Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Once and Future Past: Science Fiction with Ancient Themes

Everyone knows that science fiction is about the future.  But that's not quite right.  Steampunk is science fiction that takes place in the past, time travel stories can take place any time, and parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey take place millions of years ago and the rest of it takes place in a future that is now the past.
Bill and Ted and Socrates

In my post, "Is the study of ancient philosophy like science fiction?," I explained that science fiction and ancient philosophy are two of my favorite things because they put us in touch with other worlds. Whether you're reading the Culture series of Iain M. Banks or the works of the 2nd century Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna, you are temporarily inhabiting another world.

As if to highlight my point, some science fiction stories make use of ancient themes.  From Stargate to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, science fiction is no stranger to the past.  Below are some reviews of books that also work with this theme, which I like to call "the once and future past."

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

I specialize in ancient Indian philosophy, so this book, which won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1968, is pretty much written for me.  The basic idea is so cool: in the far future on a distant planet some humans use advanced technology to set themselves up as gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon.  There are Masters of Karma, which allow a sort of rebirth through (presumably) downloading minds into new bodies.  They even have "demons" ("rakashas," which should really be "rakshasas") that are the original energy beings of the planet.  And, of course, the Buddha shows up to challenge this orthodoxy.

Whatever the book's stylistic challenges and factual mistakes about the Hindu and Buddhist traditions might be, I can't help but love the whole idea.  The idea of humans using technology to deify themselves was later used by Dan Simmons in Ilium (see below).  Another theme in both books is that humans might work to throw off the chains of the gods' oppression (with gods standing in for any sort of controlling orthodoxy).  See my Goodreads review for more details.

The Just City and The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

I've reviewed both of these books here on the blog (here and here).  The idea is awesome: the time traveling goddess Athena decides to try to set up Plato's Republic in the distant past.  With robots!  And some help from Socrates!  There are even philosophical dialogues between Socrates and the robots!

In addition to all the fun, there are some serious meditations on Plato's Republic as an aspiring utopia (or is it dystopia?).

There's a third book coming soon, and I can't wait to read it.

The Plot to Save Socrates by Paul Levinson

Speaking of Socrates, this book is about a near future classics student who goes back in time to try to save Socrates from his fate at the hands of his fellow Athenians in 399 BCE.

There are also travels to other ancient times and places as well as 19th century New York.  Cool stuff!

See Goodreads for my rating (I forgot to write a review when I read it a few years ago, but I hope to review the sequel soon.)

Ilium and Olympos by Dan Simmons

These books are wild: wild in plot threads twisting and expanding, wild in ideas, wild in intriguing questions, wild in its mashups of Literature (with a capital "L") and hard science fiction to an almost greater extent than Simmons's Hugo-winning Hyperion.   There's so much going on, I can't do it justice here (indeed, one wonders if Simmons is following it all).

Sometime in the far future post-humans have, somewhat as in Lord of Light (see above), used advanced technology to become the ancient Greek pantheon and they attempt to recreate Homer's Iliad.  But there's a lot more. My favorite characters are the two robots (cyborgs, technically) who study Shakespeare and Proust in their spare time as they work on the moons of Jupiter.

The books have some problems (their meandering length, the depiction of female characters, being unnecessarily Eurocentric, etc.).  I liked the sequel, Olympos, a lot less (these problems become much deeper).  Are these books worth their combined length of about 1,500 dense pages?  I'd say so.  But I'd also say I wish Simmons had done some serious editing.

For much more, see my Goodreads reviews here and here.


  1. Awesome stuff here! You should check out my book "Harmonic Wars" as its right up your alley! If you're a fan of Coast to Coast AM, I was a guest on Oct 12, 2015. Keep up the good work and have a great day!

    D.B. Stearns, Author

    1. Thanks for the comment! I'll have to check out your book sometime. I'll put it on my (unreasonably long) list. I used to listen to Coast to Coast occasionally, but it's been awhile. How was it? Did George Noory interview you?

  2. always is the same: "professor"="religioussor", religion out from the Humankind´s Future religion no

  3. always is the same: "professor"="religioussor", religion out from the Humankind´s Future religion no

    1. I'm not following you, but thanks for commenting.