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Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(circa 125- after 180) Syrian-Greek author, known also as Lucian of Samosata; born in Samosata, capital of Commagene, in Syria (now modern Turkey). He early became an advocate and practised at Antioch, but soon set out on the travels which were to help provide the verisimilitude underlying the fantastic surface of some of his works. He visited Greece, Italy and Gaul, studied philosophy in Athens, and eventually became procurator of part of Egypt, where he died. The number of works attributed to him varies with criteria of authenticity; The Works of Lucian (trans 1913-1967 8vols), the translators being A M Harmon, K Kilburn and M D Macleod, is conservative but therefore reliable on texts likely to have been by Lucian, and includes eighty titles, granting carefully that some are possibly spurious. His works can be subdivided into various categories, some of little interest to the student of Proto SF: works of formal rhetoric, numerous essays, biographies and the prose fictions – which include The True History and the possibly spurious Lucius, or The Ass – and the series of Dialogues which comprise Lucian's most important work, and to the form of which he gave his name.

The Lucianic Dialogue mixes Plato's Dialogues, Old and New Comedy, and Menippean Satire into a racy, witty, pungent form ideally suited to the debunking activities with which Lucian is most associated, and which are his most important bequest; his influence on these lines extends from Sir Thomas More and Erasmus (?1466-1536) to the dialogue-based Satires of Thomas Love Peacock and others. The Lucianic Dialogue of greatest sf interest is Ikaromenippos (trans Francis Hickes as "Icaromenippus, or the Loftie Traveller"; for details see Checklist for 1634; title later usually given as "Icaro-Menippus"). In this dialogue Menippus, disgusted with the fruitless animadversions of Earthly philosophers, acquires a pair of wings (see Flying) and flies first to the Moon, whence he is able to get a literal (i.e., visual) perspective on the nature of mankind's follies, and second to Olympus, where he meets Jupiter and watches that god deal with men's prayers (which arrive fartlike through huge vents). Jupiter proves moderately venal, but does in the end threaten to destroy the acrimonious philosophers who drove Menippus to flight. Other Dialogues of interest include the Charon, Timon, the 26 Dialogues of the Gods and the Dialogues of the Dead.

The prose fictions are also vital to the development of sf. Alēthē Diēgēmata ["True Histories"; Latin "Verae Historiae"] (trans Francis Hicke as "Lucian's True History"; again for details see Checklist for 1634; title later usually given as The True History) – taking off in Parody mode from the numerous unlikely travellers' tales (see Fantastic Voyages) that proliferated at the time – is an extremely enjoyable and frequently scatological debunking exercise. Lucian travels with fifty companions to the Moon, where they are taken in hand by civilized three-headed vultures, and become embroiled in a space War; they then fly past the Sun and back to Earth, where they land in the sea and are soon swallowed by an enormous whale, from which they escape and visit various Islands, where Lucian's fertile imagination piles marvel upon lunatic marvel, and simultaneously mocks them. With regard to fantasy and the spirit of romance, The True History is detumescent. The tale was influential upon François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift, both of whom clearly found Lucian a bracing model; any understanding of sf that recognizes its profound contrarian roots will necessarily see this text, and the Icaro-Menippus, as procreative. Lucian stands at the beginning of the somewhat problematic line of prose fictions that lead eventually to what we might legitimately think of as sf proper; it should perhaps be made clear that this progression is not here assumed to have been inevitable, though the narrative concisions of an encyclopedia entry might be described as the lowest form of teleology.

Lucius, or The Ass is also important as a cognate of or original for Apuleius's The Golden Ass (circa 200 CE; vt Metamorphoses), about a magician's helper who is turned into an ass, suffers much, and is finally retransformed by a goddess. Lucius's picaresque adventures, and the earthy manner of their telling, provided models for picaresque counterattacks on idealistic fiction from Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) onwards.

There are various translations, the earliest in English being Necromantia: A Dialog of the Poet Lucyan for his Fantasy Faynyd for a Merry Pastyme (trans 1530), and the most complete early rendering being Certaine Select Dialogues of Lucian: Together with his True Historie (coll trans Francis Hickes 1634) [for full subtitle see Checklist], as augmented by Part of Lucian, Made English from the Originall in the Year 1638 by Jasper Mayne, to Which Are Added Those Other Dialogues as They Were Formerly Translated by Mr Francis Hicks [sic] (coll trans Jasper Mayne 1663); the two titles, separately paginated, are found bound together (see Checklist for this "omni"). There is more than one modern edition. The Works of Lucian of Samosata: Complete With Expurgations Indicated in the Preface (trans 1905 4vols) might have been useful if its eminent post-Victorian editors, joint authors of The King's English (1906), had not bowdlerized the author they were assigned to honour, with the explicit connivance of the Oxford University Press (which has since reprinted the set without change). The Loeb translation, cited above, redeems this offence against Lucian and its betrayal of the responsibilities of any reputable scholar. [JC]


born Samosata, Syria (now Turkey): circa 125

died Egypt: after 180

works (highly selected)

modern collected editions

  • The Works of Lucian of Samosata: Complete With Expurgations Indicated in the Preface (Oxford, Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press, 1905) [published in four volumes: trans by Francis George Fowler and H W Fowler: conspicuously bowdlerized: hb/]
  • The Works of Lucian (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press/Loeb Classical Library, 1913-1967) [published in separate issues amounting to eight volumes: Vol 1 1913; Vol 2 1915; Vol 3 1921; Vol 4 1925; Vol 5 1936; Vol 6 1959; Vol 7 1961; vol 8 1967: later volumes may be in association with differing publishers: trans by A M Harmon, K Kilburn and M D Macleod: unexpurgated scholarly texts: hb/]

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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