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Fly Me to the Moon: Lucian’s A True Story

Dr. Conor Whately Assistant Professor, Department of Classics, University of Winnipeg

Imagine a sci-fi adventure that combined elements of Star Wars, Star Trek, The Wizard of Oz, and Pinocchio. What if I told you a man wrote such a story in ancient Greek almost 2,000 years ago? Lucian, who lived in what is now the southeast corner of Turkey, wrote A True Story in the 2nd century AD, the same time sculptors created most of the statues in the rotunda at the Olympus exhibit. In it, he tells the fantastical story of a voyage to space complete with exotic creatures, a giant tornado, a massive man-eating whale, and interplanetary warfare.

Lucian was a well-educated satirist who published a great number of works that poked fun at his peers and their shared Greco-Roman elite culture. Some of the most famous historians, philosophers, and poets of the classical world are in his firing line, including Herodotus, Plato, and Homer. In Lucian’s eyes, those writers, and others like them, told all sorts of lies while claiming to tell the truth. In response, although Lucian calls his tale A True Story, Lucian makes it clear in his introduction that it is anything but: it will be chalk full of lies, but at least he’s upfront about it.

The content and style that Lucian employs consciously imitates that of many of the authors he’s mocking, including historians like Herodotus. Herodotus and other historians like him often included fantastic stories about unbelievable creatures. So, when Lucian describes an interplanetary battle between Endymion and his people of the moon on one side and Phaethon and his people of the sun on the other, we find the same sorts of fantastical details in a “truthful” account like Herodotus’ Histories – only the landscapes described by Lucian are otherworldly, involving the sun, the moon, and a host of constellations.

Many of the characters we find in A True Story would have been vaguely familiar to his original audience. For one thing, both Endymion and Phaethon have classical pedigree – and would have been immediately recognizable to Lucian’s readers: in classical myth, Endymion was a lover of Selene, the moon; and Phaethon was the son of Helius, the god of the sun, who famously crashed his father’s chariot that rode across the sky. In Lucian’s story they are powerful kings, with Endymion’s army numbering over 60 million alone.

Getting back to the creatures, fighting alongside Phaethon we find 50,000 sky-mosquitoes, 200-feet long, ridden by archers, and 10,000 stalk-mushrooms, so-called because they used mushrooms for shields and asparagus for spears. Later in the story, a giant whale, who is so big we find a 27-mile-long island complete with cultivated crops and trees inside its belly, swallows up the narrator and his trusty comrades.

It’s hard not to see this story as an early example of science fiction since it’s filled with many elements we usually associate with sci-fi books and movies. There’s space travel; alien life forms and worlds filled with strange atmospheres and atypical physical laws; telescope technology that allows the narrator to look down on Greece from space; an interplanetary war over colonization rights; and a main character, the narrator, eager not only to describe but also to explore these strange worlds.  

If you're interested in the classical world, myth, and sci-fi, you'll will find Lucian’s A True Story an engaging and light-hearted adventure story, perfect for beach reading. It’s available in an Oxford World Classics edition (Lucian, Selected Dialogues), and online.

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