We know Cyrano de Bergerac as the protagonist of the eponymous play and the movies it spawned, in which he laments the large nose that hides his poetic heart. A great role to be sure, but the fictional character hid the real French nobleman that inspired it. Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac was a 17th-century writer, philosopher, and swashbuckler. His fiction was ahead of its time.
Looking to his pen to make him some money, he wrote one unperformed comedy and had a stately tragedy banned after only one performance. But the accounts of his adventures on the Moon (1656) and the Sun (1662) made his reputation. They are full of combative ideas but also contain wonderful flights of wild fancy. Is the moon a peep hole in the canopy of heaven, through which the Sun spies on what we do when he is absent? No, it is a world, like all the planets, and inhabited. How shall he get there? By fastening flasks of dew about his person and standing in the morning sun until he ascends on its warming rays. To travel in space, he tosses a small but powerful magnet above him repeatedly, so that the metal cage he rides in rises in a series of hops. Cyrano imagined the parachute, lighter-than-air flight, the gramophone, gravity (before Newton), transformism (before Darwin) and solid planets (Descartes thought they were “swirls” of matter). And what he said to the Moon’s inhabitants (12 cubits tall) forms a running commentary on the absurdity of terrestrial pretensions. Cyrano was a rebel spirit in a conformist age.