SF and Late Antiquity

Luna II

In 1959 the Soviet satellite Luna II lifted off from the Kazakh steppes. At the very edge of the atmosphere, on the threshold of deep space, it released a cloud of sodium vapour so bright it could be seen from the Earth. A day later its plunge into the surface of the Moon was observed by the astronomers it had left behind on Earth. The probe was a tremendous success and a testament to Soviet primacy in space. In particular, it demonstrated that the USSR had the capacity to direct a craft through the vacuum between worlds and deliver it effectively (if violently) to its destination. This was a capability that would be critical in the next stage of the space race, for clear guidance is required if one is to study heavenly things.

Just over a week after Luna II’s triumph, André Mandouze delivered a plenary address to the 3rd Oxford Patristics Conference. This conference, which still meets in Oxford, drew over 600 delegates to discuss the Fathers of the Christian Church. Mandouze spoke about the changes in the discipline since 1945, of its expansion in scope, and of the increasing specialisation that was evident among the conference delegates. Specialisations were like demons, he said: each delegate had his or her tormentor, particular to themselves, and unknown to even their closest colleagues. What could be the future for such a fragmented cohort in such a world, he wondered:

In the epoch of artificial satellites and interplanetary rockets, it is certain that the patristician who still keeps some contact with the world cannot be tempted to any excess of style like that provoked by the monstrous successes of the physical sciences. The aureole of the Fathers appears to our contemporaries infinitely less brilliant than those of remote-controlled machines. Who among us, questioned on his speciality, did not grasp in the gaze of such an honest interlocutor successive glimmers, of ignorance, of astonishment, of courtesy, and of commiseration. “Patristic studies … Ah, yes, the Fathers … Of the Church, yes, of course … like, for example? Etc.”

In a blog post written last year, Catherine Chin wrote about the importance of fantasy when historians evoke the past. Metaphor, she says, is an exercise in unreality, but one essential to making the past perceptible to us now. In her words, “[t]he fantastical elements of the metaphors, their impossibility, reinforce that unexpectedness, prolonging the process of recognition and misrecognition.” In the passage above, a saint’s golden halo becomes the sodium-sheened trajectory of a moon probe. Mandouze’s audience had come to Oxford to talk about specialisations that were painfully familiar to them. He launched them into the unknown.

In 1959, when Mandouze delivered his address, the fantastical was already a popular topic. This was the year that Clifford D. Simak won the Hugo Award for his novelette entitled ‘The Big Front Yard.’ In this story a handy-man called Hiram Taine discovers that a group of aliens have converted the front door of his house into an interstellar portal linked to an arid, alien world. As Taine stands outside his house, gaping at the giant wilderness before him, we get a glimpse of his visitors:

A line of tiny animals, if animals they were, came marching down the steps, one behind another. They were four inches high or so and they went on all four feet, although it was plain to see that their front feet were really hands, not feet. They had ratlike faces that were vaguely human, with noses long and pointed. They looked as if they might have scales instead of hide, for their bodies glistened with a rippling motion as they walked. And all of them had tails that looked very much like the coiled-wire tails one finds on certain toys and the tails stuck straight up above them, quivering as they walked. They came down the steps in single file, in perfect military order, with half a foot or so of spacing between each one of them. They came down the steps and walked out into the desert in a straight, undeviating line as if they knew exactly where they might be bound. There was something deadly purposeful about them and yet they didn’t hurry. Taine counted sixteen of them and he watched them go out into the desert until they were almost lost to sight. There go the ones, he thought, who came to live with me.

Hiram Taine’s little family of him, his friend Beasley and his dog, greets these newcomers, who introduce him in turn to other aliens who have come to Earth to trade ideas. This is, then, a story about conferences: about meeting new friends and swapping ideas. It’s also a story about the bonds that tie groups together, and about how tensions within groups can be eased through skilful mediation. Most of all, though, it’s about that collision between the everyday and the impossibly fantastical that Chin identified.

Chin’s blog post focusses on the play of metaphor in Peter Brown’s article “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity.”In this article, Brown shows how Holy Men lived on the fluid borders of everyday life. They were ‘intruders into the settled pattern of social relationships’ that existed in the villages and towns of Late Antique Syria. Stories about Holy Men, Brown argued, are stories about freedom. As old structures of power collapsed in the third and fourth centuries, so the Holy Man became the focus of people’s hopes for protection and of their fear of the vast wild that threatened to tear apart village life.  In the half-wilderness at the edge of town, the Holy Man mediated and then dispersed the violence simmering under the surface of everyday social transactions. This is most striking in accounts of exorcism, when demons are revealed in their animality, as ‘flying blue-bottles, hares or dormice’ (p.89). Here are monsters. Humans encounter, once more,  ‘tiny animals … one behind the other … [walking] into the desert.’ In these stories, social bonds are made and remade.

Demons gather where there are frightened people. They run across the bare toes of Syrian villagers, they climb down Taine’s front porch, and they sit on the shoulders of Patristics specialists. I don’t know how Mandouze’s fantastical space flights were received, but his words were delivered to an audience facing the uncertainties of the late 1950s: the cold war and the space race; secularisation; decolonisation. In his speech, Mandouze reminded them of the training they had received; what bound them together as a cohort was not their specialisations, but their love for what they studied. Take heart, he exhorted them, for even as the physical sciences advance, much remains unknown. This is the space where Patristics works, he says. His audience is united not by a common tradition, but by a questing into that ‘something else’ beyond the world. In this way they continue in the spirit of the Fathers, who yoked together the monstrous and the mundane.



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