Friday, August 19, 2011

Essay #9...Lucian..."science-fictional intellectual non-conformism"?



Aubrey Beardsley

Lucian’s True History

Privately printed


The following is the last installment of nine selected informative, thoughtful, and well-written essays regarding science, science fiction, technology, and literature from
Science Fiction Studies .


This analysis proposes that a science-fictional interpretation of True History can reveal more than the limited satirical criticism that views the work merely as a humorous critique of speculations that have become divorced from the facts of the real world. The many estranged worlds of True History reveal a dynamic and disequilibrious relationship between the mind and its imaginative products on the one hand and the real world on the other. If the disparities between ideal and real realms are obvious, Lucian nonetheless implicitly represents the most ancient example of what we have come to know as science-fictional intellectual non-conformism. There are no absolutes for Lucian, only a continuing process of the mind’s creating new conceptions that in turn make the mind more fully conscious of its own workings.

"Lucian's True History as SF"


S.C. Fredericks

March 1976

Science Fiction Studies

After crossing the river, we found something wonderful in the grapevines. The part which came out of the ground, the trunk itself, was stout and well-grown, but the upper part was in each case a woman, entirely perfect from the waist up. Out of their finger-tips grew the branches, and they were full of grapes. When we came up, they welcomed and greeted us. They even kissed us on the lips and everyone that was kissed at once became reeling drunk. They did not suffer us, however, to gather any of the fruit, but cried out in pain when it was plucked. Some of them actually wanted us to embrace them, and two of my comrades complied, but could not get away again. They were held fast by the genitals, which had grown in and struck root. Already branches had grown from their fingers, tendrils entwined them, and they were on the point of bearing fruit like the others any minute.

"The king of the inhabitants of the Sun, Phaethon," said Endymion king of the Moon, "has been at war with us for a long time now. Once upon a time I gathered together the poorest people in my kingdom and undertook to plant a colony on the Morning Star which was empty and uninhabited. Phaethon out of jealousy thwarted the colonization, meeting us halfway at the head of his dragoons. At that time we were beaten, for we were not a match for them in strength, and we retreated. Now, however, I desire to make war again and plant the colony."

Habitues of SF would respond to these two passages from Lucian’s True History1 as if they revealed the kinds of clichés that have made the genre notorious. The first, wittily describing men seduced, then incorporated, by an alien life-form, would fall naturally enough under the rubric "First Encounter." The second might be equally familiar as a paragraph from a 'thirties' "Space Opera" with its commonplace theme of interplanetary imperialism and warfare. Indeed, one critic has written: "I will merely remark that the sprightliness and sophistication of True History make it read like a joke at the expense of nearly all early-modern science fiction, that written between, say, 1910 and 1940."2

This observation compares Lucian and modern SF without neglecting True History’s all-encompassing dimension of irony and satire. It thus has the advantage over one type of SF criticism which has consistently tried to analyze the work solely in terms of what Sam Moskowitz and Damon Knight have called "the sense of wonder." Representatives of this kind of analysis—the list would include J.O. Bailey, R.L. Green, and, most recently, P. Versins in his Encyclopédie article on Lucian—respond to the sheer newness and imaginativeness of Lucian’s speculative ideas: a flight to the moon, a well and a mirror in that other world where doings on earth may be heard or watched respectively, ice sailing, heavier-than-air flight by the lunar Volplaners, tree-top voyaging in Book 2.3 Indeed it is fair to say that almost everything in the work is touched with a sense of wonder in a strictly fictional manner because Lucian’s ironic narrator constantly registers his amazement and incredulity at each new experience during his voyage extraordinaire. This interest in the strange and bizarre, and the thrill of experiencing it, is built into the very fictional structure of the work.

Yet it is also true that these speculations are never proposed as scientific or any other kind of realizable possibilities; they remain, as the author tells the reader explicitly in the Preface, only intellectual amusements, valuable for lubricating the mind while relaxing it from the weary concerns of everyday existence. As such, they remain in the realm of literary fantasy and do indeed resemble the "almost anything is conceivable" speculations which appeared in the "wonder tales" of American magazine SF of the thirties and forties—provided that one ignores Lucian’s self-effacing irony.

Consequently, this "amazing ideas" approach can take us only so far. It pinpoints one major reason for Lucian’s new-found popularity in the Renaissance when creative thinkers like More and Erasmus were inspired to translate many of his works and imitate them in their own writings. The Renaissance world and Lucian’s narrator alike shared a thirst for new knowledge and new experiential horizons.4 It also suggests why Lucian seems, almost uniquely among the ancients, so "modern" in outlook, inasmuch as the modern world since the voyages of Columbus and the Copernican revolution has grown accustomed to having its imaginative limits transcended time and time again with each new scientific discovery. But this kind of criticism cannot show if there is a deeper, more strictly intellectual purpose at work in True History, nor if there is a science fictional significance to its form and general import as distinct from this or that particular item of content. Elements of spontaneous daydream and fairy-tale, in displaced form, are certainly present, but there is also a more rigorous cognitive side to the work which precludes our allying Lucian solely with the dreaming pole of SF represented by modern writers like Burroughs, Kuttner, and Farmer.

A more fruitful intellectual approach to True History might be borrowed from the "history of ideas" criticism originated by A.O. Lovejoy and G. Boas, and adapted to fictional moon voyages by Marjorie Nicolson. In this kind of criticism it is assumed that literature registers important changes in a given society’s imagination due to new scientific or philosophical ideas; literature thus acts as a barometer of major alterations in the symbolic potential of any age.

Certainly there are sciences exploited for imaginative effect in the work. Geography appears in the opening of the travelogue although it is almost at once transformed into a totally imaginative kind that mocks contemporary romancers who fabricated outrageously fictive accounts of voyages and travels for their readers.5 Astronomy makes an appearance in the famous account of the narrator’s trip to the moon in Book 1, and although Lucian’s knowledge is totally conventional and derivative at least he does describe the heavenly bodies as other worlds on a par with our own (§1:10).6 Anthropology and natural history (and weird combinations of both) are prevalent throughout the work, but in neither of these sciences did the Greeks make their most outstanding empirical contributions. Throughout its long history in Greek culture the anthropological mode of thought remained, like history, a speculative rather than empirical science, and too often it seems to involve conceptualizations of folk beliefs and myths—conventional themes of the Golden Age and the Noble Savage are displaced onto foreign peoples who are then compared with the home culture for critical/satirical purposes.7 With the notable exceptions of Aristotle and Theophrastus, natural history seldom escaped the Greek anthropocentric outlook, and Lucian is superior to his contemporaries in his sensitivity to animal life like insects, spiders, mollusks, and fishes.8

Even in such limited cases as these, True History reveals how significantly both the human and physical sciences had affected the Greek imagination by altering the forms of its thinking as well as its content. The Greek worldview had developed profoundly since Homer, and the geographical, astronomical, biological, and anthropological journey of Lucian’s narrator is of a completely different intellectual order than the non-conceptual, still largely mythicized landscape traversed by Odysseus.9

However, this line of reasoning will not take us very far because it restricts the scope of Lucian’s imagination too severely. Besides the sciences already mentioned, Lucian touches on theology, philosophy, literary scholarship, utopian thought, and historiography. All of these are essential to the cognitive appeal of the work, and for that reason a much more comprehensive view of the Greek accomplishment in the world of ideas is necessary if we are to judge the total science-fictional impact of True History properly.

Here we must take into account the entire tradition of Greek intellectual enquiry from Thales to Galen. The Greeks’ accumulation of positive knowledge in these centuries was a considerable improvement over that of their Near Eastern predecessors.10 More significant, the Greeks discovered many methods for acquiring new knowledge, made them explicit, and so formulated their principles that they could be taught to others. Thus to their credit go many intellectual disciplines which can be termed "sciences" in the sense of organized forms of investigation which can lead to new results within their own domains: philosophy, theology, history, literary scholarship, linguistics, grammar, and political science, as well as a number of practical and theoretical sciences in the strict modern sense.11 For this reason alone they may justly be regarded as the prototypical theorists in Western tradition: "With the Greeks a new and most important element did enter science. This is the element of speculative philosophy, which constitutes the specific quality, the real originality, of Greek science."12 This is what is suggested by the title of Bruno Snell’s classic, The Discovery of the Mind:13 the human intellect had encountered the world of ideas, entities which could be identified, analyzed, and classified by the workings of reason. It is this most abstract dimension of Greek thought—this recognition of a non-material order of reality, distinct from ordinary, commonsense experience but open to rational enquiry—to which Lucian responds in True History.

The essential function of Lucian’s fiction is epistemological-- to focus on this rationalizing and conceptualizing tendency in Greek thought. His is the greatest satire in antiquity about what can happen when theoretical speculation, unhampered by personal observation, experience, and common sense, runs rampant.14 We should not be so quick to term his attitude "unscientific" or "anti-intellectual" as to recognize in it a sound corrective to the perpetual vulnerability of Greek intellectuals, scientists included, in this area, for much of their otherwise brilliant work was vitiated by a habit of arbitrarily erecting all-encompassing theories on the basis of a priori convictions. In Ronald Paulson’s evaluation, "Man, things as they are, and things as they are not make up the elements of Lucian’s world; and in this triangle the emphasis clearly falls on the overstructured life and mind materialized in the elaborate structure of things as they are not."15 Thus even if it is self-purportedly not "true," the True History is certainly "cognitive" in its overall intention. Lucian’s satire, even at its most facile, is intellectual rather than moral or social.16 It is satire of, and about, ideas.

This will go far to explain the presence in True History of so many literary parodies as motivated by something other than the impulse of our writer to show off his knowledge in the manner of a rhetorician of the Second Sophistic. Most often Lucian does not directly satirize the intellectual disciplines we have been talking about; rather he indirectly imitates, with distortions for humorous effect, the literary modes of expression employed by such disciplines.17 Here, too, we must allow for a cognitive/epistemological purpose, for the recent work of G.D. Kiremidjian on the "Aesthetics of Parody"18 abandons the conventional but uncritical assumption that parodies are only humorous attacks against earlier writers’ works. This author identifies parody as an essentially epistemological form which clarifies, and makes us more fully aware of, the manner in which we acquire knowledge. Thus, whether we speak of Lucian "imitating" or "satirizing," the object of his criticism is not content, but form; not a thing, but an idea and the expression of an idea. This is also why the older source criticism--the endless cataloguing of items that Lucian read or used—is bound to be sterile, for it can get no further than to say Lucian is derivative; it has no means of describing the intellectual dynamics of True History.

However, we may be doing a disservice to the author even in so attempting to defend his reputation. For in concentrating on either the fanciful or the satiric/parodic we may ignore the fact that Lucian also often achieves an authentic sense of reality. One of the older interpreters notes how "through the whole narrative he holds us captive by his air of verisimilitude."19 This is what Scholes and Kellogg mean by their technical term, "the mimetic": "The mimetic ... owes its allegiance, not to truth of fact but to truth of sensation and environment, depending on observation of the present rather than investigation of the past."20 An excellent instance of "truth of sensation and environment" occurs immediately after the Preface in which it is boldly stated that the story is going to be entirely a lie. Then the author performs a perfect about-face and introduces a "realistic" (in the strict literary sense) rationale for his fictive narrator’s travels:

One day, setting out from the Pillars of Hercules and heading for the western ocean with a fair wind, I went avoyaging. The motive and purpose of my journey lay in my intellectual activity and desire for adventure, and in my wish to find out what the end of the ocean was, and who the people were that lived on the other side. On this account I put aboard a good store of provisions, stowed water enough, enlisted in the venture fifty of my acquaintances who were like-minded with myself, got together also a great quantity of arms, shipped the best sailing-master to be had at a big inducement, and put my boat—she was a pinnace—in trim for a long and difficult voyage. (§1:5-6)

The passage, in fact, deceptively combines two levels of realism: the first part establishes the credentials, perspective, and motivation of the narrator, and makes him seem a reliable witness; the second is involved with the realia of the ship, its crew, and the first days of the voyage (subsequently to lead into a storm). There is nothing to suggest fantasy here. This is all matter-of-fact and empirically reasonable.

The ability to write fiction in this mimetic mode remained limited in ancient fiction according to Scholes and Kellogg, who reinforce the general conclusions of Erich Auerbach’s classic, Mimesis. In this particular quality Lucian has to be recognized as a master for his time, though he is by no means as sophisticated as modern SF authors, for the modern novel has had a tremendous positive influence on the competence of writers to deliver mimetic touches.21

However, there is a second type of mimesis in True History, based not on our own normal/empirical experience, but on an alternative experience which is merely parallel to our own. An example of what I mean occurs after the story has already become quite fantastic. The ship suddenly takes flight and the narrative shifts to an extraterrestrial perspective:

For seven days and seven nights we sailed the air, and on the eighth day we saw a great country in it, resembling an island, bright and round and shining with a great light. Running in there and anchoring, we went ashore, and on investigating found that the land was inhabited and cultivated. By day nothing was in sight from the place, but as night came on we began to see many other islands hard by, some larger, some smaller, and they were like fire in color. We also saw another country below, with cities in it and rivers and seas and forests and mountains. This we inferred to be our own world. (§1:10).

Here Lucian cleverly understates his narrator’s first encounter with the moon and other heavenly bodies. The catalogue of extraterrestrial wonders will come later in the story; now he concentrates an our sense of familiarity, with "islands" and a land which is "inhabited and cultivated." The last sentence of the passage further shows that our world, from the narrator’s stance on the moon, appears as just another land "below," but it is otherwise indistinguishable from the extraterrestrial lands.

Thus there are two types of mimesis: one imitating the "zero world" of normal, verifiable experience,22 the other creating an analogy to normal experience in another, estranged world. Whereas the first type is an imitation of life, the second is a life-like reification of an impossibility. For this very reason, Lucian seems to be at the opposite cognitive pole from the ancient pseudo-scientific romancers. Lucian protests from the outset that everything in his narrative is false, then provides us with a sense of the real throughout the fictive journey in our own as well as other worlds. He does so not in order to deceive us into believing his own fictions, but to make us return from his various fictional worlds with the realization that it is easy for the artificial and unreal to appear natural and real.

This, then, seems to be a critical place for providing a new, more satisfying rationale for Lucian as a prototypical SF writer. Because of its powerful mimetic dimension his narrative must not be reduced solely to being satire nor to being a sequence of literary parodies. Like a modern SF writer, Lucian takes the sciences and other cognitive disciplines available to him and pictures alternate worlds which can dislocate the intellects of his readers in such a way as to make them aware of how many of their normal convictions about things were predicated upon cliché thinking and stereotyped response --in areas as diverse as religious belief, aesthetic judgment, and philosophical theory.23 The "places" visited by the protagonist-narrator are, therefore, intellectual loci, and much more of Lucian’s geography is figurative then literal. We really travel with the narrator through a sequence of conceptions and speculations which comment satirically and critically on men’s habits of mind in the real world.

Consequently, True History may properly be regarded as SF because Lucian often achieves that sense of "cognitive estrangement" which Darko Suvin has defined as the generic distinction of SF, that is, the depiction of an alternate world, radically unlike our own, but relatable to it in terms of significant knowledge.24

The most significant and detailed of Lucian’s analogical universes25 is that of the heavens, and it is unfortunate that so much critical energy has been expended on the fanciful interplanetary flight and not enough on Lucian’s portrayal of the workings of an alternate universe. The flight proper is only the rhetorical vehicle, of little fictional importance to the work itself, while the real tenor is the moon world.

The passage in which this world appears may be analyzed conveniently into two sections. The first (§1:11_21) deals with the war between the moon and the sun, both sprawling, mongrel empires analogous to the Hellenistic monarchies which antedated Rome. Not only does Lucian describe the armies on both sides, their offensive and defensive weapons, their mounts, their tactics and strategies, but he enters this world thoroughly and rigorously enough to give a quasi-medical description of a wound (§1:16) and the terms of the treaty which concludes the war (§1:20).

The second part of the passage (§1:22_25) turns to the alternate anthropology and biology of the lunar world. We find an account of the natives’ clothing (how manufactured and how worn, §1:25), their diet (§1:23), their physiology and internal organs (§1:24), and their distinctive alimentary, urinary, excretory, and reproductive systems (§1:22_23); Lucian’s subtlety extends so far that he can go beyond the idea that the lunar folk are all males to say that they do not even have the word for "women," just the merest hint of an analogical language (§1:22) which corresponds to its own distinct culture.

The lunar world is also important for introducing the motif of giganticism. Mosquitoes, ants, spiders, birds, vegetables, and cloud centaurs are all of monstrous proportions, and their huge dimensions are, in turn, reinforced by the outrageously large numbers and varieties of alien beasts and quasi-human forms which are reported. This is, of course, a specimen of the grotesque in literature, a disruption of normal perspective for the imaginative/cognitive effect of making us rethink the function of things and their relationship with one another -- e.g., ants used as battle mounts, vegetables for boats, and nuts and seeds for weapons and armor.26 Giganticism as Lucian employs it thus leads to a distancing effect, so that we can come to view our own behavior with greater detachment and irony when we see it projected onto radically different beings like the Moonites. Warfare, another motif which recurs, suggests the same kind of distancing effect.27

Thus, the lunar world represents a parallel "other world" with all the complexities of earth itself. This is a fully articulated analogical universe whose differences from our own operate at more than one level, illustrating Darko Suvin’s view that "SF takes off from a fictional (‘literary’) hypothesis and develops it with extrapolating and totalizing (‘scientific’) vigor."28 But it also exemplifies one parameter of Lucian’s style, for he never again portrays another world with such thoroughness of detail; his subsequent alternate worlds are deliberately conceived more sketchily.

Other universes may be evaluated more briefly. The second total world, the inside of the whale (§1:30 2:2), contrasts not only with the real world, but also with the extraterrestrial one just preceding it. Here the narrator encounters two Greeks, father and son, living apart from other men. This is a wonderful anticipation of the Robinson Crusoe genre because these two men have been able to construct a complete civilized (i.e., Greek) existence by imposing their own social norms and technological knowledge (e.g., viticulture) on nature, and they have functioned as fully civilized men though isolated for 27 years. This passage is, therefore, science-fictional because it shows how man alters his environment, how he molds his world-to shape his needs and his values.29 It is a microcosmic model of normal culture which offers a sort of minimum definition of civilization, including its inherent propensity for war (as soon as the castaways join forces with the narrator and his allies, they make war on the various fish-and-mollusk races in the whale and totally exterminate them). It also confronts the pastoral ideal satirically and critically, for the narrator soon experiences overwhelming boredom in this allegedly idyllic existence, terms it a "prison" (§1:39), and applies his ingenuity to escape. His negative feelings about this forced sojourn in a "closed" universe are, therefore, harmonious with his original desire for an "open" universe with its possibilities for exploration and new knowledge.

Many of the analogical universes represent alternate cultures rather than entire worlds. Among these, the most important is Elysium, the Isle of the Blessed (§2:5-27). It is an example of utopian fiction, but its entire value is satirical inasmuch as only the dead can inhabit this perfect society; the living, as the narrator soon discovers, are disqualified from citizenship. Besides radically shifting the perspective from living to dead men, Lucian includes all manner of cognitive disciplines within his critical scope and lets us see their limits by contrasting them with the rules and lessons of everyday real life.30 His favorite technique in these cases is to take a famous dead personage about whom there has raged some theoretical controversy, then let him respond to his critics. In conversation with the narrator, Homer, for example, refutes all the theories of the Alexandrian critics about his real name, his birthplace, and details surrounding poetic composition (§2:20); Pythagoras and Empedocles are handled more briefly in the same manner. In this way, in this lengthy and witty section of the travelogue, Lucian manages to comment on many fields of organized knowledge: philosophy of many schools (§2:17-18), poets and poetry, legal science and the law courts, historians, theologians, and myth theorists (especially Euhemerists).

Lucian’s fictional utopia is more like its modern counterpart than its Platonic inspiration because he acknowledges that the perfect society is only a speculative/imaginative possibility. Its value lies in its being a model by means of which human ambitions and yearnings for a more perfect existence can be judged in light of the norms of everyday, imperfect society.

Soon after being exiled from Elysium, the travelers reach Tartarus (§2:29-32), the Underworld of Greek mythology, here described as a dystopia—the first of its kind in SF—to contrast with utopian Elysium. The pumpkin-pirates, nut-sailors, and dolphin-riders (§2:27-39) very briefly suggest still other alternate human cultures.

Still another group of alternate worlds is consciously nonhuman in conception. First, there are two "metaphorical universes," thoroughly dominated by one recurrent image: Dionysus’ wineland (§1:7) and Galatea’s milk-and-cheese land (§2:3). Here Lucian’s description of landscapes comprised totally of wine or milk products respectively—although in origin based on well known myths—suggests an alternate ecology (all of it potable or edible). All the other nonhuman worlds are concerned to portray alien races distinct from, but analogous to, men. The simpler examples include the vine-nymphs (§1:8-9); the bullheads, a race of minotaurs (§2:44); the asslegs, a cannibalistic race of shape-changing women (§2:46); and the race of feuding giants on floating islands (§1:40-42). Although all of these "monsters" were obviously inspired by myths and legends, in Lucian they belong to a different intellectual order altogether, for there is not even the slightest trace of supernatural or mythic atmosphere about them; rather, they are scrutinized in terms of fictive natural history and anthropology.

The men of Corkland and their country (§2:4) involve a combination of the alternate ecology and alternate human culture types. The creatures of Lamptown (§1:29) are even more remarkable since Lucian has here created the image of a non-animate race going about the business of civilization. It is the merest hint at the robot theme, for these creatures are the products of human technology, tools (the narrator even has a discussion with his own lamp about things at home!), which are envisioned as alternate life-forms. The most intriguing instance in this entire category, however, is the Isle of Dreams (§2:32_35), which is populated by a nonmaterial race whose universe works by dream logic, so that Lucian can suggest a set of alternate physical laws (really, in fact, mythico-religious laws) for this particular universe, and by so doing he anticipates the modern "weird tale."

Finally, two lands are totally and explicitly literary illusions: Aristophanes’ Cloudcuckooland from his comedy, Birds (§1:29), and Circe’s isle from Homer’s Odyssey (§2:35_36). Both of these offer contrasts with the other imaginary lands in such a way as to keep the reader conscious of fictional illusions; he is not allowed to forget the artificiality and contrivance of all the alternate worlds. The atmosphere of verisimilitude is thereby disrupted, and Lucian signals his reader that he cannot benefit from this narrative by thinking of it as "real" in any sense—any values will have to be solely literary or imaginative ones. These two worlds thus reinforce the ironic Preface, linking Lucian to "meta-fictional" literature in which a literary narrative includes a second-order commentary on the nature, value, or truth of literature itself.

Still, there remains the "other world" across the Western ocean which was the original object of the narrator’s journey but is never reached. In Elysium (§2:27) Rhadamanthus prophesied that the journey would ultimately take him there, but of course in the famous non-ending of True History the narrator puts the reader off with his last lie by saying that the adventures in the "other world" will be reserved for another volume. Lucian is letting us know, of course, that he can go on generating these fanciful worlds without limit, and the world of the imagination—unlike the real world of late antiquity32—remains indeterminately open.

Hence, if we look at Lucian one way, he is an intellectual pluralist. Like the philosophers, he is impressed—and is the last good mind in Graeco-Roman antiquity to be so impressed—by the accomplishment of the Greek intellectual tradition. Like the scientists, he possesses an inquisitive mind which shows traces of the old Ionian pre-Socratic curiosity about the tremendous variety in nature and human society alike. With imaginative writers, he is an authentic fantasist, influenced immensely by Aristophanes and Athenian Old Comedy with its bold flights of fancy intermingled with a serious interest in intellectual issues. Lucian’s fable even questions the unity of truth (is it one or many?) and the problematical relationships among diverse approaches to truth.

But if we look at him from another angle, he is a thorough skeptic who recognizes that there is an element of make-believe in every manifestation of mind. He is particularly aware of the prevalence of myths and the perpetual recrudescence of old myths in new disguised forms (e.g., philosophical utopia instead of mythical Elysium), and—a closely related phenomenon—he is aware of the degeneration of thought into pseudo-science which gives a scientific format to imaginary themes of every origin. He also recognizes the paradox that results from the concept of "truth" among his philosophical predecessors: "true" had a tendency to become identified with "real," yet once a product of reason was hypostasized and regarded as possessing a metaphysical reality, it was also doomed to appear unreal when judged in light of common sense and the workings of everyday, normal life.

The preceding analysis proposes, in conclusion, that a science-fictional interpretation of True History can take us a step beyond the more limited kind of satirical criticism which views the work as a humorous critique of those speculations which have become divorced from the facts of the real world. The many estranged worlds of True History reveal a dynamic and disequilibrious relationship between the mind and its imaginative products on the one hand and the real world on the other. If the disparities between the ideal and real realms are obvious, Lucian yet implicitly represents the most ancient example of what we have come to know as SF intellectual non-conformism. There are no absolutes for Lucian, only a continuing process of the mind creating new conceptions which in turn make the mind more fully conscious of its own workings. His is a mind both open and self-reflective.


1. The two passages are condensed from the standard English translation by A.M. Harmon in Volume 1 of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Lucian (Cambridge, Mass., 1913), True History §1:8 and §1:12 respectively (the references are to the standard book: paragraph divisions). Harmon unfortunately bowdlerizes Lucian’s best obscene puns and fantastic sexual ideas. Paul Turner’s recent translation, True History and Lucius or The Ass (Midland Books, Indiana University Press, 1974) is lively and attractive but not literal enough for my purposes here, and its format is not congenial to scholarly reference.

I have checked all references and translations against the Greek text in Volume 1 of the Oxford Classical Text edition of Lucian by M.D. Macleod (1972).

I wish to thank R.D. Mullen for originally suggesting the topic of this paper.

2. Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell (New York, 1960), p. 28.

3. The best account of Lucian’s fantastic ideas may be found in J. Bompaire, Lucien Écrivain (Paris, 1958), pp. 657-77. Although the author is overly fond of source criticism (a fault he shares with the general run of Lucianic scholarship in classical philology), this work remains the most important single book on Lucian.

4. In his second sentence (§1:5), the fictional narrator identifies as the motive and purpose of his journey his "intellectual activity and desire for adventure," and his "wish to find out what the end of the ocean was, and who the people were that lived on the other side."

5. The ancient testimonia state that True History was intended as a parody of Antonius Diogenes’ lost work, Of the Wonderful Things Beyond Thule (whose protagonist also reached the moon). For geography as a Greek science, see J.0. Thomson, History of Ancient Geography (Cambridge, 1948). Morris Cohen and I.E. Drabkin, A Source Book in Greek Science (New York, 1948), pp. 143-81, emphasize the empirical results of Greek geographical science.

6. At that, however, the heavenly bodies are conceived as islands in the sky, and this is just one detail which suggests that Lucian is deliberately returning to pre-Socratic natural philosophers like Anaximander and Anaxagoras—perhaps a satirical anachronism.

7. See A.O. Lovejoy and George Boas, A Documentary History of Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore, 1935), and H.C. Baldry, The Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought (Cambridge, 1965).

8. In a very important article, Jerry Standard, "Lucianic Natural History," in Classical Studies Presented to Ben Edwin Perry (Urbana, Ill., 1969; Illinois Studies in Language and Literature, vol. 58), pp. 15-26, demonstrates convincingly that Lucian was a competent observer of nature and was acutely sensitive to details of anatomy and animal behavior—so that even his most wildly fictitious and imaginary plants and animals are enlivened by quasi-realistic touches. Witness, e.g., the narrator’s dissection and inspection of one of the fishes native to the river of wine on Dionysus’ island (§1:7). Cf. J.D. Rolleston, "Lucian and Medicine," Janus 20 (1915): 83_108.

9. See Bompaire (Note 3), p. 659, note 2, for a lengthy catalogue of parallels for True History in the Odyssey.

10. Documentation at length in Cohen and Drabkin (Note 5), and in Benjamin Farrington, Greek Science: Its Meaning For Us (Penguin Books, 2nd edn revised for the 2nd time, 1969). Both of these outstanding books were explicitly conceived as revisionist in order to correct a view of Greek science which had become a cliché—that it did not produce empirical results, did not use proper observational or experimental techniques, and led only to impractical theories which were both unverified and unverifiable.

11. Farrington (Note 10), rightly includes these ancient disciplines within the scope of his book. For theology specifically, see Werner Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers (Oxford, 1947); for history, I.B. Bury, The Ancient Greek Historians (New York, 1909); for literary scholarship, R. Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship from the Beginnings to the End of the Hellenistic Age (Oxford, 1968).

12. Benjamin Farrington, Science in Antiquity (Oxford, 2nd edn, 1969), p. 17. This book emphasizes the theoretical and speculative side of Greek science and especially its associations with Greek philosophical speculations, whereas the other book, cited above in note 10, emphasizes technology and practical results. S. Sambursky, The Physical World of Late Antiquity (London, 1962), p. x, speaks of "the extraordinary flair of the Greek mind for rational speculation in the right direction."

13. English trans., T.G. Rosenmeyer (Harper Torchbooks, 1960), esp. pp. 227-45, "The Origin of Scientific Thought."

14. His major competition appeared some 600 years earlier: Aristophanes’ The Clouds, which described the first "think tank," Socrates’ phrontisterion, a precursor of Swift’s Laputa and Bacon’s Solomon’s House.

15. The Fictions of Satire (Baltimore, 1967), p. 42.

16. I concur with Darko Suvin, "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," College English 34 (1972-73): 377, when he identifies Lucian as a cognitive writer whose satirical/critical perspective combines "a belief in the potentialities of reason with methodical doubt in the most significant cases."

17. For a thorough but mechanical account of Lucian’s parodies, see Bomnaire, (Note 3), pp. 599-655. Lucian states in the Preface (§1:2) that everything in his story is a "more or less comical parody of one or another of the poets, historians, and philosophers of old, who have written much that smacks of miracles and fables." However, as I argue later, the author’s self-announced intention notwithstanding, the work as a fictional unity is more than just a sequence of parodies.

18. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 28 (1969): 231_42.

19. F.G. Allinson, Lucian: Satirist and Artist (Boston, 1926; Our Debt to Greece and Rome, vol. 8), p. 118. For further examples of realism in Lucian, see Bompaire (Note 3), pp. 471_536.

20. The Nature of Narrative (Oxford, 1966), p. 13.

21. Lucian’s own brand of realism is based, rather, on the clarity and simplicity of his style and the near perfection of his Attic diction. He had also mastered the technical lessons of the Platonic dialogue which is the most perfect representative of the mimetic in ancient Greek literature. Yet it is also an authentic part of his enduring appeal that Lucian reads as well in translation as in the original Greek.

22. I borrow the term, "zero world," from Suvin (Note 16), derived in turn from Stanislaw Lem. Cf. Scholes and Kellogg (Note 20), p. 113, who view True History as a long narrative satire which is "continually threatened both by the aesthetic impulse to tell an interesting story and by the representational and illustrative tendencies to focus attention on either the real or the ideal world."

23. Paulson (Note 15), p. 41, remarks: "...(Lucian’s) purpose is the very general one of discomfiting the reader, shaking up his cherished values, disrupting his orthodoxy."

24. Suvin (Note 16), esp. pp. 372-5 and note 4. Cf. his more recent article, "Science Fiction and the Genological jungle," Genre 6 (1973): 251-73. The expression has also been taken up by Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation (Notre Dame and London, 1975), pp. 29 and 46-7.

25. For the "analogical model" and analogical universes in SF, see Suvin, "Poetics" (Note 16), pp. 379-80, and "Genological Jungle" (Note 24), pp. 264-5.

26. Examples of giganticism besides moon flora and fauna: the giants on floating islands (§1:40_42); the gigantic craft of the pumpkin-pirates and nut-sailors (§2:37_38); the great kingfisher and its egg (§2:40_41), a precursor of the Roc in the Arabian Nights.

27. The examples besides the war between Phaethon and Endymion: the war with the fish races inside the whale (§1:35_38); the feuding giants on islands (§1:40_42); pumpkin-pirates, nut-sailors, and dolphin-riders (§2:37_39).

28. "Poetics" (Note 16), p. 374.

29. 1 acknowledge a debt to Fredric Jameson, "Generic Discontinuities in SF," SFS 1 (1973): 58.

30. See John Ferguson, Utopias of the Classical World (Ithaca, 1975), pp. 174_6, for Lucian’s Elysium in the history of ancient utopian literature. The author suggests that Lucian’s parody of utopia has a critical purpose: "Political theory which ignores the hard facts of material existence is in the last resort sterile" (p. 176).

31. The notion of another continent or island outside the boundaries of the known world of course goes back ultimately to Plato’s description of Atlantis in the dialogues Timaeus and Critias. Ferguson (Note 30), passim, demonstrates that later Greek thought took the theme up mostly for utopian speculations, transferring descriptions of better human societies to imaginary landscapes. The theme remains speculative until late pagan/ early Christian times when it finally degenerates into the pseudo-scientific conviction that such places really existed.

32. Considering the period in which he wrote, Lucian should be given all due credit for the freshness and vigor of his intellect. On the one hand, ancient science in the second century was, at best, in its senescence, although the period is famous for two scientific monuments—the medical corpus of Galen and the geocentric astronomy of Ptolemy—both of which unfortunately came to impede the progress of modern science because of their tremendous prestige. On the other hand, Lucian’s age was clearly falling back into a reliance on the religious consciousness, in pagan and Christian thought alike, as well as in the numerous quasi-religious philosophies of the times. See E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge, 1965), for a discussion of the increasing irrationalism in the era.

The truly remarkable fact is that Lucian so often surmounts the limits of his times in True History and other works: cognitive limits of Greek speculative thought and of ancient education with its excessive rhetorical emphases, as well as the limits inherent in the audience of the Second Sophistic. Despite Edward Gibbon’s famous assessment of the period of the Antonine emperors as an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity for Roman citizenry as a whole, it was undeniably a dull lackluster era in terms of literature and ideas. Anachronism and archaism were the dominant modes of sensibility in literature, and higher culture in general was being stifled by the worship of tradition. For the intellectual sterility of the age, see B.A. van Groningen, "General Literary Tendencies in the Second Century A.D.," Mnemosyne 18 (1965): 41-56. Paulson (Note 15), p. 41, remarks: "Lucian is...the epitome of the satirist who writes at what he takes to be a time of extreme stodginess and reaction, when values have become standardized and rigid."

Lucian of Samosata

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