Gitta's Literary Escapades

Just another reader taking on (modern) classics, best-sellers, award-winners, non-fiction, and (guilty pleasure) chicklit armed with common sense, a brain and feminism.

The True History by Lucian of Samosata

The True History - Lucian of Samosata,  H.W. Fowler,  F.G. Fowler

This work is not suitable for children for it contains a fair amount of explicit sexual content.

Review of the English translation by Paul Turner found in his Lucian: Satirical Sketches.


When someone suggests you should read 'the first work to feature space travel, aliens and intergalactic warfare', it's nigh impossible to resist. With a little voice in the back of my head saying "he might be overselling it. After all, he wants you to read it.", I picked up his recommendation: Paul Turner's translation.


From the first page onwards, Lucian's introduction, I knew this was going to be precious. If you are in any way familiar with stories of epic, and often fantastical, voyages, whether it's The Odyssey, Gulliver's Travels, The Hobbit, or Jason and the Golden Fleece, you will enjoy the rich literary genre that Lucian is satirising.


"I have found that a similar disregard for truth is quite common even among professional philosophers. My chief reaction is astonishment - that anyone should tell such lies and expect to get away with it. But if other people can do it, why should not I? For I too am vain enough to wish to leave some record of myself to posterity, and as no interesting experiences have ever come my way in real life, I have nothing true to write about. In one respect, however, I shall be a more honest liar than my predecessors, for I am telling you frankly, here an now, that I have no intention whatever of telling the truth. [...] I am writing about things entirely outside my own experience or anyone else's, things that have no reality whatever and never could have. So mind you do not believe a word I say."


The True History

Turner's translation is has a remarkable contemporary feel to it and he has found a way to retain Lucian's puns by translating them into the English (making them easy to understand for those who do not possess Latin). He talks of 'salad-fowls' and 'a species of mermaid known as Assfeetida'.


"There was no sign of Plato, and I was told later that he had gone to live in his Republic, where he was cheerfully submitting to his own Laws. [...] None of the Stoics were present. Rumour had it that they were still clambering up the steep hill of Virtue [...]. As for the Sceptics, it appeared that they were extremely anxious to get there, but still could not quite make up their minds whether or not the island really existed."


Contrary to what you would expect from an almost 2000-year-old piece of 'science fiction', Lucian's satire contains nothing what would now be seen as seriously outdated. Leaving aside the fact that Neil Armstrong would disagree about a thing or two claims Lucian made and we modern readers now thing back to 20 July 1969 as 'long ago' (my parents were six at the time!). True History (or Trips to the Moon) is ridiculing epic voyages with a sense of humour that has stood the test of time.



Some of which contain explicit content.


"They see nothing indecent in sexual intercourse, whether heterosexual or homosexual, and indulge in it quite openly, in full view of everyone. The only exception was Socrates, who was always swearing that his relations with young men were purely Platonic, but nobody believed him for a moment, and Hyacinthus and Narcissus gave first-hand evidence to the contrary."


"But as so often happens, this apparent change for the better was only the prelude to something infinitely worse. [...] [W]e suddenly saw a school of whales approaching from the East. The largest was about a hundred and seventy miles long, and he started coming towards us with his mouth open [...] We kissed one another goodbye and waited for the inevitable. The next moment he had gobbled us up, ship and all; but he never got a chance of chewing us, for the ship had slipped through one of the gaps between his teeth and sailed straight into hist stomach."



Though Turner's translation is beautifully written, I have not taken language into account when I rated this - it remains a translated work. The structure too can only be judged fairly if compared with similar works: the epic or in this case pseudo-epic. The erratic, linear nature of this genre allows little to be said about. Yes, there is little to no character development. Yes, the characters disappear from the narrative. But that is all normative for this type of plot-driven adventure. It is not a character driven quest, like The Hobbit or Harry Potter. Thus, this work mainly has to be evaluated based on the ideas explored by the author. And for that alone, Lucian gets 4.5 stars.


I knew Jules Verne had innovative ideas, but I never would have though an author of the second century CE would dare to write about space-travel, aliens, and intergalactic warfare. Nor did I guess that Carlo Collodi would have borrowed from Lucian when he wrote Pinocchio. All in all, Lucian's proto-science-fiction has influenced many if not, indirectly, all writers of the genre, which makes it a must read for readers of science fiction, adventure, the epic, and satire (did I leave anyone out?)



Details & Where to Buy


This work is in the public domain and can be read and downloaded for free to read online or on your e-reader or Kindle at Project Gutenberg.


First published: c. 120 - 185 CE
Original title: Ἀληθῆ διηγήματα or Storia Vera
Author: Lucian
Edition: Paperback (Penguin, 1961)
Pages: 345
Read: 2 - 26 April 2013
ISBN: 01995559319780199555932
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