Monday, June 16, 2014

The invention of fiction


When you think about it, fiction is a kind of odd concept. The author is telling a lie, and the reader knows it is a lie, but neither one cares. In fact, the book carries a label on it saying "this is a fiction," so no one could accidentally mistake it for the truth. Of course, we're all used to it by now, but there must have been a time when the idea of fiction was invented. People have always told false stories, sometimes outrageous false stories about monsters or magicians, but it used to be the stories were always told as true, perhaps happening in an earlier age when the world was different.
The case of fantastic fiction is what interests me more. With mundane fiction, a story may or may not have happened to some particular person you don't know, but it's easy enough to accept that it might have happened. With fantastic fiction, the rules of the world are different. It is populated by creatures that you have never seen. It takes a real decision to create such an outrageous lie and then tell everyone it is a lie and expect them to still care about it. Doing that must have taken an unusual person, until the world got used to it.
The best person I've ever found to fit this description-- the inventor of extreme fiction (what today might fall in the genres of science fiction and fantasy and magical realism)-- is Lucian of Samosata.
Lucian was born in about 120 AD near the border of Syria and Turkey, and was probably of Semitic heritage. At the time, this was all part of the Roman Empire. He apprenticed to his uncle, the sculptor, but after breaking a pot he decided that making words rather than things was more his line. He traveled widely through the Roman Empire (basically all the countries bordering the Mediterranean in Europe) as a rhetorician, earning his living by giving speeches and as a lawyer. I really get the impression that he lived as an outsider looking in, commenting on the world in ways that made people look at it differently. Maybe a little like Mark Twain, or a stand up comedian.
There are two written works in particular that I find interesting. One of them is called The Liar. It's basically a bunch of guys sitting around telling about incredible things they've seen or heard of. (One of these stories was adapted by Goethe, and (by way of Goethe) Walt Disney, as The Sorcerer's Apprentice.) The narrator is incredulous, wondering, why do people make up these lies? He understands why sometimes people lie to further their own interests. But why tell lies just for the sake of lying? We readers get the satisfaction of feeling smarter than those who believe the story, but the joke is on us, because we are sitting here, reading the lies, because they are just so weird and interesting.
Another, longer work is called A True Story (or, The True History in another translation). It is clearly what we would call science fiction (though the genre wouldn't be invented until the time of Jules Verne and his imitators). Wikipedia lists the following science fiction elements in the story:

  •  travel to outer space
  • encounter with alien life-forms, including the experience of a first encounter event
  • interplanetary warfare and imperialism
  • colonization of planets
  • artificial atmosphere
  • liquid air
  • reflecting telescope
  • motif of giganticism
  • creatures as products of human technology (robot theme)
  • worlds working by a set of alternate 'physical' laws
  • explicit desire of the protagonist for exploration and adventure
In the introduction to the story, Lucian sets out exactly what he is going to do:

"Ctesias,... in his work on India, ... gives details for which he had neither the evidence of his eyes nor of hearsay. Iambulus's Oceanica is full of marvels; the whole thing is a manifest fiction, but at the same time pleasant reading. Many other writers have adopted the same plan, professing to relate their own travels, and describing monstrous beasts, savages, and strange ways of life. The fount and inspiration of their humour is the Homeric Odysseus, entertaining Alcinous's court with his prisoned winds, his men one-eyed or wild or cannibal, his beasts with many heads, and his metamorphosed comrades; the Phaeacians were simple folk, and he fooled them to the top of their bent. 
When I come across a writer of this sort, I do not much mind his lying; the practice is much too well established for that, even with professed philosophers; I am only surprised at his expecting to escape detection. Now I am myself vain enough to cherish the hope of bequeathing something to posterity; I see no reason for resigning my right to that inventive freedom which others enjoy; and, as I have no truth to put on record, having lived a very humdrum life, I fall back on falsehood--but falsehood of a more consistent variety; for I now make the only true statement you are to expect--that I am a liar. This confession is, I consider, a full defence against all imputations. My subject is, then, what I have neither seen, experienced, nor been told, what neither exists nor could conceivably do so. I humbly solicit my readers' incredulity."

This is a remarkable passage. He says, "all these writers have told incredible tales, which are obviously mostly made-up. I'm going to do the same, but I'm going to tell you up front: this is all lies. It's all just for fun, and to make you think." If you're the first person to write fiction, you have to have a paragraph like that, right up front, so that people know what you're doing.


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