Thoughts on the Medieval Origins of Science Fiction

There is plenty of discussion on the medieval influence on some of the major sub-genres of modern fantasy, but much less on fantasy in medieval period literature, and even less than that on science-fiction connections to medieval literature. Part of this comes from a reference I found while shelf-browsing in a research library. The rest comes from some ideas I’ve been starting to pick up from older projects concerning Chaucer and science, and a thought to consider possible connections between steampunk and the Middle Ages.

Traditional high fantasy like Tolkien’s has been the subject of some scholarly attention in the past few decades, as has fantasy by writers who invoke folkloric of mythological elements in their story worlds, like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, or Rick Riordan. The idea of science fiction having connections to medieval writers and ideas might seem like an oxymoron since science is based more on projections into the future, not the past, but when you think about it, the Middle Ages actually marks the beginnings of science fiction writing as we now know it.

The book that got me thinking was Medieval Science Fiction, a collection of scholarly essays edited by Carl Kears, published in 2016 by the Center for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s College London. One of the essays made the connection between Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman in the Canterbury Tales and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arguably one of the first works of modern sci-fi. The basic idea is that both Victor Frankenstein and the alchemists in the Canon’s Yeoman’s prologue and tale are attempting to change Nature through experimentation and the scientific method, which has disastrous or at least disheartening consequences for all involved.

This point about the Canon’s Yeoman and alchemy in Chaucer’s time, and the question of how much might Chaucer have actually know about alchemy brings me back to a project that I’m reviving and refocusing for a conference paper this summer, and possibly developing into something longer. One of the key conflicts in interpreting the story concerns Chaucer’s presentation of the perceptions of alchemy. Alchemy was fairly new in the public knowledge in the 14th century in England, and it was not wholly trusted. Chaucer clearly had some interest in science; he wrote Treatise on the Astrolabe after all, and this is basically a scientific instruction manual on how to use a device designed to help figure out calendar dates based on astronomical information. The problem with alchemy in Chaucer’s story is that the source, the Canon’s Yeoman, gets a lot of his interpretation wrong or is clearly quoting from a standard text, and makes frequent claims about the trouble with alchemy and his own lack of success. His tale about a dishonest alchemist who dupes a local priest out of a substantial amount of money to some extent reflects the distrust that the public may have had in what has sometimes been labeled as the predecessor of modern chemistry.

This use of a modern science and the problems it causes individuals and society in general is a theme in many science fiction novels, from William Gibson and Isaac Asimov to Emma Newman and Sue Burke. Not that all science fiction focuses on social problems resulting at least in part from technological human creations, since Star Trek’s Data probably has some loose connection to Talus,  metal-man sidekick of Arthegall, knight of justice in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Granted, Spenser was not a medieval writer, rather an Elizabethan, but the point stands that science fiction has much deeper/older roots than it’s usually given credit for.

The connection between steam-punk and medieval literary tropes comes from this reasoning. Steampunk reflects some of the fictional interest in the past similar to fantasy as it’s often set in pseudo-Victorian London, but it also considers the impacts of technology and man-made impacts on the natural world, including social implications both individual and general. Mark Hoddor or Pip Ballentine and Tee Morris would be prime examples. Especially when held up next to a text like The Canterbury Tales which has lot of potential for social commentary and critique, a lot of science fiction and steampunk reflects similar characters, attitudes, situations, and commentary via fiction. Granted, I need to do further tracing, but given Chaucer’s influence on literary history, I’m willing to bet that there’s more in the science fiction tradition between his 14th century, Spenser’s 17th, and the current 21st.

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Further thoughts concerning the medieval and modern fantasy

NB: I have yet to do any serious scholarly investigation on this subject; right now, I’m concentrating on working out my own ideas and reasoning.

It seems to me that a lot of scholars who specialize in medieval literature also end up working with fantasy, both as creative writers and as scholars. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, and he wrote (among other scholarly things) a book on Beowulf. Although I haven’t looked for it, I know from other scholars that Tolkien ‘borrowed’ extensively from Beowulf and other medieval literature in his creation of the Lord of the Rings series and its companion works. Perhaps lesser known, but no less important in some ways, Kathryn Hume first wrote a scholarly book on The Owl and the Nightingale. She later went on to write another scholarly work on fantasy literature, Fantasy and Mimesis. One of the founders of the Monty Python comedy troop, Terry Jones, has written several books on Chaucer.

Clearly, you don’t need to be a medievalist as an academic specialty to create good fantasy literature. The late great Terry Pratchett includes medieval elements in his Discworld series, but he himself once said, his learning was broad, not deep. Patrick Rothfuss was an English major who went to graduate school, but I have no idea what he may have specialized in or if he took an advanced degree (his website says “I don’t’ want to talk about it.”). If I had to speculate, if not a specialty, Rothfuss has at least done some in depth study of medieval literature and/or history. There’s too many accurate parallels between medieval realities and the world of The Kingkiller Chronicles to be coincidence. Then again, maybe I’m overanalyzing.

Similarly, successful fantasy does not need to be terribly medieval or academically based. Take The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. This book has a lot of classic high fantasy elements like the unwilling hero, the journey, the band of friends, the elves and humans, the magic, demonic bad guys, etc. The world is generically medieval but there’s not much detail about the world itself; that’s not really the point of this series. It’s more about the characters and the plot. I have to admit, I only read the one and half of the novels, but I could already tell that there was a pattern, and I got bored.

Fantasy also doesn’t need to be medievally-based at all. V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequels hints at some research into the history and culture of Renaissance and Victorian England, but that’s not medieval. Likewise, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire dragon series is built on historically accurate life during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

Then there’s fantasy that’s built on mythologies, which often places them in somewhat medieval times or settings. Again turning to Naomi Novik, Uprooted is clearly based on Eastern European folklore; the Baba Yaga references give that away, as do some of the character names (I’d never heard of the names Agnieszka and Kasia until I met my Polish now aunt). The general time and place have a medieval feel, although not nearly as detailed as the likes of Tolkien and Rothfuss. I love Uprooted for many reasons, but it’s not as detailed in the same way.

Then there’s the fantasy that is based on myth but set at least partially in the modern world. For example, there’s Neil Gaiman’s adult novels, including Anansi Boys and American Gods, which are heavily based in African and Norse mythology respectively, though not exclusively. Then there’s the YA versions, most notably Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson for the Greek myths, and Magnus Chase for the Norse.

Eventually I’m going to need to get into the actual scholarship done on these questions, but for now I think it’s safe to at least say that modern fantasy literature has a serious debt to medieval literature and culture and probably history too.