A True Story, also known as True History, was written by Lucian in the 2nd Century CE. Lucian of Samosata was a Syrian-born satirist known for his literary and philosophical criticism of popular classical works. A True Story is considered among the best of his works. In this novel, Lucian’s literary objective was to expose authors, such as Homer or Herodotus, who paraded their narratives as truth. A True Story is, therefore, absurdly exaggerated to parody these travel narratives through a fantastical trip to the furthest place in classical imagination, the moon.
The Purpose Lucian’s True History
“I shall tell the truth in saying that I lie.”
A True Story, Book 1
In the prologue, Lucian states that there is a singular truth within his narrative that everything is a lie. The aim of A True Story was to expose ancient authors who masqueraded their overly exaggerated tales as historical events, satirizing their work by pushing the fantasy of the past to an extreme. The unrealistic nature of the novel allowed for a voyage that transgressed earthly limits, unintentionally allowing Lucian to develop the first science fiction novel.
Whether A True Story can be considered a science fiction novel has been largely debated. However, the novel undeniably fulfills several facets of the genre. As such, it is widely considered the earliest surviving work of science fiction.
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Lucian and his companions begin their journey at the Pillars of Heracles before sailing onward to a mysterious island inhabited by a deadly species. After this episode, they are whisked away by a storm to the moon, where they find themselves in the middle of a war between the sun and moon inhabitants. During this time, they encounter and learn about the strange lifeforms and cultures that exist in space.
On their return to earth, they observe many places, including a curious city of animated lamps. There is no rest for the travelers as they finally arrive on earth and find themselves swallowed by a gigantic whale. Remarkably, they find whole civilizations and lands within its belly. After killing and escaping the whale, they quickly jump from a sea of milk, where exists an island of cheese, to the land of the Blessed. There they meet and interact with infamous characters of the past.
The book ends suddenly with Lucian promising that their travels will continue in future books, his final lie. Although absurd, strange, and unbelievable, jampacked with a variance of places and characters, Lucian contributes an unprecedented story to classical literature.
Alien Seduction: The Island of the Vine-Women
A True Story begins with the travelers landing upon and exploring a mysterious island. Here, they find peculiar phenomena such as a river of wine and beautiful women-like beings made of vines. Seduced by these creatures, a few of the men become permanently entrapped in their vines. This first abnormal encounter, in fact, takes place on earth in the form of a classic alien seduction.
Near the end of the book, the episode is recalled when the men come across the “Ass-legs”. These creatures, who disguised themselves as prostitutes, are revealed to have the upper body of a woman and lower half of a donkey. They attempt to seduce the men, like the vine-women, but are unsuccessful. Hybrid creatures are notably observed when the travelers are on the moon, connecting the alien to the earthly.
Journey to the Moon
After leaving the island of the vine-women, the men are whirled away by a storm and ascend toward space. Unlike the strange and otherworldly island, the place appears to be familiar to the travelers being described as a civilized and inhabited land. This feature of science fiction is called “cognitive estrangement”, ensuring relatability by describing unfamiliar concepts as familiar and vice versa. Captured by men on gigantic vultures, the men are taken to their king, who reveals that they are on the moon. He informs the travelers that they are at war with the inhabitants of the Sun, giant ant-riders, over the colonization of the Morning Star.
During their space journey, the men observe animals and insects reinvented as enormous monsters introducing the science fiction motif of giganticism. Indeed, the men are later swallowed by a 320-km-long whale in which exists cities, forests, and tribes of fish-men.
Sun & Moon Natives
As the inter-planetary war commences, Lucian describes a variety of strange alien lifeforms, hybrid creatures and bizarre weapons. The cavalry of the Moon consists of men mounting “Horse-vultures” or “Salad-wings” described as giant birds adorned with various herbs and feathers of lettuce. The army also contains “Millet-throwers” and “Garlic-men”, food throwers as the name suggests, as well as “Flea-archers” being colossal fleas the size of elephants.
On the other side, the army of the Sun is comprised of other hybrid beings who ride the “Horse-ants” and “Sky-gnats”. The rest of their army includes the fatal radish throwers called the “Sky-pirouettes”, the “Stalk-fungi” who used mushrooms as shields and the “Dog-acorns”, dog-faced men who fought on winged acorns. Ultimately, the army of the sun is victorious over that of the moon.
After the war, Lucian provides a lengthy biology of the moon inhabitants confirming their alien status. He describes explicitly the creation of the “Tree-men” who are formed through the castration of the lunar people and subsequent planting of the genitals. The moon natives are bald and hairless, with a single toe on each foot and a tail of cabbage. They can remove their eyes as they wish. Their mucus is honey, their sweat is milk, and they have marsupial pouches for their young.
Remarkably, women do not exist on the moon. The men are considered the ‘wife’ until the age of twenty-five after which they become the ‘husband’. Male pregnancy occurs in their calves. These leg-born babies are born dead and brought to life by breathing wind in their mouths. The resemblance in appearance and biology to a stereotypical portrayal of an alien is unmistakable.
Artificial Intelligence: The City of Lamps
Nearing the end of the book, the narrator describes Lychnopolis, the City of Lamps, where the inhabitants are animated lamps who have formed their own society. The objects of humans forming their own civilization seem to incorporate a small artificial intelligence-esque addition to the world of True History. Another technological aspect is mentioned earlier during the lunar episode, where on the moon exists a marvelous mirror hanging over a well in which an observer could see anything on earth. In other words, a fantastical type of telescope.
Utopian and Dystopian Islands
Commonly found within the science fiction genre, utopian fiction constructs the image of an ideal society. One of the earliest examples of utopian fiction is Plato’s Republic, a clear influence on the utopian inclusion with A True Story.
Nearing the end of the book, the men arrive at the Island of the Blessed. The island is described as the ultimate paradise with cities of gold, walls of emerald, rivers of oil, clothes of spiderwebs, and land filled in abundance with fruit and flowers. The inhabitants of the island are significant classical figures ranging from Odysseus to Ajax to Socrates, to name a few. True to his satirist status, Lucian mocks the notion of a utopia by stating that Plato does not reside on this island but on his own envisioned utopia from The Republic. He goes on to express that the utopian society is purely a hypothetical idea and is only awarded worth through the minds of those from a normal society. The group is soon banished from the island when one of the travelers attempts to flee with Helen, a minor allusion to the Trojan War.
Continuing their journey, the men find themselves in a hellish place, smelling the roasting of human flesh, seeing nothing in the darkness, and hearing the crack of whips as well as screams. Climbing jagged rocks, they come across grounds of knives and stakes surrounded by rivers of slime, blood, and flames. Directly contrasted with the previous utopia, the travelers arrive at a kind of dystopian island. A dystopia, also commonly found in the science fiction genre, is an imagined society that is entirely undesirable and defective.
The Influence of Lucian’s True History on Science Fiction
A True Story has undeniably influenced the science fiction genre, impacting many famous authors. Jonathan Swift, inspired by Lucian’s satiric yet fantastical journey, created his own in Gulliver’s Travels. In The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, Edgar Allan Poe writes of a similar voyage to the moon. The anthropology and biology of alien creatures, seen in A True Story, was drawn upon in Voltaire’s Micromégas. Certainly, A True Story has impacted other famous science fiction works as well, demonstrating that it must be regarded within the genre of science fiction itself.
A True Story certainly satisfies the typical criteria of the sci-fi genre with the inclusion of space travel, alien creatures, space colonization, interplanetary war, and marvelous technology. Lucian’s sole purpose may have been to create an overly absurd travel narrative, challenging his literary predecessors. However, in doing so, he inadvertently aided in the creation of the science fiction genre.