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27 april 2019

Voltaire's Micromégas (1752) is often seen as a pioneering work of science fiction. And the tale does use science as a subject, displaying scientific method at work and invoking Swammerdam, Leeuwenhoek, and Réaumur. It's also got space travel and interspecies communication. But Micromégas is as much philosophical fable as science story. As its title ("Small-Big") suggests, it's about scale and the senses in which size, when you're contemplating the universe, matters.

Despite the first part of his name, Micromégas is a really, really big guy. He is from Sirius, where they have bigger bodies, more knowledge, more senses, more elements – you name it, they do it on a larger scale. Our title character goes on an interstellar journey and picks up a companion on the planet Saturn. This fellow, enormous by Earth standards, is so small compared to Micromégas that Voltaire keeps referring to him as the nain, or dwarf. The two of them, after an excursion to Saturn's ring, land on Earth and find it uninhabited.

Or so it seems to them. Here the problem of scale comes in. Since the visitors can't perceive life on Earth, any more than our naked eyes can perceive microbes on a kitchen counter, they can't believe such life exists, still less that it has esprit (variously wit or intelligence, or an incorporeal spirit). Finally they spot a whale, but it proves unpromising for conversational purposes. Then they come upon a ship full of natural philosophers.

Some technological hacks involving a speaking tube and a microscope enable an interplanetary dialogue. Micromégas and his friend find that the Earthlings, despite their size, are pretty clever. They use a kind of scientific reasoning that is apparently universal. (They also speak French, which seems to be universal too, but that's a kind of throwaway joke of Voltaire's.) Micromégas has to admit that "il ne faut juger de rien sur sa grandeur apparente" (143): nothing should be judged by its apparent size. The Earthlings agree, saying:

Il y a des animaux qui sont pour les abeilles ce que les abeilles sont pour l'homme, ce que le Sirien lui-même était pour ces animaux si vastes dont il parlait, et ce que ces grands animaux sont pour d'autres substances devant lesquelles ils ne paraissent que comme des atomes. (143-44)

[There are creatures which are to bees as bees are to humans, as the Sirian himself is to those huge creatures he talks of, and that those great creatures are to other kinds of beings, seeming like nothing more than specks beside them.]
Size – as I'm sure many a critic has said over the centuries; I do nothing here but reinvent the conversation – is largely a metaphor in Micromégas. As it was for Swift (invoked here by Voltaire) in Gulliver's Travels: size is a vivid way of introducing relative perspectives, more than a topic in its own right. For size, which is a pleasantly goofy dynamic, one might read skin color, religious traditions, language, marriage and family customs, and the whole range of factors that drive suspicion and misunderstanding among humans of similar size.

In Micromégas a little application of technology overcomes the cultural gap. It would seem that analogous applications of tolerance and mutual listening could do the same among the "insects" that populate Earth.

Voltaire. Micromégas. 1752. In Romans et contes. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966. 131-147.