself of it.
But listen, my reader, to the miracle or accident that Providence or fortune employed to confirm it. I had returned home and gone into my bedroom to relax from my walk. I had scarcely entered the room when I saw on my table an open book I had not put there. It was the works of Cardano. I did not intend to read it, but my gaze fell as though compelled on a story told by that philosopher. He writes that he was studying one night by candlelight when he saw two tall old men come in through the closed doors of his room. He asked them many questions, and they finally told him they were from the Moon; whereupon they disappeared.
I was so surprised, both by the book that had put itself on my table and by the page it was open to, that I took this chain of events for an inspiration from God, who was urging me to tell people that the Moon is a world.
Some preliminary notesThis translation is intended to make Cyranos novel, which is more than 350 years old now, Internet-accessible to the general public in modern English. It has a lot of notes and brief commentaries, which are intended to make the novel accessible and enjoyable.
The novel does not contain chapters or other divisions. I have divided the text into episodes for convenience. The titles are added for ease of reference. Paragraphing is occasionally added at likely points where it does not occur in the original. Again, the intent is to make the text easier to read.
A sentence in 17th-century French prose of the pre-classical era is not necessarily the same as one in 21st-century English: it is sometimes more like a sentence in the formal Italian prose of today; that is, something more akin to a paragraph. Cyrano often uses run-on sentences that are supposed to give the impression of a logical linking of ideas; attempting to imitate the original sentence structure in modern English would have a less felicitous effect.