The ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, written about 2000 years BC is the first known work of fiction of any kind. Written on clay tablets, it tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing the people of Uruk. The two become friends and have many adventures, overcoming many monsters. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh goes on a quest for immortality. A simple summary of the story can be found on the Spark Notes site.
Because it contains themes common to modern science fiction, several authorities have labelled it the first science fiction. Because this story came along before science itself, I prefer to categorise it as fantasy.
In the same way, many ancient texts contain fantastical elements and could also be included as science fiction. Not just monsters and magic, but time travel:
In the ancient Indian text of the Mahabharata, written in the eighth century BC, King Raivata is described as traveling to the heavens to meet with the creator god Brahma, only to return to Earth hundreds of years in the future.
In Japan, the legend of Urashima Taro, dating from the 8th century, describes the tale of a fisherman’s visit to the protector god of the sea, Ryūjin, in an underwater palace for what seemed like only three days. When he returns to his fishing village, he finds that it’s been 300 years that he’s been gone. Everything that he knew of was long gone, his family, friends and his way of life, everything had changed in what seem to be for him only a few days.
Shakespeare's The Tempest (1610-11) could be considered science fiction as an early 'mad scientist' story, but it is actually about magic, not science. Prospero and his daughter were exiled to an island after his brother usurped his position as Duke of Milan. Prospero is a powerful magician and creates a storm which wrecks the ship containing his enemies. By magic and through his servants Ariel (a fairy) and Caliban (a monster) Prospero manipulates the people to gain his position back and teach everyone a lesson.
There are many opinions about the earliest science fiction, just as I wrote last week there are many definitions of what it really is. Personally I prefer to date true science fiction from the scientific revolution in the 17th century, just after Shakespeare. We’ll look at the next week.
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