A True History

by Lucian

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Truth versus Fiction

Lucian’s book A True History is considered by many scholars to be the first specimen of science fiction literature in history. It is a fictitious story of a journey narrated by the author himself. There is an obvious contradiction between the title of the work and its declared nature, for the author himself confesses in his introduction,

I now make the only true statement you are to expect—that I am a liar . . . My subject is, then, what I have neither seen, experienced, nor been told, what neither exists nor could conceivably do so. I humbly solicit my readers' incredulity.

This contradiction is accounted for by Lucian’s purpose, which is to deride the belief that the conventional wisdom and traditional knowledge of his time—be it history, philosophy or poetry—reflected the truth. By parodying the Greek mythological stories and by employing extravagant imagery, Lucian shows that those stories are not to be trusted. The war between Endymion and Phaethon, kings of the moon and the sun respectively, that Lucian and his crew get involved in in book 1 is just an example of this:

“Phaethon,” he replied, “king of the Sun (which is inhabited, like the Moon), has long been at war with us. The occasion was this: I wished at one time to collect the poorest of my subjects and send them as a colony to Lucifer, which is uninhabited. Phaethon took umbrage at this, met the emigrants half way with a troop of Horse-ants, and forbade them to proceed.”

The Quest for Knowledge

Lucian develops the theme of a quest for knowledge throughout his narrative. This theme is elaborated against the mythological background, paralleling in some ways Odysseus’s wanderings, the Argonauts’ quest to find the golden fleece, and Heracles’s feats. This theme is worked out by way of allegory. The reader constantly learns something new about geography, astronomy, and zoology as the travelers visit islands, explore celestial bodies, and meet strange living beings and hybrid animals. All of these encounters are symbolic of a greater theme—the limits of human knowledge, which finds its correspondence in the original statement of Lucian’s purpose in book 1:

Starting on a certain date from the Pillars of Heracles, I sailed with a fair wind into the Atlantic. The motives of my voyage were a certain intellectual restlessness, a passion for novelty, a curiosity about the limits of the ocean and the peoples who might dwell beyond it.

The limits of the ocean here are just an allegory of the limits of human knowledge. The three minor trips (to the moon, to the whale’s belly, and to the Isle of the Blessed) within the framework of the main journey reflect this pursuit of knowledge.

Other Worlds as Satirical Representations

The idea of utopia, or alternate universes, is prominent throughout the book, and there are many of these other worlds to be found during the journey. These include the crew’s original destination (which is never reached), the Moon, the Sun, Elysium, Tartarus, the world inside the whale, and others. Each of these universes represents a separate imaginary reality with its alien races, fantastic creatures, or mythological and literary heroes. The description of each of them reflects Lucian’s satirical stance toward his own world with its limitations.

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