When you think back on aliens in popular culture and media, you might recall the Orson Welles radio broadcast in 1938 that fooled some Americans when it announced that alien invaders had landed in New Jersey if you’re a history buff, or the many manifestations of celestial beings encountered by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, if you had a Trekkie parent like me.
But depictions of aliens, UFOs, and other worlds go back much, much further. We’re talking hundreds of years, and we’re going to take a quick look at a few notable examples. If the works you see here are nothing new to you, feel free to drop a comment below and let us know what you think your fellow TIPsters should check out next.
A True Story by Lucian of Samosata (2nd century)
Perspective: not long after paper is invented in China by Ts’ai Lun, a Chinese court official.
Lucian of Samosata was a writer who lived in the Roman Empire during the second century CE. Though his novel A True Story was written in satirical form to poke fun at superstition and belief in the paranormal, it’s known as one of the earliest literary works to reference travel to outer space, alien lifeforms, and interplanetary warfare. In the story, Lucian and his travelers are caught up in a whirlwind and taken to the moon, where they find themselves entangled in an interplanetary conflict between the army of the moon and the army of the sun.
Unlike other fictional and mythological writers of the time, Lucian leaves no doubt around the veracity of the story, framing the work as “things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else; things, what is more, that do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all. So my readers must not believe a word I say.”
The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (10th-century)
Perspective: around the time the Kingdom of England first becomes a unified state.
In 10th century Japan, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter emerged as another forerunner of the genre we know today as science fiction. In this story, a man finds a tiny baby inside a piece of bamboo and decides to bring it home and raise with his wife as their own child, naming her Nayotake no Kaguya-hime (Shining Princess of the Young Bamboo). Soon after, the couple begin finding little pieces of gold bamboo. The baby girl grows up to be a woman of “extraordinary beauty,” even catching the eye of the emperor, but things are complicated when she reveals to her adoptive parents that she is “not of this world.”
Depending on the version you read, she was sent to earth either as punishment or to protect her from a celestial war, and the gold placed in the bamboo was a form payment sent by her cosmic family. But either way, Kaguya-hime is by definition an alien, and eventually, her cosmic family returns for her, making way for a gripping conclusion involving the emperor’s guards, immortality, and a letter taken to a mountaintop.
Somnium by Johannes Kepler (1608)
Perspective: same year John Smith is elected to lead Jamestown.
German astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer Johannes Kepler was best known for his works on planetary motion. But Kepler was also a skilled fiction writer, as seen in his novel Somnium, which he wrote in 1608. In the story, an Icelandic boy and mother learn about an “island” called Levania, which turns out to be the moon, from a daemon.
The work includes quirky details like how humans needed to put sponges in their nostrils to be able to breath during the journey to the moon (which by the way, was facilitated by daemons pushing them with great force) and descriptions of the lunar life forms thought to dwell there, but other details were more grounded in the science of the time, like how eclipses would look from the Moon, an estimate about the size of the moon, and more.
Micromégas by Voltaire (1752)
Perspective: same year Benjamin Franklin supposedly performed his famous kite experiment.
The French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher Voltaire is probably best known for his championing of civil liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but among his thousands and thousands of written works, he, too, dabbled in the other worldly. His 1752 novella follows a being known as Micromégas who hails from a distant planet that orbits Sirius – the star, not the radio.
Micromégas’ planet is described as 21.6 million times greater in circumference than the earth, and he himself stands at a cool 120,000 feet tall. Long story short, Micromégas and a his slightly-smaller-but-still-ridiculously-enormous friend visit earth, and because they are so enormous compared to humans and other life forms, think it to be uninhabited. Voltaire uses this storyline to poke holes in some of the ideas of that time around the cosmos being uniquely made for mankind. We won’t spoil the ending for you, but we highly recommend you read to the end and enjoy the major plot twist.
The “Great Moon Hoax” (1835)
Perspective: same year Charles Darwin arrived at the Galápagos Islands, aboard HMS Beagle.
In 1835, The New York Sun released the first in a series of six articles laying out a wild new discovery of life on the moon. It was tremendously detailed, and included wild descriptions of things like unicorns, two-legged beavers, and furry, winged humanoids resembling bats. Readers were eating it up, and papers were selling like hot cakes, which is a saying that emerged around that same time. The only problem was that none of it was true.
The articles were written as satire, most likely by Sun reporter Richard Adams Locke. They were intended to mock previous claims made about life on the moon, but these articles, which came to be known as The Great Moon Hoax, ended up reaching a larger audience than the very works it was meant to poke fun at.
Lumen by Camille Flammarion (1872)
Perspective: same year that Yellowstone National Park is established as the world’s first national park.
In this famous novel by the French astronomer and writer Camille Flammarion, a young seeker of knowledge named Quaerens learns of the scientific wonders of the universe when a cosmic spirit named Lumen reveals stunning details about things like the nature and speed of light with vivid speculations about such diverse subjects as reincarnation, time travel, the reversibility of history, and the ecospheres of alien planets. It’s a lot.
Notably, Lumen is one of the first science fiction novels to provide in-depth explanations of extraterrestrials and the very first to imagine the differences in perception that could result from travelling close to and beyond light speed, 30 years before Einstein’s famous theory of relativity!
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)
Perspective: same year that Henry Lindfield becomes the world’s first fatality from an automobile accident on a public highway.
We assume this title is the most familiar on the list, as it’s inspired countless other works of literature, film, and even radio broadcasts. Written by H.G. Wells between 1895 and 1897, this science fiction novel tells an alien narrative that has become arguably the most popular version today: invasion. Wells explained that the idea for the plot arose from a discussion with his brother about the devastating effect of the British imperialism on indigenous Tasmanians. The two wondered, what would happen if Martian invaders did the same to the British?
And that’s exactly what the novel depicts, a large scale invasion and all out war set in the Victorian British Empire. The Narrator follows a few unnamed characters as they try to navigate everything from hear rays to poison gas to giant machines scooping people up and taking them away. This one also has a bit of a twist ending, and though many of you may already know what happens, we won’t give any further details and encourage you to read for yourself.