William Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.
Frank Borman: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled. (joking)
Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim?
Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
James Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!
—The crew of the Apollo 8 mission orbiting the moon, December 24, 1968
360 years before Apollo 8, and the landing of the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon the following July, Johannes Kepler knew it was bound to happen. Human beings would visit the moon.
Discussing the effect of Earth on the lunar tides, in one of the voluminous footnotes to his science-fiction story “The Dream” (Somnium), Kepler concluded: “Let us believe this for the time being until some explorer goes into the matter in person.” He couldn’t have guessed that these latter-day “explorers” would find no water on the moon. Or that they would show the rest of us, not just tell us as Kepler tried to do, what the Earth looks like as seen from there.
For all its mistaken conjectures, Kepler’s “Dream”–first published in 1634, after Kepler’s death, but written some 25 years earlier–is an extraordinary tour de force. A rigorously scientific fantasy of what the universe would look like to creatures for whom “Levania” (“moon” in Hebrew) is the fixed center of that universe, Earth and sun and stars the lights that might have been fastened in their sky by a benevolent Deity.
The “Levanians” don’t call our planet “Earth.” Their name for it is “Volva,” because unlike their world as viewed from ours, it seems to turn (revolve) on its axis. Or that would be their name for it if they knew Latin; but conditions being what they are on Levania, it’s unlikely any of them will have the leisure to master a difficult ancient language. We’ll come back to that.
“But the most beautiful of all the sights on Levania is the view of its Volva. This they enjoy to make up for our moon, of which they and likewise the Privolvans are completely deprived. From the perennial presence of this Volva this region is termed the Subvolvan, just as from the absence of Volva the other region is called the Privolvan, because they are deprived [emphasis on priv] of the sight of Volva.”
Makes sense: Levania is divided into two hemispheres. Not northern and southern, but “Subvolva,” that half of Levania that’s always “under” the Earth, and “Privolva,” that half that never faces it. And is grimmer and darker on that account.
“To us who inhabit the earth, our moon, when it is full and rising and climbing above distant houses, seems equal to the rim of a keg; when it mounts to mid-heaven, it hardly matches the width of the human face. But to the Subvolvans, their Volva in mid-heaven (a position it occupies for those who live in the center or navel of this hemisphere) looks a little less than four times longer in diameter than our moon does to us. Hence, if the disks are compared, their Volva is fifteen times larger than our moon. However, to those for whom Volva always clings to the horizon, it presents the appearance of a mountain on fire far away. …
“So far as its upper, northern part is concerned, Volva in general seems to have two halves. One of them is darker and covered with almost continuous spots. The other is a little lighter, being interpenetrated by a bright belt which lies to the north and serves to distinguish the two halves. In the darker half the shape of the spot is hard to describe. Yet on the eastern side it looks like the front of the human head cut off at the shoulders and leaning forward to kiss a young girl in a long dress, who stretches her hand back to attract a leaping cat.”
The “front of the human head,” Kepler explains in his notes, is Africa, while the “young girl” is Europe. The man did have imagination.
All this is presumably observed by Kepler’s hero Duracotus and his sorceress of a mother, who’ve been transported to Levania by the “daimon” the sorceress has invoked. “Presumably,” because once their journey is done, these characters entirely vanish from the story. The author is too busy describing their strange new world and its even stranger denizens.
“Whatever is born on the land or moves about on the land attains a monstrous size. Growth is very rapid. Everything has a short life, since it develops such an immensely massive body. … In the course of one of their days [which of course equals 14 of ours] they roam in crowds over their whole sphere, each according to his own nature: some use their legs, which far surpass those of our camels; some resort to wings; and some follow the receding water in boats; or if a delay of several more days is necessary, then they crawl into caves. … There they shut themselves up for the greater part of the day, using the water for drink; when evening comes, they go out looking for food. … Things born in the ground–they are sparse on the ridges of the mountains–generally begin and end their lives on the same day, with new generations springing up daily.
“In general, the serpentine nature is predominant …”
No astronomers in Levania; no witch-hunters either. No utopian society that might serve as a model or a rebuke to ours. Truth be told, it sounds more like the Jurassic. Or–it was literary scholar Marjorie Hope Nicolson to whom this occurred–a particularly bizarre division of hell.
“I have often wondered,” Nicolson wrote in 1947, “whether Kepler’s haunting vision of the strange, fantastic, often horrible new world in the moon lingered in Milton’s mind when he described his third Hell.” The Puritan bard writing in Paradise Lost of a nightmare land–
“A universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good;
Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable, inutterable, and worse
Than fables yet have feigned or fear conceived”–
–and thereby setting a challenge to science-fiction “fable” writers for centuries to come.
by David Halperin
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