It’s not only the fantasy end of the speculative fiction genre that owes an awful lot to history. So does science fiction – something recognised by the Science Fiction Foundation when they put together their 2013 conference “Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World”. The most recent issue of the SFF journal ‘Foundation’ includes a selection of papers from the event. As you can imagine, being a Classics graduate myself, these are of considerable interest to me.
What can looking backwards contribute to our understanding and enjoyment of the literature of the future and of imagined, secondary worlds? Granted, all contemporary writing ultimately has its roots in the Classics but surely the arrow of time should be pointing us in the other direction, to see where creative developments will take us? Not so. As far as I am concerned, a Janus-headed approach offers far more benefits.
Authors of prose fiction, graphic novels and those writing for the screen, large and small, continue to draw on the Classical myths and motifs that can so often provide points of contact and a common frame of reference for readers and viewers widely separated by geography, educational systems and life experience. This alone is argument enough for the continued teaching of Classical literature in our schools and not merely the works of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Where readers (of all faiths and none) can pick up an author’s subtle references and allusions, thanks to a working knowledge of writing from the Bible to the Epic of Gilgamesh, this significantly enhances their depth of understanding and thus their enjoyment.
Then there are two ways of looking the use of such myths and allusions. Firstly we can see how a writer adopts and adapts Classical motifs and find insights into their creative process and its evolution throughout an individual career. We can also trace their contribution to the development of archetypes such as the hero and the villain, both within SF and Fantasy and in wider literature.
Secondly we can analyse a writer’s choice and use of Classical elements in the light of their own life and times. Academic or amateur, every historian learns how interpretation of sources, from potsherds to plays, says at least as much about the onlooker’s where and when as it does about the material in hand. For instance, for more than a century, authors have used the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to explore problematic aspects of cultural and political hegemony from the heyday of British Imperialism to the Cold War and beyond. Of course, Science Fiction and Fantasy have always done this; using somewhere far, far away and long ago or far ahead, to stand outside the world we live in and thus gain a clearer perspective.
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. That much is true. However studying the Classics and Speculative Fiction alike shows us time and again, that however different externals like hemlines and hairdos might be, humanity’s concerns remain constant and eternal. Love of family. Longing for security. Fear of the Other and of the Unknown. Tensions as to when the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few.
In the midst of our current uncertainties, with so many selfishly seeking to exploit political, cultural and religious differences for short-term gain, we can all benefit from the seeing how much more unites us than divides us, through the storyteller’s eye.