The Road to Science Ficton: From Gilgamesh to Wells – James Gunn

Fair use.As the title aptly suggests, this anthology traces the prehistory of science fiction from ancient fantasies like Lucian’s A True History to prescient Gothic tales like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It contains a mix of short stories and extracts from longer pieces. While I enjoyed this collection, I’d only recommend it to academics investigating sci-fi history or die-hard fans.

A True History – Lucian of Samosata
Now I think of this author as the ancient Greek version of Douglas Adams. Mainly known for writing comedic science-fiction with a tendency to mock religion… Lucian certainly does fit the bill!

A True History parodies the improbable events that are common in ancient mythology, such as everything that occurred in the Odyssey, The main difference is that Lucian admits he lies. The story describes how Lucian, wishing to explore the world, rides a sailing boat over a blow-hole and is blown to the moon! There him and his crew are embroiled in a Hellenic space opera between the king of moon and the king of the sun over the rights to colonise a distant star. The war involves ant-soldiers, a Buzzard Cavalry, and “elephantine radishes”. The fearsome Cloud Centaurs are too late to join in the fighting.

Gunn offers only an extract of the first part. You can read the whole thing at Project Gutenberg.

Somnium – Johannes Kepler
The son of a witch travels abroad to learn astronomy at a prestigious university, before returning to his homeland to learn the truth of his mother’s career and being taught by a daemon about precisely what goes on at the moon. Counter-intuitively, the story is at its most interesting before we leave the planet. The protagonist’s world, with its contrast between his primitive superstition and the newborn science he discovers overseas, is completely fascinating. Once we’re dealing with the moon it’s just a barrage of facts and figures which I do not doubt are as accurate as Kepler could make them, but are nonetheless unengaging. The whole thing ends with Kepler waking up to realise that the whole thing was a dream.

Still, the protagonist’s story prior to thinking about the moon could be expanded into a great novel. The co-existence of the rigorously-researched moon and the fanciful demons are just the icing on the cake.

Rappacini’s Daughter – Nathanial Hawthorne
Italian dude falls in love with a toxic woman. Literally!

So this student moves next door to a mad scientist called Rappacini and his beautiful daughter, and their funky garden. The scientist is a pro at poison, the student’s academic mentor makes this explicitly clear. Rappacini’s daughter has spent her life her father’s dubious garden, resulting her the air she exhales and likely most of her bodily fluids fatal to the common man.

I don’t really like Nathanial Hawthorne, but he gets points from me for explicitly referencing the Alexander Romances at one point in the story.

The classic Old Time Radio show Weird Circle did a great rendition of this story. I can still remember it while playing Spyro

The Diamond Lens – Fitz James O’Brien
This story creeped me out, and not in the good way.

It started out with the author bio written by Gunn. Apparently the author died fighting for the South in the American Civil War. I could overlook that, plenty of old writers were dodgy like that.

The story is about an obsessive microscopist who falls in love with a miniature woman, who is surprisingly enough hauntingly beautiful. The only way he can see her is with the lens made from a diamond he stole from his Jewish neighbour, who he killed. The protagonist is later driven insane when the tiny woman he spies on dies of old age, which really serves him right. Also, the protagonist is completely fine with slavery!

As unpleasant as I found the main character, I think this story could be adapted into a decent film if the screenplay focused on the protagonist’s voyeurism and antisemitism. Make him into Norman Bates with a microscope. Make it seem that his unfortunate end is what he deserves. This would work as a black and white Vincent Price kinda film.

Gunn offers us an extract from Frankenstein that I skipped, because I read the entire novel twice during my final year of high school. I think that Victor Frankenstein was bipolar and probably gay. Here’s a link to the Gutenberg version. Watch out though: it’s recursive. I mean, really recursive. Really, really recursive. Really, really, really, recursive…

We also get the Laputa episode from Gulliver’s Travels, the bit where Gulliver hangs out on a floating island scowling at all the absurd things the native scientists do. This is probably my favorite classic of English literature.

The anthology closes with a H. G. Wells story called The Star. An apocalyptic story, it tells how a foreign body enters our solar system and collides with Neptune before traveling before the sun. Wells gives an account of how the diverse people of the world react to this spectacle in away that recalls Will Eisner’s comic Life on Another Planet.

The rest of the book’s content is written in that cramped, oblique style that I’ve come to expect from old English literature. The bright spots are the translated material, as they have been rewritten to be easily comprehended by the modern reader. For this reason I’d recommend this collection mainly for academic readers. After all, most of the truly great stories are available online.

Have your read this book? Or any of the stories I’ve mentioned? You could say something in the comments


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