I set up the world’s first science and science fiction degree in 1999. A curious thing to do, you might think, for a working class lad from the Valleys; son of a railwayman, grandson of a collier (of course).
What on earth was so cosmic about Wales? It’s not as if there were of swarms of bug-eyed monsters marching through the boroughs of Bargoed. More’s the pity.
The degree became quite famous, much to the chagrin of my starchier colleagues. The college I’d worked at became known as ‘that weird place where they do the sci-fi degree’. But it was fun. The ensuing media interviews on five continents were testament to this being the age of the geek.
And yet selling aliens, to the Americans in particular, still felt like selling coal to Penrhiwceiber.
When I started writing my eighth book, a brief history of the alien for Cambridge, a Welsh fantasy link agreeably emerged. The first alien contact story published in English, it turns out, was written in the outer limits of Cardiff, back in the 17th century. This was Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone.
Oh sure, it wasn’t the first fantasy to come out of Wales. We’d something of a famed medieval pedigree in the fantastic. But to my mind, the Mabinogion, revered as an almost national literary text in Wales, merely focuses on the lives of the Welsh nobility, swanning around on mountain-tops. There was a sorry lack of space travel, and little mention of gadgets. Godwin’s book had both. It had space travel in the form of a trip to the Moon, and it had gadgets in the form of, well, geese.
Okay, getting to the Moon by goose is not the most obvious form of propulsion, but this is fantasy, so anything goes.
Godwin was better known as the Bishop of Llandaff, his book the upshot of entertaining salty sea captains out of the ports of Bristol and Cardiff, in an attempt to raise funds to restore the cathedral. Published posthumously in 1638, the Bishop had started to write the book in 1589. He didn’t live to see its meteoric success. The Man in the Moone went through two-dozen editions, well into the 18th century, and was translated into many languages including French, Dutch and German.
Godwin’s novel was seen as the archetypal space voyage for the next 100 years or so. When French dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac wrote his own space travelogue later in the century, L’Autre monde ou les états et empires de la Lune, he made sure his protagonist met Godwin’s astronaut, one Domingo Gonsales (since Spaniards are able to navigate to new worlds on Earth, they must be equally capable of locating new worlds in space).
Even 19th century writers such as Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe credited Godwin as a significant inspiration. But the highpoint of the influence of Godwin’s Moon voyage story has to be with the freshly-formed Royal Society. Godwin’s story inspired them to consider the prospect of a space voyage to another world.
Fancy that. Wales had a hand in the very first plans to conquer outer space. There may, after all, be something cosmic in the aether of South Wales. By 2005, there seemed to be little doubt on the matter. Back at the chalkface, I’d led the validation of the world’s first degree in astrobiology, the search for alien life. Meanwhile, mindful that Cardiff-born Terry Nation had invented the Daleks, BBC Wales and Russell T Davies were busy rejuvenating that tired old television brand of Doctor Who. They transformed a scenery-shaking, self-parody of a TV series into what Caitlin Moran suggests is, “despite being about a 900-year-old man with two hearts and a space-time taxi made of wood, still one of our very best projections of how to be human”.
I realised that Doctor Who, like much of science fiction, had great potential for communicating subtle and soulful ideas about science to mass audiences. Along with my colleague, science rapper Jon Chase, we embarked on a tour of the science and literary festivals of the land with our Science of Doctor Who show playing to packed audiences in places like Edinburgh, Hay, and Cambridge. Gone are the days when science fiction was a geeky sub-culture.
For me, the whole thing has come full cycle. It’s about the world outside your window. It’s about a new decade in which we’ll see the rise of the robot, and the launch of space tourism, with private jets that ferry travellers to the edge of space. It’s about the fictional future imagined in our past, the future we now inhabit.
Original version published by WalesOnline 3 MAY 2014