Ancient Science Fiction

by Barry Baldwin

Was there any? Arthur Koestler claims Kepler’s Somnium for the first real science fiction. Kingsley Amis too rules out Lucian (‘too comic’), but also disqualifies Kepler’s ‘fantasy.’ For Brian Aldiss, Somnium ‘is straightforward non-utopian astronomical exposition, and science fiction no more began with Lucian than space flight with Leonardo.’ While Aldiss grants that science fiction owes much to the Greeks, Amis derides this classical pedigree as scornfully as Aphra Behn’s gibe at ‘reading foolish books, Lucian’s lofty traveller who flew to heaven.’

Classicists themselves are divided. Bryan Reardon, Lucian’s foremost translator, insists the True History is not science fiction - ‘there’s no science in it.’ But recent articles by Fredericks and Swanson argue that it is, while Lucianist Graham Anderson suggests ‘the key criterion is whether ancient concepts of scientific activity are upheld, and in this sense the label does seem admissible.’

What is science fiction? The term, a stray 1851 use by William Wilson apart, comes from the 1920s. Graeco-Roman portmanteau terms are ‘apista’ and ‘mirabilia’ - Astonishing Things. Aldiss calls it ‘the search for a definition of man’s status in the universe, characteristically cast in the Gothic mould.’ Arguing that science and scientists are not integral, Amis suggests it is ‘prose narrative of a situation that could not arise in our world, but one hypothesised from some innovation in science, whether human or extraterrestrial.’

The definitions by Aldiss and Amis paradoxically open the door to acceptance of ancient science fiction; Anderson’s kicks it in. Kepler would have agreed. His Somnium was published in 1634, the year of Hicks’ first-ever English translation of the True History; Lucian himself twice used this title. The hero is Duracotus, a Romanesque name suggesting toughness. He lives in Thule, the ancient brand name for mysterious remoteness. His demon guide is precedented in Byzantine fiction. Unseen beings whispering encouragement come from Lucian and The Alexander Romance ; nowadays we have the Taelons in Earth: The Final Conflict. Kepler’s giant lunar life forms and topography are likewise classical. One numerical item stands out. The moon’s Volva is 15 times larger than the lunar surface, the temperature is 15 times hotter than Africa. The philosopher Philolaus (5th c. BC) calculated that lunar plants and animals were 15 times the size of earthly ones; his contemporary, Herodorus, claimed that moon women lay eggs which hatch children 15 times bigger. Philolaus also figured a lunar day equals 15 earthly ones; Kepler has the same equation. Herodorus was an historian of sorts: when Aristotle quotes his notion that vultures come from the moon (in Lucian, tri-headed buzzards constitute the lunar police), it is in a work of serious science, the History Of Animals.

Kepler’s hero is dazed by opiates to protect him from the force of initial acceleration, thereby anticipating modern suggestions that astronauts be anaesthetised during blast-off. Not an ancient consideration, though in Plato Er’s journey to Hades is accomplished under suspended animation. Koestler commends Kepler for postulating zones of zero gravity - ‘that nightmare of science fiction.’ So, unconsciously, does Lucian, who knew nothing of gravity beyond Aristotle’s notion that heavy objects fall to Earth’s centre, light ones to its periphery.

‘All Kepler’s works were cathartic; it was only fitting that Somnium should end with a fantastic flourish’ (Koestler). We don’t know if True History was Lucian’s last book; it is certainly his most enduring.

Ancient imaginations were honed by different but convergent factors. Classical mythology provided a pervasive science fiction backdrop with its monsters (e.g. Medusa, recycled in Star Trek and Dr Who ), demons (mothers threatened their children with Empusa and Lamia), and such superheroes as Perseus who outwitted Medusa and saved the naked, spread-eagled (shades of Madonna) Andromeda from a sea-serpent, zooming around with winged sandals and a cloak of invisibility (before Wells, Klingons, and Romulans). It is dangerous to generalise about other people’s beliefs, and we don’t know how many ancients took their mythology seriously: both for believers and sceptics, it was always there.

It also spilled into real life. Many authors collected ancient Forteana. These were significantly popular in Lucian’s time. His Roman contemporary, Gellius, describes their diet of Scythian cannibals, Dog-Headed folk, One-Eyed Giants, Monopods, fast-running creatures with backward-turned feet, and the denizens of ‘remote Albania’ whose hair turned white in childhood. Another stock-in-trade was multiple births of often Fellini-esque freaks and sex changes, usually women into men. Another contemporary, Phlegon, concentrated on these in his Book Of Wonders, along with women producing snakes, homosexuals having babies, and a 100-cubit coffin with matching-size corpse that was 5000 years old at death.

Mythology and Mirabilia co-existed with scientific theorising. Ancient astronomy was based on naked-eye observation. Telescopes were within Lucian’s imagination, but he credits them to lunar, not terrestrial, technology. The ancients were confined to 5 planets (nothing beyond Saturn), a handful of stars, also comets and meteors, of which they were understandably afraid. Still, their minds were not so confined. Along with Herodorus and Philolaus, the pre-Socratic thinkers Anaxagoras, Democritus (of atomic theory fame), and Xenophanes speculated about the moon. Some thought it inhabited; all envisaged giant lunar topography. Pythagoras was more off-beat: though featuring in all histories of ancient science, he claimed previous existence in the Trojan War, conversations with demons, and a visit to Hades. In his poem On The Nature Of Things, the Roman Lucretius (1st c. BC) accepted other worlds containing different life forms. A century later, Seneca mentions fellow-Stoics’ belief that the sun was also inhabited, a fantasy brought to literary life by Lucian, who would have savoured the joke about the Irish astronaut planning to visit the sun - at night!

Aldiss and Amis miss all this, as they do Plutarch’s essay The Face In The Moon (AD 72), which encapsulates ancient lunar theories; Kepler translated it just before his death. Plutarch waxes on lunar topography, also Aristotle’s tentative belief in life there, adding ‘there is much talk on this, serious and frivolous,’ disdaining a tale that a man once fell from the moon to earth. He combines, as does Lucian, lunar topics with tales of a remote continent, thought by Kepler and others down to Mair (1909) to be America.

Another Lucian contemporary, the astronomer-geographer Ptolemy, poetically combines science and humanism:

I am merely mortal,
But when I see the stars,
I feel like an immortal,
With Jupiter and Mars.

Homer’s Odyssey is familiar: the one-eyed giant Cyclops (his grisly blinding copied in a dire 1950s Hollywood version), cannibalistic monster Laestrygonians, 12-headed doglike Scylla (ridiculed by Lucretius), Circe’s man-into-pig enchantments until baffled by Odysseus’ ‘moly’ drug (holy-moly?), and his descent into Hades to converse via magical aids with the dead. This last motif would become regular in both serious and light literature: Virgil, Lucian, Timarion, Dante, down to Stan Lee’s comic-book Superheroes and the second Bill and Ted film. Some include Christ’s Descent into Hell in this panorama; Acts contains a number of supernatural happenings geared to the immediate needs (escape, food, etc.) of that book’s human heroes.

However, writers ignore the Iliad’s descriptions (Book 18) of self-propelling wheeled tables and ‘golden maidservants who resemble real girls, not only speaking and moving, but endowed with thought and trained in handiwork.’ These pre-Capek robots sound like the ‘droids’ Captain Kirk was forever falling in lust with. True, they are invented by Hephaestus, god of technology: what counts is that the human Homer could visualise such things.

Three Aristophanes plays (5th c. BC) offer comic science fiction, a genre extending via Lucian and Timarion through Rabelais and Swift down to Hitch-Hiker’s Guide and Red Dwarf. In Peace, a war-weary-citizen flies to heaven on a giant dung-beetle to bring her down. Birds has two Athenian ‘drop-outs’ establishing their utopian CloudCuckooLand. In Frogs, Dionysus descends to Hades to fetch back the best dead poet to earth.

Plato’s Atlantis story may be a cautionary tale to unite Sicilian Greeks against Carthaginian invasion. His Atlanteans do not have lasers, as in their woeful Steeve Reeves cinematic incarnation; but the herds of elephants on this remote northern island are no less surprising. For building and cognate technology, much is made of a mysterious metal, ‘orichalcum’, described as ‘more precious than everything save gold, nowadays only a name.’

Plato’s Er tells how his soul left his body and travelled to Hades where he saw the infernal sights before returning to life. His economic mode of travel suggests Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, who simply gazes up at Mars and finds himself on its surface after brief interplanetary commute. Plato’s Bellowing Chasm prefigures the booming Time-Portal in Star Trek’s City On The Edge Of Forever.

Theopompus, Plato’s contemporary, included in his (fragmentary) historical works a sea-serpent attacking ships and the advent of a Satyr. He also developed a full-blown utopia beyond the ocean where two cities, Eusebes (Pious) and Machimos (Warlike) have lifestyles un-Greek and unlike each other. Machimos doesn’t invade Eusebes; it once invaded the Hyperboreans (a much-mentioned Greek fantasy race) but withdrew on learning they were the happiest people on earth. Compare Wells’ gentle Eloi and savage Morlocks (Time Machine), also the three contiguous rival societies of Robert Heinlein’s Coventry. Theopompus also conceived Anostos (Place Of No Return) in Africa, where trees by the Rivers of Grief and Pleasure bore fruit that caused its eaters to transmogrify into weeping babies and dissolve.

Another contemporary, Ctesias, was anciently celebrated for his India, a book crammed with monsters, giants, pygmies, dog-headed men, wondrous minerals, and bizarre sexual practices. Ctesias is one of two authors invoked by Lucian; the other, a merchant-writer Iambulus (date uncertain), described a utopian island whose inhabitants’ split tongues permit simultaneous conversations and whose tortoises’ blood serves to re-attach severed limbs.

In 1st c. AD Rome, the novelist Petronius included werewolves and witches in his Satyricon. Belief in werewolves is ridiculed by the Elder Pliny as typical Greek nonsense - Herodotus had long ago publicised the lycanthrope Neuri tribe. Pliny the Younger offers serious accounts of haunted houses and chain-clanking ghosts; so does his friend, the historian Tacitus. The Byzantine Psellus (11th c.) describes the repertoire of a father-and-son magician team in Lucian’s day: necromancy and saving a Roman army by contriving a humanoid clay figure which fired ‘unstoppable shots’ at the enemy.

Antonius Diogenes (date uncertain) penned a voluminous novel Wonders Beyond Thule. The surviving fragments have various adventurers, including a woman, Derkyllis (not Xena!). A female protagonist is unusual, but Derkyllis is more than a wimpy companion in Dr Who: her lone exploits include Hades. Antonius dedicated the novel to his sister, while Ptolemy Chennus consecrated his book of wonders to his ‘Learned Mistress.’ This all tempers Amis’ contention that women do not go in much for science fiction. The men visit both sun and moon, the latter briefly compared to ‘a bare earth’.

In the spirit of ‘To Boldly Go...,’ Lucian sails with fifty comrades to explore the mysterious ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules. An immediate storm drops them on an island after 79 buffeting days where giant footsteps and a plaque attest that Hercules and Dionysus got that far. Temptations include a wine river and the Vine Women - Wells adapted these for his Flowering Of The Strange Orchid - whose kisses are sweet but two sailors who assault them are trapped by their erect penises which take root. The others re-embark, only to be flung high by a whirlwind and higher by a sail-bellying gale. After seven aerial days, they land on the great shining Moon. Hardly have they taken this giant step for ancient mankind when they are hauled off by tri-headed vulture police to their leader, Endymion.

This amiable alien enlists our heroes in his war against the Sun King and his Ant-Dragons, the prize being the Morning Star. Both sides muster armies of allies from the Great Bear and other stars such as GrassPlume-Riders, Flea-Archers, Sky-Mosquitoes, and Giant Spiders who spin a Tholian-like web between Moon and Venus. The obligatory fights of Japanese movie monsters are already in place. The Sun army prevails, Endymion sues for peace, a treaty is made dividing up the Universe between them.

Lucian now has leisure for lunar sociology. Moonites are all-male: lunar man is born of man. Lacking genitals and anuses, they have no lavatorial functions. Sexual intercourse is achieved through the knee’s hollow by dint of artificial organs - the first cyborg prosthetics - made of ivory or wood. Old Moonites don’t die, they simply dissolve into the aether, like Star Trek’s Apollo. They sweat milk, their nasal drip is honey, their eyes are removable. Such attributes put George Lucas’ creatures, also the gallimaufrey (apts, banths, siths, etc.) of Burroughs’ Mars, quite in the shade.

Leaving the Moon, they observe solar habitations, re-provision on Venus, pass by CloudCuckooLand, and visit Lychnopolis (Lamp City) before re-entry into the ocean where they are promptly engulphed by a 250-mile-long whale, in whose belly dwell entire cities of fellow-swallowees. After two years of incarceration, they torch the monster’s innards and escape. They next encounter a frozen ocean, Cheese Island, and aquaplaning Cork Men before entering Hades where the heroes and villains of mythology are witnessed, plus a Bill-and-Ted-style interview with Homer to determine if he actually wrote the Iliad and Odyssey.

After leaving here, they variously elude the Pumpkin-Pirates, a gigantic kingfisher resembling Sinbad’s Roc, and the Ass-Leg Cannibal Women (shades of the 1959 classic, Leech Woman) before reaching their original transatlantic destination. What happens next, Lucian does not tell. The last sentence promises a sequel, never written - the 17th c. Spaniard Francisco Reguera remedies this in a still unpublished continuation. Maybe George Lucas should have heeded Lucian and quit while ahead.

In Lucian’s other science fiction, IcaroMenippus flies to heaven seeking both cosmology and human moral perspective. The Nekyomanteia finds the same hero in Hades looking for a code of living: satire against philosophers and the rich adorns the usual mythological fun. Two other dialogues (Descent and Charon) have similar settings and themes. In The Lover Of Lies, Lucian like a modern tabloid has his cake and eats it, ridiculing tall tales of (e.g.) exorcisms, poltergeists and people who ‘die’ and return with revelations from ‘the other side’ by spinning out countless such dossiers.

The Alexander Romance (unknown author and date) was antiquity’s ‘best-selling novel’: 80 versions in 24 languages rival the Bible’s diffusion. One segment comprises Alexander’s adventures at the world’s end, very similar to earlier stories. We note its Plant-Men - 24 cubits tall, 2 cubit neck-span, belligerent killers with saw-like arms and hands - for comparison with Burroughs’ Plant-Men in Gods Of Mars : 12 feet tall, large feet, razor-like talons.

Two anonymous Byzantine fictions, Timarion (12th c.) and Mazaris (15th c.), involve trips to Hades. The former’s plot, a man taken before his time, anticipates Heaven Can Wait . Timarion is snatched from his sick-bed by two black-robed demons who whirl him through the air and down a dark pit to iron-gated Hell, whence after winning permission to continue living he re-enters his body via nose and mouth. The setting is a pagan-Christian jumble: Cerberus, Minos sharing judgement with a Byzantine emperor, much bright white light, infernal punishments such as Nero forever shovelling excrement. The Mazaris uses the underworld setting for its hero to settle old scores with pre-deceased enemies. There is much Lucian in these novelettes, as in another anonymous Byzantine dialogue in Hades between Charon, Hermes, and the just-arrived Alexander the Great.

One Byzantine also paved the way for modern sword-and-sorcery fantasy, with a dash of soft porn, in the rare shape of a verse novel, Callimachus And Chrysorrhoe (14th c.), where hero finds heroine hanging naked by her hair from the battlement of a magic castle of an ogre-dragon whom he kills after an improbable pole-vault over the walls. The finale has him ravish her after bathing together, both acts in defiance of Byzantine morality. Carnality apart, this unexpectedly anticipates John Carter and Deja Thoris in Burroughs’ Martian chronicles.

Quipped Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest:

‘SF’s no good,’ they bellow till we’re deaf.

‘But this looks good’ - ‘Well, then, it’s not SF.’

Lucian began the True History with a cod debate on what’s good and fun in literature, and in Hades commissioned this couplet from Homer:

One Lucian, whom the blessed gods befriend,
Observed what’s here, and back home did wend.


Further Reading:

Aldiss, B., Billion Year Spree: The True History Of Science Fiction (1973, repr. as Trillion Year Spree in 1986)

Amis, K., New Maps Of Hell (1960)

Behn, A., Emperor Of The Moon (1687)

Fredericks, A., ‘Lucian’s True History As Science Fiction,’ Science Fiction Studies 3 (1976), 49-60

Green, R., Into Other Worlds: Space-Flight In Fiction From Lucian To Lewis (1957)

Grove, P., The Imaginary Voyage In Prose Fiction (1941)

Koestler, A., The Sleepwalkers (1959)

Luce, J., The End Of Atlantis (1969)

Romm, J., The Edges Of The Earth In Ancient Thought (1992)

Swanson, R., ‘The True, The False, and The Truly False: Lucian’s Philosophical Science Fiction,’ Science Fiction Studies 6 (1979), 228-39

Annotated English translations of Antonius Diogenes, Lucian, and The Alexander Romance are most conveniently found in (ed.) B. Reardon, Collected Ancient Greek Novels (1989). Timarion is translated with full commentary by B. Baldwin (1984), Mazaris by A. Smithies (1975), Kepler’s Somnium by E. Rosen (1967).

Ancient Science Fiction
© 2006 by Barry Baldwin


About the Author

Barry Baldwin was born in 1937 and educated in England. He emigrated to Australia in 1962, re-moving to Canada in 1965, where he is Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has published around 30 short stories in print (magazines and book anthologies), and has a novella, "Not Cricket", in Chapbook form (Rembrandt & Company Press, USA), also in e-zines. He has been a Finalist in the Arthur Ellis Awards (Canada 1999) and the Anthony Awards (Bouchercon, 2000, USA) in the mystery short story category.


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