“This is the beginning of the conte philosophique—not a story with a thesis to demonstrate, but one in which the ideas appear and disappear and tease one another in turn, for the pleasure of one who has enough familiarity with them to be playful with them even when he takes them seriously.” Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature.
Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchausen, having submitted affidavits attesting to his veracity in the absence of no less august a person than the Lord Mayor of London and confirmed by Mssrs. Sinbad, Gulliver and Aladdin, recounted with vigor his extraordinary adventures. These include, but are not limited to, outwitting a hungry lion and forty-foot crocodile in Ceylon (where cucumber-bearing trees play in the breeze), travelling by beanstalk to the moon, mending a horse bisected by a portcullis, and treated an elephant pretty roughly with its own trunk.
When it comes to not actually travelling somewhere, famed Parisian dramatist, swordsman and Hector Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac easily eclipsed Marco Polo (who merely might not have gone to China) by visiting to the moon and if that were not enough to impress, he also took vacation on the sun. And Quebec. A pity that a man so full of lighter-than-air travel and fantastic zeal should have met his end here on Earth, by way of a demonstration of gravity: namely a large piece of wood dropped on his head. (I admit, I conflate truth and fiction, here, but only with a very sound reason: it’s more fun.)
Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump better known to the English-speaking world as Pippi Longstocking, whose father is a pirate king of cannibals, had the strength of ten policemen. “She could have lifted a whole horse if she had wanted to,” we are told. “And there were times when she did want to.” She could walk long distances on her hands, as she says is the norm in India, and is conversant in the finer points of sword fighting and preventing baldness by putting eggs in your hair. What’s more, she offers young women a much-needed alternative to the sort of heroine who, say, spends her day singing to birdies and hoping some handsome prince will give her life some meaning.
These and many others—some real, some not, some real and then fictionalized, some comical, some serious, some comical while trying to be serious—bring the reader surreal adventure, curiosity and enthusiasm without the undue hindrance of facts. It’s a club that includes such shorter named folks as Candide and Raoul Duke, Xuanzang and Alice Liddell. And, of course, there is the aforementioned Lemuel Gulliver, who was big in a small place and small in a big place and went to places where horses ruled and cities floated and stuff like that, there. Neils Klim explored a subterranean world inhabited by sentient monkeys and bureaucratic, sexually egalitarian, trees.
Do these fantastical narratives qualify as a branch of science fiction or fantasy, or neither? Are they a genre of their own? Or are they a storytelling method that spans genres (a phrase that make me think of The Mighty Boosh—with “genre spanner” Howard Moon—which might qualify as modern fantastic voyage). Magical, frequently, realistic seldom, scientific occasionally and mostly fictional; it’s a tough category to pin down.
De Bergerac is often cited as one of the first science fiction authors, and Kepler’s Somnium inspired Voyages To the Moon and the Sun. The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen cannot, I think, be considered science fiction, but rather a fantastical farce. Gulliver’s Travels and many of the others are social satire first and fantasy second, but as it turns out, the fantasy aspect is ultimately as memorable or more so than the satire.
And since I mentioned science fictional firsts, I’d like to nominate playwright, journalist and amateur philosopher Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle as the first person to chronicle the use of scientific speculation as a means to make time with nerdy girls. Purists may take offence, but I say his Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds constitutes the earliest example of the nerdflirt. While discussing such sexy topics as the interaction of cosmic forces and the possibility of life on other planets, he induced such a swoon in his hostess, the Marquise, that she exclaimed, “Finish driving me to madness—I can’t control myself anymore; I no longer know how to hold out against philosophy. Let the world talk, while we abandon ourselves to vortices.” Aww, yeah. Ladies Love Cool Bernard.
Back to the matter at hand; what has become of the Baron? You’ll notice that most of the works I’ve mentioned are pretty old. I fear sometimes that such fantastic voyagers are a dying breed, with fewer and fewer characters applying to the superhuman goofball travelers club every year. I suppose that’s to be expected. Once upon a time, it seemed perfectly plausible for Pliny the Elder to say that Albanians could see in the dark and that in India some people have long, hairy tails. Who in Rome was going to say otherwise? But terra incognita is shrinking by the second and you won’t find the legend “here be dragons” anywhere in Google Earth.
So where, then, does a guy like me turn when he needs a ride on a cannonball? If I want to turn a tiger inside out and give the skin to a mermaid in exchange for cheese, am I simply out of luck? Is the literature of the past my only recourse? If so, I won’t complain too much because that’s a perfectly worthwhile avenue to visit and revisit. But where, if anywhere, are the new Klims and Pippis and Poppins and such?
I await your suggestions.
When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.