Lucian: The Syrian Satirist Who Invented Science Fiction

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle looks at the work of the master of the comic dialogue, Lucian of Samosata

It all started with a Syrian writer about whom he know virtually nothing. He was born in around AD 120 and died in 180, or thereabouts. His hometown was Samosata, on the bank of the Euphrates in what is now Turkey but was at the time part of the Roman province of Syria. He is known as ‘Lucian of Samosata’ – or, more frequently, Lucian – and he has a claim to being the inventor of two literary genres, though his claim to one is somewhat more robust than the other.

The first is easy enough to make a case for. When Lucian was writing, the fashion among Greek writers was to draw on older literary styles from some five or six centuries earlier, recalling Herodotus in his Histories, or Plato’s philosophical dialogues. Lucian’s contribution to this literary renaissance was to give the Platonic dialogue a comic spin. In the process, he invented the comic dialogue which would later be used by Renaissance writers such as Erasmus, though perhaps most famously among modern writers, by Oscar Wilde in ‘The Decay of Lying’, ‘The Critic as Artist’, and the other witty debates that make up his 1891 volume Intentions.

But the second, though perhaps more contentious, is nevertheless more interesting because it posits a far more wide-ranging sphere of influence. In his witty tale ‘A True History’, which I discuss in The Secret Library, Lucian offers essentially a parody of the far-fetched travel writings of antiquity: classical explorers who never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Fantastical places and improbable events were often reported as ‘true’ in travel accounts of the time; Lucian wittily turns this on his head by admitting up front that his story is a lie from start to finish. Because his intention is to poke fun at the incredible claims made by other writers, Lucian’s imagination is allowed a free rein: in his story we encounter rivers flowing with wine and islands made of cheese, as well as trees which are grown from men’s testicles and develop into the shape of penises. The work certainly qualifies as fantasy, but given its imagining of space-travel and galactic battles, a case might also be made for its being proto-science-fiction – ‘proto-’ because Lucian doesn’t provide any plausible scientific basis for his flying ships (spaceships in the most literal sense).

The actual story of ‘A True History’ similarly requires not so much a suspension of disbelief as a full-on levitation act. The narrator’s ship is blown out of the Mediterranean by a gigantic whirlwind and cast up into outer space (thus becoming the first spaceship, we might say). It eventually lands on the moon, the king of which is at war with the king of the sun over the colonization of Venus. The lunar army features giant spiders bigger than the Cyclades, which spin webs between the moon and Venus to act as a sort of gossamer battlefield, while the solar army includes ants over two hundred feet long, giant mosquitoes, and an army of ‘Sky-Dancers’ whose main weaponry consists of large radishes which they hurl at the enemy, causing them to collapse and die of a malodorous but unspecified wound.

Lucian is, as you’d expect, a bit hazy on the detail as to how his narrator gets to the moon: a powerful whirlwind seems to be the sole method of propulsion. But the book certainly sowed the seeds for later works of bona fide science fiction, from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon to H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon and beyond. And because it uses a fantastical narrative to satirize contemporary literary trends, it is also the precursor to later works such as Thomas More’s Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Lucian was a Syrian who spoke Greek and lived under the Roman Empire. His first language was Aramaic and Greek would have been his second language. C. D. N. Costa, in his introduction to the Oxford translation which I own and cherish, makes a parallel with Joseph Conrad, a Polish writer who learned English later in life; indeed, we might go further than this, and draw additional parallels, not least between the Russian-occupied Poland (now Ukraine) into which Conrad was born and the Roman-occupied province of Syria that was Lucian’s birthplace. Both writers were born in imperial territories and understood the nature of empire. But most of all, Lucian understood folly – that word that so mattered to his admirer, Erasmus – and human stupidity. As Costa notes in his introduction to Lucian: Selected Dialogues (Oxford World’s Classics) published by Oxford University Press, USA (2009) (which I cannot recommend highly enough), ‘Individuals pass away, but the types that Lucian loathed, the charlatan, the conceited, the self-important, the plain stupid, are always with us; and perhaps we can still learn a little from him in dealing with these plagues in human society.’ I doff my hat to that.

Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.

Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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