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Bacon, Roger

Entry updated 25 January 2021. Tagged: Theme, People.

(circa 1214/1220-?1292) Franciscan friar, philosopher, and speculative thinker over a wide range of subjects, born in England, though he spent many years in Paris; it has recently been argued that his year of birth is more likely 1220 than any earlier date. A disputatious, highly original polymath, he was a central figure in the ferment that marked thirteenth-century European culture. His originality (once disputed) seems incontrovertible; but he did not occupy the position of majestic, beleaguered solitude that was accorded him in later centuries by those who thought that his speculations in optics and astrology and alchemy (though not his advocacy of "experimental science") marked him as a magus, as a literal conjurer. It is this romanticized Bacon who became infamous during the sixteenth century, and who is the subject of an Elizabethan play, The Honorable Historie of Frier Bacon, and Frier Bongay (performed 1589; 1594) by Robert Greene (1558-1594), in which, famously, while the magus sleeps, the brazen head he has constructed (see Automata) to impart devilish wisdom utters unheard its sole words of wisdom: "Time is – Time was – Time is past."

Bacon is an iconic figure for sf (see Icons). He is one of the first – and certainly one of the most intellectually formidable – figures out of the Western world's shared deep past who give off a prophetic luminosity in the mind's eye. It is very easy to re-invent his career (whether or not imaginary accomplishments are adduced) in terms of the fantastic; the brazen head he was supposed to have constructed provides, for instance, the title for John Cowper Powys's Bacon novel, The Brazen Head (1956), where it has a vatic function. Other stories and novels built on Bacon-as-magus include "The Brazen Android" in Three Tales: The Ghost: The Brazen Android: The Carpenter (coll 1892) by William Douglas O'Connor (1832-1889), which is steam-driven; "The Roger Bacon Formula" (January 1929 Amazing) by Fletcher Pratt writing as himself with his own pseudonym, Irvin Lester; Philip José Farmer's "Sail On! Sail On!" (December 1952 Startling); The Face in the Frost (1969) by John Bellairs (1938-1991); The Magician's Apprentice (1994) by Sidney Rosen; and Josepha Sherman's "Friar Roger Bacon (A Magician from England)" (in Merlin's Kin: Tales of the Heroic Magician, coll 1998). He is in this context one of a line of magi which climaxes in the life and career of John Dee, and is so conceived by John Crowley in Aegypt (1987). James Blish's Doctor Mirabilis (1964) more "realistically" examines Bacon as an intellectual avatar, arguing for his importance as a precursor of the Renaissance and Enlightenment scientists and Inventors whose prescient intuitions uncannily model reality (see Conceptual Breakthrough) in ways their contemporaries cannot yet comprehend. This image of Bacon as a genius who would recognize us as fellows is clearly sentimental; but even as sophisticated a Hard SF writer as Vernor Vinge has created – in the Alien Sherkaner Underhill from A Deepness in the Sky (1999), who almost skyhooks himself into understanding more of the universe than is mortally possible – a figure who very much resembles our abiding dream of Roger Bacon. [JC]

Roger Bacon

born Ilchester, Somerset [speculative birth place]: circa 1214-1220

died buried in Oxford [speculative]: June ?1292


fictional works concerning Roger Bacon


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