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Ancient science fiction

The Verae Historiae (“True Histories”) by Lucian of Samosata is widely considered the world’s oldest known work of science fiction.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

How does one define “science fiction”? It’s often applied to denote anything that uses technology or situations that are perhaps based on, but not set in the contemporary world, and it is often contrasted directly with fantasy in which anything out of the ordinary is usually the result of magic or the supernatural.

Most readers will probably agree that the works of Arthur C. Clarke (e.g. Rendezvous with Rama) or Isaac Asimov (e.g. Foundation trilogy, The Gods Themselves) are clearly science fiction; as are TV shows such as Black Mirror, Star Trek, and The Expanse, or movies like The Martian and Inception. But there’s a great deal of variety: Star Wars, like the novels by E.E. “Doc” Smith (e.g. Lensman) properly belong to the more fantastic side of the spectrum (i.e. “space opera”), while the works by Iain M. Banks (Culture series) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (both the book and the Stanley Kubrick film) are towards the harder, more realistic end.

According to one online dictionary, the term “science fiction” can be defined as follows:

Fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.

By this definition, the work known by its Latin title, Verae Historiae (“True Histories”), certainly qualifies as science fiction, as it involves space travel. It was written in Greek in the second century AD by Lucian of Samosata (a place in south-eastern Turkey; Lucian himself was Assyrian). It’s widely regarded as the earliest known work of science fiction.

An ancient science-fiction story

Lucian wrote the True Histories as a parody of travel accounts by other writers and various other stories that were passed off as historical, such as the Histories by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. But he was also mocking those who took the Homeric epics as more or less dramatized accounts of historical events. Certainly, it was customary for historians to start their accounts in the ancient past with the Trojan War: Herodotus did so, as indeed did Thucydides in his history of the Peloponessian War (431 to 404 BC).

Lucian makes it explicit in the introduction of his book:

They [i.e. the pages of this book] are intended to have an attraction independent of any originality of subject, any happiness of general design, any verisimilitude in the piling up of fictions. This attraction is in the veiled reference underlying all the details of my narrative; they parody the cock-and-bull stories of ancient poets, historians, and philosophers; I have only refrained from adding a key because I could rely upon you to recognize as you read.

The story of the true Histories starts of with something of a cliché. The narrator and his fellow explorers are sailing through the Pillars of Hercules in search of new lands. After the model of the story of the Argonauts, the narrator is the captain of a crew of fifty intrepid adventurers. Soon after leaving the Pillars, they are blown off course. What follows is a series of events that make the Odyssey seem realistic in comparison.

After a few months of wandering, they arrive at a strange island with a river of wine. When they leave, they get swept up by a whirlwind that takes them to the moon. Among the population here, women are entirely absent: children instead grow inside the calves of men, and when men are old and die, they dissolve into smoke. They also discover that they are caught in the middle of a war between the king of the moon, Endymion, and the king of the sun, Phaethon, who both lay claim to the Morning Star (i.e. the planet Venus). The armies feature such curiosities as horse-ants, garlic-men, flea-archers, stalk-fungi, ostrich-slingers, “dog-faced men fighting on winged acorns”, and cloud-centaurs, with armour made from beans, and so on. Along the way, the protagonists visit various celestial bodies, all with unique characteristics and inhabitants.

When they return to Earth, the travellers are swallowed up by a gigantic whale, inside of which live various groups of humans, including a Cyprian who was stranded inside and decided to make a life there with the survivors of his crew. They escape in the second book of Lucian’s work. The adventurers journey on and eventually reach the mythical “Isle of the Blessed”, where the narrator naturally meets some of the heroes of the Trojan War, as well as some historical figures like Alexander the Great, and of course the poet Homer himself. After some more adventures, they sail on, but end up shipwrecked on another continent.

The book then ends with a promise that the story will be continued soon, but it never was. One wonders if this was perhaps a stab at other, famously unfinished works, such as Thucydides’ account of the Peloponessian War. It has certainly left me curious about the further exploits of the narrator and his fellow adventurers.

In any event, Lucian’s True Histories is an interesting book with some imaginative writing. If you’re looking for something light and fairly short to read this weekend, why not check it out? The text is available in full and translated in English at, for example, the Sacred Texts website. If you prefer the original Greek, you can also consult Perseus.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • A. Georgiadou and D.H.J. Larmour, Lucian’s Science Fiction Novel True Histories: Interpretation and Commentary (1998).
  • S.C. Fredericks, “Lucian’s True History as SF”, Science Fiction Studies 3.1 (1976), pp. 49–60.

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