Monday, 30 May 2016

Gulliver’s Travels, Science Fiction

How well do you know Gulliver’s Travels* by Jonathon Swift? If you haven’t read the book, but only seen the various films, you don’t know it as well as you think.


The story of the traveller who ended up in a land of tiny people is well known, but in the book, Gulliver goes to many other lands too. The full title of the book is Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. The only production which showed all the parts was the 1996 TV miniseries starring Ted Danson. In that, the stories were shown in flashback as Gulliver told them from the insane asylum. It did have a happy ending, with Gulliver reconciled to his family.

Gullivers Travels Ted Danson

As I wrote last week, Swift was inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac and other speculative fiction. Let’s see what he came up with.

Part I: A Voyage to Lilliput

Gulliver is shipwrecked and washed ashore on the island of Lilliput, with people only six inches high. He promises good behaviour and befriends the court, and rescues the Lilliputians from their enemies the Blefuscudians. But when he refuses to help them conquer their enemies they trump up charges against him and he is helped to escape. He finds an abandoned sailing ship and sails away to be rescued by a passing ship and taken home.

During his time in Lilliput, Gulliver has several political discussions, which are a satire on the politics of Jonathon Swift’s day.

Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag

This time Gulliver is abandoned by a ship in a storm and found by a farmer who is 72 feet tall. He exhibits Gulliver for money until he sells him to the queen. They make him a little wooden house to live and travel in. He discusses the state of Europe with the king and particularly moral matters. One day his house is stolen by an eagle and dropped in the sea, where he is rescued and taken home.

Jonathon Swift was an Anglican minister, and used this book to discuss morals.

Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, and Glubbdubdrib

This time Gulliver’s ship is attacked by pirates and he is marooned on a island near India. He is rescued by the flying island of Laputa. He visits the other lands and discovers people who pursue science with no practical use, people who research stupid subjects, a magician, and people who are immortal and declared dead when they’re eighty. Gulliver reaches Japan and then returns home, determined never to travel again.

These stories are used to satirize bureaucracy, the Royal Society, the use of history and modernism.

Part IV: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms

Despite his decision, Gulliver got bored and did go to sea again as the captain of a merchantman, but his crew mutinied and left him on the first land they encountered. This turned out to be the land of the Houyhnhnms, horse people, and the Yahoos, who are base human beings. He admires the horse people and rejects the human-type people, but because he looks like them, is thought to be a danger to the horse people. He is expelled and rescued by a ship captained by an intellifent Yahoo, which he doesn’t like at all.

When he gets home, Gulliver cannot get rid of his prejudice against humans, and makes his home with horses, effectively going insane. The story is used to discuss human depravity and the perfected nature of the horse people.

The whole book was written first of all to satirize the ‘traveller’s tales’ popular at the time, but within it to make very barbed comments about politics, science and human nature. Many science fiction authors do the same today. Through inventing other societies, it’s possible to comment on human problems indirectly. The hope is that the readers will enjoy the story but be provoked to think about their own standards and their own society, almost without realising it.

Get A Brief History of Science Fiction free here!

*This link takes you to a site where you can read the book for free.

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