Defining literary genres is not always an easy process, therefore the times in which consensus is met enforce, leave us with a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction – and of course, this is not the case with Science Fiction. The lack of consensus pertains not just to the exact definition, but the genre’s own roots. Where is the origin of Science fiction? On the one hand, we have the supporters of ancient fantastical works (such as The Epic of Gilgamesh 2100-2000 BCE). On the other, those who say that you cannot have Science Fiction before the Scientific Revolution and therefore putting emphasis on the 16th up to the early 19th century, followed by the boom of the 20th century, created by a culture that saw a deeper understanding of humans’ relation with science and technology.
In this series of articles, I will take you on a journey of discovery where we will look at some of the texts that in my opinion contain SF elements, but that predate the Scientific Revolution. Points will be attributed to either SF or Fantasy, accordingly.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
At university I specialised in the Ancient Near East. I came across amazing ancient literature, scarily relevant even to us modern chaps. One such text is the poem of Gilgamesh, the daddy of ancient texts.
Plot & Themes: Gilgamesh is a King of Uruk, thought to have lived between 2800 and 2500 BCE in Mesopotamia. In a nutshell, the epic is about the fear of death; it examines our longing for immortality through a man’s heroic struggles, both for self-renown and to gain eternal life. It also examines the desperation ensuing when he realises the futility of his quest and that the only way to cheat death is to leave behind some sort of lasting achievement. The King has to face reality and, so to speak, grow up. This exploration of the human condition – what it means to be human – is something that I recognise as being very much part of my understanding of both Science Fiction and Fantasy (SF & F).
Interwoven into King Gilgamesh’s story, is the tale of the flood (something we tend to be more familiar with thanks to the Genesis book of the Bible and Noah’s story). Tradition tells us that the gods sought to destroy mankind by means of a great flood; the wisdom that Gilgamesh receives by meeting Uta-napishti (the biblical Noah), survivor of the flood, allows him to restore his land to its antediluvian splendour. The post apocalyptic environment is an element present both in Fantasy and Science Fiction alike (SF & F).
Setting: The ancient city-state of Uruk, in Sumer, is the central setting of the epic. It is ruled by Kind Gilgamesh, semi-divine (his mother was the goddess Ninsun), but a mortal nonetheless. Men lived in cities and cultivated the land, using irrigation technology. Clear of civilisation was the ‘wild’ and beyond that, a sacred forest guarded by the fearsome ogre Humbaba. At the edge of the world, by the mountains where the sun rose and set, lived horrible sentries, half men and half scorpions. Finally, across the ocean, were the Waters of Death and beyond them was the island where Uta-napishti lived, spared by the gods and immortal. Here, top marks have to go to Science Fiction as soon as one mentions Mesopotamian technology. It is not the scope of this article to explore the technological prowess of ancient Sumerians et all, but you could take your pick, from the irrigation systems, to medicine, to mathematics, to astrology (the geek in me is totally excited at the mere thought). So yes, big marks on the techy score (SF), even though the fantastic creatures score one for Fantasy (F) as well.
Context: I mentioned the human condition before and the fact that, although ancient, this poem feels very familiar to modern people. Gilgamesh’s aspirations, grief and despair are universal and applicable to all ages of mankind. The story, mythical as you like in its events, still serves a purpose, that of explaining aspects of the natural and social world as seen at the time.
Gods were part of daily life, to the extent that there was no need for the use of the noun religion, or its adjective – it was simply life. Mesopotamian cultures believed that men were created to serve the gods, the original inhabitants of all the cities throughout the land. At first, gods had to take care of themselves (bless them). When it got too much, they mutinied. The god Ea then, had an idea (Science Fiction point coming up): he invented the technology to create man from raw clay, and then make it reproduce itself! Ta-daa! (SF)
Of course, we were always the troublemakers and soon our rebellious nature and our impressive reproduction rate, alerted the gods that things were getting out of hand. Enlil, lord of the earth, takes action and decides to cut numbers by plague, drought and famine (as you do). And it didn’t work. Eventually, he went all ‘final solution’ on us and sent the flood. Ea, the god of the brilliant ideas, decides to warn Uta-napishti and get him to build his fancy ark (incidentally, if this is the first time you realise that the Old Testament contains stories which are not unique nor original, but part of a much older tradition, I wish I could see your face – you should have seen mine!). And yes, I’m giving a (SF) point to the flood as a method of destruction.
Last (SF) point is given to the sneaky introduction of genetic engineering thanks, once again, to the god Ea: he asks the Mother Goddess to redesign mankind, so that their race does not reproduce so fast. This introduces infertility, stillbirth and infant mortality, establishing an end to humans’ natural lifespan.
Conclusion: SF 6 – F 3.
If your Cuneiform reading skills are a bit rusty, you can get yourself an English copy of the poem rather easily these days. I write SF, but I cannot imagine doing that without my love for history and our past.
“The Epic of Gilgamesh” Penguin Classics, ISBN 9-780140449198