Illustrations by John Leavitt

The Earliest Science Fiction

Why an ancient scroll deserves entry into the sci-fi canon.

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Jul 16 2015, 4:30pm

Illustrations by John Leavitt

What do we mean when we talk about "science fiction"? Cyborgs and space operas? Terraformed planets with glittering metal skyscrapers—future technologies that reflect back at us what it means to be human? But it would be a mistake to assume that the genre of the future is all robots and lasers—especially when an ancient Roman penned a sci-fi story on a scroll in the 2nd century AD.

Lucian of Samosata's True History reads like a doomed acid trip. His narrator sets out on a naval voyage from the Pillars of Hercules, which flank the Strait of Gibraltar. One day, at about noon, a whirlwind suddenly strikes his ship. The cyclone spins the ship into the sky, where it sails the cosmos for seven days and nights until it lands on the moon. There, the travelers learn of an intergalactic space battle between the inhabitants of the moon and the Sun over the colonization of the Morning Star, Venus. Our heroes ride to battle on dire fleas and space vultures, spilling so much blood across the sky that it dyes the clouds red. Only when the enemy builds a wall large enough to block the sun's rays and eclipse the moon is a treaty drawn up. After the protagonist returns to the moon he meets its residents, whose men—there are no women—marry other men and give birth through their calves.

We don't know whether the ancients were scratching their heads or dutifully crafting a line of miniatures of Lucian's space aliens, but we do know that Lucian's little-known fable contains the the trappings of our most modern sci-fi, and that its satire of the nascent natural sciences earns it a place in the storied genre.

True History details advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, spacecraft and astronomical phenomena. On some long-lost papyrus are the marks of what many have labeled "proto-sci-fi." "Proto," they preface, because damningly, during Lucian's time, there were no telescopes to observe the heavens and no engineers who dreamed of approaching them. Without modern science, many argue, Lucian was just another lotus-eater with a psychedelic vision. It's Asmiov's mechanical men and Clarke's space odyssey that seemingly color what we mean when we say "science fiction."

Writers who transformed scientific facts and aspirations into visions of the future, and commentary on the present, are the ones we consider for Hugos. So how could science fiction predate science as we know it?

Ancient mythology is full of stories about man innovating beyond what the gods intended for us.

The science fiction genre might be largely arbitrary—but that may also be its greatest strength. Defining sci-fi is so difficult, and so futile, that sci-fi masters like John W. Campbell have dismissed the question with remarks like "science fiction is what science-fiction editors publish." Damon Knight, another sci-fi master, was just as flippant when he said, "Science fiction is what I mean when I point at it."

The term "sci-fi" was coined in 1954 when Forrest Ackerman, the prototype sci-fi memorabilia collector, was cruising around Los Angeles and listening to his car radio. The word "hi-fi, referring to high-quality audio equipment, caught his attention, so he riffed on it: "I looked in the rear-view mirror, stuck out my tongue, and there tattooed on the end of my tongue was sci-fi."

Like most genres, sci-fi existed before there was a term to describe it. James Gunn, grand master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, thinks that its origin point was the Industrial Revolution. "Science fiction couldn't exist until change created by science, technology, or natural events became apparent within people's lifetimes," he told me. "And that's why our current era is science-fictional, because change is occurring annually, almost daily, and we have to adjust to it or are adjusted by it."

According to Gunn, there was no true science fiction before Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (but the first indisputable sci-fi novelist, he says, is H.G. Wells). Originally published in 1818, Frankenstein chronicles Dr. Victor Frankenstein's foray into necromancy as he uses electricity to rebuild and reanimate a corpse. Critics say Shelley, a teenaged girl, gave birth to the genre when she imagined a scientist engineering a monster who showed us the consequences of playing God.

Fueled by the Industrial Revolution, Frankenstein was responding to time-relevant questions about man and machinery. The era (1760-1830, roughly) had ushered in a new age of technological dominance, and with it, fresh thinking about how scientific innovation will change us as a race. Machinery replaced handcraft, and the factory system dominated the production environment, bringing with it modern-day capitalism. This moment, critics figure, is when the impact of science on humanity became the clearest, and the most attractive as a literary device in fiction.

Most sci-fi scholars agree with Gunn. They contend that modern-day science didn't exist before the Industrial Revolution, so it's inaccurate to refer to any pre-Frankenstein text as sci-fi. But let's not forget the second half of Frankenstein's title: The Modern Prometheus. Just as Dr. Frankenstein foolishly used electricity to shock his terrible creature's corpse into consciousness, Prometheus in Greek mythology stole fire from the gods to benefit humanity—but as a result of undermining the gods, Prometheus was chained to a rock, where an eagle eternally pecks at his liver. Both stories deal in the business of hubris, with brash innovators using tools to challenge nature's laws. We might not consider fire to be a technology, nor Prometheus a scientist, but the two stories accomplish the same goals by the same means.

Ancient mythology is full of stories about man innovating beyond what the gods intended for us. Daedalus, a mythological artificer, crafted wax wings to escape his prison in Crete and fly across the ocean with his son Icarus. But Icarus, an over-eager flyer, soared too close to the sun. Icarus's wings melted, and he drowned in the ocean as a result of his hubris.

Was Daedalus the first transhumanist? For the same reason some sci-fi critics would argue that Lucian's True History isn't science fiction, they would scoff at the idea of comparing Daedalus (or Prometheus) to Dr. Frankenstein—as long as the science used in the story is unrealistic, or out of the author's intellectual reach, some say, the story is not science fiction. It's well known that the ancients had advanced ideas about astronomy, and delved pretty deep into biological taxonomy, but if Lucian wasn't consciously using that—if Lucian's idea of space hinged mostly on guesswork instead of scientific fact—perhaps he's just another fantasy writer.

But who's to judge whether Daedalus' wax wings or Lucian's skies-sailing ship are unrealistic? Are Asimov's sentient cyborgs any more likely? Wells' time machine isn't exactly in beta testing, and he wrote The Time Machine over a hundred years ago.

Illustration by John Leavitt

As long as we're not basing science fiction on its authors' grasp of physics, it's worth mentioning sci-fi's longest-standing debate: "hard" versus "soft" science fiction. Hatenerds have popularized the notion that social sciences ("soft sciences") aren't rigorous enough to form the backbone of a sci-fi novel. But actually, sci-fi has always used more than "hard science"—physics, chemistry, biology—to accomplish its goals.

Ursula LeGuin exploits the "soft sciences" sociology and anthropology in her world-building sci-fi novels. Asimov's Foundation series arguably turns on sociology more than physics, since its focus is "psychohistory," a branch of mathematical, deterministic sociology. For a long time now, the notion that sci-fi exists to be debated by particle physicists and rocket scientists has been exploded.

Ben Stevens, a Bryn Mawr professor who co-edited the 2015 book Classical Traditions in Science Fiction, thinks we're pretty limited when we talk about science and tech in sci-fi. "If we define science fiction as depending on a technology," he told me, "that technology doesn't have to be modern techno-scientific. It can be any process that transforms unknown natural materials into knowable cultural products. That opens up a wider range of things that can be identified as technology."

In that case, Lucian's True History could be eligible for a long-due Hugo Award. Anthropology is a driving force in Lucian's ethnography of the moon-dwellers. Take a look:

"In the interval, while I was living on the moon, I observed some strange and wonderful things that I wish to speak of. In the first place there is the fact that they are not born of women but of men: They marry men and do not even know the word woman at all! Up to the age of twenty-five each is a wife, and thereafter a husband. They carry their children in the calf of the leg instead of the belly. When conception takes place the calf begins to swell. In course of time they cut it open and deliver the child dead, and then they bring it to life by putting it in the wind with its mouth open."

Lucian goes on to describe the aliens' eating habits, which consist of flying frogs cooked over coals and dark smoke, which the moon-dwellers "snuff up." Although it sounds like a manic dream sequence, Lucian is actually parodying famous "soft" scientists of his time. As his inspiration, Lucian credits the ancient ethnographist Herodotus (5th century BCE), whose wide-spanning taxonomy of ancient civilizations was still a blockbuster during Lucian's age. To set the tone of his work, Lucian in True History satirizes his methods of categorizing and mythologizing ancient peoples. Further back, Aristotle, one of the originators of natural science as we know it, went about his studies by categorizing the flora and fauna he encountered (Darwin did this too). Lucian's alien ethnography, by design, echoes, explores, and critiques soft scientific standards of his time—precisely what modern sci-fi continues to do so well today.

So, if our ancient sci-fi scroller is riffing on contemporary ideas of "soft" sciences (and mixing in a little astronomy to boot), it seems like True History could be sorted into the stacks alongside Frankenstein and Dune. Dr. Justin Meggitt of the Cambridge School of Divinity, who is writing a book about ancient Roman science fiction, expanded on this for me.

"True History shows knowledge of science in a way which may not tick boxes for us. The main way it's scientific, consciously scientific, is that he was responding to the emergence of ethnography, biology, geography," Meggitt said. "When you read the account, the details of how people reproduce on the moon, the layout and geography of the moon, this is picking up on emerging scientific discourse at the time—ordering the things you observe. Not experimental science, descriptive science."

Science meant something completely different in the 2nd century AD, before the scientific method gelled and engineers crafted our modern-day conception of "scientific tools." True History uses aliens, intergalactic battle and its contemporary science to parody the lies Lucian's literary predecessors told in their stories (Herodotus, "The Father of History," is now called "The Father of Lies"). True History is an ironic novel meant to mock the fantastical stories Herodotus and others told under the pretense of truth.

"I tell all kinds of lies in a plausible and misleading way," Lucian brags in the novel's prologue, "But at least I'll be truthful in saying that I am a liar." His novel about journeying to space laughs in the face of our tendency to sensationalize.

James Gunn writes in The Road to Science Fiction, "Science fiction, at its most characteristic, inserts the reader into a world significantly different from the world of the present experience." Essentially, he implies, science fiction is about travel. Traveling from the present to the future, traveling from a human landscape to a robot dystopia, traveling from Earth to Titan. And when we're situated in the distant future, on a distant star with distantly-possible sentient races, we can consider the physical and intellectual distance between now and then, and in the process ourselves.

Darko Suvin, one of the most famous science fiction scholars of all time, wrote in 1979 that sci-fi is "the literature of cognitive estrangement." Its task is distancing us from our assumptions about reality. Its goal is to illuminate now by forcing us to examine the space between now and eventually. Just as science and technology are concrete measures of human ambitions, distant sciences and technologies can teach us about our human impulses.

So, is science fiction an artifact of the ancient world? It's debatable. But, thankfully, we're moving toward a grander notion of science fiction—one that can help stretch the genre to include writers, like Lucian, who may bent the limits of technology and science, even before they fully understood what they were bending.