Brett Rogers ’99 (left) and Benjamin Stevens ’98
Brett Rogers ’99 (left) and Benjamin Stevens ’98

Interstellar Odyssey

Uncovering the origins of science fiction in the ancient classics.

By D.K. Holm | June 1, 2015

Somewhere in your television viewing past, or buried at the bottom of a dusty shoebox filled with VHS tapes, there may be an old film called The Creation of the Humanoids. Released in 1962, the film chronicles tensions in a postapocalyptic civilization that depends on robots known as “clickers” for slave labor. Like much science fiction, Humanoids appears on the surface to be about one thing—human beings vs. robots—but is really about something else—in this case, racism.

Reacting against robot intrusion into society, an anticlicker Klan arises, led by Capt. Kenneth Cragis (Don Megowan), whose mission is to root out a clicker conspiracy to replace human beings with replica humanoids. In the end, Cragis discovers that he himself has been a clicker all along. As film writer Chris Fujiwara has pointed out, Cragis’ discovery links him with Oedipus, whose hunt for the mysterious child abandoned by Jocasta finally leads him to the horrifying truth that he is the killer of his own father and the husband of his own mother.

Humanoids is hardly an exception. The history of science fiction as literature and film is marbled with astute and story-structuring allusions to the classics, as demonstrated by Classical Traditions in Science Fiction, a groundbreaking anthology which explores the Attic roots of the most modern and future-oriented of literary genres. 

Edited by two Reedies, Brett Rogers ’98 and Ben Stevens ’99, the book marries two formerly separate disciplines and shows how classical themes constantly recur in SF, despite the genre’s obsession with new worlds and new technologies. 

Published as part of Oxford’s Classical Presences series, the book marshals 14 essays by scholars of the classics, Greek, English, and philosophy with a twofold purpose: 

“We think that a wide range of modern SF should be of great interest to anyone already interested in the ancient world and its classics. Moreover, we hope that this volume’s chapters demonstrate the relevance of a wide range of Greek and Roman classics for modern SF. Both as an area in which the meanings of classics are actively transformed, and as an open-ended set of texts whose own classic status is a matter of ongoing discussion and debate, SF stands to reveal much about the roles played by ancient classics as well as new classics in the modern world.”

The essays explore connections between Jules Verne and the Greek satirist Lucian; Dune and the Iliad; Alien, Resurrection, and the Odyssey; antiquity and Western identity in Battlestar Galactica; the Iliad and Dan Simmons’s Ilium; The Hunger Games and the Roman Empire; and the graphic novel Pax Romana, which explores the transition from antiquity to a Christian world.

The book devotes considerable attention to what William Johnson has called SF’s “territorial vagueness.” It’s easy to say that we know SF when we see it, but a working definition proves surprisingly elusive. As contributor Antony Keen writes, when it comes to science fiction, “there will always be debatable regions at the definitional margins.” He goes on to quote Adam Roberts’ dictum that science fiction is “premised on a material, instrumental version of the cosmos,” in contrast to its close ally, fantasy, which concerns “magic, the supernatural, the spiritual.” Alternately, Susan Sontag summed up the whole genre as consisting of the “imagination of disaster,” a fascination with/dread of irresistible destruction. 

Under the aegis of writers such as H.G. Wells, SF fell within the “novel of ideas,” where brainiacs could envision an improved future of flying cars, sensible social orders, and interplanetary journeys. This air of make-believe may be what keeps SF segregated in bookstores and offered as a novelty subject in college curricula rather than accepted as general literature—its imaginativeness aligns the SF field with comic books, cartoons, and lurid pulp magazines (and of course the pulps spawned the careers of several beloved SF writers, including Alfred Bester, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke). To be literature, one school of thought goes, an SF novel must be depressing—an account of hubris and failure, such as George Orwell’s 1984, where Winston Smith gains meager insight into the political forces behind his drab world before being crushed by the state, or in what some consider the first science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where the optimism that drives scientific advance is hobbled by that familiar X factor, the human element. 

But Frankenstein, after all, is subtitled The Modern Prometheus—a clue that even in its inchoate state, science fiction was drawing upon Greek concepts and themes. SF was not just pure fantasy, but was rooted in the classic tradition. In the case of Frankenstein, Shelley drew upon the myth of Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods and is condemned to eternal damnation. Dr. Frankenstein is seeking higher human knowledge, the secret to the spark of life, and pays dearly for it. 

Jesse Weiner’s essay “Lucretius, Lucian, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” gives a thorough account of the book’s debate with the ancients, its later influence, and Shelley’s ambivalence about scientific progress. Weiner notes that the SF genre is “concerned, not only with the speculative possibilities of science, but also with the ethical boundaries of human knowledge.” He also points out that the doctor’s “project of bringing forth a living creature from dead and decaying material appears to draw its inspiration from Lucretius’s favorite example of spontaneous generation . . . Shelley’s moral rejection of Lucretian science in Frankenstein has been described as a reaction against the Promethean radicalism of her husband, and of her father and mother, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Be that as it may, Shelley’s ethical antipathy to Lucretius and the promises of modern science need not refute their epistemological legitimacy.”

Weiner continues:

Shelley’s ambivalent handling of Lucretian material in her novel extends to a motif of gigantomachy, or war among giants. Lucretius famously celebrates the gigantomachy, likening the attempts of various mythological giants to overthrow the Olympian pantheon through force to his own attempt to liberate mankind from superstition through reason and science. Frankenstein has, of course, attempted to usurp the power of God and Nature through science, and the rebellion of Frankenstein’s monster (who is, quite literally, a chthonic giant) forms the novel’s conflict. Rebelling against their creators, Frankenstein and his monster are not merely latter-day Prometheis; they are modern giants. The dialogue of their conflict frames the strife in terms of hierarchical inversion and martial imagery of the thunderbolt, the weapon used by Zeus to defeat Typhon, a giant monster who rose against Olympus. The Frankenstein myth as a gigantomachy is tantalizingly suggested by Percy Shelley, who describes the experience of reading Frankenstein with imagery drawn from the Greek myth of the giants Otos and Ephialtes: “Pelion is heaped on Ossa, Ossa upon Olympus.”

Classical connections come under scrutiny in Rebecca Raphael’s discussion of the links between Blade Runner (and its source, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?), and the story of Pygmalion and Galatea in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Pygmalion is a sculptor who carves a statue of a woman in ivory. So beautiful is the statue that Pygmalion falls in love with it, and prays to Venus for a wife just like her. That night, he makes love to the statue, and finds that Venus has granted his wish: Galatea comes alive (although her flesh is described as “waxy”) and later gives birth to a son named Paphos.

Raphael notes that she is not tracing “direct influence, but rather a comparative analysis of two phases of Western civilization’s engagement with the idea of artificial life . . . Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream do not explicitly rework the classical material, but rather continue variations on a theme, working with the structural possibilities implicit in the concept of artificial life in relation to humans.” With both the older myth figures and the characters of Roy Batty and Pris in Blade Runner, “there is a combination of exceptional ability or power and some deficiency or lack, relative to the divine or the human norm.” (Other classical “robots” include the golden maidens of Hephaestus in the Iliad and the bronze warrior Talos in the Argonautica.)

Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, however, Pygmalion “creates only the artifact, not the life”—only Venus has the power to do that. Galatea is ultimately a creature of the gods, and does not represent a threat to the natural order, whereas Frankenstein’s creation is a true “monster” in the classical sense.

Several essays in Classical Traditions concern science fiction movies or have something to do with film adaptations of SF. Cinema as a subject first broke into the university curriculum in the ’70s, as one of the many fruits of campus disruption and the demand for an expanded canon. Including film analysis in the anthology makes sense when one reflects that motion pictures came into existence as a technology at the same time as SF’s first real popularizers, Verne and Wells, and that some of the earliest films—both commercial tales and their predecessors, what Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions”—were exotic fantasies of space travel and other stretches of the imagination, especially in the films of magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès. The books of Wells and Verne were manifestations of both a fascination with and a fear of technology, and the clash of science and society sparked by the Industrial Revolution. The first films themselves were torn between pure standoffish documentary (the Lumière brothers), in which the “real” was allowed to be the drama, and the romance of fantasy science fiction (Méliès), between pure documentary recording and playful or recreational fairy tales, as scholars such as Walter Benjamin have pointed out. As a genre in general, SF seems to fall broadly into romance, which also accommodates the novel of ideas, on the one hand capturing the thrill of adventure and exploration while on the other contemplating meaning and society. 

The dual birth pains of science fiction and cinema raise a crucial question. Has the bifurcation of SF into the fraternal twinship of literature and cinema degraded a once-sophisticaed genre? Your average SF fan, especially one who came of age when wearing a pair of black-framed glasses was a sign of physical inferiority rather than a badge of hipsterism, is likely to decry the handling of SF “classics” at the ignorant hands of studio honchos. Following the pinnacle of cinematic SF, as found in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, comes a long litany of disappointment—the Aliens, the Predators, the Transformers, and hundreds of other episodes of cultural pabulum gussied up with special effects.

Something similar has happened in comic book adaptations. The DC heroes of the ’50s and ’60s, especially Superman and certain other characters, were science fiction figures, often battling aliens bent on destroying or enslaving Earth. The Marvel comics under the sway of artist-writer Jack Kirby had a visionary “sense of wonder” about galaxies and their denizens. Comic book fans are often upset when a new adaptation comes along, their ire often due to the mishandling of the subject by people who don’t understand—or don’t care about—the comic books that are being pillaged. Marvel comics adaptations have become video-game style battles for dominance taking place in mythical worlds or on the streets of Manhattan. 

A vivid example exists in the post–Tim Burton Batman films, two of which were directed by costume designer–turned-director Joel Schumacher. His Batmen seemed more influenced by the campy ’60s TV show than the noirish comic books—with Schumacher emphasizing the heroes posing in nipple-flexing costumery. Schumacher once bragged that he didn’t read the original Batman comics because he didn’t want his mind sullied by familiarity with the source.

What we see in this mélange is that the SF film has become a subset of the war film. To have SF, first you have to have science. Unfortunately, for the new war-oriented SF films, the science dwindles into irrelevancy; what matters is the monsters, the weapons, and the explosions. It’s as if Hollywood has taken The War of the Worlds, dropped the worlds, and stuck with the war.

There are historic and modern commercial reasons for this cinematic shift. War has indeed been part of the genre since its modern beginnings. Edgar Rice Burroughs invented the “space romance,” with its battles over extraterrestrial territory, a standard later taken up by many other writers, including E.E. “Doc” Smith with his Lensman series. Robert Heinlein often concentrated on the psychology of war while embedding his characters in strange intergalactic conflicts. When the SF movie took off as a genre in the ’50s, space travel (Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M) was eventually pushed aside by dramatic conflict, with man fighting flying saucers in the nation’s capital or battling giant ants in the Arizona desert. 

By the time George Lucas came along in the mid-’70s, he also had made a shift from the Orwellian intricacies of his dystopian THX-1138 to the war strain of SF found in Burroughs and Smith. The result was Star Wars. Though Star Wars is by itself a near-perfect little genre film, its prequel-sequels, heavily reliant on digital bytes and not on actors, were unable to avoid descending into torpor, inspiring scores of imitators to focus on the war and forget about the science.

Another reason for the shift to war is that movie studios like franchises because they think audiences like seeing the same thing over and over again. Predators and Aliens keep coming, long after the monsters themselves have been destroyed. Too often the narrative is betrayed by the need to extract residuals, toy store sales, and brand-name dominance. In Hollywood, wars never end, nothing is concluded, no one really dies, and “endings” are a falsehood. 

A notable exception to this sad catalog of warmongering is Interstellar, a science fiction tale with actual science in it, featuring speculation about how the universe functions outside the “gravity” of Newtonian physics. Clearly influenced by 2001, the film is less the brainchild of its director Christopher Nolan than of the theoretical physics of Kip Thorne and the interests of producer Lynda Obst, who collaborated with Thorne on the film Contact, based on the Carl Sagan novel. Like the editors of Astounding, the movie demands that the science be plausible (though that doesn’t mean that it can’t be questioned, depending as it does on the wobbly world of string theory).

Of all the weird, otherworldly, and fantastic ideas in Classical Traditions, perhaps the most provocative is the suggestion that the link between SF and the classics is actually a two-way street—that some classics can be read as a form of SF. As Weiner writes, “Just as SF concerns itself with the moral ambiguities created in the wake of speculative science, it also explores the tensions between new developments and established traditions, and between modern rationalism and old superstitions.” Classical literature is brimming with this sort of thing—Odysseus defying Poseidon, Prometheus stealing fire from Olympus, Hephaestus forging the Golden Maidens. Who knows? Maybe the first time traveler was actually a Greek magician named Homer.


Ares and the End of All


My cover painting depicts the confluence of myth and prophecy.

To the ancient Greeks, Ares was the god of war, exulting in the violence and chaos of armed combat. An Olympian, he was the son of Zeus and Hera. By contrast, his half-sister Athena was drawn to the intellectual side of warfare—its tactics and organization—and preferred to take dominion over the ideals for which war was waged.  

Although their mythical exploits were essentially the same, the Romans called Ares Mars, and it was from the planet Mars—so named in honor of this deity for its baleful reddish hue—that author H.G. Wells chose to have his invading army hail in his classic 1897 novel The War of the Worlds. Perhaps the choice was further motivated by astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s observation of canali on the Martian surface some 20 years earlier. Schiaparelli’s term meant grooves or channels in his native tongue, but to the English-speaking world it was widely misreported as canals, suggesting a complex irrigation system of possible intelligent design.   

Wells’ novel of warring worlds is my favorite science fiction story, and I have had the good fortune to create pictures for it several times during the course of my long career as an illustrator. The Martians descend upon the earth not with swords and pikes, but with walking machines that emit a disintegrating heat ray and voluminous clouds of black, toxic gas—new and revolutionary methods of combat to a world which had not yet seen the horror of WWI. Sixteen years later, in the novel The World Set Free, Wells would suggest a weapon far more terrifying—one he called the atom bomb.

–– For more than four decades, Vincent Di Fate has held an international reputation as a leader in science-fiction and astronomical art. He is a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, a winner of the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist, and his paintings have been featured on the cover of hundreds of science fiction novels. He is the author of Infinite Worlds, a comprehensive history of science fiction art in America, published in 1997.

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