Lucian: Sci-Fi's Origins in the Classical World?
Lucian. Where have you been? How have I got to be this old and never heard of you before now? Your influence seems to have crossed my path many times, yet I only heard about you a few months ago. This is a crime! This is an outrage! This is something that needs to be addressed in the form of a barely-read blog! So here it is…
It is not an exaggeration to say that I literally heard of Lucian about 8 months ago. As I have stated on my website, I do not have a Classical education, so perhaps I can be excused for this oversight. But I am not letting ‘society’ off the hook that easily. I had known about Sophocles and Euripides and Ovid and Juvenal and all sorts of other Classical writers in my adult life, but Lucian? Never heard of him.
Yet, he is completely amazing! He, as far as I can tell, invented the sci-fi genre - about 2000 years ago – and that has to be something that can shock even a non-Classicist.
I remember reading a story by Voltaire called Micromegas, (which is the tale of 2 giant aliens visiting Earth and viewing us as oddities from their lofty/aloof vantage point) and thinking ‘This guy is writing sci-fi back in the 1700s – wayyyy before H.G. Wells – he’s invented sci-fi!’. How wrong I was!
Lucian wrote A True History in the second century A.D. It is a tale that seems to have influenced Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Moore’s Utopia and perhaps even Pinocchio. But it is the sci-fi element of this text that can really blow your mind, because Lucian tells the story of his crew that manage to float up into space and land on the moon. They also become embroiled in a fight between two alien races and witness bizarre alien technology! For me, it is extraordinary to think that 2000 years ago, Lucian was able to look at the moon and imagine the existence of extra-terrestrial beings. I am not an expert in this field, but if you discount gods and goddesses as ‘aliens’, Lucian has perhaps described the first ever xenomorphs. And if he hasn’t, I want to know who has! He also has some very surreal ideas about what these aliens look like and their weaponry, but I think I will spoil the surprise if I list them here. All I will say is ‘asparagus’.
When reading his A True History, one cannot help but hear and see the tropes of sci-fi books and films that have followed. It seems that Lucian is at the origin of every alien you will ever see in a movie or read about in a book – from the Martians of War of the Worlds, to Thanos in The Avengers – and of course every E.T. there has ever been.
This alone should be enough to mean that I should have heard about Lucian before now – but just in case it isn’t, here is a run-down of some of the other reasons why Lucian should be far more notorious than he is.
1) He wrote the first version of The Magician’s Apprentice, a story that made an appearance in Lovers of Lies of the Sceptic, which has been reimagined by both Goethe and Disney (see Disney’s Fantasia).
2) He wrote a story called Timon the Misanthrope, which becomes the basis for the challenging Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare (and Thomas Middleton).
3) He can pull the great philosophies apart, challenging perceived thought with ease (see Hermotimus).
4) He has written an exposé of false prophets (Alexander), which is perhaps echoed in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
5) He imagined the ingestion and escape from a monstrous whale, quite some time before Pinocchio.
6) He employed ‘Easter Eggs’ in his writing before any Pixar movie.
7) He didn’t take himself too seriously, which in turn has allowed us to take him very seriously.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, or an exhaustive study of this man’s work. I have only read one of his collections – and that is another point of confusion. Lucian’s works seem to be very tricky to find in Waterstones. Where is he? Why is he not front and centre of any display? In fact, I could only find one collection of his writings in the bookshop – and it was a pretty big bookshop, with a pretty big Classics section – so thank you Oxford World Classics for making sure that I could find some Lucian somewhere.
Eventually I will get around to adding some proper descriptions of his influence onto the website, but for now I just wanted to tell the world how pleased I am that I found out this writer ever existed.
P.S. He did all this in Greek, which wasn’t even his first language!