Washington Irving’s vision of an alien invasion, ca. 1809

Recently, while reading a blog post that speculated about mankind’s likelihood of ever meeting alienkind, I was put in mind of a passage written by Washington Irving in his book Knickerbocker’s History of New York, first published in 1809.

It’s a remarkable passage, and one of my favorites. Though Knickerbocker’s History of New York isn’t science-fiction (it’s a dry satire), this short passage must be one of the earliest visions of an invasion of Earth by an alien (but largely not supernatural) force.

Let us suppose, then, that the inhabitants of the moon, by astonishing advancement in science, and by profound insight into that ineffable lunar philosophy, the mere flickerings of which have of late years dazzled the feebled optics, and addled the shallow brains of the good people of our globe—let us suppose, I say, that the inhabitants of the moon, by these means, had arrived at such a command of their energies, such an enviable state of perfectibility, as to control the elements, and navigate the boundless regions of space. Let us suppose a roving crew of these soaring philosophers, in the course of an aerial voyage of discovery among the stars, should chance to alight upon this outlandish planet.

Irving was hardly the first writer to imagine interplanetary journeys. Johannes Kepler and Cyrano de Bergerac, among others, both wrote famous stories (Somnium and L’Autre Monde, respectively) about trips to the moon in the 17th century. And Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752) even sends a visitor from another star system down to Earth.

But Irving seems to operate in a more science-fictional mode, extrapolating as he does from the new technology of lighter than air balloons to predict future modes of travel.

And here I beg my readers will not have the uncharitableness to smile, as is too frequently the fault of volatile readers, when perusing the grave speculations of philosophers. I am far from indulging in any sportive vein at present; nor is the supposition I have been making so wild as many may deem it. It has long been a very serious and anxious question with me, and many a time and oft, in the course of my overwhelming cares and contrivances for the welfare and protection of this my native planet, have I lain awake whole nights debating in my mind whether it were most probable we should first discover and civilize the moon, or the moon discover and civilize our globe. Neither would the prodigy of sailing in the air or cruising among the stars be a whit more astonishing and incomprehensible to us than was the European mystery of navigating floating castles through the world of waters to the simple savages. We have already discovered the art of coasting along the aerial shores of our planet by means of balloons, as the savages had of venturing along their sea-coasts in canoes; and the disparity between the former and the aerial vehicles of the philosophers from the moon might not be greater than that between the bark canoes of the savages and the mighty ships of their discoverers. I might here pursue an endless chain of similar speculations; but as they would be unimportant to my subject, I abandon them to my reader, particularly if he be a philosopher, as matters well worthy of his attentive consideration.

Of course, Irving is writing a satire, so we shouldn’t take much of what he says at face value. The parallel he draws between space invaders and the European colonists who settled the Americas is the real point of this passage. He’s using science-fiction (as countless others will do in the centuries to come) to get his readers to consider a familiar circumstance from a different point of view.

But Irving does something else too. He clearly enjoys the opportunity to imagine fantastic people and their fantastic technology. In particular, I find his vision of weapons that operate through “concentrated sunbeams” to be especially fascinating.

To return, then, to my supposition—let us suppose that the aerial visitants I have mentioned, possessed of vastly superior knowledge to ourselves—that is to say, possessed of superior knowledge in the art of extermination—riding on hippogriffs—defended with impenetrable armor—armed with concentrated sunbeams, and provided with vast engines, to hurl enormous moonstones; in short, let us suppose them, if our vanity will permit the supposition, as superior to us in knowledge, and consequently in power, as the Europeans were to the Indians when they first discovered them. All this is very possible, it is only our self-sufficiency that makes us think otherwise; and I warrant the poor savages, before they had any knowledge of the white men, armed in all the terrors of glittering steel and tremendous gunpowder, were as perfectly convinced that they themselves were the wisest, the most virtuous, powerful, and perfect of created beings, as are at this present moment the lordly inhabitants of old England, the volatile populace of France, or even the self-satisfied citizens of this most enlightened republic.

He goes on at some length with this scenario, imagining the conquering armies of the moon taking the heads of state of Earth back to pay homage to the Man in the Moon. He imagines the lunar explorers addressing the Man in the Moon with their captives thusly:

“Most serene and mighty Potentate, whose dominions extend as far as eye can reach, who rideth on the Great Bear, useth the sun as a looking glass, and maintaineth unrivaled control over tides, madmen, and sea-crabs. We, thy liege subjects, have just returned from a voyage of discovery, in the course of which we have landed and taken possession of that obscure little dirty planet, which thou beholdest rolling at a distance. The five uncouth monsters which we have brought into this august present were once very important chiefs among their fellow-savages, who are a race of beings totally destitute of the common attributes of humanity, and differing in everything from the inhabitants of the moon, inasmuch as they carry their heads upon their shoulders, instead of under their arms—have two eyes instead of one—are utterly destitute of tails, and of a variety of unseemly complexions, particularly of horrible whiteness, instead of pea-green.”

Apart from the gleefully detailed physical differences, the Man in the Moon finds the people of Earth quite lacking in other ways as well. They adhere to shocking customs like taking their own wives and raising their own children, rather than participating in communal families. They cling to their Christian religion and don’t know a single word of the “Lunatic” language. In consequence, the Man in the Moon decides that the people of Earth are quite unfit to own or work their land, and gives it instead by divine right to parties of settlers preparing to leave from the moon.

The whole bit is worth reading. If you want to, you can open the HTML version of Knickerbocker’s History of New York on Project Gutenberg, and search that page for “moon” until you come to the start of the passage I quoted above. It runs until the end of the chapter.

There are lots of things that I find fascinating about this passage — not least of which is that it’s essentially a sarcastic takedown of colonialism written by a white American man (and a direct beneficiary of colonialism) in 1809. That of itself is a good reminder that the past was full of as many disparate opinions as the present is. Even common and widespread opinions were not the only opinions held by people at the time.

But I especially love the description of the moon men as looking substantially different from humans. Nowadays, we take it for granted that the inhabitants of other planets would look different from us, but that wouldn’t necessarily been obvious in 1809.

Although evolution wasn’t entirely unknown in 1809, many naturalists of the time believed that the forms of animals and plants were created according to divine plan. Thus, many early writers who speculated on the inhabitants of other planets simply duplicated the forms that were found on Earth.

For example, Voltaire has this to say about his alien creation in Micromégas (1752):

On one of the planets that orbits the star named Sirius there lived a spirited young man, who I had the honor of meeting on the last voyage he made to our little ant hill. He was called Micromegas, a fitting name for anyone so great. He was eight leagues tall, or 24,000 geometric paces of five feet each.

Certain geometers, always of use to the public, will immediately take up their pens, and will find that since Mr. Micromegas, inhabitant of the country of Sirius, is 24,000 paces tall, which is equivalent to 20,000 feet, and since we citizens of the earth are hardly five feet tall, and our sphere 9,000 leagues around; they will find, I say, that it is absolutely necessary that the sphere that produced him was 21,600,000 times greater in circumference than our little Earth. Nothing in nature is simpler or more orderly. The sovereign states of Germany or Italy, which one can traverse in a half hour, compared to the empires of Turkey, Moscow, or China, are only feeble reflections of the prodigious differences that nature has placed in all beings.

His excellency’s size being as great as I have said, all our sculptors and all our painters will agree without protest that his belt would have been 50,000 feet around, which gives him very good proportions. His nose taking up one third of his attractive face, and his attractive face taking up one seventh of his attractive body, it must be admitted that the nose of the Sirian is 6,333 feet plus a fraction; which is manifest.

As Voltaire says, it is the most natural thing in the world to assume that an inhabitant of Sirius should be no different in proportion than an inhabitant of Earth. In fact, Micromegas is not just roughly the same shape as a man — he even has classical features that painters and sculptors find pleasing.

Likewise, Emanuel Swedenborg describes the people of Mercury in Earths of Our Solar System (1758):

I was desirous of knowing what kind of face and body the men (homines) on the earth Mercury have, and whether they are like the men (homines) on our Earth. There was then exhibited before my eyes a woman exactly resembling those who are on that earth. Her face was beautiful, but smaller than that of the women of our Earth; she was also more slender in body, but of equal height: her head was covered with some linen stuff, arranged without art but still in a becoming manner. A man (vir) also was exhibited. He, too, was more slender in body than the men (viri) of our Earth; he was clothed in a garment of dark blue fitting closely to his body, without folds or protuberances anywhere. Such, I was told, were the personal form and clothing of the men (homines) of that earth. Afterwards there were exhibited some kinds of their oxen and cows, which did not, indeed, differ much from those on our Earth, except that they were smaller, and approximated in some measure to the stag and hind species.

Swedenborg does at least seem to have some question as to whether the Mercurian people might look different from humans, but it soon is apparent that they do not. Later, Swedenborg talks about people from Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and the Moon. Despite great differences in habit and custom (the Jovians have an entirely different way of walking, for instance, and the people of the Moon speak with air from their stomachs instead of their lungs), there are apparently no physical differences in appearance worth mentioning except for some changes in coloration.

I should also note that Earths in Our Solar System was not published as fiction. Swedenborg presented the book as memoirs of experiences he had while communing and conversing with “spirits” that hailed from other planets. Regardless, it’s probably safe to say that Swedenborg drew on common ideas at the time about the other planets for his book.

It’s in this context that I find Irving’s moon men remarkable — with their one eye, their tail, their head carried under their arms, and their pea-green skin. They are different from us in so many ways. By the end of the nineteenth century, H.G. Wells would give us truly alien Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898). But even these creatures — with their oversized heads, their writhing tentacles, and large eyes — are seemingly a vision of what humans themselves might become, rather than something entirely new.

Says Wells, in his novel, amid his descriptions of the Martians:

It is worthy of remark that a certain speculative writer of quasi-scientific repute, writing long before the Martian invasion, did forecast for man a final structure not unlike the actual Martian condition. His prophecy, I remember, appeared in November or December, 1893, in a long-defunct publication, the Pall Mall Budget, and I recall a caricature of it in a pre-Martian periodical called Punch. He pointed out–writing in a foolish, facetious tone–that the perfection of mechanical appliances must ultimately supersede limbs; the perfection of chemical devices, digestion; that such organs as hair, external nose, teeth, ears, and chin were no longer essential parts of the human being, and that the tendency of natural selection would lie in the direction of their steady diminution through the coming ages. The brain alone remained a cardinal necessity. Only one other part of the body had a strong case for survival, and that was the hand, “teacher and agent of the brain.” While the rest of the body dwindled, the hands would grow larger.

There is many a true word written in jest, and here in the Martians we have beyond dispute the actual accomplishment of such a suppression of the animal side of the organism by the intelligence. To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body. Without the body the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being.

Another popular writer of the time, George Griffiths, posits Martians that aren’t quite so far down the evolutionary path in his novel A Honeymoon in Space (1901). Here, two characters discuss an approaching Martian:

“Oh, don’t bother about them!” she said. “Look; there’s some one who seems to want to communicate with us. Why, they’re all bald! They haven’t got a hair among them—and what a size their heads are!”

“That’s brains—too much brains, in fact. These people have lived too long. I daresay they’ve ceased to be animals—civilised themselves out of everything in the way of passions and emotions, and are just purely intellectual beings, with as much human nature about them as Russian diplomacy or those things we saw at the bottom of the Newton Crater. I don’t like the look of them.”

Give these Martians a few more millenniums and they might resemble Wells’s creations. On the other hand, the people of the moon have, in Griffith’s novel, “devolved” into something resembling apes again:

“Look!” said Zaidie, clasping his arm, “is that a gorilla, or—no, it can’t be a man.”

The light was turned full upon the object. If it had been covered with hair it might have passed for some strange type of the ape tribe, but its skin was smooth and of a livid grey. Its lower limbs were evidently more powerful than its upper; its chest was enormously developed, but the stomach was small. The head was big and round and smooth. As they came nearer they saw that in place of fingernails it had long white feelers which it kept extended and constantly waving about as it groped its way towards the water. As the intense light flashed full on it, it turned its head towards them. It had a nose and a mouth—the nose, long and thick, with huge mobile nostrils; the mouth forming an angle something like a fish’s lips. Teeth there seemed none. At either side of the upper part of the nose there were two little sunken holes—in which this thing’s ancestors of countless thousands of years ago had once had eyes.

It would be interesting to keep digging up examples of aliens from the 1800s and early 1900s, but I’ll stop here. Suffice to say that Irving’s aliens are somewhat unusual in that they are arbitrarily so different from humans. Indeed, there appears to be no reason why Irving should require his moon men to look different in any way except complexion. But he did — and I find that endlessly fascinating.

Did people in 1809 commonly believe that aliens would look different? Or was Irving simply free-associating to amp up the absurdity of his satire? Or referring to long-ago sailors’ tales of strange lands with monstrous inhabitants?

On the other hand, Irving’s aliens are still based on a more-or-less human body plan, with a few parts switched around. If anybody had the time and inclination, it would be fascinating survey the literature of the past and chart how the appearances of aliens change over time. Who was the first to imagine aliens would be substantially different in any way from humans? Who was the first to suggest they would resemble humans at a different evolutionary stage, or humans evolved to meet different environmental conditions? And who was the first to give aliens a truly alien appearance not based on human appearance at all?


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