Reviews of True History (ca. 175 CE) and related work

True History (ca. 175 CE)

Lucian of Samosata (writer).

Read in 2020.

Read in Francis Hickes’s English translation, first published posthumously in 1634.

Lucian describes a fantastic journey in the style of The Odyssey (ca. 700 BCE) that he admits up front never took place. Among other scenes, it features a battle between the peoples of the Sun and Moon that is even greater in scale than Xerxes’s invasion of Greece in The Histories (440 BCE), with the braying of asses used in place of trumpets.

In book two, as in The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE), there’s a sequence describing the afterlife. In this case it’s life on the Fortunate Isles, where only heroes are supposed to dwell, but the judgements of Rhadamanthus are more ironic than those in Sumer or Babylonia:

Only Plato was not present, for they said he dwelled in a city framed by himself, observing the same rule of government and laws as he had prescribed for them to live under.

Homer, the legendary national poet who composed The Odyssey, is there on the Isles, but in another irony, it turns out he’s not Greek. He’s actually Babylonian, with the Armenian name “Tigranes”. He was abducted by Greeks who called him only homeros, meaning “hostage”. Similarly, Odysseus himself is present, but hires Lucian as a courier to deliver a letter to Calypso, stating his attention to elope from the Isles and return to her, because the rest of his famous journey had been a mistake.

It works on several levels: It’s an imaginative pastiche, at times very funny; it’s an important prototype of Bakhtinian carnivalesque writing and science fiction; it’s an excellent satire of the ostensible histories of the time, specifically of how they mixed in fiction; and finally, it’s metafiction, commenting upon its own falsehood (openly in its preface, much more subtly elsewhere) and thus delivering an important truth about itself, absent in most fiction. The title, of course, is satirical.

Though the work is thus important, Lucian’s imagination is not unique. It expresses the specific brokenness of his society, just like Herodotus (“the story-writer”, whom Lucian places in a kind of hell). For example, female dryads lure and trap men by their penises, and the female Onosceleans at the other end of the story basically do the same. Compare the male-only society of the Dendritans—one of the peoples of the Moon and implicitly another kind of dryad—which is much less sinister and able to reproduce by planting their testicles as if they were literally nuts. Another species on the Moon, also exclusively male, has popliteal vaginae and universal pederasty. If Lucian means to mock Greek or Roman society by this image, it is not clear; on the contrary, he seems to exemplify the Archaic-/Classical-era Greek misogynistic view of pederasty as the ideal form of free love, specifically including an age difference between the partners. Rhadamanthus forbids only “to come near a boy when he is past eighteen years of age”.

Lucian’s moral judgement, like the work itself, instead concerns honesty above all else. On his version of the Fortunate Isles, everyone condemns Socrates for his hypocritical denial of being a pederast, whereas Achilles is “held to be the best man” because he couples “openly in the eyes of all men, both with females and male kind, and no man holds it for any dishonesty”. As is to be expected, Lucian’s judgement is fluid and Socrates evidently redeems himself in battle against a band of anthiheroes. He is rewarded with a garden for philosophical debate, which he gives the name Necracademia, “the academe of death”.

I like this picture of Socrates and the other old heroes, preserved in Lucian’s appropriately irreverent language, late in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was the last of Machiavelli’s so-called “Five Good Emperors”, the last effective rulers of the Roman Empire before it went into terminal political recession. The True History, though it is far from true, is a snapshot of classical antiquity smiling at us forever from its oppressive and decadent height. Lucian, already old, aware of his mortality and being a cheeky bastard, could not resist climbing into the frame and reserving his own place on the Fortunate Isles:

[T]hey comforted me much in telling me that before many years were past I should be with them again, and showed me a chair and a bed prepared for me against the time to come near unto persons of the best quality.

In the words of Katelis Viglas, Lucian here “tests the limits of ancient civilization”. I cannot tell whether the abrupt ending of the second book, and the unfulfilled promise of a sequel, was another metafictional joke or the first signal of the fall of the empire.

References here: Don Quixote (1605), Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

fiction text

“The Placement of Lucian’s Novel True History in the Genre of Science Fiction” (2016)

Katelis Viglas (writer).

Read in 2020.

What is missing is pointing out the specific characteristics that would lead to the placement of True History at the starting point of Science Fiction. We are going to highlight two of these features: first, the operation of “cognitive estrangement”, which aims at providing the reader with the perception of the difference between the convention and the truth, and second, the use of strange innovations (“novum”) that verify the value of Lucian’s work by connecting it to historicity.

Based on Darko Suvin’s theories.

non-fiction text