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Literature / True History

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"I write of matters of which I neither saw nor suffered, nor heard by reports from people I made up. Let no man therefore in any case believe these words."
—The novel's preface, the only part that breaks Kayfabe

True History, or A True Story, is a satirical 2nd century adventure novel by Greco-Syrian writer Lucian of Samosata, parodying then-popular travelogue novels that often reported wild Tall Tales as true events. It is frequently cited as the earliest known work of Science Fiction and/or Science Fantasy, though its actual contents are difficult to classify by modern genre definitions.

After a preface in which Lucian admits that everything he's about to tell you is made up, he recounts a tale of his voyages with a group of adventurers, sailing from Greece to the Atlantic Ocean. The book details various "absolutely true" encounters with outlandish and fantastical places, from an island of dryads with a river of wine to the insides of a miles-long whale, and even to outer space, where he recounts the details of a war between the Kingdoms of the Moon and the Sun.

While perhaps not the first story to feature space travel (the preface implies that it may have been written as a jab at an earlier travelogue that featured a similar tale), it is the oldest surviving example of the concept in fiction, and contains many Unbuilt Tropes that would come to define the Space Opera centuries later, such as interplanetary conflict and alien lifeforms.

The book can be found online here or here.

True History provides examples of:

  • Aliens Speaking English: All the strange and far-off peoples the Greek adventurers meet speak Greek — even the people of the moon.
  • All Planets Are Earth-Like: The Moon, albeit filled with all sorts of wacky monsters, is otherwise earth-like, but it gets even weirder when it turns out there are also civilizations (and people, and trees) on the Sun and several stars. It's hard to tell whether this is a case of Science Marches On, or part of the parody. (It was pretty obvious even at the time that the Sun was something very hot and fire-like, an idea that plays a part in several myths.)
  • Author Tract: The book's preface is the only part where the author drops the charade of this being a "True Story", and is primarily a sardonic tirade about how annoyed he is at the popularity and profitability of deceitful, Based on a Great Big Lie "travelogues"... before noting that he's not above cashing in on the trend — thus, this novel.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: Parodied. Despite the story being an utterly outrageous tall tale, with the preface outright admitting it's a lie, the narrator and the title itself contend that it is entirely true and actually, really happened.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: Moon people. Among other traits, they sweat milk (and use it to make cheese), and can remove and replace their own eyeballs and genitals (which are made of gold for the nobles and wood for the poors) at will.
  • Bizarre Alien Reproduction: Moon people are all "male" (what we'd probably call hermaphroditic). In addition to the removeable genitals, they reproduce with gay sex, apparently involving kneecaps, then store fetuses in their calves. They can also plant testicle trees that look like giant penises, and grow people on the branches.
  • Boldly Coming: Some of the narrator's traveling companions have sex with tree-women on a remote island, and end up stuck to them.
  • Giant Spider: Space invasions are accomplished by getting ginormous spiders to spin webs between the Moon and Sun, so the armies can walk across, while the Moon and Sun are sailing around the sky. Don't fall off!
  • Horse of a Different Color: The king and knights of the Moon rides on a vulture-horse. Other aliens ride a wide variety of animals like giant bugs and wingless birds.
  • It Runs on Nonsensoleum: The point of this book.
  • Level Ate: The sailors visit an island with rivers of wine, and an island made entirely out of cheese in a sea of milk. The cheese island is a pun on the Phoenician city of Tyre ("Tyros" in Greek), which is the same as the Greek word for cheese.
  • Mid-Season Twist: The explorers go to the moon.
  • Mister Seahorse: The lunar people are all men, so this trope naturally appears. The sons grow inside the calves of the men, like Zeus did with Dionysus. At the time, calf of the leg was a euphemism for a man's family jewels.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Moon food is the same as human food — onions, cheese, milk, etc. — and edible for humans. The moon and sun are located within the Earth's atmosphere, as people believed at the time, so there's no atmospheric mismatch either.
  • One-Gender Race: The lunar people are all male.
  • Rubber-Forehead Aliens: Moon People have leaves for ears and tails, removable eyes and genitals, and only one toe per foot, but otherwise they basically look human.
  • Sarcastic Title: The story begins by stating that everything in it is an utter lie.
  • Shout-Out: One of the many places Lucian "visits" is Cloudcuckooland from Aristophanes' satire The Birds.
  • Standard Hero Reward: Possibly parodied and turned upside-down: Our heroes help the Moon People in their war against the Sun People and are defeated. Nevertheless, the Moon King still rewards the main character with goods and give him his son as a spouse.
  • Swallowed Whole: On returning to Earth, the crew's ship is swallowed by a whale 200 miles long, in whose cavernous interior they find a landscape of forests and cities home to different kinds of fish people. They eventually escape by setting its internal forests on fire, killing the beast and letting them slip out through its mouth.
  • Take That!: Against Herodotus and generally the Greek authorities.
  • Tall Tale: The book is a big Trope Maker for the literary tall tale and had a huge influence on later works in that genre.
  • This Is a Work of Fiction: The earliest known example is the disclaimer at the beginning. Lucian wanted to be very clear that he did not want to actually contribute to the Based on a Great Big Lie nature of the typical Travelogue Show at the time.
  • To Be Continued: The story ends with Lucian and his crew shipwrecked on a new land and setting out to explore, with the text closing on the note that their following adventures will be revealed in the next book. It seems that Lucian never actually wrote a continuation (and probably never intended to).
  • Travelogue Show: Written as a vicious lampooning of the genre as a whole at the time.
  • Ur-Example: The earliest surviving Science Fiction and, possibly, literary Tall Tale. As well as the earliest that acknowledges itself as such.

Alternative Title(s): A True History, A True Story