I had two reactions when I was invited to write an overview of how classicists are currently thinking about science fiction from their perspective as scholars of ancient Greek and Roman literature, history, and myth.
The first was how opportune the invitation was. Now is an excellent time to be interested in the interaction between classics and science fiction. Classical reception is the part of classics which considers how the ancient world has been received and adapted in subsequent eras; Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray explore what’s at stake in these interactions in their introduction to the Blackwell Companion to Classical Receptions (2008). Within this field, science fiction is gaining increasing attention.. The 2013 SF Foundation conference, Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space, produced an issue of Foundation (118) containing a selection of papers from the conference, and other papers are appearing elsewhere (including my own on crossing borders and Stephe Harrop’s on A Song of Ice and Fire in Strange Horizons). Two major collections of papers have recently been published, of which I will say more later (Strange Horizons has published a version of Juliette Harrisson’s article on The Hunger Games from one of these). At the January 2015 meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in New Orleans, a roundtable on classical traditions in fantasy and science fiction was excellently attended. At the end of March, the Once and Future Antiquity conference took place at Puget Sound; judging by the conference program, the livetweeting, and Tony Keen's conference report, the event reached out to a wide range of participants and continued to build momentum and enthusiasm for the field.
My second thought was where on earth I should begin such a survey. While scholarship may have boomed in the last few years, academics have been working in this area since at least the 1970s. The results are scattered across publication venues, through a wide range of different disciplines, in well-known and niche journals. There are dozens of methodological approaches to classical reception (it’s a question almost as contentious as ‘what is science fiction?’), and because there is so much classically influenced SF out there, no set canon of work exists to focus discussion. For classicists, who have to work with whatever fragments of texts we have been lucky enough to scavenge from antiquity, the range of possible subjects is irresistible. Individuals also want to study the books, films, television series, and comics that capture their imaginations. As a result of this abundance of riches, my overview can only offer a very general survey of trends in scholarship rather than provide a comprehensive catalog of SF which does interesting things with classics.
Crossing boundaries between two academic fields, with their own individual bodies of critical work, presents its own challenges. Tony Keen pointed out in his introduction to Foundation 118 how important it is for work engaging with two disciplines to be credible in both of them (2014: 6); this tenet applies to classical reception broadly defined, in that if you are working on, say, classicists of the Victorian period, you need to convince experts in Victorian studies as well as classicists (Martindale 2006: 9). But SF offers a particular challenge to the academic classicist coming to the subject later in life, as I am, because many of the people who work on this material do so because it has a profound personal relevance for them. The investment of critics in their subjects of inquiry is both a massive strength and occasional weakness in classical reception work of any kind. We must acknowledge the significance of our fannish-ness, as Rogers and Stevens do in their preface to Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (2015: vii-ix), and Kovacs does in his contribution to Classics and Comics (2011: 6-7). A public statement of why one is interested in the texts and cultural artefacts one has chosen to write about is an important part of one’s broader methodological approach – as Gideon Nisbet has observed, claiming some sort of academic distance from the products of a strongly participatory popular culture is both impossible and undesirable (2006: xiii). Indeed, sometimes creators of receptions are fans of the ancient culture they engage with as much as scholars are fans of the works they study (see Nisbet 2011).
But this strays away from why anyone might think to connect classics and SF to begin with. There are two well-springs of classics that occur early in the genre’s history and justify attempts to identify classical influences within it. The first is the True History of Lucian, a second century A.D. satirist, often cited as the earliest piece of written SF. In the True History, a group of heroes set off on a lengthy journey that takes them to a mysterious island with rivers of wine, up a whirlwind to the Moon, inside a giant whale, past the Islands of the Blessed, and finally to a mysterious continent, where Lucian abandons them as he ends his narrative. The trip to the moon is often read as a sign that Lucian should be understood as ur-SF. Both Darko Suvin in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction and Adam Roberts in The History of Science Fiction placed Lucian at the start of what Andrew Milner calls a “long history of SF” (2014: 70), and academic work often restates his foundational status in the genre. However, not everyone accepts Lucian as SF’s first forefather. Milner, for instance, argues that despite antiquity’s considerable scientific advances, Lucian is simply uninterested in science as technology, and couldn’t be expected to be otherwise, given SF’s roots in the industrial revolution (2014: 74); Keen sees the True History as too reliant “on the irrational, on gods and the afterlife” to fit his understanding of SF (2015: 110).
Whether you class Lucian as SF depends how SF is defined, and there will be as many definitions as there are readers of Strange Horizons. I rather like Sarah Annes Brown’s approach to the issue; she makes the point that regardless of whether or not you want to anoint Lucian as “the inventor of science fiction” (2008: 415), SF and the classical tradition offer similar environments that encourage the creativity of those who produce books, films and television series. Lucian happens to be a good early example of what can come out of that context, but you don’t need to see him as an early ancestor in order to argue that classics and SF have a long intertwined history.
The second critical origin point of the relationship between classics and SF is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”; this novel arises out of the industrial revolution context which Milner sees as so crucial to modern SF. It imaginatively explores issues of humanity’s relationship to technology and science and the perils they may pose in the future, setting trends for SF’s on-going concerns. However, as well as exploring future possibilities, Shelley deliberately tied her novel to a classical tradition. She invokes the famous Titan who stole fire from the gods to give to humans, referring to contemporary philosophical debates which used Prometheus as a figure to think with (Rogers and Stevens 2015: 1-6). She also engages with classical literature more broadly through her use of Lucan and Lucretius to construct her monster (Weiner 2015).
Shelley’s deliberate positioning of her novel as part of an on-going conversation about how to use and respond to classics was the first signal that the emerging genre of SF could use the subject to explore the future through the past. Although her appropriation of classical myth uses a similar literary strategy to many of her Romantic counterparts, her use of classical authors points toward the other elements of classical culture that have proven equally powerful for SF as it has grown and developed.
The wealth of possible ways in which SF can use classics means those working in classical reception need to establish a methodology that explains how they are doing what they do. Discussing methodological and theoretical frameworks is another growth area in classical reception studies, and one might argue there are two reasons for this. The first is that since reception studies is still a very new field, people working in it don’t yet have an established structure of how to go about this sort of research and analysis; a proper sense of what we think we’re doing will lead to a higher general level of discussion. There are some big debates still underway, not least of all what one might caricature as the battle between Dante and Gladiator, or the question of what makes a cultural artefact worth studying; those classicists who work on SF are usually of the opinion that both ‘high art’ and popular culture are equally worthy of examination. However, this division hints at the second possible reason behind the rise of theory in classical reception generally: in order to defend looking at things like film or SF, it helps to have a really intimidating theoretical justification to back you up. However, I admit that this interpretation is based in part on my own cynicism, and there is a definite need to explain reception to colleagues who don’t see how it relates to what classics traditionally does.
That said, it helps to have a model of how you understand what happens when classics and SF collide. One of the most helpful, and influential, comes from Tony Keen’s blog post “The ‘T’ stands for Tiberius: models and methodologies of classical reception in science fiction” (2006). He offers seven ways of understanding how SF engages with classics, which have proven remarkably useful for categorising what’s going on in different works; it’s worth outlining each of them, as they help explain the features that classicists analyse when they look at SF texts. As Keen explained in his recent paper at Puget Sound, “More ‘T’, Vicar? Revisiting models and methodologies”, he now sees the boundaries between his categories as very fluid; indeed, it is possible for a text to be doing several kinds of classical reception at once. However, these categories serve as a place to start thinking about the sort of things SF creators do with classics. In what follows I borrow shamelessly from Keen’s original post; a version of the Puget Sound talk should be available on his blog shortly.
The seven models that form our initial categories are retellings, allusion, appropriation, interaction, borrowing, stealing and ghosting. Retellings are the least relevant type for SF aficionados, since they do what they say on the tin – retell a classical story in its classical context. As such, they usually lean more towards fantasy than SF, as they don’t tend to (for instance) explain the gods through technology, but assume that the gods actually exist. Allusions nod to classical material, but don’t necessarily do more than that – they can be used as a comment on the situation in which characters find themselves, but the plot would go on quite happily without them. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a case in point, as the title nods to Homer but finding much more of the Odyssey in the film itself is a stretch.
Works which appropriate classical antiquity model a civilization on an ancient one in much more detail, imagining cultures which consciously do what ancient cultures did, with the addition of some extra SF content. The classic example is “Plato’s Stepchildren” (Star Trek, 1968), where the crew encounter a civilization that has deliberately constructed itself (very loosely) along the lines of Plato’s ideal state as set out in the Republic. Interaction takes this a step further and shows the interface between a set of protagonists and actual ancient cultures or their modern descendants. This draws on SF’s ability to invoke time travel, as when Doctor Who visits Pompeii just before Vesuvius erupts, or to create alternative history narratives (as in Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy, where the Roman empire never fell), particularly those with a strong technological component.
Borrowing works differently to allusion, in that while features of a recognisable ancient civilization are used as building blocks for an imagined society, the members of that society are not aware of the parallels – they have had no contact with Earth and its history, so the parallels are only visible to the work’s creator and audience. George R.R. Martin’s use of Hadrian’s Wall within A Song of Fire and Ice, as explored by Stephe Harrop (2014), falls into this category. Stealing takes this a step further, in that not only is the culture in which the story takes place based on a classical model, but the story is also taken from a classical original, whether a myth, a piece of literature or a historical episode – essentially it is a camouflaged cousin of retelling, which works provided that the creator puts in the effort to make it interesting. For instance, Robert Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze (1969) draws heavily on Sophocles’ Philoctetes for its underlying plot structure and characterisation.
The final model is ghosting or, to give it Paula James’ label, cultural companions (2009: 239). In this case, classical reception appears to be taking place, but finding the evidence for it is much more difficult because no overt references to classical material are made. Establishing that ghosting is present in a text can be very difficult, but the idea of cultural companions makes this process a little easier; what classical reception scholars do in these cases is set two quite disparate texts in dialogue and see what happens – sometimes with surprising insights for both the ancient and modern world. For instance, in an examination of katabasis or the descent to the underworld trope in modern cinema, Erling Holtsmark reads Homer alongside Cherry 2000 (1987) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995) to explore the power of ancient narrative patterns in the contemporary world, although neither film explicitly mentions the Homeric parallels that Holtsmark works from (2001: 36-9). Equally, Margaret Atwood incorporates significant parallels with Penelope and the Odyssey into The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), as her later Penelopiad (2005) makes clear (see Brown 2012: 213-216).
These seven different ways of understanding how SF authors might use the classical world in their work neatly illustrate the variety of possible interactions between the two spheres. Given the amount of SF that continues to be generated and the range of possible subjects, I personally doubt that an established canon of must-read works is likely to emerge. Equally, given the immense flexibility offered by models like ghosting, there’s no reason to try to limit the texts in which we look for classical reception – the wide spectrum of the genre offers plenty of opportunities for study.
There are two trends in thinking about classics and SF that I want to pick out as directions which currently seem particularly fruitful to me, although this is not meant as an exclusive indication of promising research in the field. The first trend builds on a specific historical context, namely the use of imperial Rome as a structural mechanism, usually following an appropriation or borrowing model. The presence of the Roman empire in SF is well established – one need only think of Star Wars, with its heavy borrowing from Roman political history to establish the Empire’s backstory, or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, where Asimov himself credited Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as an influential factor in his world-building. The Foundation example raises the issue of classical receptions which are themselves formed by receptions – Asimov very much followed Gibbon’s interpretation of why the Roman empire fell in constructing his own deteriorating empire, rather than looking at what the Romans themselves say about their political culture and its failings. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does highlight another important tenet of classical reception – every reception is influenced by the receptions that have come before it, as is clear from how many times cultures modelled on Rome follow Asimov’s, and thus Gibbon’s, pattern. (Liz Bourke notices a similar phenomenon in contemporary receptions of Minoan culture drawing on Arthur Evan’s influential 1921 book The Palace of Minos; 2014).
Lorenzo DiTomasso explores the dominance of this particular dynamic of decline in four SF landmark novels, drawing out the moral code that’s made implicit in the way that the corrupt establishment comes into conflict with a plucky and energetic upstart culture and revealing how Gibbon’s influence has now become mainstream (2007). But creators are finding new ways to deploy the Roman empire, and I pick out the Hunger Games trilogy as an example of what I mean. While the political structure of Panem mirrors the Gibbonesque decadence-as-decline trope, what makes these books different is their emphasis on the gladiatorial element of Roman culture, which is built into the structure of the annual Hunger Games through a lens which relies as much on Hollywood’s version of Roman gladiators as those found in historical sources (as argued by Makins 2015). The interesting shift that the Hunger Games books typify is an interest in Roman culture that goes beyond the conventional political structures often encountered in SF, and that uses social history as an integral part of world-building. This development may well be facilitated by the quantity and quality of information about the ancient world available through television, radio and the internet, and as such I suspect that the range of cultural information found in SF is going to expand beyond already established tropes.
The other major theme that appears to becoming more and more a focus of classical reception research springs straight from Frankenstein, and asks how classical material serves as a way for SF to think about what it means to be human in the modern era. This is an idea much championed by Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens; they argue that as humanists concerned with a period which is privileged as the root of Western civilization, classicists can make productive and useful interventions in a world becoming increasingly technoscientific and once again questioning the definition of humanity (2015: 19). They make the case that there are some important parallels between the fields of classics and SF, in that classicists try to reconstruct the past through academic means while creators of SF try to envisage the future through imagination (2015: 20); classicists are encouraged towards open-mindedness and creativity because of the scarcity of their sources just as SF creators benefit from the unlimited possibilities offered by futures as yet unwritten. As Keen points out in the context of alternate history narratives, thinking about SF can also push classicists to think about the ancient world in new ways, so the dialogue benefits participants on both sides (2006).
The idea of change and development is taken up by Ingo Gildenhard and Andrew Zissos in their volume exploring the idea of metamorphosis from Homer to Hollywood (2013). In their introduction to the book’s third section, which spans the “Post-Metamorphic” to the “Posthuman”, after covering Gothic literature, ‘fantastic’ literature and magical realism, they pick out SF as a genre in which metamorphosis finds a new incarnation. They begin with Shelley’s Frankenstein, but also note the importance of Darwin’s theory of evolution for the metamorphic trope – culminating in SF’s interest in cyborgs, androids and robots (2013: 352-368). The idea of metamorphosis, entrenched in the literary canon since Ovid’s famous epic poem, becomes another way for classicists to explore the transformation of the human being in ancient as well as modern terms.
A further indication of the state of the field comes from a look through two recently published collected volumes of essays, hopefully blazing the trail for more collective and individual publications of this kind. The first, L’Antiquité dans l’imaginaire contemporain: Fantasy, science-fiction, fantastique, appeared in 2014, edited by Mélanie Bost-Fiévet and Sandra Provini. It is the proceedings of a 2012 conference, which sought to understand the renewed interest in Greco-Roman culture in the contemporary imagination. The three categories of fantasy, SF and the fantastic overlap; the contributors to the volume cover a range of possible subjects and in doing so raise some of the themes I’ve already identified. The use of myth in SF gets a goodly amount of attention, both in terms of individual works and authors and broader surveys of possible creative techniques. Television series are well represented, with multiple papers on Battlestar Galactica, as well as Star Trek and Babylon 5. Individual novels, like Dan Simmons’ Ilium and Olympus, are also considered alongside their ancient literary inspirations, Homer in Simmons’ case, to draw out what SF can do when it explicitly decides to interact with classical literature. Contributions from Anglophone scholars translated into French notwithstanding, this volume serves as a valuable reminder that people are working on this material outside the Anglophone world, and that cultures beyond English-speaking ones have a stake in the continued manipulation of antiquity through SF.
The other collection, hot off the press, is Classical Traditions in Science Fiction, edited by Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens (2015). Although its roots lie in a 2011 co-chaired conference panel, I believe this volume has the distinction of being the first to be collected specifically for the purpose of publication. The volume is broken into four parts: the first considers the link between ancient literature and the earliest works of SF; the second looks at what SF did with classics during the early to mid-twentieth century; the third focuses on what happens when classics meets SF set in space; and the fourth explores SF’s ability to conduct thought experiments about problematic issues through its deployment of classical tropes. Alongside less familiar works, some familiar subjects crop up – the Hunger Games, Frankenstein, Lucian, Dune, Blade Runner, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Dan Simmons’ Ilium – but all these contributions are welcome at this stage in the field’s development. This volume stands a good chance of being the starting point for developing some of the ideas and readings that have been aired on the conference circuit into proper conversations, both in person and in print, that explore the deep connection between SF and classics more thoroughly.
I hope this brief overview has given a flavour of some of the exciting and interesting work taking place among classicists who are looking at how SF uses classics, explained why that’s a valid and powerful question to ask, and indicated some of the broad trends that are starting to come out of looking closely at how antiquity is being used in this particular genre. There is still plenty of work to be done, as Rogers and Stevens’ so-far unfulfilled wish-list of desiderata for the field makes clear (2012: 139-144). However, none of this would be possible without the innovation and imagination of those who generate SF in the first place. As long as their creativity remains in play, those of us interested in the intersection between the two spheres will have plenty to think, talk and write about.
I give my sincere thanks to Tony Keen, Adam Roberts, Brett M. Rogers, Benjamin Eldon Stevens and Shana Worthen for their feedback on earlier drafts of this piece.
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Weiner, Jesse. 2015. “Lucretius, Lucan, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” In Rogers and Stevens 2015: 46-74.
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