Top image: Cover detail of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by Ibn Tufail
You probably already knew that Islam was having a scientific golden age during Europe’s middle ages, and making tons of scientific and medical discoveries. (Which is why we use words like “algebra.”) But you might not know that some of the earliest proto-science fiction came from the Islamic world.
Of course, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is widely recognized as the first real work of science fiction, because it’s a novel of speculation based on the scientific discoveries of her day. But there were a number of works before Frankenstein that feature a lot of what we’d consider the defining characteristics of SF.
The first of these is widely considered to be A True History by Lucian of Samosata, a Syrian author. This 2nd century novel follows a traveler who is transported via water spout to the Moon, where he encounters strange societies and bizarre life forms. But there are also a number of early claimants to the “proto science fiction” label coming out of the Islamic world. Notably:
Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by Ibn Tufail
This 12th century work isn’t speculative, per se, but it does have a heavy scientific component, and was an influence on Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which in turn influenced tons of SF creators. In Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, a boy is raised alone on an island by a gazelle, and he develops empiricism and the scientific method of inquiry through pure observation. This book, with its emphasis on deriving knowledge from observation, became popular in Europe in the 17th century and probably helped spur the Scientific Revolution.