The influence of Classics in Science Fiction and Fantasy

One of the beautiful aspects of science fiction is that even though it generally is about the world of tomorrow it is still able to be influenced by history. Personally I love it when science fiction is influenced by ancient Rome. (My degree in Classics is showing, huh?) This can manifest itself in tiny elements or something as large as the direction of the plot itself. I think it is a great way to add depth and richness to the story and the world. (Hell, there is even going to be a whole conference on this – I wish I could go.) For example the Harry Potter world contains details from the Classical world, creatures from the mythology, names, the language, where as the whole storyline of the Foundation series is directly (and admittedly) based on the fall of the Roman Empire.

But how cool is that? Isaac Asimov almost wrote an alternative history series with the Foundation series. If you aren’t familiar with the books the main plot is that there is a Galatic Empire which is collapsing and a brilliant mathematician recognized this and tried to take measures to prevent a second Dark Ages by establishing a colony of scientists and great minds in the outskirts of the Empire. How would our world be different if we hadn’t lost the technology and knowledge from antiquity in the Dark Ages? That is something that personally I kept thinking about when reading the original trilogy. Asimov admits that he was directly inspired by Gibson’s classics “The Define and Fall of the Roman Empire” and just applied it to a larger scale. (My hero!) The pattern of the Empire becomes recognizable, and even though you can begin to predict how it will collapse the reader does not know how events are changed by the Foundation. (Also I can’t be the only one who wishes psychohistory was a thing.)

Similarly the transition from Republic to Empire provides inspiration for fiction. in Rome the  privatization of the army meant that the soldiers were then loyal to a single man, not the state, and will fight for him against the state, giving him more power and allowing him to take complete control. Sound familiar? Oh yeah, because that is essentially the plot of the Star Wars prequels. Senator/Dictator/Emperor Palpatine is in many ways similar to Julius Caesar, you know apart from the fact that he wasn’t assassinated a few years into his reign. Although that maybe would’ve been nice for al involved. The Senates decline in importance in the original trilogy also mirrors the position of the Senate in the later Roman Empire. Give the Christians a few lightsabers and BAM comparison complete.

Still not convinced that the events of ancient Rome is a plethora of inspiration? Take this year’s hit The Hunger Games. (I admit I’ve only seen the movie.) Here we have a world which is not only filled with namesakes from ancient Rome (Seneca Cato Coriolanus Cinna Caesar – and that isn’t even all of them) but the whole concept of the games is loosely based on the Roman gladiator games, where men were set to fight each other and animals – sometimes to the death – for the entertainment of the masses.

A fan of Classics in sci-fi? I recommend checking out Cleopatra in Space. It is a lot of fun and surprisingly I did in fact name my blog before I knew about this. I am not trying to blatantly rip it off.

(On a side note one of the things that really drew me to the Song of Ice and Fire series initially is how heavily it draws inspiration from history. In its case from the War of the Roses in England.)

Edit: One of my friends pointed out that the country in The Hunger Games is even called Panem, which is Latin for bread – which then brings up the Roman concept of bread and circuses. 


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