Lucian’s True History, as promised.
ψεύσματα ποικίλα πιθανῶς τε καὶ ἐναλήθως ἐξενηνόχαμεν
Persuasively and plausibly have I brought forth artful lies.
-Lucian of Samosata, True History I.2
The True History is a very short work. A novelette or perhaps a novella (depending on your definitions), it’s probably the most famous thing to have sprung from the pen of that little-known comic writer, Lucian of Samosata, and the only one of his published works to engage directly with fantastic.
He’s no ordinary science fiction or fantasy writer. True History, in its slender translation from the original Greek, combines a satirical twist on the travelogue – long familiar to us from such writers as Ἰαμβοῦλος (“Islands of the Sun”), Κτησίας the Knidian (“Indian Matters”), Antonius Diogenes (“An Account of the Unbelievable Things Beyond Thule”) and Michael Palin (“New Europe”) – with a lively dose of mythological reference. Are you ready to travel to the kingdom of the Moon? Pass by the edges of Cloud-cuckoo-land? Tread in the footsteps of Herakles and visit the Isles of the Blessed? If so, read on.
Unlike the vast majority of writers in the fantastic vein – Virgil comes to mind, and so does Robert Jordan – Lucian isn’t interested in grand lengthy sagas full of portents and battle-scenes, whose dramatis personae are impossible to keep straight without a scorecard. (At this length he’d be hard-pressed to cram that many in.) Instead, we have the narrator – a fictionalised Lucian himself – who sets out with fifty unnamed companions and a ship to reach the ends of the earth:
αἰτία δέ μοι τῆς ἀποδημίας καὶ ὑπόθεσις… τὸ βούλεσθαι μαθεῖν τί τὸ τέλος ἐστὶν τοῦ ὠκεανοῦ καί τίνες οἱ πέραν κατοικοῦντες ἄνθρωποι.
“And the cause and purpose of my journey… was the desire to learn what was at the end of the ocean, and what were the people who dwelled beyond.”
But it wouldn’t be a story unless our brave narrator ran into trouble first…
I’m not sure the True History is a single story, so much as a loosely-connected series of vignettes. “In which Lucian stumbles onto something else again” could be its subtitle. The island of the plant-people. The whirlwind that picks his ship up and sets it in the heavens, where for seven days and seven nights it’s driven by the wind, until it lands on the Moon. The war between the Moonites and the Sunites. Escaping from the belly of a whale. Being asked to take a letter from the dead Odysseus to Calypso: “Now I am in the Island of the Blessed, bitterly regretting having given up my life with you and your offer of immortality.”
There is a passage of exposition concerning the people of the Moon which I had forgotten, and which brings to heart how very different Lucian is from most of the rest of the genre field. (Although he’s terrible in his portrayal of women – he just doesn’t.) On the Moon, men marry men, and produce children with each other. There’s a lot of man-lovin’ in the True History, but this vision of male pregnancy is an outstanding example of its difference.
In the end, True History ends abruptly, with unfulfilled promises of a sequel. Reading it in light of SFF is a strange, disjointing experience – it is both like and unlike Novellas What I Have Seen – but an oddly rewarding one.