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Star Wars One: the Greek original

Dean Kalimniou reflects on the work of Lucian of Samosata; the man that taught us to reach for the stars

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13 April 2017

A long time ago, in a place quite far away, a young man embarked upon an epic galactic quest for truth that saw him embroiled in an interplanetary war. Compelled to choose sides, he befriends doughy fighters who command three-headed vultures, giant fleas, and space spiders and traverses landscapes inhabited by grass-bodied birds with wings of giant leaves, half-women-half-grapevine beings from whom a kiss would send one "reeling drunk", and men who sweat milk of such quality "that cheese can actually be made from it by dripping in a little of the honey," which runs from their noses. George Lucas on performance-enhancing stimulants? Hardly likely. Instead, the plot of this bizarre story, entitled True History (Ἀληθῶν διηγημάτων) was concocted some two millennia prior to Lucas' earthly manifestation, by Lucian of Samosata, an ethnic Assyrian author of the second century, who wrote in Greek. As such, it can safely be stated that the first work of science fiction was written in the Greek language.

Unlike the epics of Lucas, which take themselves just a tad too seriously, the work of the eerily similarly-named Lucian, are delightfully cheeky. Indeed, rather than being constructed as a dualistic moral tale, Lucian weaves, throughout his racy tale, innumerable and skillfully rendered send-ups of the philosophers and authors of his day. Thus, in passing, the iconoclastic Lucian mentions the tales of Ctesias, Iambulus, and Homer, and states that "what did surprise me was their supposition that nobody would notice they were lying." Indeed, the very title of his work is provoking. Ancient readers would have known the paradox of Epimenides who stated that "All Cretans are liars" – if he is telling the truth he is lying, but if he is lying then he is telling the truth. Thus, as Aaron Parrett explains, when Lucian calls his fantastic tale (which makes fun of liars) a "true story," he references one of the key paradoxes of philosophy and its inability to be completely self-grounding. Charmingly, Lucian takes a swipe at the tale spinners of his day, especially his rival Antonius Diogenes' now lost Of the Wonderful Things Beyond Thule, whose protagonist also reached space, stating that the story recounted in True History is about "things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else; things, what is more, that do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all. So my readers must not believe a word I say."

Caricaturing philosophy is one thing. To do so in a breathtakingly interesting way is quite another. Lucian's space adventure features a group of travellers who leave Earth when their ship is thrown into the sky by a ferocious whirlwind. Eventually they arrive on the Moon, only to learn that its inhabitants, the Selenites, are at war with the people of the Sun for the most Lucasian of reasons: both are vying for control of a colony on the Morning Star. As Endymion, King of the Moon relates, in pure science fiction fashion: "The king of the inhabitants of the Sun, Phaethon,… 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 colonisation, 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."

The warriors of the two celestial orbs travel through space on winged acorns, with gigantic turnips as ammunition. Anticipating the mass slaughters brought about by colonialism, by almost two millennia, blood "[falls] upon the clouds, which made them look of a red colour; as sometimes they appear to us about sun-setting." Of course, the mood is lightened someone by the fact that Lucian casts one class of killers as the Garlic Warriors ῾Σκορδομάχοι,᾽ another as the Millet Throwers, 'Κεγχροβόλοι' and yet another as the Ostrich Slingers 'Στρουθοβάλανοι,' while the imperial battleships of George Lucas, take the form of the Lettuce Wings 'Λαχανόπτεροι.'

In lampooning Aristotelian views of the natural world, Lucian makes some novel imaginings that would arrest the attention of gender scholars of the modern age. In particular, he envisages upon the Moon a society in which women are completely absent and men are by necessity, self-procreating. Thus babies are born from men's swollen calves, delivered dead but brought to life "by putting it in the wind with its mouth open". Another people known as the Arboreals employ a different method of propagation: a man's right genital gland is cut off, planted, and from it "grows a very large tree of flesh, resembling the emblem of Priapus", and from its fruit of enormous acorns men are 'shelled.'

Lucian's imagination even embraces technological advances, in particular, conceiving of a telescopic microphone: "There is a large mirror suspended over a well of no great depth; any one going down the well can hear every word spoken on our Earth; and if he looks at the mirror, he sees every city and nation as plainly as though he were standing close above each. The time I was there, I surveyed my own people and the whole of my native country; whether they saw me also, I cannot say for certain."

Eventually, Lucian's protagonists return to Earth, and become trapped in a giant whale. Inside the 200-mile-long animal, there live many groups of people, including, Robinson Crusoe-like, a self-sufficient father and son team that farm the fish entering the whale's stomach. They also reach a sea of milk, an island of cheese and the isle of Elysium. There Lucian meets the heroes of the Trojan War, and other key characters of Greek mythology, and literature, including Homer. The god Rhadamanthys arbitrates disputes between Alexander the Great and Hannibal, Theseus and Menelaus and certain philosophers are also to be found there: "I heard that Rhadamanthys was dissatisfied with Socrates, and had several times threatened him with expulsion, if he insisted on talking nonsense, and would not drop his irony and enjoy himself. Plato was the only one I missed, but I was told that he was living in his own Utopia, working the constitution and laws which he had drawn up."

Tellingly, we learn there that Herodotus is being eternally punished for the "lies" he published in his own Histories, which is amusing, considering that Lucian ends his story abruptly, promising to continue it in later books, and never does so.

In combining science fiction and parody in equal proportions, Lucian's remarkable work, also notable for the fact that it constitutes an early expression of the idea of crossing the Atlantic and exploring lands which might lie on its other side, some 1400 years before Columbus, anticipates the French philosopher Voltaire's Micromegas and the writings of Douglas Adams. Significantly, astronomer Johannes Kepler's 1634 novel Somnium which describes a trip to the moon and the view of Earth seen from far away, was partially inspired by Lucian. He picked up True History in the original Greek to master the language.

English critic Kingsley Amis has remarked "that the sprightliness and sophistication of True History makes it read like a joke at the expense of nearly all early-modern science fiction, that written between, say, 1910 and 1940." In producing a tale concerning itself with exceeding the margins of the possible and the plausible, Lucian manages to lampoon the hallowed tradition of his world, while imagining the infinite permutations of others. If there is any regret, in reading his remarkable work, it is that he did not prove immortal, in order to have seen and satirised, George Lucas' puerile Rogue One. Had he done so, arguably, he would have given him a slightly more abrasive treatment than that which he gave Pythagoras, in the aftermath of an Elysian war victory: "From this Pythagoras alone held aloof, fasting and sitting far off, in sign of his abhorrence of bean-eating."

To the man that taught us to reach for the stars, and take the mickey out of them, we are eternally grateful.

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