A True Story: Lucian of Samosata is Not Science-Fiction
Time for a strange rant. A very strange rant. But bear with me, because this is serious business.
A True Story, by Lucian of Samosata is not Science-Fiction.
What on earth am I talking about? Well, it was one of those Wikipedia rabbit holes. I was reading about George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman (I had just finished the series – it’s awesome, incidentally), when I noticed that the name ‘Flashman’ had first appeared in a second century classical text. So I followed up the article, and discovered A True Story, by Lucian of Samosata. A Greek prose novella (as written by a Syrian), which the Wikipedia article breathlessly claims as the earliest known example of Science-Fiction. Why, it has space-travel and aliens!
So I read the (translated) story, and firmly decided that Wikipedia’s references are stretching things to breaking point.
(Also, the ‘Flashman’ in Lucian has nothing to do with the Flashman of Fraser or Hughes. It’s simply one possible translation of the Greek, referring to a Sun person who signed the peace-treaty with the Moon people. But I digress).
I am sceptical of the Wikipedia claim because A True Story does not engage with – or even handwave – scientific knowledge. It is merely an absurdist satire-adventure, that just happens to include scenes set in space. Think Gulliver’s Travels, only sillier – and while I will happily include Swift (or this) under the general heading of Speculative Fiction, I draw the line at Science-Fiction.
There’s no science in it, at any point, in either plot or setting – which means it doesn’t even pass for a Douglas Adams of the Ancient World. And while modern science did not exist in the second century… Ancient Science was certainly a thing, whereby people reasoned about the world in a way that did not rely on the divine or the supernatural. As it is, there is no attempt in A True Story to engage with the Natural Philosophy of Aristotle or Lucretius. The former would certainly have been relevant to this story. After all, according to Aristotle, travelling into space would involve passing through the sphere of fire before you even get to the Moon.
(Seriously. Dante’s Divine Comedy has a better claim to the Science-Fiction label than this. If A True Story is Science-Fiction because it just happens to include scenes in space, then Tolkien’s Roverandom is Science-Fiction, Moon-spiders and all. Similarly, if something is science-fiction because it satirises the ideas of intellectuals, The Clouds by Aristophanes pre-dates Lucian by centuries).
So if A True Story isn’t Science-Fiction, what is it?
The easiest categorisation is Fantasy. After all, it is self-consciously describing Weird Stuff that Lucian knows full-well is false. He even tells us it is false at the start of the book. But while that is a convenient (and more accurate) classification, I still feel that this is inadequate as a classification.
The thing about Fantasy is that while the author and the audience know a story is Fiction, it still operates in accordance with internal logic, however alien or warped. Fantasy is Real within the confines of the page. But A True Story doesn’t do that. A True Story does not conceptualise a world where Pumpkin Pirates (yes, really) are real. Instead, it takes our existing world, adds random silliness, and laughs at it… which is something quite different.
So while I will happily accept Lucian as a classical example of Ancient Speculative Fiction, I think shoe-horning it into Science-Fiction or Fantasy really does a hatchet-job on genre classification. Lucian is the ancestor of More’s Utopia, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or even Orwell’s Animal Farm… he’s a satirist, first and foremost, having a good laugh along the way. That he has space adventures is neither here nor there.
Addendum: Lucian is obviously public domain. You can read him online here: https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/true/tru01.htm