Voltaire’s Micromegas

Micromegas: A Different Kind of Science Fiction

By Sahil Prasad, Grade 6, Maryland.

The legendary scientist Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”[1] What if I told you that the famous 18th century French philosopher Voltaire, one of Newton’s contemporaries and admirers, literally turned that quote into reality in his fun, yet philosophical book Micromegas. Micromegas is a science fiction novella about the namesake brilliant giant from Sirius and his adventures across the Milky Way with his friend, a secretary from Saturn. The uniqueness of the book is sure to make you laugh as well as think deeply about life.

You would think that a novella about a giant and his friend traveling the galaxy would be a picturesque science fiction book. However, Micromegas is just as philosophical as it is a science fiction book. In the book, Micromegas embarks on the galactic journey not only to explore, but to gain knowledge in a quest driven by curiosity. When Micromegas was talking to the Saturnian, he shared “… I have not seen any who only desire what they truly need…” when the Saturnian was complaining about his “short life” of 15,000 years. As you can see, this revelation supports the philosophical nature of Micromegas’ journey. That statement also fits in with a teaching from the Bhagavad Gita, anIndian spiritual textwhich explains that suffering comes from wants and desires. During Micromegas’ conversation with the Saturnian, he reveals the reason for his journey, “I do not want to be pleased, I want to be taught.” This quote reveals Micromegas’ humbleness, which is a frequent theme in the book. It is this humbleness of Micromegas that makes him ready to learn. 

Along with philosophy, Voltaire added yet another element of surprise to Micromegas—satire. Voltaire lived his life in a period called the Enlightenment, which supported reason and the mental prowess of man. However, Voltaire believed that the thinkers of the time should equally appreciate both, philosophy and science. Voltaire included satirical elements in Micromegas to support his perspective on the Enlightenment. For one, Micromegas specifically called out Wicar Durham, a scientist during the Enlightenment for claiming to have seen the universe and said that his description of the universe was false. Voltaire also ridiculed the great mathematician Blaise Pascal by saying that he only completed 32 of Euclid’s propositions (a phenomenal feat) while Micromegas completed 50 of the propositions and Voltaire even stated that Pascal, “…became a fairly mediocre geometer.” There is a also brief reference to the futility of war and the excessive casualties that result from leaders fighting to own territories that they may never even see in their lifetime: “… and almost none of these animals the mutually kill themselves have never seen the animals for which they kill.”  In most of his books, Voltaire included these subtle, but harsh satirical elements and he even ended up with an arrest warrant because he satirized Louis XIV! Throughout the book, Voltaire also uses humor to make his work more engaging and take the sharp bite off of his satire.

Our children’s science fiction novella also features the greatest scientist of all times, Sir Isaac Newton himself! Newton is omnipresent in Micromegas—whether you are talking about his quote on giants which influenced Micromegas’ publication or the plethora of references to Newton in the novella. Voltaire was exiled to England because of his quarrel with Chevalier de Rohan, a well-known French nobleman and courtier of Louis XIV. Voltaire fell in love with the works of Newton while in London. Further, Voltaire’s love interest, the Marquise du Châtelet, translated Newton’s critical work, Principia Mathematica into French. The trial that sentenced Micromegas to 800 years of exile was based on the trial Newton faced because of his revolutionary ideals. Micromegas, the character, and Newton both faced the wrath of religious figures during their trials—Newton faced the church of England and Micromegas faced the mufti of Sirius for defending bugs against fleas in a scientific paper. Micromegas has a very innovative spirit and it comes into play when this giant cuts his fingernail to make a funnel to enable him to talk to the tiny humans he meets on Earth. This could represent the innovative personality of Newton when he discovered the three laws of motion and gravity while observing animals on his farmstead.

As you can see, Micromegas is more than a fantasy novel, it’s a contemplation of life. If you are humble, humorous, and open minded like Micromegas, you can journey through life overcoming obstacles and attaining knowledge.

By Sahil Prasad, Grade 6, Maryland. Sahil adds: “Micromegas will appeal to your readers because of the exciting, profound, and silly elements of the book. It can be read by people of all ages and you are sure to have a different perspective every time you finish the book.”


Edition information:

Micromegas, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016. ISBN: 978-1533107763

[1] From a letter sent by Sir Issac Newton to the polymath Robert Hooke in 1675.

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