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The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 1 of 16
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This series of pages is composed of my “lectures” for the online course I taught through Connected Education, Inc. in Spring 1995 for graduate credit from the New School for Social Research in New York. (I taught it previously in Summer 1989, Summer 1990 and Spring 1994.) It was based on my background in anthropology, as well as my belief that there’s a demonstrable connection between our culture’s present mythology and the fact that we are ready to humanize space. Though the course title was “Science Fiction and Space Age Mythology,” I have retitled it here to reflect the expansion of its scope during the last term I taught it.

Connected Education, which existed from 1985 to 1997, was a not-for-profit organization directed by Paul Levinson, whom I first met online through participation in his Space Humanization “electure” conference on The Source. Connect Ed offered a variety of courses in Media Studies, of which this was one. These were seminar courses, conducted via a private pre-Internet computer conferencing system, not e-mail; though the lectures were required reading material, grading was based on students’ contributions to discussion as well as formal term papers. Thus the following texts by no means include the entire content of the course. However, I think they’re of interest not only to mythology students but to space advocates, so I’m making them available here in permanent form.

Why should space advocates care about them? Most space enthusiasts are more interested in science than in mythology; often they tend to think that mythology is something primitive that enlightened people outgrow. They may even feel that the non-rational nature of myth, and the inaccurate science that prevails in mythic views of space, is detrimental to the effort to create a spacefaring civilization.

I believe that’s not merely untrue, but the exact opposite of the truth. The direction taken by a civilization depends on the underlying, often unconscious, viewpoint of its people, not on rational decisions of the educated minority. Most human beings are not scientists and should not be expected to think as scientists do; there are different modes of human thought, of which rationality is only one. Moreover, even highly analytical people share the underlying mythos of their culture and are thereby influenced in their choice of avenues to pursue, even when they recognize the metaphorical nature of mythic imagery. And so that mythos is important! It can, and in my opinion usually does, have a positive effect on the evolution of our species.

In any case a culture’s mythology, whether it is believed literally or not, is an expression of that culture’s outlook on life and the universe, its hopes and dreams—and its deepest fears—rather than its confirmed knowledge. This says more about a civilization than its technological level does; it can shed light on why people react as they do to changing conditions, and how they are likely to react in the foreseeable future. And that’s something that matters a great deal to those of us who believe that how the public feels about space will determine the progress, and perhaps even the ultimate survival, of humankind.

Though while teaching the course I made no secret of the fact that I am a space advocate, and I wrote Space and Human Survival as an appendix to the lectures, the lectures themselves were directed to students of varying beliefs; they simply presented how I think our culture views the universe and the evidence from mass-media mythology on which I based my opinion. Since the late 80s and early 90s when the course was offered, the evidence may seem to have become less strong. There have not been as many positive views of space expressed by pop culture as there were in the previous few decades, and in fact there has been a strong trend toward negative ones. It well may be that there is a correlation between this trend and the fading public support for the space program. On the other hand, perhaps people have now so thoroughly absorbed a worldview involving future space travel that fiction about it is no long novel enough to hold large audiences, or at any rate, this may be the assumption of writers and producers—and if so, space advocates should get busy!

Space Age mythology, unlike the mythologies of past cultures studied by anthropologists, is still growing and changing; furthermore, it is not a single view but a body of often-conflicting views held by different individuals. Which aspects of it will predominate? What does, or can, influence the feelings of the majority? These are questions everyone concerned about the future will want to think about.

1995 Course Introduction

During the second half of the 20th century, a new body of mythology has gradually taken hold in our culture. Because its scope, origin and dissemination have been different from those of earlier mythologies, and because such mythologies continue to co-exist with it, it has not been recognized by mythologists. Few if any of the scholars who’ve discussed aspects of it have identified what I believe to be the key factor in its inception. But no one can deny that this mythology, which focuses on public perception of Earth’s position in space, underlies much that has become familiar to us through popular media. It does not matter whether you believe, as Paul Levinson and I do, that expansion into space is essential to survival of our species, or whether you believe Earth is the only world with which humans should be concerned. It is a fact that most people in our era have feelings, often unconscious feelings, about contact with the larger universe—and that these feelings are not the same as those prevalent in the era before our planet was first viewed from space.

I call the metaphoric expression of these feelings “Space Age mythology.” When this course was first offered, it dealt exclusively with the new mythology’s expression in popular-culture science fiction. Since then, other manifestations have grown in their influence, so that the [original] title should be read “Science Fiction and (Other Expressions of) Space Age Mythology” rather than “Science Fiction and (its Relation to) Space Age Mythology.” The emphasis, however, is still on widely-known science fiction films, which are its most evident vehicle.

A Note on Terminology

Two of the terms in the title of this course, “science fiction” and “mythology,” are among the most semantically-difficult terms in our culture’s vocabulary. The fact that they are so controversial, and have so many different connotations to so many different people, may be news to some of you. I have met lots of people who knew one was hard to define, yet who thought the other was clear! I once took a graduate course in Comparative Mythology in which we spent several weeks talking about the definition of “mythology,” so when I wrote my term paper on the relationship of science fiction to mythology, I pointed out that the definition of “science fiction” is just as difficult—and the instructor was indeed surprised to hear that.

So if you don’t read the lectures in order, be sure at least to read the definitions in the first few of the way these terms are used here. Other definitions are fine in other contexts, but you need to know what they’re intended to mean in the text that follows.

I discovered belatedly when first teaching this course that the term “Space Age” is also ambiguous. As I use it, “Space Age” means our era, defined by the fact that for the first time in our evolution, human beings have ventured far enough from planet Earth to see it as a globe. Whether or not we travel farther in the future doesn’t change this fact, and the term doesn’t refer exclusively to space fiction, although that has been the primary vehicle of our culture’s new mythology.

Here are some more definitions, gathered from my responses to students’ misunderstandings of the lectures in previous terms:

  • When I use the words “common” and “widespread” in reference to views in our culture, I mean among the general public—views that would be statistically significant if they could be measured. A view that’s simply fashionable among the intelligentsia is not “widespread” in that sense. It may have strong adherents among specialists, but unless average men and women outside academia have accepted it, it’s not representative of our culture’s outlook. (For example, if you read science books, you undoubtedly would call the belief that nothing can ever travel faster than light “common,” but if you polled average moviegoers, it wouldn’t rank high.) On the other hand, a widespread view isn’t necessarily a majority view. In our culture, a variety of conflicting views are widespread.

  • The term “environment” as anthropologists use it has somewhat greater scope than what we nowadays consider “the environment” in the context of preserving the biosphere. Our environment, in the wider sense, is everything with which we as a culture have contact or potential contact. Ancient cultures, in addition to their immediate environment, perceived mountaintops and remote tribes of enemies as something with which they might, in principle, come into contact; so they developed myths about them. They had myths about the sky, too, but it was to them a supernatural realm with which any conceivable contact would be in an afterlife. In our culture, we’re becoming aware that it’s possible in principle (whether or not it becomes practical) to travel between worlds and even solar systems, and that this is a two-way prospect: even if we never go there, in principle beings from other worlds might come to us. So we, too, develop myths.

  • “Exosomatic evolution” is an anthropological term for what used to be called cultural evolution, a term now considered by some to be “politically incorrect” on the grounds that we shouldn’t imply that one culture is more advanced than another. “Exosomatic”, which seems to be missing from desk dictionaries, is derived from “somatic” (which means “of the body”) and the prefix “exo” (which means “outside”). An alternate term meaning the same thing is “extragenetic”; some anthropologists prefer one and some the other. Both signify evolution of our species apart from genetic—i.e. biological— evolution. While “cultural evolution” might be taken to suggest a comparison between cultures, “exosomatic evolution” clearly refers to the evolution of the species as a whole through the development of tools, language, and various stages of technology.

  • “Colony” and “colonize” are considered “ politically incorrect” by some people because they have bad connotations in the Third World; for this reason NASA prefers “settlement.” However, “colonize” in the sense I use it does not refer to political colonization (i.e. taking land that belongs to somebody else). The word also has a biological meaning: it refers to expansion of a species into a new territory or ecological niche. This is the way in which colonizing space should be understood. It should be obvious, at least till we discover a planet with an indigenous population, that space colonization doesn’t involve land theft; so I don’t think the word needs to be discarded— though I use “humanization” in contexts where its meaning is comparable.
Note (2003): I have not revised the lectures; this is the way they were written in 1995. However, I have added a few notes in blue where updating seems important.

Note (2017): For a more detailed update and comments on what changing trends in science fiction movies reveal about the public's current attitude toward space, see my essay Space Age Mythology Revisited.

Table of Contents

1. The Space Age and its Mythology

2. Mass-Media Science Fiction vs. Literary Science Fiction

3. What Mythology Is, and Isn’t

4. The Ambiguous Term “Myth”

5. The Nature of Myth

6. Myth as Metaphor

7. The Relationship Between Myth and Science

8. More About Mythopoeic Thought

9. Ancient vs. Modern Mythic Images

10. Mythological Nature of Science Fiction

11. Levels of Mythic Significance

12. Theories of Myth from Depth Psychology

13. The Structuralist Theory of Myth

14. Myth as a Culture’s Adaptive Response to its Perceived Environment

15. Myth In and Outside of Time

16. Religious Aspects of Space Films: Gods from Outer Space

17. Religious Aspects of Space Films: Humanism vs. “The Force”

18. More About the Appeal of Star Wars vs. Star Trek

19. Themes and Premises of Space Age Mythology

20. Optimism of Space Fiction vs. Pessimism of Earthbound Futurism

21. Space Films’ View of Technology

22. History of Belief in Extraterrestrials

23. Scientists’ Views of Extraterrestrial Life: Before World War II

24. Scientists’ Views of ET Life: Since World War II, Part I

25. Scientists’ Views of ET Life: Since World War II, Part II

26. Early Development of Space Age Mythology

27. UFOs and Ancient Astronauts

28. The Alien Abduction Phenomenon

29. Gaia/Mother Earth Mythology

30. The Future of Space Age Mythology

Copyright 1995, 2003 by Sylvia Engdahl. All rights reserved.

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