Lucian Of Samosota’s True History…I can’t believe I waited this long to read this incredible story! I’ve read it twice now, and I’ll probably read it again. You just need to know about this if you are at all into astounding works of the imagination or gonzo science fantasy. For my part, I’m endlessly fascinated by the creative process, particularly when great creators stretch themselves to build what Stephen King has called a “gosh-a-mighty steam shovel of the imagination” – a paraphrase from an old introduction to the Dark Tower.
You may know we recently interviewed Daniel Sell of the Melsonian Arts Council, writer and designer behind the Troika roleplaying game. His mind is wired like this too, and in Troika, you might encounter among the crystal spheres a ‘Befouler Of Ponds’ worshipper of the toad church, a gremlin catcher, or a thinking engine with detachable hands that can pilot a golden planar barge.
We’ve also hosted Jeff Grubb, creator of D&D’s Spelljammer, which is another mind-expanding launch into the sort of audacious, rulebreaking idea-festival I’m talking about. Spelljammer was recently revived by Wizards Of The Coast but was first born in the early, heady days of TSR. Check that link to read up on where Jeff dreamed up some of that and how it all came about. I’m just smiling thinking about all that.
But where did science fiction…or science fantasy to be more accurate…come from in the first place? Who was the first guy to put something down that we might recognize as bearing the tropes of space travel, cosmic battles, extraterrestrials, and even robots? And if we can know that, can we also ask what the heck he was thinking that led him down that creative trail?
It was Lucian. Crazy Lucian. He did all of that, and he did it in the 2nd century AD while there was still a Roman Empire.
And what he wrote, in that one cosmos-spanning epic, could seamlessly melt into a Spelljammer or Troika game session or sci fi anime even today. It’s the sort of story where you find a ponderous idea in every paragraph, an impressionist painting in words but with a compelling odyssey. It’s called the True History.
You could almost forget he was joking around when he wrote it. Here’s what he said about you, his future reader:
“It would be appropriate recreation for them if they were to take up the sort of reading that, instead of affording just pure amusement based on wit and humour, also boasts a little food for thought that the Muses would not altogether spurn; and I think they will consider the present work something of the kind. They will find it enticing not only for the novelty of its subject, for the humor of its plan and because I tell all kinds of lies in a plausible and specious way, but also because everything in my 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.
“I would cite them by name, were it not that you yourself will recognise them from your reading. One of them is Ctesias, son of Ctesiochus, of Cnidos, who wrote a great deal about India and its characteristics that he had never seen himself nor heard from anyone else with a reputation for truthfulness. Iambulus also wrote much that was strange about the countries in the great sea: he made up a falsehood that is patent to everybody, but wrote a story that is not uninteresting for all that. Many others, with the same intent, have written about imaginary travels and journeys of theirs, telling of huge beasts, cruel men and strange ways of living.
“Well, on reading all these authors, I did not find much fault with them for their lying, as I saw that this was already a common practice even among men who profess philosophy. I did wonder, though, that they thought that they could write untruths and not get caught at it. Therefore, as I myself, thanks to my vanity, was eager to hand something down to posterity, that I might not be the only one excluded from the privileges of poetic license, and as I had nothing true to tell, not having had any adventures of significance, I took to lying. But my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar. I think I can escape the censure of the world by my own admission that I am not telling a word of truth. Be it understood, then, that I am writing about things which I have neither seen nor had to do with nor learned from others–which, in fact, do not exist at all and, in the nature of things, cannot exist.” -Lucian in his Introduction to the True History
Bear with me here for a synopsis, though it’s a rollercoaster ride like you can’t imagine.
Lucian and his companions set sail through the Pillars Of Hercules, encountering every manner of wonder along the way. Blown off course to an island with a river of wine, they encounter (and barely escape) chimera ladies who are part woman/part grapevine and who transform hapless sailors into vines alongside them should they get overly intimate.
No sooner than leaving that island, a rogue whirlwind whisks them up to the moon where they have arrived in the middle of an interplanetary war between the king of the moon and the king of the sun, fighting over colonization of the planet, Venus. We see hybrid lifeforms and spaceships, giant spiders spinning webs across planets, and entire fleets mobilized in a vivacious, colorful battle that is absolutely mesmerizing. For about 3 pages before he moves on to something else.
The solar fleet wins the battle by blocking out the light of the sun from the moon, winning their surrender. In the truce, mutual colonization is allowed with a tribute to be paid.
After a short tour of the planets and civilization out there, the sailors return to the sea on earth and quickly are swallowed by a 200 mile long whale. I want to make sure you caught that – this isn’t a Jonah and the whale story; it’s 200 miles long and has entire societies living inside it.
Of course, they wage another war, this one of conquest, and eventually have to escape the enormous whale by killing it. In the sea and among the islands (or sailing through the air), they meet everything from giant talking vegetables to talking trees to floating islands to a giant gulf in the ocean itself.
In the climax of the True History, the sailors make it to the Greek/Roman idea of heaven. It’s an island where the heroes of myth and the great philosophers and poets reside. He asks Homer all manner of questions and learns his own future. Of course there is another battle here, this one with zombies.
Not kidding here…zombies. The undead rise from their pits and wage war with the great heroes. It’s just a page or two; blink and you miss it. But it’s there.
And I need to prepare you for the ending. Remember, Lucian was joking. He was messing around, satirizing people who exaggerated their travel tales, and going as boldly and absurdly as his mind could take him.
At the very end, he…
Well, maybe you should read it for yourself to see what happens. Do that here for free.
If you do, read his Life Of Demonax and Alexander The Oracle Monger as well. Both amazing.
Till next time,