Monday, April 10, 2006

The 'T' stands for Tiberius: models and methodologies of classical reception in science fiction

[The following is a paper I delivered at the 2006 Classical Association Conference in Newcastle. I had to edit it down to fit a twenty-minute slot, and what follows is the full-length version, with some changes as a result of points made in the subsequent discussion. I've also only included those of the illustrations I used in the lecture that are significant for points I'm making. I apologize for the fact the there are no links to the notes - this is beyond the frontier of my HTML expertise. Comments and corrections are warmly invited.]

This paper forms the introduction to a planned larger work looking at a number of different aspect of the way in which sf uses the Greek and Roman Classics. I shall start with two parallel, interrelating introductions.

Introduction number one: Studying the way that Classical antiquity is received in modern works of art and literature changes not only the way we look at those works, but also how we look at the source material. For instance, many of my thoughts on what Athenian dramatists were actually trying to say have been formed or amplified through observation of contemporary interpretations. Sometimes the insights are quite unexpected - it wasn't until I read Ulysses, and saw what Joyce was trying to do, to find the exact combination of English words that conveyed the precise nuance that he desired, that I finally understood what Thucydides was trying to do with Greek. And so it is with science fiction.

Introduction number two: I am aware that in looking at science fiction, I am in danger of being perceived to be engaged in the study of the 'banal and quotidian' that Charles Martindale condemned in the Reception debate at the 2005 Classical Association Conference in Reading. The frivolous response to such a charge would be to say that I'm just using this as an excuse to read all the books and watch all the television and films I would read and watch anyway, and call it 'research'; but that would be rather to denigrate my own work, and potentially that of everyone else working in reception. So instead I shall defend myself from such a charge in two rather more serious ways. First of all, sf is not intrinsically banal and quotidian. (I'm not going to argue this - it just isn't.) Secondly, even if it was, it wouldn't matter. Martindale's objection, in my view, confuses aesthetic value with cultural significance. I have no objection to people making aesthetic judgements, and make plenty of my own. But any such judgement I or others might make is unrelated to whether the piece of work judged is worthy of study in terms of its reception of Classical ideas. Put simply, one can say that Gladiator is a poor film, but it doesn't follow from such an opinion that Gladiator is not important. If most people are getting their experience of the ancient world through the banal and quotidian, then it is the banal and quotidian that must be studied.

Let us start then, as an example of how sf receives the classics, with Tiberius. Not the second Roman emperor, stepson and adopted son of Augustus; but arguably the single most iconic figure in all of science fiction, Star Trek's James Tiberius Kirk.

Captain Kirk's middle name took a long time to be established. Indeed, when he was first introduced, in the second pilot of Star Trek, 'Where No Man Has Gone Before' (1966), his middle initial is shown on a gravestone as 'R.' This detail had been forgotten by the next time someone wanted to give Kirk's middle initial, and so it became 'T.' But what this stands for remained unknown throughout the original run of Trek.

That it is 'Tiberius' was finally established in 1974, in an episode of the animated series of Star Trek that followed the original - 'Bem', written by David Gerrold. Now, almost everything that happened in the animated episodes is considered non-canonical for subsequent Trek productions. That is, they are never referred to, and no attempt is made to avoid contradicting them. But, curiously, the detail of Kirk's middle name does get into the Star Trek canon.[1] This suggests to me that it was series creator Gene Roddenberry's notion, rather than writer Gerrold's.

In the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), there is a preface made out to be by James Kirk himself. (The novelization is credited to Roddenberry, but reportedly is actually by Alan Dean Foster, so what we have here may be Foster pretending to be Roddenberry pretending to be Kirk.) In that preface, Kirk shows his Classical credentials by stating that he has come to be seen as a new Ulysses, and that he is uncomfortable in the role. He also explains his name:

My name is James Tiberius Kirk. Kirk because my father and his male forebears followed the old custom of passing on a family identity name. I received James because it was both the name of my father's beloved brother as well as that of my mother's first love instructor. Tiberius, as I am forever tired of explaining, was the Roman emperor whose life for some unfathomable reason fascinated my grandfather Samuel.

Anybody who has read Suetonius' Life of Tiberius, or is familiar with I, Claudius or Tinto Brass' 1979 film Caligula, will know that Tiberius was notorious for the quantity, variety and invention of his sexual perversions. Several questions therefore clearly arise. What exactly was it about Tiberius that so fascinated Samuel Kirk? Do Samuel Kirk's interests, together with James being named after his mother's 'love instructor' (whatever one of those is), explain the voracious heterosexual appetite of the grandson?[2] But above all, what were they thinking?

I'd now like to examine some theoretical models. Greco-Roman elements (or indeed elements from any historical culture) can be used in science fiction in a number of different fashions. What follows is a rough framework for discussion, and is not meant to be a rigid categorization of use of Classical elements, but a broad heuristic tool. It is a model, and like most models, breaks down when subjected to rigorous examination. And I remain firmly in the camp of those who would rather break the model than break the evidence.


Straight retellings of mythological tales don't really interest me for the purposes of this paper or for the larger work. These stories, such as Weight (2005), Jeanette Winterson's recent reinterpretation of the Atlas myth, belong in the genre of fantasy rather than sf (where they do not, as David Gemmell's bestselling Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow [2005] does, belong in historical fiction). Of course, the boundaries between sf and fantasy are frequently blurred, as anyone familiar with the works of China Mieville will know. But I don't have time to go into a detailed discussion of the definitions of both genres, which would in any case only be my definitions, and would not necessarily be recognized by everyone. Let me just say that, in my view, science fiction assumes a rational explanation to everything, no matter how fantastic it might seem or how pseudo-scientific that explanation might be, whilst fantasy assumes the irrational. So, gods that are in fact super-powerful aliens are science fiction, gods that are gods belong in fantasy. And to this latter category we must consign, as well as retellings, new tales featuring mythological characters, such as the various different film and television series featuring Hercules, stories featuring new characters in a mythological past, such as Xena: Warrior Princess, tales of the fantastic set in historical antiquity, such as Gene Wolfe's Latro in the Mist novels,[3] or even tales of the gods still walking amongst us, such as the episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, 'Yes Virginia, There is a Hercules' (1998) and 'For Those of You Just Joining Us' (1999), where there is no science fictional element.[4]

What are the truly science fictional uses?


First is simple allusion, brief references to ancient history or literature that are not particularly central to the story being presented. This can manifest itself in titles, without carrying any deeper message. Stanley G. Weinbaum's 1934 story 'A Martian Odyssey', that later gave its name to a collection of his stories from 1949, has little in common with Homer's epic poem beyond both being about long journeys. The same appears to be true, at least on the surface, of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.[5]

Such title allusion can sometimes be not to the Graeco-Roman originals, but to other receptions, such as when Eando Binder (Earl and Otto Binder) entitled their short story 'I, Robot' (Amazing Stories, January 1939), referring to Robert Graves' classic 1935 novel I, Claudius. (The title was later stolen by Isaac Asimov's publisher for the first collection of Asimov's own robot stories in 1950, much to Asimov's annoyance, as he preferred Mind and Iron.)[6]

Allusions may be in the sf work in the form of names,[7] such as James Tiberius Kirk already mentioned; or the use of terms like 'imperium', as in Keith Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium, where the Imperium is the name of the principal state in the story.

In the latter case, as seen above, the name of that state may have inspired cover artist Ed Valigursky to put Roman-style helmets on the figures illustrated.[8]

More substantially, classical allusion may be used to comment on the situation in which the characters find themselves. One such may be found in an episode of the sequel to Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, 'Best of Both Worlds' (1990). Faced with the Borg, an implacable enemy that may destroy the Federation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard muses on whether this was how the emperor Honorius felt in AD 410 as the Goths descended upon Rome. The purpose of the allusion is not always so immediately clear. In Ken MacLeod's novel The Stone Canal (1997), two drunk men sit by the Forth Estuary and talk about how this is where Rome stopped (a reference in keeping with the theme of the Newcastle conference, 'On The Frontier'). The immediate significance of this isn't apparent on first reading, though there does seem to be something of a meme in recent British literary sf of scenes with two blokes drinking and talking about the Roman empire - in an appendix I've included a similar scene from Stephen Baxter's Coalescent (2003), though there it's more obviously relevant, as the story begins in early fourth century AD Roman Britain. This meme may go back to the American author Philip K. Dick, whose characters, as the sf critic Andrew M. Butler has shown,[9] often muse on Rome - even before Dick's (presumably drug-induced) visions of being himself transported back to the late first century AD.

However, MacLeod is a man with interests in classical antiquity - he is well-versed in the Epicureans and Stoics and the works of Lucretius and Marcus Aurelius[10] - so the reference in his case is unlikely to be gratuitous. As one reads The Stone Canal further, it becomes clear that the novel is very interested in the limits of empire, and that may be why MacLeod has included this scene.

These allusions make important points about popular understanding of antiquity. Classicists know that Honorius was actually in his capital Ravenna at the time of the sack of Rome, but the writers of Star Trek clearly don't. Ken MacLeod probably does know that to say that Rome stopped at the Antonine Wall is an oversimplification that ignores the Flavian, Antonine and Severan penetrations further into Scotland; but his characters, two drunk blokes talking shite, can't necessarily be expected to have that knowledge.


A step up from allusion is appropriation, the depiction of a society or individual which has in some method consciously modelled itself upon Greco-Roman (or other historical) precedents. For examples of this I turn once again (but for the last time) to Star Trek. A non-classical instance is the episode 'A Piece of the Action' (1968), in which a planetary culture is encountered that imitates Chicago mobsters of the 1930s. 'Plato's Stepchildren' (1968) provides a classical example. This episode was controversial in the United States because it reportedly featured the first depiction of an interracial kiss on network television, and was banned in the UK, probably because of a sado-masochistic whipping scene that suggests Jim Kirk may know more about his grandfather's fascination with Tiberius than he's letting on. But my interest in it is because it features a society that has allegedly modelled itself upon Plato's ideal state. However, I doubt Plato ever envisaged his philosopher kings as being in addition super-powerful psychokinetics, and I also doubt that the episode's writer, Meyer Dolinsky, had read much Platonic philosophy - certainly there's little sign of it in the episode.[11]

Allusion aside, appropriation is far and away the most plausible form of reception of the Classics in sf, as it is simply imagined societies and individuals doing what real historical cultures, such as Napoleonic France or Fascist Italy, did. However, it is also one of the least common. Nazis seem to be much more popular for this sort of story (q.v. Star Trek, 'Patterns of Force' [1968]).


More frequent is what I call, perhaps somewhat misleadingly (and not necessarily in honour of the 2005 Worldcon), interaction. This covers stories actually featuring the cultures or individuals (real or imagined) of the Classical past, or some continuation of the same. The locus classicus for this sort of tale, of course, is the long-running BBC television series Doctor Who, a show based around the concept of travel in time and space (in the unlikely event that there's any one reading this who doesn't know that). And indeed, the Doctor has on his travels visited Rome at the time of Nero, the Trojan War, and the pre-Hellenic Aegean in the age of Atlantis, and encountered displaced Roman soldiers and creatures of Classical mythology; and more such stories are to be found in spin-off novels and audio dramatizations.[12] But interaction can be seen elsewhere. There are two consecutive 1974 stories from ITV's 1970s rival to Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People. In the second, A Rift In Time, the Tomorrow People travel back to the Roman period (and inadvertently interfere in human history by bringing about the Industrial Revolution a thousand years too early, forcing them to go back and put it right). In the first, The Blue and the Green, more unusually, they find themselves up against entities which promoted the rivalry between factions in the Roman circus. For a literary example, Stephen Baxter's Coalescent, already mentioned, concerns a secret society whose origins lie in fifth-century AD Rome. Or one might encounter a Princess who comes from among the Amazons, who have kept themselves sealed off from Man's World for millennia (the origin of William Moulton Marston's superheroine Wonder Woman).

It is in these sorts of stories that I think one can start to see what science fiction can do that other forms of reception perhaps can't as easily.

As an example, I take Helen of Troy. Casting Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, is very difficult for a naturalistic stage, film or television production, since beauty is such a subjective concept. My favourite exemplar of this is Michael Cacoyannis' film of Euripides' Trojan Women (1971). Cacoyannis cast Irene Pappas in the role, who was his wife, and therefore his idea of perfection in female beauty. But she's not mine, especially not when the same film features Vanessa Redgrave at her most radiant in the role of Andromache. When Doctor Who tackled the Trojan War, in a 1965 story called The Myth Makers, writer Donald Cotton solved this problem simply by never bringing Helen on screen, and thus her appearance always remains in the viewers' imaginations. Now, it might well be said that any writer of historical fiction could pull the same trick, but I'm not sure that a non-sf treatment would think to exclude Helen in this way. More likely they would take the approach of Eric Shanower's series of graphic novels Age of Bronze (1998 onwards), where Helen's supreme beauty is a rumour spread by Odysseus to motivate the Greek army. This is a realistic approach, but for me lacks the elegance of Cotton's trick. However, the trick is not unique to sf, as Hector Berlioz in the nineteenth century omitted Helen from the onstage cast of Les Troyens, and it may well have been this which gave Cotton the idea.

If the example of Helen is something that genres other than sf can do, then a convincing portrayal of the Greek gods is much more sf's province. Nick Lowe has observed[13] that almost all recent treatments of the Trojan War have excluded the direct involvement of the gods, either through eliminating them entirely or through segregating them from the principal human characters. This is true not just of Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy (2004), which was much criticised for this aspect (as well as others),[14] but also of Shanower's Age of Bronze and Gemmell's Troy, and (as far as I am aware) of Lindsay Clarke's The War At Troy (2004) and Valerio Massimo Manfredi's The Talisman of Troy (2004). According to Lowe, the only recent treatment of the Trojan War to successfully integrate the gods is Dan Simmons' sf novel Ilium (2003; the sequel, Olympos appeared in 2005). There advanced technology takes the place of the divine power that seems to embarrass other writers interested in writing historical adventures; the gods' Mount Olympos becomes Olympus Mons on Mars.

Into this category I would also put stories dealing with alternate histories (or 'counterfactuals' for authors worried that they might otherwise be accused of writing science fiction), e.g. ones where Rome never fell. The two characters in Baxter's Coalescent are discussing what might have happened had the western Roman empire survived, and such a notion is at the heart of Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna[15] (2003), and of Sophia McDougall's recent Romanitas (2005). In Silverberg's collection of stories, the combined factors of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt ending in disaster, and a different emperor succeeding Septimius Severus, lead to the survival of the Roman empire past the twentieth century.

Alternate history, to my mind, makes us ask new questions of the ancient world. Classicists often look at, for instance, how the Roman empire worked, but less often, I feel, at questions of whether the Roman empire was a good thing or not. Would we want it to survive? Would we want to live in a state which, though it brought order and peace, was a slave-owning military dictatorship where freedom to criticize the government was severely limited? Looking at alternate histories prompt us to ask such questions, even if they were not always in the original authors' minds.

Sometimes the connection between alternate history and scholarship can be even closer, and alternate history can take on the form of academic discourse, as in Neville Morley's brilliant paper to the 1999 Classical Association Conference, subsequently published in 2000 in Greece and Rome - 'Trajan's engines', a scholarly examination of technological feats the Romans never actually achieved.[16] So well done is this that some were fooled, and it still crops up in some online bibliographies of writing on Trajan.


My fourth category, borrowing, is much like appropriation, in that elements of Classical antiquity are used to build an imagined society. The difference is that in this case only the author and audience are aware of the origins of features of the imagined culture - the members of the culture themselves are not, and cannot be, for there is no connection between them and Earth's antiquity.

Sometimes this borrowing can be as minor as simply the use of nomenclature. Greek and Latin can be a reliable source of names that are sufficiently unfamiliar to a readership to be credibly alien, yet retain the ring of something that might actually be spoken, rather than something that an author has made up off the top of his head. This is especially the case where a name does not conjure a particular individual in the popular imagination.[17] M. John Harrison takes the Roman name of Wroxeter, Viriconium, for a fictional city at the centre of a sequence of what are strictly speaking fantasy stories, but ones with a strong sf undercurrent.[18] In the paper that formed the other part of the panel in which the current paper was presented, Amanda Potter commented on the use of names like Apollo, Athena and Cassiopeia in the original Battlestar Galactica (1978);[19] I would also note the use in that series of the Zodiac to denote the Twelve Human Colonies.

Another example came be drawn from the Planet of the Apes franchise. There the characters played by Roddy McDowall are called 'Cornelius' in Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) (though there the character was played by David Watson), and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), 'Caesar' in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), and 'Galen' in the Planet of the Apes television series (1974). This is, it must be admitted, a slightly problematic case. Caesar appears in two films that take place in what was then the near future, when there would still presumably be access to Roman history. Though in the others knowledge of human history has been lost by the apes, it remains possible that some names might survive. However, this example does illustrate the way genuine Latin names can then be supplemented by ones with a pseudo-Latin feel, such as the orang-utan Dr Zaius in Planet ... and Beneath ....[20]

For an example where Classical sources have been used to help imagine an entire culture that can have no connection with those sources, we can go a long, long time ago to a galaxy far, far away. I am, of course, talking about Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence's classic comic, The Trigan Empire, which has been described by Neil Gaiman as 'the story of something a lot like an SF Roman Empire on a distant planet'.[21] It is in fact a great deal more, and Butterworth and Lawrence used popular views of the Greeks, Mongols and Saharan nomads to populate the planet of Elekton. But it is the sf Augustus, Trigo himself, and the Roman trappings of his empire, that are always remembered.

It is also the case that George Lucas' Star Wars films (commencing in 1977 with Star Wars) take much of their political terminology (Republic, Empire, Senate, etc.) from Rome, and even the broad outline of the galaxy's political history (the change from Republic to Empire). Some of this has come via the influential Foundation novels of Isaac Asimov, which helped establish the popular space opera trope of the Galactic Empire, and themselves draw upon two Classically-related sources, Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) and Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.[22] But not all of the Roman elements in Lucas' work have come from Asimov. Lucas may not have consulted any Classical sources or works on Roman history himself, but he is clearly familiar with cinematic interpretations of Rome's past.

This is shown if we move from the sublime to the ridiculous, which in this case means moving from Episodes IV-VI of the Star Wars series to the more recently made Episodes I-III. In The Phantom Menace (1999), not only does the capital of the planet of Naboo draw its appearance partly from many reconstructions of ancient Rome, as well as being reminiscent of the modern city (and other cities such as Istanbul); but a triumphal sequence at the end is stolen shot-for-shot from Commodus' arrival in Rome from Anthony Mann's Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).[23]

Above: Naboo, from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).
Below: Reconstruction of the Roman Forum.

This sort of reception in sf through a previous reception can also be seen in the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death (1976).

The robot face illustrated here derives ultimately from a Greek comic mask[24] (itself presumably influenced by the archaic kouros). But the production designer for Doctor Who has gone not to Greek originals, but to the appropriation of Greek objects by the Art Deco movement.


My next category is one step up from borrowing - stealing. Here not just elements of the background or foreground have been taken from an ancient culture, but the story itself derives from a Classical original. This approach is, of course, not unique to sf. Two non-sf examples are James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), and the Coen Brothers' movie O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), both of which take Homer's Odyssey as their source text (though both depart from it considerably).[25]

In sf there is Brian Stableford's Dies Irae trilogy (The Days of Glory, In the Kingdom of the Beasts and Day of Wrath, all 1971), which draws heavily upon the Iliad in its first volume and upon the Odyssey in its second. The Odyssey is again used in R.A. Lafferty's novel Space Chantey (1968).[26] Robert Silverberg's The Man in the Maze (1968) is a retelling of Sophocles' play Philoctetes, even retaining Lemnos as the name of the planet to which his Philoctetes-equivalent has been exiled.

The use of the term 'stealing' is not necessarily meant to pass any judgement on the merit of works that take this approach. Some, such as Joyce's novel, are high art. However, sometimes stealing (or indeed borrowing) seems to encourage a laziness in writing, a sense that all the work has already been done for the writer, so they needn't bother. There are two Doctor Who stories from the late 1970s that exemplify this. One, Underworld (1978), is a reworking of the Jason and the Argonauts myth; the other, The Horns of Nimon (1979), retells Theseus' adventure in the Cretan Labyrinth. Neither is very good, and through the use of anagrams for names (for instance, Herick and Tala for Heracles and Atalanta in the first, and Aneth and Skonnos for Athens and Knossos in the second) come close to insulting the intelligence.[27] (I said earlier that reception studies allows one to revisit favourite works of art and media, but sometimes you have to watch The Horns of Nimon again.)


At Nick Lowe's suggestion, I have added a final category, ghosting. This covers stories where no direct influence of classical originals can be established, but where nevertheless there are strong hints of themes derived from antiquity. Once could in this category talk of the possible influence of the Jason myth upon 2001 - both are stories in which an adventurer goes beyond the limits of the known universe in order to recover wondrous artefacts. However, this category is inherently nebulous, and such connections can be difficult to establish. Moreover, one can start to see them everywhere, especially since, as most recently demonstrated by Simon Goldhill in Love, Sex and Tragedy (2004), western civilization is deeply rooted in the Classics.

That concludes my tentative framework. It oversimplifies, breaks down when applied to examples that cross the boundaries, and may be of little use to anyone else - but I find it useful for myself and for my work.

Given western civilization's roots in the Classics, it is inevitable that Classical references will be found throughout sf, and no study can hope to cover them all. But I believe that looking at how the two areas interact can be valuable for both. For Classics and science fiction are both areas that can be used to put a comforting distance between subject and audience.[28] It can be easier to comment on modern imperialism if you take as your background the Peloponnesian War or the far future.

It's worth noting the differences, though. Edith Hall has pointed out to me that Joyce in particular, and others, use the Classics as a peg of familiarity in order to allow himself to write a more avant-garde literary work. Derek Walcott does something similar when he uses the Odyssey for his ambitious poem Omeros. Sf, on the other hand, tends not to do this, as the genre can often be conservative in terms of literary form, and is already attempting to get its readership to buy into novel ideas, and cannot always afford to load novel structure upon that.

Nevertheless Classics will continue to be received in science fiction[29] - and indeed my next reading matter is Stephen Baxter's new novel Emperor (2006).


He nodded thoughtfully. 'Decline and fall, eh? But there were a few junctions in Rome's history where things might have turned out different.'

'Such as?'

'Such as the loss of Britain. Needn't have happened. Britain wasn't just some kind of border outpost. Britain was protected by the ocean mostly anyhow - from the pressures of the barbarians, and internally it was mostly at peace. For centuries it was a key source of wheat and weapons for the troops in Gaul and Germany, and it had a reserve of troops that could have been used to reverse the setbacks in western Europe. Even after the calamities of the early fifth century - if the emperors had won Britain back - they might have stabilised the whole of the western Empire. Maybe your granny understood some of this.'

'If she ever existed.'

'If she existed. Well, she was the daughter of a citizen, the granddaughter of a soldier. If you're living in great times, decisive times, you know about it, even if you only glimpse a small part of it.'

'Do you think this story of Regina can be true?'

'Well, I read the book. It's plausible. The place names are authentic. Durnovaria is modern Dorchester, Verulamium St Albans, Eboracum York. Some of the detail makes sense too. The old Celtic festival of Samhain eventually mutated into Halloween ... Trouble is, nobody really knows much about how Roman Britain fell apart anyhow. For sure it wasn't like the continent, where the barbarian warlords tried to keep up the old imperial structures, though with themselves on the top. In Britain we got the Saxons - it was an apocalypse, like living through a nuclear war. The history and archaeology are scratchy, ironically, precisely because of that.'

I nodded, and sipped a little more limoncello. The bottle was already getting low. 'And if the Empire had survived ...'

He shrugged. 'Rome would have had to fight off the expansion of Islam in the seventh century, and the Mongols in the thirteenth. But its armies would have handled the Golden Horde better than its medieval successors. It could have endured. Its eastern half did.'

'No Dark Ages.'

'The one thing you get with an empire is stability. A solemn calm, instead of which we got a noisy clash of infant nations.'

Stephen Baxter, Coalescent (2003), pp. 372-3


[1] Technically not until mentioned on-screen in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).

[2] Writers of 'slash' fanfiction featuring the unspoken love between Kirk and Spock (of whose work Roddenberry was presumably aware) might take such a statement as evidence that they were right all along.

[3] Soldier of the Mist (1986) and Soldier of Arete (1986), both set in the early fifth century BC.

[4] Where there is a science fictional element, however, such as in the Star Trek episode 'Who Mourns for Adonais?' (1967), or the use of gods in superhero comics, which are inherently science fictional milieus, then, of course, I am interested.

[5] I discuss deeper Homeric themes in 2001 in a paper entitled 'Odyssey or Argonautica? Classical themes in the "proverbial good science fiction film"', to be delivered at the 2006 Eastercon.

[6] I agree with the publisher - I, Robot is a much better title.

[7] Since classical names have been given to the planets, constellations and many stars, such names abound in those sections of sf that deal with space exploration (e.g. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars novels). Similarly Greek and Latin are hardwired into the language of science, and therefore into the language of science fiction. But one cannot cover these in detail as classical receptions in their own right - that way madness lies.

[8] It should be noted that Laumer gives a fin de siecle/Edwardian feel to his descriptions of the Imperium, and Valigursky may actually be referencing c. 1900 imitations of Roman attire. Incidentally, Damon Knight's cover quotation is quite curious, as the novel contains no time travel whatsoever.

[9] See Andrew M. Butler, Philip K. Dick (Pocket Essentials, 2000).

[10] As revealed in MacLeod's 2006 Guest of Honour speech to the sf convention Boskone, available on his weblog:

[11] Rather more knowledge of Plato is shown in the 1972 Doctor Who story The Time Monster, where minor characters have the names of Platonic dialogues.

[12] The stories referred to are The Romans (1964), The Myth Makers (1965), The Time Monster (1972), The War Games (1969) and The Mind Robber (1968). For relevant spin-off stories, see, e.g., Christopher Bulis' novel State of Change (1994), set around the time of Cleopatra, or the Big Finish audio story The Council of Nicaea (2005).

[13] In a paper entitled 'Little Iliads: Dramatising Homer from Rhesus to Troy', delivered at the Greenwood Theatre, 10 February 2005, immediately prior to a performance of the pseudo-Euripidean Rhesus.

[14] For my own views on the relationship between Troy and Greek mythology, see 'Troy: a reflection',

[15] Sic. I assume the corruption of Latin is a publisher's doing rather than Silverberg's.

[16] Neville Morley, 'Trajan's Engines', Greece and Rome 47 (2000), pp. 197-210.

[17] I owe this observation to Dr Eleanor OKell.

[18] The sequence began with The Pastel City (1971). The stories are collected in Viriconium (2000, reissued in 2005 with an introduction by Neil Gaiman).

[19] 'Pandora and the Pythia: Classics meets 9/11 in the current US TV Series Battlestar Galactica'.

[20] The Roman references are continued in Tim Burton's 're-imagining' of Planet of the Apes (2001), where the ape city is ruled by a Senate.

[21] In 2003:

[22] Foundation (1950, fixup of stories originally published in Astounding Science Fiction 1942-44), Foundation and Empire (1952, stories in ASF 1945), and Second Foundation (1952, stories in ASF 1945). For the classical roots of the series, see Martin M. Winkler, 'Star Wars and the Roman empire', in Martin M. Winkler (ed.), Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema (2001), pp. 272-90, with further references therein.

[23] It's known that during the making of Star Wars, before the special effects sequences had been filmed, Lucas used footage from WWII air combat films cut with what he had shot to illustrate how the final film would appear. I suspect the same technique was used for the triumphal scene in Phantom Menace, with Lucas recutting Mann's film to show Industrial Light and Magic what he wanted from this CGI sequence.

[24] This observation is also owed to Eleanor OKell.

[25] One could also mention poetic reworkings of classical authors, such as the anthology After Ovid (1995, ed. Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun), or Maureen Almond's transpositions of Horace into twentieth century Teesside (in The Works, 2004).

[26] Brian Stableford, in the entry on 'Proto Science Fiction' from John Clute and Peter Nichols, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993, corrected edition 1999) notes at least five sf versions of the Odyssey (p. 966).

[27] Compare also Asimov's transparent lifting of Belisarius as 'Bel Riose' in Foundation and Empire (1952).

[28] For the use of Classics in this way, see Lorna Hardwick, Reception Studies (2003), especially Chapter VI.

[29] Not least because of those sf and fantasy writers who have Classical backgrounds - e.g. Adam Roberts has a degree in English and Classics, Juliet McKenna one in Classics, and Harry Turtledove wrote a Ph.D. in Byzantine history.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting paper.

While I am sure this treatment was not meant to be exhaustive, let me point out two extensive examples of this.

First, the setting of Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry series is explicitly modeled on the Mediterranean in classical times.

Second, the science fiction roleplaying game Traveller might be an even clearer example of modeling a setting in this way. Within the evolving far-future setting of Traveller we have the defeat of the Persians by Alexander, the disintegration of Alexander's empire, the rise of the empire of Rome (called the Imperium) complete with exotic threats by vaguely Asiatic states, and finally the fall of the western empire to the barbarians and the squabble between the Franks and the Byzantines over the heritage of Rome. Most of this was quite deliberate, but the fall of the West and the Byzantine/Franks analogy had to be pointed out to the designers by historically-inclined fans.

Tony Keen said...

It's certainly not meant to be an exhaustive list, and no treatment ever could be.

Nevertheless, I'm always happy to be told of instances of receptions of the Classics in sf, as I certainly don't know all of them. In this case, I knew neither, though I do know of Anderson's Guardians of Time, which has a number of stories set in various parts of antiquity. Is there a reference for the pointing out of the Byzantine/Franks stuff to the designers of Traveller?

Unknown said...

My first thought is that in many ways SF is fertile ground for the study of classical reception because it's alive. There are currently SF aficionados holding regular meetings. This allows you to ask them for their opinions, which you do in the following post. If someone were to write a paper on the 19th century reception Erechthion they're not in a position to go to a 19th century gentleman's club and have a dialogue.

There's also the stereotype of SF followers being particularly intense. Usually that's made fun of by laughing at people in pointy ears, but SF forms a community of intelligent and detailed discussion across a whole genre. There's no similar following for murder mystery for instance or hospital drama. People tend to follow specific authors rather than a genre as a whole. There may be some other cohesive genre cultures (ugly phrase but I'm thinking as I type) like horror, but not quite like SF.

The tradition of thinking about what it means to be human in SF makes it useful too. SF is about social science as well as natural science. Following Brian Stableford's principle of the novum, much SF asks the question what happens to society if you change one thing. In many ways this is close to the action of some ancient historians who don't have the luxury of changing just one thing. At a push there's not only common source material but sometimes a common purpose too.

I think it's the possibility of dialogue which makes the work particularly exciting.

Incidentally early features on Mars were named after classical figures because they represented common cultural ground. The Pathfinder rocks were named after Scooby-Doo, Zaphod etc... It might be banal to simply state one has replaced the other as the common cultural ground, but it's more interesting if you consider what hole in human society the two genres plugged and why Scooby has supplanted Socrates. It may say something about how we continue to re-create the classical past.

Tony Keen said...

Lots of interesting stuff to think about here, Alun, especially towards the end of your comment. I shall digest some of that.

I think you'll find that crime fiction does have a following similar to that which sf attracts. But you're right that there's an opportunity for a great deal of dialogue there. (Last weekend, I did indeed ask Ken MacLeod what he was up to with the scene in Stone Canal, which turned out to be not quite what I had thought - he says he thinks it's all to do with David Reid's rejection of nationalism and willingness to buy into multi-national imperialism.)

Christopher Weuve said...

Also worth a mention is Glen Cook's The Dragon Never Sleeps, which not only names ships after Roman legions, but uses evocative names and Roman political structures.