This is a guest post from James Wallace Harris. James writes about science fiction at SF Signal, and about pretty much everything else at his blog AuxiliaryMemory. Jim is fascinated by the life cycle of books, from manuscript to forgotten classic. For years he has maintain a website devoted to The Classics of Science Fiction. Follow him on Twitter @JimHarris28.
If the genesis of the knife, gun, and missile is the obsidian blade, thrown rock and spear, what then is the genesis of science fiction? Years ago Brian Aldiss, in his book The Trillion Year Spree, made a good case that science fiction began with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Recently, Mark L. Brake and Neil Hook, in Different Engines, suggested science fiction evolved from Johannes Kepler’s 1634 story, Somnium (The Dream), inspired by the Copernican revolution. Numerous writers have claimed stories from ancient Greece and Rome dealt with science fictional concepts long before the age of science. I think we can go back further still, to The Book of Genesis, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Vedas, even the earliest of ancient literature, and assume that science fictional stories were always told in prehistory.
Most ancient literature is religious, and I don’t mean to disrespect anyone’s faith, but if we can read these works not through scared hopes, or secular scholarship, but through the eyes of creative storytelling, we’ll see these tales as dazzling adventures, full of wonder and excitement, like any summer blockbuster. Wouldn’t these same stories told today, using modern writing techniques, be published as science fiction and fantasy? This idea occurred to me while reading several science novels last year, when I kept noticing their Biblical themes.
It’s hard to make a case for science fiction existing before science, but is science really the core of what we call science fiction? Aren’t science fiction fans drawn to fantastic possibilities? Wouldn’t any story about travel to other worlds be science fiction? Isn’t Heaven in the same direction as Mars or Alpha Centauri? Wouldn’t any story about a superior being visiting Earth be shelved in the SF/F section today? How is God different from an ancient, all-powerful alien? Aren’t all gods, nonhuman invaders? Aren’t angels, aliens from the skies? Don’t celestial realms sound like other dimensions? Aren’t all the powers of gods just telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, psychokinesis and matter transmission? Aren’t all the ancient religious works from thousands of years ago really tales of fantastic adventures? Think about it—doesn’t Greek mythology sound exactly like superhero comics?
Yuval Noah Harari, in his international bestseller, Sapiens, psychoanalyses our species, marking three giant milestones in our development: the Scientific Revolution 500 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution 12,000 years ago, and the Cognitive Revolution 17,000 years ago. We’ve probably been making up science fictional tales for 17,000 years.
My referencing The Bible is not meant to claim science fiction is religious or religion is science fiction, but to suggest the origins of science fiction go back further than we imagined. I’m saying our love of far-out concepts began as soon as we tried to understand reality and make up explanations—two aspects of the Cognitive Revolution. Since we didn’t begin to write things down until 5,000 years ago, that leaves 12,000 years of oral storytelling. My bet is extrapolation and speculation began with Harari’s Cognitive Revolution. It’s not hard to imagine Neolithic folk sitting around the fire speculating about all kinds of possibilities that later became the myths and religions of prehistory.
Three of the top science fiction novels from 2015 feel like retellings of Bible stories. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, is a modern variant of Noah’s ark from The Book of Genesis (which has even older forms), as well as updating Adam and Eve (this time with seven Eves). Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, Aurora, is about a generation space ship, and if you think about it, Noah’s ark was a generation ship. Robinson’s story could also be a retelling of Exodus and the search for a promised land. And in The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi plays a Prophet warning us about a Biblical sized doom to come.
Folks living in the 21st century love to believe we’re the crown of creation. We assume we’re at the pinnacle of evolutionary development, and superior to our ancestors. Yet, how much of our psychology stays the same from one generation to the next? One way to know is by reading the earliest forms of writing, like The Bible, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and The Odyssey, stories composed in prehistory and written down at the dawn of writing. Reading these stories connect us to Neolithic minds and thoughts. What if those stories weren’t sacred or secular, but speculation? And isn’t that the heart of science fiction?
What if the writer of the Noah myth was the Steven Spielberg of his day, inspired by the same thoughts that inspired Neal Stephenson to write Seveneves? Didn’t the story of Noah make an epic disaster flick? What if the same story was told for the same reasons thousands of years ago? Haven’t we always had end-of-the-world stories? Is the invention of gods and heavens significantly different from imagining aliens and distant planets? Our long ago ancestors didn’t know about other worlds, so they had powerful beings coming from the sky, mountain tops, under the ocean, or deep underground. If they had known about cosmology, wouldn’t their gods come from the stars, or had God come from outside the Universe?
If we start looking at our species in a holistic way, like Yuval Noah Harari, we’ve changed far less in the last 17,000 years than our hubris fools us. If we study ancient stories we can see there are aspects to fiction that we constantly repeat, both in history and prehistory. I believe the early books from antiquity, like The Book of Genesis, come out of oral storytelling traditions that reflect ideas descended from the deepest prehistory. If we compare the oldest writings from the past to the newest stories about the future, we’ll see how little we’ve changed.
Think about The Game of Thrones – when and where is it set? Does it matter? Doesn’t it have a timeless quality? George R. R. Martin’s success is based on universal themes that could be prehistory or a post-history apocalypse. Aren’t most epic fantasies set in a rich potentiality of prehistory? And why do so many galactic empire stories feature an aristocracy? Why does the future often seem like the past? Star Wars is set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Remember what happened in Battlestar Galactica?
One of the oldest stories we have, “The Shipwrecked Sailor,” is from 2200 BCE. Not as exciting as Robinson Crusoe or The Martian, but still based on the same idea. How far back in time do stories about sole survivors enthrall our kind? How far in the future will we continue to use the same plot?
One of the startling lessons of anthropology is Neanderthals made the same stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years with few signs of innovation. Compared to the constant “progress” of our species, that’s kind of sad. Homo erectus spent two million years doing essentially the same thing. We’ve very proud of our quick ascension above the animals. Yet, just admiring change creates a delusion. If we look at fiction, we can see we’ve been working the same themes for seventeen thousand years, just like the Neanderthals worked the same stone scrappers for all their existence.
Science fiction glories in the growth of science and technology. But do our thoughts and emotions reflect the same evolutionary progress as our inventions? Shouldn’t we attribute our marvels to culture, and not individuals? Our technological culture is fast changing and innovative, but are we? If we read ancient literature, we’ll see the same human motivations in our ancestors that compel us to read science fiction today. Don’t we really see that the cultural landscape is changing, with people staying the same? Wouldn’t our science fiction and fantasy, if transported and translated back in time, have the same appeal to our ancient ancestors?
I assume the writers of The Book of Genesis worked to explain reality with the concepts they had at hand. Is it significantly different from how we explain reality today, either with science or science fiction? Doesn’t the story about the Garden of Eden, where humans once lived among the animals without clothes, and then learned language, ring familiar to what anthropology tells us? And isn’t the story about the tree of knowledge of good and evil just a metaphor of explaining how we become self-aware? Do neuroscientists have better explanations?
And isn’t every story about a spaceship landing on a new world, another story of Genesis? Isn’t the desire to terraform Mars copying what God did for Earth in The Book of Genesis? Isn’t the fashioning of Adam from dust, and the Gollum from clay, similar to our desire to fashion robots from silicon? Doesn’t the idea of reincarnation sound like brain downloading? Does it matter if we find immortality through afterlife or medicine?
Which would be more thrilling: going to heaven or shipping out on the USS Enterprise?