Medieval Sci-Fi?

Like many of those attending this roundtable on the festival’s closing day, I was mostly drawn to the Medieval Science Fiction event out of a sense of curiosity as to what this term might refer to. At a first glance, one would think that the words ‘medieval’ and ‘science fiction’ do not – and perhaps should not – mix. However, the event showed that these seemingly opposite concepts can be brought together, and that this combination may lead to interesting discussions for researchers and science fiction writers alike.

The roundtable discussion was organised as part of the ongoing Medieval Science Fiction project, and the panel consisted of three speakers.
Andy Sawyer (Science Fiction Critic and Librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection) started the discussion by highlighting that the medieval period is often underrated in terms of its contributions to science. He also argued that medieval travel tales can be seen as useful analogues to science fiction, in that these stories often discuss issues of exploration and make us wonder what kind of creatures might be found beyond the borders of the habitable world. According to Andy, some medieval writers have indeed written works that we would group under the heading of ‘science fiction’.
Edward James (Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at UCD and Chair of the Science Fiction Foundation) then asked what exactly what the term ‘science fiction’ refers to. He argued that the genre not only deals with science but also deals with visions of the future. Since the Middle Ages are part of our historical past and are often perceived as forming an earlier stage in mankind’s ‘development’, this can make things difficult for a science fiction writer – and indeed the medieval period has traditionally been seen as a more suitable setting for fantasy novels. He added that some science fiction writers create alien cultures that remind us of medieval times, which are often seen as being a little ‘backward’.
Liz Williams (Science Fiction Writer, several times nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award) argued that much of science fiction writing revolves around trying to understand that which is alien, whether on another planet or in another time period. She also gave several interesting examples of late medieval discoveries and inventions that we now view as having been ahead of their time. According to Liz, the medieval period can be an invaluable source for modern science fiction writers.

Part of the reason why such a discussion on medieval sci-fi is interesting is because it begins to challenge some of the common misconceptions about the Middle Ages and the people who were alive then. There is no record, for example, of anyone in the Middle Ages ever believing that the earth was flat – this was a myth popularised mostly by nineteenth-century historians and scientists– and yet nowadays we happily believe this to be true. It is also commonly held that the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ saw little to no scientific discovery and that people for several hundreds of years simply sat around discussing the bible and burning a witch or two (or a few thousand, depending who you talk to) – again the result of ‘propaganda’ from a later age. Also, as one of the audience members pointed out, we all know for certain that medieval people never bathed – a modern view that seems to overlook the large amount of medieval records describing available facilities for bathing, both in the private and public sphere.

This roundtable helped to highlight that much of what we think of a period such as the Middle Ages is shaped not just by our own ideas but also by the ideas of people writing in the centuries before us. The past is not a set of fixed rules or ideas, but it is always reinterpreted and reimagined by different generations who sometimes see what they want to see. As Andy Sawyer commented, “each time period has its own Bacon”, as an illustration of how some of Roger Bacon’s ideas and discoveries are nowadays interpreted as precursors of modern inventions – though we might wonder whether he himself would have seen such discoveries in the same light.

There are still some issues that could be raised when looking at medieval science fiction – Can we call medieval inventions science? Does there need to be a word for something for it to have existed? Did medieval people wonder about the future (in a non-religious sense)? Did medieval monsters gradually move to further regions to become what we now call aliens? Can we refer to the ‘medieval period’ as if it was some great homogenous being, or are there differences to be found between cultures, regions or centuries? Nevertheless, it seems that the medieval period is more compatible with modern notions of science fiction than one would first think. I, for one, am very curious about the direction of this project and I look forward to reading its forthcoming essay collection. I want to believe.

Lydia Zeldenrust (Queen Mary University of London),
on behalf of the Being Non/Human Group (http://beingnonhuman.wordpress.com/).

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