Widely considered the first sci-fi book, Somnium was written by astronomer Johannes Kepler around 1608 and was only published in 1634, after his death.

I first heard the claim that the book was used in his mother's witchcraft trial in Astronomy class, and this claim is repeated by APS News:

Kepler also tried his hand at more fanciful writing, penning an allegory called Somnium (The Dream) in 1611 — arguably the earliest work of science fiction, since it centered on a trip to the moon and speculated about what astronomy would be like if conducted on another planet.

Many years later, Somnium would be used as evidence in his mother’s 14-month imprisonment and trial for witchcraft; it described a woman who summons a demon for help in mixing potions. (He revised the work after her acquittal to make the allegorical aspects crystal clear for the too-literal minded.)

Is this true?

One blog I found states that "[t]he records of Katharina Kepler’s trial for witchcraft are still extant and I can state with confidence that Somnium was not only not used as evidence in the trial but was in fact never even mentioned", but never gives evidence from the trial, instead only referencing something Kepler wrote that only vaguely mentions his mother's trial. Considering the stigma of witchcraft allegations, it seems at least probable to me he wouldn't want to talk about it, especially if his book really did have that much of an effect. On the other hand, I'm still not inclined to believe it actually happened either, because Somnium is still a fictional book.

  • If it was quite literally the first science-fiction book, they may not have recognized it as being fictional... and even if much of it was fictional, there may have been an argument that some of it was drawn from his life. I'm not saying that that's a reason to believe it - just that I don't see "it was fictional" as a particularly strong reason to disbelieve.
    – Ben Barden
    Nov 27, 2018 at 22:25
  • Also, Somnium apparently included a decent number of autobiographical notes - dead father, study under Tycho, and so forth, further weakening the "fiction" argument.
    – Ben Barden
    Nov 27, 2018 at 22:40
  • 1
    I have traced the connection to the witchcraft trial back to a paper in 1976: depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/8/christianson8art.htm ...unfortunately, while it is heavily footnoted in other things, that particular assertion appears not to have been footnoted at all.
    – Ben Barden
    Nov 27, 2018 at 22:42
  • It seems weird to me that the book was published after his death, but he also revised it after it was used in his mother's trial. Did it come up at the trial despite being unpublished? Nov 28, 2018 at 17:05
  • 2
    @KamilDrakari Well, that's the question. I'm pretty sure that a copy of the book was circulating before the trial based off something written by Kepler mentioned by the blog: "If I am not mistaken the author of that insolent satire called Ignatius, His Conclave [John Donne], got hold of a copy of this little work of mine, he stings me by name at the very beginning. ... You, my friends, who have some knowledge of my affairs, and know the cause of my last trip to Swabia, especially those of you who have previously seen this manuscript..."
    – Laurel
    Nov 28, 2018 at 17:15


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