Early Sci-Fi: Lucian of Samosata’s Bestiary on the Moon
The first detailed narrative about travelling to the moon through space was completed by Lucian’s characters, in the oddest, most wonderful way.
The writer and rhetorician Lucian of Samosata, born sometime during the second century of our era, wrote la Vera Historia in Greek, the first elaborate fantasy about a journey to the moon. “It is not only the first detailed narrative about travelling to the moon through space”, writes Professor Aaron Perett, “it is also the strangest”.
On Lucian’s surface of the moon we find a “a dizzying litany of bizarre beasts: three headed vultures, grass-bodied birds with wings of giant leaves, elephant-sized fleas, 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.” He also goes on to explain how on the moon reproduction is invasive as well; something necessary taking into account there are no females. In a corner of the satellite, babies are born from the swollen calves of men, and in another area, they are born from male genitals, planted as seeds, from which a great tree of flesh grows.
The moon has always been the mirror of mankind. The human being has sought to find his own reflection in that faraway body since ancient times (thus “the man on the moon”), and this is something Lucian knew well. Not only did he use the moon as the stage for the fantastic (and lunatic), but he also built his own satiric mirror of the society he lived in —because on the moon, anything was possible. And that is, perhaps, the most amusing part of the book: that science had not yet revealed the appearance of the moon (or explained is composition), and then it could be the perfect foundation for any chimeric, childish or honest imagination.
Lucian’s stories develop against the landscape of a great paradox: the paradox of Epimenides, the man from Crete who as evangelic truth announced “All Cretans are liars”; if he is telling the truth he is lying, but if he’s lying he is, in fact, telling the truth. Similar to the latter, when Lucian says that his fantastic story is “a real story”, he is actually referring to one of the key paradoxes of Greek philosophy. In the prologue, Lucian states:
But my lying is far more honest than [the philosophers’], for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar.
Lucian is offended by the epistemological hypocrisy of those who elevate themselves as referees of truth and falsity, while at the same time he turns to “lies and fictions” to speak of them, producing, as it were, the lunar mirror that reflects the Earth.
And if we remembered the emblematic phrase “all writers are liars”, then it is true that Epimenides paradox is applicable to practically any fictional piece that asserts it is speaking the “truth”. In turn, Perett points out:
The Vera Historia satirizes the philosophical schools deluded by their own uncritical arrogance when it comes to making and evaluating truth claims. […] His satire has much in common with a postmodern outlook because fiction tells a ‘truth,’ but it announces itself as ‘made up’; conversely, ‘history’ announces itself as ‘truth,’ but also tends to be ‘made up.’
In this way, Lucian forces the reader to recognise the line between truth and fiction as a blurry one (in the best of cases), and does so with a sense of humour: the most persuasive rhetoric resource of all. His book is a type of fable with no verisimilitude to Earth, except for the behaviour of its characters. An allegory of human affairs acted out on the moon, when the moon was the satellite of absolute speculation. And as Aaron Parett puts it: “In order to succeed, satire must offer some moral lesson, some didactic purpose. The revelation of Lucian’s trips to the moon seems rather simple: we ought not take ourselves too seriously, especially when it comes to philosophy”.
At the end of Vera Historia, as the last and greatest of all lies, Lucian concludes: “What happened in that other world I shall tell you in the succeeding books.” And there were no more books.
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