Some of my guidance in exploring the public domain has come from H. P. Lovecraft. His book collection is well-documented (see Lovecraft's Library), and since I've always found his work intriguing, I though it would be fun to investigate some of his influences. I've read and enjoyed quite a few already, but A Journey in Other Worlds by John Jacob Astor is the first book unusual enough to inspire extended commentary (though Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow, with its odd tonal shift from horror to romance, came pretty close).
Written in 1894 by an author who would later be lost with the Titanic, A Journey in Other Worlds is a very early example of science fiction. I don't know all the details of early sci-fi history, but I at least know enough to say that this well predates the term "science fiction" yet shows many hallmarks of the genre that would later develop. The author really did give lengthy thought to the science behind his adventures (sometimes to the extent of including tables and diagrams alongside his text), and this has to be one of the earliest examples of a "future history," detailing how the world changed between its 19th century publication and its projected future of the year 2000.
The basic plot of the book is simple enough: Earth is on its way to becoming a paradise thanks to brilliant men who figured out how to straighten its axis and thus equalize the climate world-wide. Through the discovery of an anti-gravity force called apergy, some of this brave axis-straighteners decide to search for further glory by visiting other planets of the solar system. As you may have gathered, some of the author's predictions of the future were just a little bit off. Let's not even go into the prediction that government would get over senseless politics and get down to the business of making life better for everyone. But there are a few surprisingly accurate visions -- something rather like a hybrid car is described, for example. A few predictions are even a bit modest, like the fact that many Americans could expect to live into their sixties!
In any case, the initial chapters combine hard science with a bit of manly Edgar Rice Burroughs-style adventure as our heroes go to Jupiter and encounter dinosaurs and other giant monsters. Also, they shoot lots of animals for the sheer fun of it, wonder whether there are any inferior races around for them to conquer, and generally act like arrogant, colonialist jerks. I never claimed this was a good book, but it's an interesting study.
Just when you think you know where this book is going (or rather, probably not going), our protagonists (heroes really isn't the right word) decide to proceed to Saturn. Then things get really strange. You see, Saturn is where God sends all the good souls. Yes, you heard me. Hell, it turns out, is on a planet beyond the known solar system (which I guess means Pluto). I'm sure by this point, the book will have managed to offend just about any modern reader regardless of scientific and/or theological perspective. But what's interesting is how the science and the theology are seamlessly intertwined, with each helping to explain the other. I'm not saying that the explanations are convincing, but my point is simply that it's interesting to see a book that could be equally described as scientific and religious fiction. There are lots of subsequent books that attempt to explain away religion with science or vice versa, but it's unusual to see a story that leans in neither direction but seems to give equal merit to both. Obviously that's not my own perspective on the situation, but it's nonetheless interesting to see.
I'd love to hear what Lovecraft thought of all this, he being such a vocal atheist. But, for all the offensive attitudes and dated ideas of the book (not to mention the incredibly stilted romance that I've neglected to mention previously), the author does display considerable imagination. And perhaps, if nothing else, Lovecraft would have enjoyed some of his visions of alien life. For example:
Nature, in the process of evolution, has in all these cases gone off on an entirely different course, the most intelligent and highly developed species being in the form of marvellously complex reptiles, winged serpents that sing most beautifully, but whose blood is cold, being prevented from freezing in the upper regions of the atmosphere by the presence of salt and chemicals, and which are so intelligent that they have practically subdued many of these dark stars to themselves. On others, the most highly developed species have hollow, bell-shaped tentacles, into which they inject two or more opposing gases from opposite sides of their bodies, which, in combination, produce a strong explosion. This provides them with an easy and rapid locomotion, since the explosions find a sufficient resistance in the surrounding air to propel the monsters much faster than birds. These can at pleasure make their breath so poisonous that the lungs of any creatures except themselves inhaling it are at once turned to parchment. Others can give their enemies or their prey an electric shock, sending a bolt through the heart, or can paralyze the mind physically by an effort of their wills, causing the brain to decompose while the victim is still alive. Others have the same power that snakes have, though vastly intensified, mesmerizing their victims from afar.
Well, that's something to think on, anyway.