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What were the ancient precursors to modern Science Fiction as we know it? There are 11 hotlinks here to authors, magazines, films, or television items elsewhere in the Ultimate Science Fiction Web Guide or beyond.
Most recently updated: 27 April 2000
Ancient PrecursorsOldest Science Fiction Novel In one sense, the oldest science fiction novel we have is a 3,000-year-old version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, probably established in the oral tradition of 1,000 years earlier than that. Modern authors such as Robert Silverberg have reworked its details, because it has so many themes of modern science fiction: the search for immortality, travel in strange lands, encounters with weird creatures, trips beyond normal reality, and a superhuman hero. see: IMMORTALITY see: SUPERMEN see: LOST LANDS/LOST RACE Science Fiction in the Bible 9th Century B.C. prophet Elijah said: "Behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire... and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven" [II Kings 2:12]. Some scholars consider this an early Close Encounter with UFO technology, or at least it served as an inspiration for some early science fiction of that variety. see: Jewish/Hebrew Mythology 6th Century B.C. prophet Ezekiel described "a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it... out of the midst of fire" and then he reports something not unlike astronauts or winged aliens in a flying saucer "a wheel within a wheel" which has many portholes or "eyes" around it, rising from the ground with much noise and bright colors and using something like a tractor beam to pick up "four living creatures" [Ezekiel 1:4-28]. Egyptian Mythology Various science fiction novels which are based on Egyptian mythology. The two best of these, in my opinion, are "Creatures of Light and Darkness" by Roger Zelazny, and "Ancient Evenings" by Norman Mailer (whom I had met as a child, at a party in his Columbia Heights apartment in Brooklyn). see: Egyptian Pantheon Finland: "Kalevala" The Finnish epic "Kalevala" is one of the sources of all modern fantasy and science fiction. It includes, for example, a plot thread about a homunculus, similar to the Jewish "Golem" legend, and thus an ancestor of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", which is inarguably science fiction. see: Scandanavian Pantheon The word "Fantasy" is from the Greek word for imagination, and one can claim that the imagination of Greek writers was the origin of all science fiction. Greek Myths, Drama, and Philosophy Greek myths from 2,000-5,000 years ago are essential to any history of Fantasy. see: Greek/Roman Pantheon Lucian of Samosata (ca. 125 AD) wrote satires with definite science fiction elements. For example, "Icaromenippos" includes Icarus flying to the Moon and adventuring with its inhabitants. Lucian's "A True Story" is both a parody of the fantasies and proto-science fiction tales of 2,000 years ago, but includes the first space war in literature, a battle near the Moon. Aristophanes' comedies are bristling with utopian and fantastic elements. In "The Birds", people exhausted by wars join with birds in constructing "cloudcuckooland" in between Earth and Heaven. In "The Frogs", he takes us on a tour of Hell. In "Peace", Trygaeus rides a giant beetle to Heaven to seek the help of Zeus, and in "Lysistrata" women end war by withholding sexual favors until peace is achieved. Since Greek philosophy was the orgin of Science, Greece plays an ancestral role for all science fiction. To pick an example almost at random, when Archimedes said "Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I shall move the Earth" he anticipated the entire planet-smashing solar-system reconfiguring style of science fiction in the sense of Asimov, Bear, Brin, and Clarke. If we hold that Science Fiction is the literature of the search for Utopia, then we must begin our analysis with Plato's "Republic" -- the definitive utopia. Of course, I would have been banned from The Republic, as I am a poet, and Plato considered such men dangerous to the social order. By the way, the Republic was to have exactly 5,040 citizens, which some readers today would recognize as 7! = 1x2x3x4x5x6x7. "Utopia" is derived from the Greek for "nowhere." see: UTOPIA Fictional and Nonfictional glimpses of an ideal future If science fiction is based on exotic travels, monsters, larger-than-life heros outwitting their foes, and technology indistinguishable from magic, then all must give credit to Homer's "Odyssey", some 2,500 years ago. For that matter, Homer's "Iliad" is the basis of all realistic war fiction, including science fictional space battles. And if the robot is a main icon of science fiction, then Greece deserves credit for inventing Hephaistos, god of the forge, in being assisted by women constructed of gold (as described in "The Iliad"). And did not Daedalus built the bronze warrior Talos? see: "Homer" in Authors H-I Myths of India It goes without saying that India has a nearly infinite set of mythologies and fables, which have been a source for fantasists and science fiction authors such as Roger Zelazny. India (mostly from Bombay, or "Bollywood") is the world's #1 producer of motion pictures, many of which have a fantasy element. The ancient "Veda" tales/poems can themselves be considered the roots of science fiction. Ramayana: [Sanskrit: "the deeds of Rama"] stupendous epic poem, legendarily by Valmiki, consisting of 7 books totalling 24,000 verses; on the same supreme level as the Mahabharata or the Iliad; to compress the story by a factor of over 10,000: Rama was married to the lovely Sita, who was kidnapped by Ceylon's Demon-King Ravana, so the nation of monkeys gathered rocks and trees, from which Adam's Bridge was built between Ceylon (a.k.a. Serendip, today Sri Lanka) and India, so that Rama and his holy army could cross, invade, and conquer, whereupon Rama killed Ravana with a magic arrow. see: "Mahabharata" see: Hindu Pantheon Tales from Old English and Middle English Beowulf fought the monster Grendel, and Grendel's mother... "Gawain and the Green Knight" (circa 1370): one of the best of the alliterative English verse romances, this opens in King Arthur's court on New Year's Day. A huge green knight rides a green horse into the ahll and challenges any of Arthur's knights to give him a blow with the axe he bears, the Green Knight to return the blow a year later. Accepting the challenge, Gawain strikes off the knight's head. The knight picks it up and rides away. As the end of the ensuing year approaches, Gawain makes his perilous way to search for the Green Chapel. He stops at a splendid castle on Christmas Eve and is cordially received by the lord, whose wife tests Gawain's chastity each of the three days he is there. Having agreed to accept from the lord the trophies of the lord's daily hunt in return for whatever he, Gawain, has received, he gives the lord the three kisses he got from the lady, but not the magic girdle she gave him on the third day. Then he meets the Green Knight at the chapel nearby. Gawain flinches under the axe once; the knight feints once; then the blow is harmlessly delivered. The Green Knight, Bercilar de Hautdesert, is the lord of the castle in disguise; the whole affair was a test of the hero. Latin Entertainments and Compilations Apuleius [circa 125-circa 175]: Latin author born in North Africa, who resided variously in Athens, Carthage, and Rome. Best known for: * Metamorphoseon sue de Asino Aureo Libri XI [circa 165] better known in translation as "The Golden Ass", editions include: * The xi Bookes of the Golden Asse, Containing the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius [UK: 1566] translation by William Adlington The "Gesta Romanorum" (compiled circa 1350, printed circa 1472) was as widely read for several centuries as the "Arabian Nights", or the "Morte d'Arthur." It has been a treaury of entertainment and moral education for all kinds of readers. Its full title, "Gesta Romanorum moralizata" indicates its compiler's didactic purpose. The work has been an inexhaustible source that furnished the raw material for great litterature from Boccaccio and Chaucer to Schiller and Rossetti. It was fathered by the monks. The tales were largely derived from Roman history, but are in truth merely legends. At a later stage the moral spect became secondary; the collection was prized chiefly as a book of entertainment. Oriental allegoric infleunces are clearly indicated, as for instance the fables of Bidpai and the "Arabian Nights." The authorities cited for classical allusions are the minor luminaries of Roman antiquity: Valerius Maximus, Macrobius, Aulus Gellius, Pliny, Seneca, Boethius, and occasionally Ovid.
|Introduction: Overview and Summary |Prehistory: Ancient Precursors |16th Century: Ariosto and Cyrano on the Moon |17th Century: Literary Dawn |18th Century: Literary Expansion |19th Century: Victorian Explosion |1890-1910: Into Our Century |1910-1920: The Silver Age |1920-1930: The Golden Age |1930-1940: The Aluminum Age |1940-1950: The Plutonium Age |1950-1960: The Threshold of Space |1960-1970: The New Wave |1970-1980: The Seventies |1980-1990: The Eighties |1990-2000: End of Millennium |2000-2010: Future Prizewinners
Where to Go for More51 Useful Reference Books Beyond the World Wide Web... there is the library of old-fashioned books printed on paper. I strongly recommend that you start or follow-up your explorations of this web site by consulting any or all of these outstanding sources: ALDISS: "Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction", Brian W. Aldiss (New York: Doubleday, 1973; Schocken Paperback, 1974) ALLEN: "Science Fiction Reader's Guide", L. David Allen (Centennial Press, 1974) AMIS: "New Maps of Hell", Kingsley Amis (London: Gollancz, 1960; New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960) ASH1: "Who's Who in Science Fiction", by Brian Ash (Taplinger, 1976) ASH2: "The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction", edited by Brian Ash (Harmony Books, 1977) ASHLEY: "The History of the Science Fiction Magazine" [3 volumes] (London: New English Library, 1974) ASIMOV "Asimov on Science Fiction" (New York: Avon, 1981) ATHELING: "The Issue at Hand", "William Atheling, Jr." [James Blish] (Chicago: Advent, 1964) BARRON: "Anatomy of Wonder", edited by Neil Barron (Bowker, 1976) BAXTER: "Science Fiction in the Cinema", John Baxter (London: A. Zwemmer, 1970; New York: A. S. Barnes, 1970) BERGONZI: "The Early H.G. Wells", Bernard Bergonzi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961) BLEILER: "The Checklist of Fantastic Literature" Everett F. Bleiler (Chicago: Shasta, 1948) BRETNOR1: "Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Future", edited by Reginald Bretnor (New York: Coward-McCann, 1953) BRETNOR2: "The Craft of Science Fiction", Reginald Bretnor (New York: Harper & Row, 1977) BRINEY: "SF Bibliographies", Robert E. Briney & Edward Wood (Chicago: Advent, 1972) CLARESON1: "SF: The Other Side of Realism", edited by Thomas D. Clareson (Gregg Press, 1978) CLARESON2: "Extrapolation, 1959-1969", edited by Thomas D. Clareson (Bowling Green, Ohio: University Popular Press, 1971) CLARKE: "The Tale of the Future", I. F. Clarke (London: The Library Association, 1961, 1972) CONTENTO: "Index to the Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections", William Contento G.K. Hall, 1978) DAY: "Index to the Science Fiction Magazine: 1926-50", Donald B. Day (Portland, Oregon: Perri Press, 1952) DeCAMP: "Science Fiction Handbook", L. Sprague DeCamp (New York: Hermitage House, 1953) ELLIK: "The Universes of E. E. Smith", Ron Ellik & Bill Evans (Chicago: Advent, 1966) EVANS: "The Index of Science Fiction Magazines", Bill Evans with Jack Speer (Denver: Robert Peterson, 1946?) FRANKLIN: "Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century", H. Bruce Franklin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966) FREWIN: "One Hundred Years of Science Fiction Illustration", Anthony Frewin (London: Jupiter Books, 1974) GOODSTONE: "The Pulps", Tony Goodstone (New York: Chelsea House, 1970) GUNN: "Alternate Worlds", James Gunn (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975) HARRISON: "John W. Campbell: Collected Editorials from Analog", Harry Harrison (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1966) HOLMBERG: "Science Fiction History", John-Henri Holmberg (Vanersborg, Sweden: Askild & Karnekull, 1974) KNIGHT: "In Search of Wonder", Damon Knight (Chicago: Advent, 1956; enlarged 1967) KYLE: "A Pictorial History of Science Fiction", David Kyle (London: Hamlyn House, 1976) LOCKE: "Worlds Apart", edited by George Locke (London: Cornmarket Reprints, 1972) LUNDWALL: "Science Fiction: What It's All About", Sam J. Lundwall (New York: Ace Books, 1971) METCALF: "The Index of Science Fiction Magazines, 1951-1965", Norm Metcalf (J. Ben Stark, 1968) MILLIES: "Science Fiction Primer for Teachers", Suzanne Millies (Dayton OH: Pflaum, 1975) MOSKOWITZ#1: "The Immortal Storm", Sam Moskowitz (AFSO Press, 1954; Hyperion Press, 19??) MOSKOWITZ#2: "Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction", Sam Moskowitz (Cleveland & New York: World, 1963) MOSKOWITZ#3: "Seekers of Tomorrow", Sam Moskowitz (Cleveland & New York: World, 1963) NESFA: "Index to the Science Fiction Magazines", New England Science Fiction Association (Cambridge MA: NESFA, 1971) PERRY: "The Penguin Book of Comics", George Perry & Alan Aldridge (London: Penguin, 1971) ROGERS: "A Requiem for Astounding", Alva Rogers (Chicago: Advent, 1964) ROTTSTEINER: "The Science Fiction Book", Franz Rottsteiner (London: Thames & Hudson, 1975) SADOUL: "Hier, L'An 2000 [Illustrations from the Golden Age of Science Fiction]", Jaxques Sadoul (Paris: Editions Denoel, 1973) STRAUSS: "The MIT Science Fiction Society's Index to the SF Magazines: 1951-64" Erwin S. Strauss (Cambridge MA: MIT Science Fiction Society, 1966) TUCK: "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2nd Edition", Donald H. Tuck (Hobart, Tasmania: Donald H. Tuck, 1959) VERSINS: "Encyclopedie des l'utopie, des voyages extraordinaires et de la science fiction", (Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme, 1972) WAGGONER: "The Hills of Faraway", Diana Waggoner (Athenaeum, 1978) WARNER: "All Our Yesterdays", Harry Warner, Jr. (Chicago: Advent, 1969) WELLS: "Fictional Accounts of Trips to the Moon", Lester G. Wells (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Library, 1962) WILLIAMSON: "H.G. Wells: Critic of Progress", Jack Williamson (Baltimore: Mirage Press, 1973) WOLLHEIM: "The Universe Makers", Donald A. Wollheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1971)
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Copyright 1996,1997,1998,1999,2000 by Magic Dragon Multimedia.
All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.