. . . Peter Wilkins

. . .

The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, A Cornish Man by Robert Paltock, 1751

Speaking generically

When he encounters an intelligent alien species, it's strictly from Star Trek, a human in prosthetic makeup and a stretch polyester pantsuit:

... she felt to my Touch in the oddest Manner imaginable: for while in one respect it was as though she had been cased in Whalebone, it was at the same Time as soft and warm, as if she had been naked. [...] When I saw her in that Attitude, her Grace and Motion perfectly charmed me, and her Shape was incomparable; but the Strangeness of her Dress put me to my Trumps, to conceive either what it was, or how it was put on.

But overcoming language and cultural differences takes a satisfyingly extended and motivated effort, with satisfyingly imperfect results:

I asked her twice or thrice more to name the Country to me; but not all the Art we could use, her's in dictating, and mine in endeavouring to pronounce it, would render me Conqueror of that poor Monosyllable, (for as such it sounded from her sweet Lips:) So I relinquished the Name to her; telling her, whenever she had any more Occasion to mention the Place, I desired it might be under the Stile of Doorpt Swangeanti; which she promised; but wondered, as she could speak the other so glibly, as she called it, I could not do so too.

And only thereafter do the pair go on to overcome their biological differences, in a revelation scene almost as punchy as Sturgeons's best.

Nothing written a century and a half prior to the establishment of a publishing genre can properly be called an example of the genre. But neither can I experience Robert Paltock's solitary work as anything but science fiction. What would I gain by denying the book the reading protocol most flattering to it?

A thought experiment: Let's publish a middle-of-the-genre science fiction story in 1750. How might we expect the critical establishment to react?

With bewilderment or dismissal, I'd guess. There was nascent realism, and there was satirical fantasy, and, this being neither, this would be a fiasco. You know, pretty much the same arguments the critical establishment used two hundred years later:

Here is a very strange performance indeed. It seems to be the illegitimate offspring of no very natural conjunction betwixt Gulliver's travels and Robinson Crusoe; but much inferior to the meaner of these two performances, either as to entertainment or utility. It has all that is impossible in the one, or improbable in the other, without the wit and spirit of the first, or the just strokes of nature and useful lessons of morality of the second. There are likewise many things in this work which appear to be derived from hints drawn from the Arabian nights entertainment. However, if the invention of wings for mankind to fly with, is a sufficient amends for all the dulness and unmeaning extravagancies of this author, we are willing to allow that his book has some merit; and that he deserves encouragement at least as an able mechanic, if not as a good writer.
- Monthly Review, 1750

And when our hypothesized monster began to be appreciated, we might predict a recognizably science-fictional sort of appreciation:

It appeals to the sense of wonder and curiosity which characterized the romantic movement.
- Rowland E. Prothero, 1927

I confess the second half of the novel, in which our hero modernizes his new culture-in-law, loses skiffy points. The contemporary reader may draw bittersweet quaintness from the ease with which metal-based technology, controlled trade, the abolition of slavery, deism, literacy, and a liberal empire are embraced by the populace, but any portent now is only of Heinlein's decadence. Still, even here there are a few hints of doubt:

I found by him, that all the Riches they possessed were only Food and Slaves; and, as I found afterwards when amongst them, they know the want of nothing else: But, I am afraid, I have put them upon another way of thinking, tho' I aimed at what we call civiziling of them.

And a few fore-minders of Stanley G. Weinbaum:

Tho' no body came near me yet, I did not care to be too inquisitive all at once, but I longed to know what they burnt in the Globes, which gave so steady a Light, and yet seemed to be inclosed quite round, Top and Sides, without any Vent-hole for the Smoak to evaporate. Surely, thinks I, they are a dullish Glass, for they hung almost above my Touch, and must be exceeding hot with the Fire so inclosed, and have some small Vent-hole, tho' I can't see it. Then standing on tip-toe to feel, it struck quite cold to my Finger; but I could only reach to touch that, or any of the rest, being all of one Height.

* * *

Tommy, says I, what sort of Fire do they keep in these Globes? and what are they made of? Daddy, says he, yonder is the Man shifting them, you may go and see. Being very curious to see how he did it, I went to him; as I came near him, he seemed to have something all Fire on his Arm. What has the Man got there, says I ? Only Sweecoes, says Tommy. By this time I came up to him; Friend, says I, what are you about? Shifting the Sweecoes, Sir, says he, to feed them. What Oil do you feed with, says I? Oil! says he, they won't eat Oil; that would kill them all. Why, says I, my Lamp is fed with Oil. Tommy could scarce forbear laughing himself; but for fear the Servant should do so too, pulled me by the Sleeve, and desired me to say no more. So turning away with him; Daddy, says he, it is not Oil that gives this Light, but Sweecoes, a living Creature; he has got his Basket full, and is taking the old ones out to feed them, and putting new ones in; they shift them every half Day, and feed them. What, says I, are all those infinite Number of Globes I see living Creatures ? No, says he, the Globes are only the transparent Shell of a Bot, like our Calibashes, the Light comes from the Sweecoe within. Has that Man, says I, got any of them? Yes, says he, you may see them; the King, and the Colambs, and indeed every Man of Note has a Place to breed and feed them in. Pray let us go see them, says I, for that is a Curiosity indeed.


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