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By the cutesy term “Golden Oldie”, I refer to works of fantasy or science fiction that antedate the usual supposed “beginnings” of speculative fiction. For fantasy, that beginning is said to be William Morris, whose novel The Glittering Plain appeared in 1891; for science fiction, it is said to be Mary Shelly and her novel Frankenstein, published in 1818.
Those are remarkably parochial views. The Golden Ass, a trenchant social-satire fantasy by the Roman writer Apuleius, dates to somewhere (opinions vary) between 158 to the late 180s CE; and Lucian of Samosata, circa 125 - 190 CE, wrote A True Story, another trenchant social satire that can only be called “science fiction” (involving as it does a journey to the Moon). And neither of those examples is really stretching the definition of “speculative fiction”.
Let us review that definition: speculative fiction (to me, anyway) is a tale in which one or more significant rules—whether of nature or of human behavior—work differently than those in the fields we know, and in which that difference is used to allow the author to better or more readily make comments on or offer explanations of The Human Condition.
That simple definition helps a lot. Consider, for example, The Epic of Gilgamesh. It is certainly fantastic enough, but it doesn’t pass the test, because it is not a literary device but rather a supposedly (more or less) true recounting of epic deeds—supernatural, but from an age where what we call “supernatural” was believed to be a part of everyday life. That is so for a good deal of what we now call “mythology” and even “folk tales”.
One clue, useful as a rule of thumb but not absolute, is whether a given work has an identifiable author. It is possible that some qualifying works might be so old or once-obscure that though they had a particular author that author’s name is now lost to history. But by and large, Anonymous did not write a lot of true speculative fiction.
Mind, having a known, named author does not in itself make a work with fantastic elements a work of speculative fiction. The best-known Arthurian works, the Morte d’Arthur cycle, were written by Thomas Malory, and there are fantastic episodes galore in them. But Malory was simply writing adventure stories spun out of the common folklore of the time, and—though it is quite difficult to be certain—it seems likely that either he or his intended readership, or both, would probably accept most or perhaps all of the fantastic elements as credible—that is, non-fantastic—in the real world as they then understood it.
Even with that thought, there remain some works hard to classify. Did Dante’s Commedia (onto which Boccaccio tacked the now-ubiquitous adjective “Divine”) take place in a truly fictional setting devised chiefly or wholly as a literary medium, or was he being another Malory? Wikipedia remarks that Dante’s “imaginative vision of the afterlife is representative of the medieval world-view as it had developed in the Western Church by the 14th century.” But it is hard for a modern reader to doubt that the fiery author was not mainly interested in a setting in which to offer scathing and often quite personal satire. I would count it as legitimate speculative fiction.
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Understand these two things: one, this is a sampling, not an exhaustive list, of early fantastic fiction; and two, the literary, as opposed to historical, value of these works is not clear to me, as—being honest—I have read only a few of them, and those now long ago.
It seems interesting that the great majority of these works use the element of the fantastic to enable social criticism, often scathing. Of the others, there are a couple of romantic adventures and a perhaps naive utopia. There is, I freely admit, some subjectivity at work here: some might say the Amadis and the Orlando are in the same class as Malory, but for vague reasons not worth the electrons to dilate on here, I feel them legitimate specfic.
Note well that most of these were not written in English, and so a good deal of one’s pleasure or lack of it in the reading may depend on the particular translator whose work you read. I have tried to discover who the generally preferred translators are for each work; in some cases, that wasn’t hard, but for several it was close to impossible. Caveat emptor.
Finally, as all of these are, obviously, in the public domain, they are likely available from one or another of the free-ebook sources on the web. (But some of the better translations may still be under copyright.) In any event, each title is a link to the AbeBooks listing for a good edition of that work.
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(This list includes some works that are epic poems in the original, but for which translations exist in either straight prose or prose-like verse.)
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