Reinventing the past in the future

Think of science fiction and the Classics, and the first thing you think of may be 2008’s Doctor Who episode set in Pompeii. That was a delight for anyone wondering why the Doctor hadn’t visited the Roman empire since 1964, and especially for those who have learnt from the Cambridge Latin Course. The Pompeian citizen Caecilius, his wife Metella, and their son Quintus, whose stories feature in the CLC, were made flesh in Doctor Who. (Of course, if you studied Reading Latin or Ecce Romani you may have wondered what the fuss was about!)


However, I’m writing about reinventions of the ancient world in sf. So I’m not going to look much at science fiction actually set in Greece or Rome. Instead, I’ll look at sf doing what Napoleon or Mussolini did. Those dictators based much of the imagery of their empires on Rome. In the same way, sf often takes the ancient world and makes something new. Sometimes this is as simple as taking the myth of Jason and the Argonauts and adding spaceships and ray-guns; a Doctor Who story from the 1970s, ‘Underworld’, did precisely that (to be honest, it isn’t very good). But sometimes it’s a bit more sophisticated and interesting. I can only give a few examples here.

Let’s stick with Doctor Who for a bit. His arch-enemies are, of course, the Daleks. Usually they are said to be based on the Nazis, with their hatred of everyone else, and assumption that they are superior beings. But didn’t the Romans also believe that they were better than everyone else? And didn’t the Romans think they had the right to rule the world, as the Daleks think they have the right to conquer the universe? And don’t the Daleks remind you, at least a bit, of a Roman legion? Of course, you could say that was true of any of the Doctor’s enemies who have of massed ranks of armoured soldiers, such as the Cybermen or Sontarans. And there probably is something of the Roman in these as well. But, whilst the Cybermen and Sontarans have been said to rule an ‘empire’, the Daleks actually have had an Emperor.

And doesn’t the name of the Daleks’ creator, ‘Davros’, sound a bit Greek? It’s not an actual Greek word, but it is the second half of the place-name ‘Epidauros’, pronounced as it would be in Modern Greek, where au has turned into an af or av sound. This could be coincidence. Terry Nation may not have known this about the name, any more than he knew that dalekmeans ‘far’ in Serbo-Croat. But the coincidence between ‘Davros’ and ‘Epidavros’ does illustrate one way in which sf has always used the ancient world. Greek and Latin, or words that sound Greek or Latin, are a good source of names that are sufficiently alien and unfamiliar, but are not obviously made up and unpronounceable. A good example is the Planet of the Apes series of films, where real Roman names like Cornelius, Caesar and Galen, are mixed with fake Latin ones like Zaius.

You could certainly argue about whether the creation of the Daleks was consciously influenced by Roman history. The Roman elements may be there because deep down Roman culture still saturates our own, even if we’re not always aware of it.

For comparison, the American series Star Trek has something much more obviously Roman; the Romulan Star Empire. When the Romulans were first introduced in 1964, it was established that they came from twin planets, Romulus and Remus, named after Rome’s founders. They had officers of the rank of ‘centurion’, the head of their empire was a Praetor, and one Romulan was called Decius. As the years have gone by, further writers of Romulan episodes have maintained the connection with Rome, so that we have discovered that the Romulans have a Senate, and a senior post in that Senate is Proconsul. (But, somehow, Decius is still the only Romulan with a Roman-sounding name.)

Even their haircuts are Roman. The Romulans are supposed to be relatives of Mr Spock’s race, the Vulcans (itself a name with classical origins). So they were given the same haircut, with a fringe brushed forward. That style was known as a ‘Julius Caesar’, as it was derived from images of the dictator. No wonder Mark Lenard, playing the first Romulan seen on screen, gave a performance very like Laurence Olivier in Spartacus. However, the fact that few Romulan names are derived from Roman forms shows that the Romulans are not simply Romans in space; there’s more to them than that.

Another Galactic Empire that owes a lot to Rome is featured in George Lucas’ Star Wars films. Again, it has a Senate, and is ruled over by an emperor. There are Latin-sounding names, like Palpatine and Valorum. Now, there are other influences on the civilization Lucas creates (including from Japan, and, as with the Daleks, the Nazis). But this doesn’t stop him taking his historical narrative from Rome. In Star Wars, an Old Republic is overthrown by an ambitious Senator, who transforms the Republic into an Empire. Probably, Lucas’ knowledge of Rome doesn’t come from reading history books, but from watching Hollywood epics. In Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the podrace imitates the chariot scene from Ben-Hur, and at the end the film recreates a procession sequence from The Fall of the Roman Empire. Lucas can, however, do what Hollywood films always suggested people wanted to do, but could never actually show (except in Gladiator); he can have his Empire overthrown in turn by a restored Republic.

In basing his Galactic Empire partly upon Rome, Lucas followed a well-established tradition in written sf. One of the earliest examples is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which first appeared in the 1940s. The stories were clearly partly based upon Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But in writing the history of the fall of the First Empire, and the preparations for the Second Empire, Asimov also drew on other sources, including Thucydides, and also the history of the British empire. Asimov read a great number of books on Greek and Roman history, as well as other classical texts; he was particularly fond of Homer.

Asimov was one of the most important figures of science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s, and Foundation set the template for many other galactic empires that followed. Writers such as A.E. van Vogt, Poul Anderson, Frank Herbert and Jerry Pournelle all adopted Asimov’s blueprint, to one degree or another.

I’ve talked more about Romans than Greeks so far. Partly this is just due to my random selection of examples. If you were to look at the whole history of Doctor Who, for instance (and I have), you’d actually find more use of Greek sources of inspiration than Roman ones.But there’s also some truth in the idea that Greek subjects tend not to translate so easily into science fiction. In fact, this is true for popular culture in general, which has tended to prefer Rome, and never quite knows how to handle Greece (Gideon Nisbet has an entertaining book, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture, on this subject). But some sf does use Greece.

There are endless retellings of the Trojan War; generally, these take the historical novel approach, eliminating the fantastic elements of Homer and the other Greek writers. This approach is even taken by the late David Gemmell, otherwise known as a writer of heroic fantasy. But one author, Dan Simmons, in his novels Ilium and Olympus, reimagines the gods as posthumans made powerful through technology. These gods recreate the Trojan War on an alternate Earth. But the notion that the ancient gods are in fact superhuman beings who nevertheless can be explained rationally is hardly new to Dan Simmons. It turns up in a Star Trek episode (‘Who Mourns for Adonais?’), at least one Doctor Who spin-off novel (Deadly Reunion by Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts), and the 1970s Marvel Comics series The Eternals, written and drawn by Jack Kirby. (It also turns up in Erich von Däniken’s allegedly non-fiction Chariots of the Gods.)

There are less direct uses of Homer. Stanley Kubrick gave the subtitle ‘A Space Odyssey’ to his classic 1968 sf film 2001. But he means ‘odyssey’ in a very general sense; a long voyage. If 2001 is a reworking of Homer’s Odyssey it is, in my opinion, one that strips the story of everything that distinguishes the Odyssey from any other epic tale of a sea voyage. Others, of course, disagree, and a lot of effort has gone into finding the Homeric parallels in Kubrick’s film.

A related genre to science fiction is fantasy, and that tends to be more receptive to Greece. This deserves a brief mention. After all, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows begins with a quotation from Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, and a number of scholars are writing about the way Greek mythology is used in the Potter series as a whole. Elsewhere in the genre, Robert Holdstock injects new life into tales of Merlin by introducing Jason and Medea. In Gene Wolfe’s Soldier series a Latin mercenary who served in Xerxes’ army encounters the gods of Greece and Egypt. And Terry Pratchett happily mocks the Trojan War, Athens, Greek philosophers, and several related subjects, in Pyramids and Faust Eric, through his creation of the Discworld city Ephebe.

Finally, I’ll return to sf, and come right up to date with Battlestar Galactica. In this television series, a new version of one from the 1970s, a human culture is shown that worships the Olympian gods; Zeus, Apollo, Athena, etc. But there’s perhaps more to the reinvention of the ancient world here than just the gods. The story begins at the end of a long war between two closely related civilizations. Through trickery, one springs a surprise attack, and almost wipes out the other. But a few survivors gather together a few vessels, and set off, with a father and son at their head, towards a new home that it seems the gods have predestined for them. That’s Battlestar Galactica. But isn’t it also Virgil’s Aeneid?

What conclusions can we draw? From one point of view, it’s surprising that science fiction, allegedly about the future, should be interested at all in the past. But that, I would say, is to misunderstand science fiction. All sf is about the present, and just as each generation reinvents its past, so it reinvents its future.

What this brief survey shows is how much Greece and Rome still form a recognizable part of our cultural heritage in Britain and America. After all, Terry Pratchett wouldn’t make jokes about Ancient Greece if no-one would be able to get them. For sf, Greece and Rome provide a series of signifiers, which make the future or far-off alien worlds more comprehensible and more familiar to the reader (and sometimes to the writer!). Modelling a galactic empire on Rome instantly says something about what sort of an empire it is, without having to spell it out. Similarly, if you want to suggest the quality of the madness of an emperor, modelling him on Caligula can be a time-saving shorthand.

And we can see in some examples how deeply classical antiquity is wired into us. I don’t think the creators of the Daleks were thinking consciously of Roman legions when they devised the monsters from Skaro. But there’s still something really quite Roman about them. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that the creators of Battlestar Galactica set out to do the Aeneid in space – but the forms of that sort of quest narrative are so ingrained into western forms of plot construction that it comes out that way.

It’s safe to say, then, that sf will continue to reinvent the ancient world for some time to come.