Photo: Wikimedia/Milan Jovanović
Dragutin Ilic - the author of the world's first sci-fi drama
Serbs are a people with a diverse history in storytelling, myths, superstitions and various more or less fantastical tales. Ever since the pagan and Slovenian beliefs to epic cycles and medieval dogmas, fantasy has been an important factor in our social norms and an important anthropological aspect of knowing national culture and tradition. For all these reasons it’s not strange that the first drama written in the science fiction genre came from the pen of a Serbian writer. We are talking about the text “Posle milion godina” (After a million years) which is a tragicomedy in three acts written by Dragutin Ilic, a famous Belgrader.
Born in 1858 and grown up in a poetry-oriented family with his father Jovan Ilic and his brother the famous Vojislav Ilic, Dragutin began writing in his high school days and in addition to poetry he very early began to express his love for drama. A large influence on the young rebel was also growing up in the house which his father – the Minister of Justice and a member of the elite society – made into a true literature club in the then suburbs of Palilula. Therefore young Ilic almost every day had the chance to enjoy the company of such great writers like Laza Kostic, Djura Jaksic, Sima Matavulj, Radoje Domanovic, Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj, Aleksa Santic, Ljubomir Nenadovic and many other esteemed writers and poets.
Though he graduated from law school, Dragutin Ilic is considered the founder of the “city novel” genre. Just like his brothers, he was famous for his conflicts with authority and strong opposition to Milan Obrenovic’s regiment, and because of his opposition attitude he was forced to leave the country and his birthplace Belgrade several times. In the year 1888 he flees to Romania and makes his living as a waiter. When King Milan decided to exile Queen Natalia from Serbia, Ilic fiercely opposed this decision. He even participated in riots when he tried to snatch the pro-Russian Queen away from the police. All the events of that time were recorded in his book “The Novel of Queen Natalija”, published in 1923, in which he writes about the events he participated or organized, as well as the King’s tyranny.
He wrote newspaper articles, tragedies, cinematographic works, novels, poetry. He even published a poetry book, as well as a comedy, which he knew wasn’t his strong suit. But, let us return to the work in which Dragutin Ilic pioneered for the world.
"After a million years "
This science fiction drama was not only the first drama ever written in this genre, but it also had a great literary, social and even prophetic value. This drama speaks of a future in which people, due to rapid technological development, became completely alienated.
Universality, actuality and quality of this work don’t lie in the predictions of technological and scientific advances which, by today’s standards, can be considered naive. The drama doesn’t focuses on these aspects anyway. Its value, instead, lies in deep understanding of problems that underlay interpersonal relations among humans, the increasing lack of empathy and understanding.
The plot of the drama is set in the distant future, as alluded by its title. The world is ruled by the so-called Spirit-world inhabitants who are mentally and technologically much more advanced than we are and much more similar to the Vulcans from Star Track than today’s humans due to their complete lack of emotions. Still, the new civilization has many advantages because it knows no wars, no struggle, no theft, hunger and it is completely unimaginable to them to kill a member of their own species. Thanks to their powers, they are even able to instantly travel from one planet to another.
The only two surviving ‘ordinary’ humans are the father and son called Nathan and Daniel, seen by the Spirit-world representatives as remnants of an extinct species. Little more than advanced apes in human form, with the ability to speak, who huddle in the caves near ancient Paris. The plot thickens when young Daniel falls in love with Svetlana, a member of the advanced civilization. He attempts to unlock emotions, passion and love in her, while she merely considers him a beast she has tamed and whom she is attempting to help and study, without truly understanding his turmoil. Modern humans are un-emphatic to the degree where even marriages are formed in the shape of a contract to a certain time period and hatred, suffering, love and other emotions are unfamiliar to them even as concepts. These differences are the bearing arches of the tragicomedy which is interwoven throughout the drama.
The text expresses the pain of a humanist towards the beginning of materialistic world views which it describes through completely dehumanized evolutionary descendants.
Not wanting to live in a world without love, due to his complete emotional devastation, Daniel commits suicide, soon followed by his father Nathan. The members of the Spirit-world remain indifferent and merely comment that their wounds would make it more difficult to perform taxidermy on them.
Sadly, much like his characters, Ilic performs a sort of literary suicide of his drama, bringing it to the point of total marginalization and obscurity, after Jovan Skerlic didn’t include him in the History of New Serbian Literature for ideological reasons.
He died in 1926, alone and forgotten by the literature world at the age of 68, in Belgrade where he was born, then the Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenians.