Aristophanes & SF Origins

My History of Science Fiction #3

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The story so far:
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh
2. Indian Epic Poetry

We continue our journey into the origins of Science Fiction, with a dip into ancient Greece.

As we move ahead through the centuries, I would like us to make a short pit stop for Aristophanes, the comic playwright of Athens who lived between 446 and 386 BC. He was known as the Father of Comedy, feared by his contemporaries for his quick wit, his power of observation and his punchy satire. Today, the comic drama genre is still defined by his plays.

As for the Indian epic poetry, I only want to highlight a couple of science fiction elements within Aristophanes’ work, and not describe any of his plays as SF as such.

200px-Socrates_in_a_basketThe first element comes in the form of a flying basket used to better observe the Sun and the weather phenomena. This particular object, seemingly a hot-air balloon of sort, appears in the play The Clouds. Here, a man called Strepsiades is keen to join The Thinkery, an intellectual society headed by Socrates. As he tries to learn more about their discoveries, Strepsiades is presented with some of their most interesting finding: it is now possible to determine how far a flea can jump (measurable by a tiny imprint left in wax, a flea’s foot); it is also possible to steal garment over a wall, by the clever use of pegs and finally, the discovery of what causes the buzzing noise made by gnats (it turns out to be their trumpet-lookalike rear-end). But here comes Socrates: he floats towards Strepsiades in his basket at the end of a rope, descends and welcomes him as one of his new students.

I’m giving an SF point here, to the basket as it is quite obviously used as a meteorological station – a touch of science. So there.

The next SF point is to be found in another Aristophanes’ play called The Birds. Two men-birds are looking for a king named Tereus, who has been mutated into a moulting Hoopoe bird, hoping to find a better life. The king comes up with a cracking idea: the birds should stop flying about and instead, build their own flying city in the sky – there is your SF point, right there, with my mind going to Bioshock Infinite and the floating air city of Columbia. The city will allow them to exercise control over the humans below and block the gods from reaching them. The two birds now need to rally all the other birds before they can begin construction. The city is named Cloud-cuckoo-land and the city walls are raised quickly, with the help of several birds. The rest of the play is very funny, highlighting all sorts of aspect of ancient Greek life and its mythology, but beyond our scope here.

Conclusion: 2 SF points for Aristophanes for flying objects and air cities. And if you discover something else, do let me know!