Medieval Science Fiction?

Alexander in his ‘submarine’. British Library, Royal MS 15 E. vi f. 20v, from article discussed in this post.

Carl Kears and James Paz. “Science fiction was around in medieval times—here’s what it looked like.” The Conversation, 12 Sept. 2018.

§1 This brief article, written in the wake of the release of a collection of scholarly essays, edited by Kears and Paz (Medieval Science Fiction, Boydell & Brewer, 2016), discusses the notion that “science fiction” has a presence in the Middle Ages. The association of the literature of fantasy and the Middle Ages is well established, but these authors ask whether the notion of science fiction (as distinguished from fantasy) has purchase in relation to the Middle Ages. In what follows, I won’t be examining the substantive issue, but rather the approaches by which it is taken up by Kears and Paz and their collaborators: I suggest that this article and the collection edited by Kears and Paz allow us to delineate at least three distinct ways of thinking about the literary history of science fiction in relation to the Middle Ages—which illustrate three different approaches to exploring literary history in general.

§2 First, there is the broad question of the cultural history of science and fiction in the Middle Ages (rather than a focus on “science fiction” as a specific kind of writing): Kears and Paz are interested in “the convergence of science, technology and the imagination in medieval literary culture.” They view the Middle Ages as a period preoccupied with “novelty and discovery” and, as several generations of medievalists have done before them, they reject stereotyped views of the Middle Ages as an era of anti-science ignorance and superstition:

the Middle Ages was no dark, static, ignorant time of magic and superstition, nor was it an aberration in the neat progression from enlightened ancients to our modern age. It was actually a time of enormous advances in science and technology. The compass and gunpowder were developed and improved upon, and spectacles, the mechanical clock and blast furnace were invented. The period also laid the foundations for modern science through founding universities, advanced the scientific learning of the classical world, and helped focus natural philosophy on the physics of creation.

Kears & Paz (2018)

§3 These remarks are concerned with the broad terrain of science and culture and the problematic Kears and Paz take up would seem less startling if we thought of it as concerned with the relations between “medieval science” and “medieval literature”—one phase of our general interest in the interplay between science and literature, an interrogation that arises in relation to every cultural context in which “science” and “literature” exist. The scientific interests of the Middle Ages are evident in works such as Macrobius’s 5th century cosmographical commentary on the moral allegory of Somnium Scipionis [The Dream of Scipio, an extract from Cicero’s De republica]; in Geoffrey Chaucer’s A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391; influenced by Comositio et Operatio Astrolabii, a Latin translation of Messahala’s Arabic treatise on the astrolabe of the 8th century); in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (late 14th cent.), in the seventh chapter of which there is an account of the science and wisdom that Aristotle passed on to Alexander the Great; and in Conrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis (early 15th cent.), with its envisioning of avant-garde war machines.

§4 The foreword James Hannam contributes to the volume Medieval Science Fiction (2016) operates squarely on this terrain, as does the article he adapted from this foreword for his website: “Medieval Science in Medieval Fiction.” Hannam is the author of the book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2009), published in the United States as The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (2011), and the broad cultural approach to literary history, in dialogue with such work, often ends up focusing attention at least as much on the extra-literary cultural contexts (as here, on ideas about the natural world in the Middle Ages), as on the literary culture itself. (Hannam’s work follows in the footsteps of earlier work such as: David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science . . . Prehistory to A.D. 1450 [1992; 2nd ed. 2008]; Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages [1996].) Sometimes, then, what scholars take up as the “science fiction” of the era is, as it were, the weird science of the era: it’s often not clear that they are specifically pointing to things understood to be fictional imaginings.

§5 A second approach to “medieval science fiction” sees it as a matter of the relations between the “medieval” era and “science fiction” as a genre of writing. This formulation requires us to think about the history of literary genres and questions of origins and of the naming or recognition of a genre (for a genre, to function as such, much exist not only in itself but for itself). When science fiction came to be attended to as an object of scholarly study (with college courses from the 1950s and with scholarly monographs from the early 1970s), it was understood precisely as a literary genre (as a variety of genre fiction). The notion that there are medieval writings that we can classify as “science fiction” begs a host of questions about genre and generic identity and, before I discuss it further, let me mention a third way in which the literary history of science fiction might be taken up.

§6 A third approach would be to focus on motifs that are found in works of modern science fiction and in various medieval literary works. Such an approach in terms of motifs—rather than genre history or the broader cultural relations of science and literature—gives us a different kind of map of literary history, in terms of specific borrowings and influences, the terrain of allusions and intertextuality, rather than generic or cultural history. One such motif might be that of the floating or mobile city—from the Cloudcuckcooland of Aristophanes’s The Birds to the floating island of Laputa in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to the post-apocalyptic mobile cities of the movie Mortal Engines (2018), to say nothing of the many space station cities in science fiction stories and science fiction films. Kears and Paz mention a number of “science fiction” motifs that are also found in medieval literature:

  • alien races (the green children of Woolpit in 12th-century Suffolk);
  • flying contraptions and machines of various kinds (the 11th-century monk Eilmer “who constructed a pair of wings and flew from the top of Malmesbury Abbey”; Alexander the Great, in medieval romances, “soaring heavenwards in a flying machine and exploring the depths of the ocean in his proto-submarine”);
  • automatons and robots (Sir John Mandeville telling of “automated golden birds that beat their wings at the table of the Great Chan”);
  • time travel (taken up in relation to the legend of the Seven Sleepers)

§7 Even more than with the broad cultural history of science and literature in the era, the focus on motifs can lead to a disregard of generic specificity: so these representations, associated with motifs found in modern science fiction, are enumerated from medieval texts, but with little consistent attention to whether or not they are conceived of as fictional imaginings. They seem to refer, often enough, to “curiosities” and natural or man-made “wonders” rather than to a form of cultural imagining that is parallel to the modern concept of “science fiction.”

§8 To return to the question of generic history: to the extent that Kears and Paz are proposing the idea of medieval science fiction in a generic sense, they seek to dislodge a more conventional chronology for the origins of science fiction that links the emergence of this kind of writing to the cultural impact of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. On this “modernist” view, the roots of science fiction lie in such traditions as the imaginary voyages of the 17th century, “born out of the spread of Copernicanism in Britain and France and the literary revival of Lucianic satire” or the various satiric and critical engagements of works like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752), and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), but the genre acquires its identity in the later 19th- and early 20th-century era with writers such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs and the magazine fiction of the early 20th century, and then flourishes in the era since the Second World War with writers such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein—and the numerous successors who have followed since then. A work like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels may have stronger connections with the ancient tradition of Lucian’s mockery of tales of wonder in A True Story (2nd cent. CE), than with the modern tradition of science fiction, but as Gulliver was imitated and alluded to in works such as Robert Paltock’s The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1751) and Edwin L. Arnold’s Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905), it was consolidated as one marker of the modern era that sees the emergence of science fiction in the wake of the new science. Thus works from the 17th century through the mid-19th century function as precursors of modern science fiction, reworking cultural outlooks and assumptions in ways that helped make possible the emergence of science fiction in the later 19th century.

§9 In keeping with the traditional view that science fiction operates, not in the supernatural cosmos of traditional culture but in the disenchanted cosmos associated with the modern era, one might ask whether it really makes sense to speak of science fiction in relation to the cultural texts of the period? Kears and Paz note that there are many accounts of wonders in medieval literature—but these seem to bear more resemblance to the tales with which Othello captivates Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello (1604) than they do the tales published in the 1920s science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. As Adam Roberts says, with respect to The Chemical Wedding (1616), a ludic Rosicrucian allegory by Johann Valentin Andreae whose title alludes to alchemy, and which has been claimed to be the “first science fiction novel” by John Crowley,

“Alchemy isn’t science, it’s magic: so it’s a stretch to call [The Chemical Wedding] ‘science fiction’. Nor is this the first ‘alchemical novel’ and it certainly isn’t the first magical story – there are plenty of alchemical and magical romances throughout the medieval period and further back.

“There is a qualitative difference between stories of magic, which go back through medieval romance to Beowulf and the Odyssey, and stories that extrapolate from the new discourses of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which we call ‘science’. The Chemical Wedding doesn’t extrapolate anything: it’s a Biblical allegory and magical fable.”

(quoted in Alison Flood. “Work from 1616 is ‘the first ever science fiction novel.’” The Guardian 23 May 2016)

(See also responses to this story by medievalists such as David M. Perry and Janet O’Brien.)

§10 From one point of view, the whole question of the generic history of science fiction turns on whether one associates the genre with notions like the magic of the imagination and what the French critic Jean-Charles Payen calls l’irréalisme—that is, with the idea of fiction that gives us an alternative world of magic, wonder, the marvelous—or whether one associates science fiction with alternative worlds that are speculative extrapolations from the everyday and still inhabit the naturalistic world that we moderns live in and that is addressed in the literature of realism. (This is similar to the question debated in relation to the rise of the novel, whether romance and the novel constitute two different forms of prose fiction, pre-modern and modern, respectively, in their ethos and assumptions, or whether there is only a single, continuous tradition of variously magical storytelling from antiquity to the present.)

§11 In Agatha Christie’s The Hound of Death (1933), we read that, “The supernatural is only the natural of which the laws are not yet understood,” a remark that implies a clear divide between a supernaturalistic and a naturalistic outlook on the world. Arthur C. Clarke may have said that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but this does not apply to those cultures that have produced the technology; it is only the equivalent of magic for other cultures that are not “sufficiently advanced.”

§12 The work of Kears and Paz raises issues in literary historical scholarship that are often discussed through the concept of anachronism: what relationship is there between the ways in which modern scholars talk about a given cultural terrain and the ways in which contemporaries understood that terrain? Scholarship that is primarily interested in reconstructing the cultural understandings that were operative when a given work was composed or published will tend to be critical of what it views as anachronistic distortions of these understandings. By contrast, scholarship that is primarily interested in elucidating what there is in the culture of the past that might be of interest to modern audiences will tend to view anachronism as both inescapable and as a sign of healthy engagement with the past.

§13 Indeed, Kears and Paz (and the contributors to the volume they edited) are interested in two other dimensions of engagement with the past (other than a straightforward historicist desire to understand the literary culture of the Middle Ages): they are interested in the uses of the medieval past in modern science fiction and they are interested in how our understanding of medieval writing can be illuminated by thinking about it, perhaps anachronistically, in relation to modern science fiction. These are both modes of cross-temporal juxtaposing of possibly discordant eras and contexts, rather than historicist claims about “science fiction” being at home in the Middle Ages. If historicist analyses can be said to work with a realist conception of historical time, these modes of juxtaposing or overlaying of distinct temporal contexts in relation to each other might be said to work with a cubist conception of historical time.

§14 One type of juxtaposing involves an examination of medieval works in the light of modern science fiction (and vice versa): for example, James Paz reads the “dying earth” motif in modern apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic science fiction in light of medieval elegiac works such as The Wanderer and the Sermon of the Wolf. This isn’t a claim of medievalism in modern science fiction, nor a claim that the medieval works influenced the modern ones: it’s simply a claim that the juxtaposing of these works gives us new insights into both bodies of writing and into the kinds of (sometimes unexpected) resonances that bind literary history together, even outside any direct lines of influence.  One of the essays in Medieval Science Fiction is Daniel Anlezark’s “Is Beowulf Science Fiction?” and the answer Anlezark gives to his titular question is “No.” A reviewer of the volume remarks: “This sentiment is echoed many times throughout the collection, the authors typically focusing on how examination of medieval literature through the lens of science fiction (and vice versa) is fruitful, rather than making arguments about genre” (Richard Scott Nokes. Rev. of Medieval Science Fiction. Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 114, no. 4, Oct. 2018, pp. 528-31, at 529).

§15 Another type of juxtaposing involves examination of modern works that make use of the medieval past: for example, the relatively rich engagement with medieval times in Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (1992), a novel in which we follow “a time-travelling researcher of the near-future back to a medieval Oxford in the grip of the Black Death,” or the pastiche medievalism in some episodes of Star Trek (on medievalism in Star Trek, see also Angela Jane Weisl, The Persistence of Medievalism: Narrative Adventures in Contemporary Culture [Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003]); Edwin Morgan’s evocation of aliens and Anglo-Saxons in his poem “The First Men on Mercury”; Edgar Rice Burroughs and “the medieval lineage of planetary romance” (his fashioning of Martian courtship practices in A Princess of Mars and in other works in the Barsoom series on “the idealized romance of courtly love”); Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim; “catapunk,” or a steampunk-like aesthetic, but set in the Middle Ages (with its catapult technology) rather than in the Victorian age of steam power.

§16 As a contribution to literary historical scholarship, the volume Kears and Paz have edited has most to offer in terms of the broad cultural history of science and literature in the Middle Ages; the study of motifs found in medieval writings and in modern science fiction; and the “anachronistic” juxtaposing of medieval works and modern works of science fiction. The volume has less to offer as a contribution to the history of science fiction as a genre of writing: for that, one would turn to works such as Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (2006; 2nd ed. 2016) or Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link, ed., The Cambridge History of Science Fiction (2018) (this latter volume includes a contribution by Ryan Vu on “Science Fiction before Science Fiction: Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern SF”). Other relevant scholarship on the topic includes two essays by Kathryn Hume: “Medieval Romance and Science Fiction: Anatomy of a Resemblance,” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 16, no. 1, 1982, pp. 15-26, and “Quest Romance in Science Fiction,” A Companion to Romance, ed. Corinne Saunders (2004), 488-501.

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