Science Fiction, in Classical Greek
Being eaten by dogs was not anybody’s idea of a good death, but according to legend that is how Lucian of Samosata died, due to his very sarcastic nature and writings. He was not liked, not even by dogs. However, in the tiny and shrinking world of people who read the Greek and Latin classics, he is very well appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed.
Lucian was a witty rhetorician who dedicated his writings to criticizing everything that in the second century was considered sacred and respectable. Neither Alexander the Great, Plato nor other philosophers, Homer, or even Zeus, escaped his sardonic tongue; they all have a farcical part in his works. His preferred genre was the dialogue (like Plato’s but funnier). He also wrote a Symposium, but in his version the guests get violent and totally wasted, telling lewd fables. Among his most interesting (and readable for the non-scholars) work is an encomium to the fly as the most venerable of the insects, several mock tragedies, a dialogue where Zeus puts all the philosophers for sale, and dialogues set in the underworld. Among these works, True Stories holds a special place.
In this book, which is sort of a novel, Lucian makes a parody of the tall tales of Homer and Herodotus, who narrate unbelievable facts (people with heads in their chests and with feet that make for parasols) and sell them as truth to the reading public. What is worst is that people actually believe it! So, Lucian states from the beginning that what he is about to describe are lies, everything is a lie, there will be no truth whatsoever in this work, placing himself above those consecrated writers who will not admit to their lying.
The story begins. Lucian has a great thirst for knowledge, so he takes a few men and sails off into the sunset. Then something happens, fog everywhere. They arrive in a mysterious island where only Hercules and Dionysus had been before. This is a magical place where the rivers carry wine instead of water and the women are half vines and half very sexual girls, who make men drunk (literally) with their kisses. Needless to say, they love the place. That is until they find out that when the men try to have sex with the she-vines they also turn into half-beings.
They proceed with their journey to the moon. Many a classical thesis abounds about the “science fiction nature” of True Stories, and it has come to be regarded by some as the first novel of this genre. Lucian somehow flies to the moon with his ship and notices that women don’t exist there (men procreate through their knees and carry the fetus in their calves). Soon after his arrival he is prompted to fight in a war between the Moonies (inhabitants of the moon) and the Sunnies (inhabitants of the Sun) for the right to colonize the Morning Star. Sadly, the Sunnies win and as a punishment they put up a wall of clouds between the Sun and the Moon so that the Moonies will not get any light. An agreement is soon reached, the wall comes down and both peoples are left free to colonize any planetary body they wish.
Many adventures like this follow: a stay in a whale’s belly, and island made of cheese and milk that they gradually eat and a nice and comfortable vacation in the Isle of the Blessed. Here he meets people like Socrates (who has sex with little boys and always denies it even though in the Isle it is allowed), Helen of Troy (she falls in love with one of Lucian’s crew mates even though she is with Menelaus -- he then sets off a war to get her back, of course), Odysseus, who writes a love letter to Calypso behind Penelope’s back, and Homer, with whom he has lengthy conversations.
With all of these adventures, Lucian composes a fantastical novel like no other in the ancient world, full of the creator’s imagination instead of a culture’s mythical beliefs. Lucian does not condone the superstitions of the ancients, and he makes this clear in many of his parodies, but in none more so than in True Stories, one of the first novels ever written. He shows his time’s flaws to the public and makes them laugh at themselves with the skill of a learned rhetorician. Because, keep in mind that Lucian knew very well how to manipulate language, and this translates in his beautiful and witty writing, that is not less gifted than Plato’s.
At the end of the novel, Lucian promises that in the second part of the Stories, he will narrate the rest of his adventures. We do not have that book. For years people searched for “Lucian’s lost book” until a sharp scholar determined that this was Lucian’s biggest lie, for he never had the intention of writing a second part. No problem, the first part is just fine.