Home About Me My Books FAQ Reviews Essays etc. Space Miscellany Contact

Thumbnail: movie poster for 2001
The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 6 of 16
Thumbnail: movie poster for Close Encounter

10. Mythological Nature of Science Fiction

Now that I’ve presented some material about mythopoeic thought vs. rational thought, you can see why I feel the term “science fiction” as applied to pop-culture fiction about the future is not only confusing, but ironic. Science employs rational thought, which is precisely what mythic images are not based on. To be sure, most people who write about the future engage in both types of thought, and many aspects of their stories are rationally derived (furthermore, even pure fantasy, if good, must have consistent internal logic that’s based on reason). However, these are not the aspects we can call mythic. A story based wholly on reason, incorporating no premises that reach beyond reason, may be an excellent story, but it’s not a expression of an emerging mythology.

This is another reason why I want to make very plain the distinction between genre-oriented science fiction and popular-culture science fiction. A great deal of genre science fiction is based on rational speculation—that’s how it got the name “science fiction” in the first place. And of course, I’m not suggesting that it shouldn’t be. But when it is, it’s a different type of fiction than the type that captures the hearts of the public, i.e. the mythological type. So what we have is two essentially different forms of fiction going by the same name, simply because it was originally assumed (probably by the same people who accepted the belief that myth is primitive science) that ideas about the future must necessarily be based on extrapolation from scientific premises.

Again, I must make plain that in a given work, both rationally-based ideas and mythopoeic metaphors may appear. In Clarke’s work, for example, and particularly in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s a great deal of detailed extrapolation from scientific knowledge, which for some people completely obscures the fact that the story is essentially mythological. The space station was made to seem absolutely real in an era before trips to the moon were an actual reality, and the portrayal of it was scientifically accurate. The spaceship was based on science and is accurate according to our present knowledge. But there’s nothing scientific about the monoliths or the stargate sequence; they are pure metaphor. Less obviously, HAL is also metaphorical (though many people would dispute this)—whether machines can in principle be conscious is a controversial issue on which there’s no scientific evidence for either side, while HAL is presented in terms of the widespread mythological premise that a sufficiently advanced computer will necessarily become self-aware.

Does the mere fact that a story contains metaphors make it part of a culture’s mythology? No. Myth contains metaphors that are not only derived through the mythopoeic mode of thinking, but are meaningful to a significant number of the people in a culture and related to specific kinds of subjects. A writer can create new metaphors and these may have great artistic merit, but unless they reflect widely-shared ideas, they’re art alone. We admire artists for their originality, after all; yet originality of underlying ideas, as distinguished from originality of expression, means departure from the views of the culture as a whole. Thus a work that’s original in this sense can’t be said to express the culture’s mythology. A metaphoric tale may be either art or mythology, or it may be both; they’re not always combined.

How can we identify mythology, then? This is another very difficult point to make clear, which I’ll reemphasize from time to time in different words. If there is a strong response from the general public, it indicates that a film or novel has mythic power. If a work has sufficient exposure yet doesn’t receive such response, we must assume that such mythic power is lacking. Also, the response has to last; if it dies out, we had a mere fad, not a myth—so when we look at individual works, we can judge them only on the basis of whether they share metaphors in common with other works that have lasted.

The subject and intent of the metaphor is also significant. Not every science fiction image is mythic in the sense of being part of what I call Space Age mythology, that is, a body of related metaphors expressing our culture’s outlook on the universe. For instance, SF has traditionally included view-with-alarm stories focusing on what would happen if some current trend were carried to its logical conclusion, e.g. those dealing with disastrous inventions or aftermath of nuclear war. Stories of this kind are meant for the general public, not specialists, so they are indeed pop-culture science fiction if they’re SF at all (some, of the “day after tomorrow” variety, aren’t usually classed as SF). But such stories do not constitute a mythology, although they may contain mythological elements.

A true mythology deals not only with people’s values and what they believe about social good and evil, but with their conception of their place in the universe as a whole, in both the physical and the spiritual sense. And this is not something authors set out deliberately to present—if they do, it’s simply speculation, not mythology, though it may be revealed as part of an emerging mythology if it receives wide public response and shows up in other stories. A mythology, taken as a body, reflects the total worldview of a culture, most especially its views of things not understood in scientific terms. This is more than a question of values, and it’s far more than a question of how science will affect us, although both those things are definitely involved.

So our mythologies, old and new, consist of stories that (a) deal metaphorically with our feelings about the universe, especially its inexplicable aspects, and that (b) evoke emotional response from large numbers of people. These are two distinct characteristics; in using the word “feelings” I don’t mean the emotions themselves, but the views that evoke them: for example, whether we feel we are supreme in the universe or feel other beings, such as angels in medieval times or space aliens in ours, may be superior to us. The verb “feel” implies intuitive thought, in contrast to “think” or “believe,” which connote both rational thought and a greater degree of certainty; so I often use it when referring to mythic ideas—but I’ve found it is sometimes ambiguous. In such contexts, it doesn’t signify emotion alone.

Not everyone responds to every specific type of story, naturally. There’s a wide variation in the kinds of mythology that different individuals enjoy—which, incidentally, proves the inadequacy of totally psychological interpretations such as those of Freud and Jung, which, if taken alone, imply that one viable myth should be as good as another to any person who encounters it. Some of us don’t mind if mythology departs radically from observed fact; we’re fully aware that it’s fantasy and can suspend disbelief, as, for example, when we get fully absorbed in the books of Tolkien. Others, including some of my best friends, feel Tolkien’s work is so far from reality as to be meaningless, yet at the same time get emotionally wrapped up in Star Trek and Star Wars. And of course, there are still fantasy lovers who are left cold by space films.

Obviously, preferences within our culture are shifting away from traditional myths, and fiction with similar elements like Tolkien’s, toward myths that deal with space. [Although currently, in the early 21st century, fantasy such as Tolkien’s and Harry Potter is drawing large audiences, no one associates its imagery with real life.] And this is a quite recent and rapid development. Star Wars wasn’t expected to be a phenomenal hit. Star Trek was cancelled by the network after only three seasons on TV, and developed its huge following mainly through reruns. Until the 90s, novels dealing with starships or aliens were unacceptable to publishers outside lines marketed as science fiction; now there is a demand for them even in the women’s romance genre. In later comments, I’ll offer some ideas about the reason for the shift.

One other point needs clarifying here. In literary circles, it has become almost a truism to say that science fiction is the mythology of our era; but most authors of papers on that subject don’t deal with the same topic that this course covers. They simply show how science fiction is equivalent to traditional mythology as far as the personal psyche is concerned. (Genre SF can show such equivalence as well as pop-culture SF; it often does.) This is a matter not of a new mythology, but of a skilled author making use of the old mythology for literary purposes.

When I speak of the Space Age mythology, on the other hand, I am exploring a further issue: what does it mean that our culture now has this particular mythology instead of a traditional one with presumably identical psychological function? I think any theory of mythology that ignores this question is seriously incomplete. To most mythologists, the specific content of mythologies with comparable symbols is merely fortuitous, and yet I see no grounds for making such an assumption. I think the specific content is there for a reason, which I present briefly in my speech and will be discussing here in more detail: new mythologies develop in response to cultural perceptions of new environments.

11. Levels of Mythic Significance

There are at least three major levels on which myths can be interpreted, of which the one with which we’re concerned in this course is only one: the one at which a body of mythology reflects a culture’s view of its place in the universe. There is also the sociopolitical level, at which myths deal with human interactions. And most prominent of all in analysis of myth in general, there is the psychological level, which I’ll comment upon in the next lecture.

It’s important to recognize that any given myth or group of myths may be significant at all three levels, and the fact that I concentrate on the first in this course does not mean the others are not important. They are merely not the level at which Space Age mythology is distinguished from older mythologies. Furthermore, they are not as significant in the new mythology as in older ones because the older ones still exist, and the ideas about human interactions in them are still meaningful to us, as are the psychological truths.

Another factor is that the sociopolitical metaphors in SF are often deliberately placed there for political purposes, and are thus the result of rational rather than mythopoeic thought. For instance, the peace between Star Trek’s Federation and the Klingons is not a spontaneous sign of a shift in human attitudes toward extraterrestrial aliens, but an allegory about Americans and Russians. (We know this because other species of aliens have replaced the Klingons as enemies.) Finally, the specific stories in pop-culture media rarely arise unbidden from anyone’s unconscious mind; they are contrived for commercial purposes, which does not invalidate them at the level of overall metaphor—an issue I’ll discuss below—but does limit the extent to which their plots and characters can be appropriately analyzed from the psychological standpoint.

Since mythologists have studied only ancient mythologies and their theories are based on such study, they have concentrated on the sociopolitical and psychological levels of myth, which can be validly examined in the case of myths that are central to particular cultures and have stood the test of time. They have also concentrated on the analysis of particular myths as distinguished from bodies of mythology, viewing these as the data that can yield the most of interest. Only in the study of comparative religion has the overall worldview expressed by a body of mythology been considered, and even there, except in the case of the living religions, not much attention has been paid to it. The reason for this is that ancient cultures’ perception of the universe was unchanging, and did not vary much from one culture to another. There were indeed different reactions to it, resulting in some significant religious differences; but the attitude of any given culture toward the universe did not shift. Ours is the first culture in which that has happened, and thus our emerging mythology needs a different perspective on the part of scholars than the traditional ones.

The fact that this emerging mythology appears in pop-culture media, and thus is indeed created for commercial purposes, often raises doubts in students’ minds about the validity of conclusions drawn from examining it. And it’s true that we cannot call something a myth merely because a screenwriter thought it up and sold a producer on putting it into production. The only criterion we can use for determining mythic significance is public response. If public response to an SF or fantasy work—whether an artistic one or one that’s purely commercial in its inception—is favorable and lasting, we can conclude that it has mythic appeal. In the absence of such response from the public at large, as distinguished from a special group such as “fans,” we must assume that it does not. And in deciding which themes are part of the new mythology, we must consider whether they appear frequently in successful works and are related to its other themes.

The intent of the producer really doesn’t have anything to do with this criterion. Often, the people responsible for bringing a work before the public neither know nor care anything about its deeper appeal, if indeed they don’t dismiss it themselves as foolish. (20th Century Fox is said to have funded Star Wars only because it had a Wookiee in it and audiences are known to like ape movies.) But as Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, “[T]hings happen only rarely because directors, writers and producers want them to happen; they happen on their own.” He’s referring to horror films and to the way they express our culture’s underlying fears, but the same is true of uplifting ones that affirm positive attitudes toward the future. Films are produced because they’re expected to show a profit, but they can’t show a profit unless people want to see them—so what matters is the production of what people want to see. And in the case of fantasy and SF this, by definition, is the production of films that reflect the emerging mythology.

Another objection sometimes raised to the concept of pop-culture SF as mythology is that people see it merely for entertainment. Of course they do, and this is an important thing to remember. People who go to the movies for fun do not usually come out talking about the philosophical and cultural significance of the story! I do, because I’ve been interested in Space Age mythology for many years and I’m sensitized to such issues; but the average moviegoer cares only whether he or she enjoyed the film. The point is that there’s significance to what people enjoy. If a work has mythic appeal, people enjoy it. This was as true in ancient times, when people told stories around campfires, as it is today when they watch TV. They may not know why they enjoy one story more than another, and if they don’t like it despite good special effects, fast action and interesting characters—the lack of which may, of course, doom any film at the box office—they may not know what was wrong; but they come away from a film feeling either good or not so good (depressed, bored, etc.) and this is a direct result of the extent to which their sense of mythic “rightness” was aroused.

Star Wars was widely recognized as an “upper;” virtually all viewers left the theater feeling great, even if they thought the story was childish. Return of the Jedi left many feeling let down for reasons they couldn’t name (see lecture 17). The Star Trek movies I, III, and V were widely considered to be less satisfying emotionally than II, IV and VI, a fact I attribute to the various mythic views expressed in them. All of these films reflect aspects of the emerging mythology and are thus part of it, but different themes were emphasized in each. They were all entertaining, but some were more entertaining than others, and those that were the most entertaining were also, not coincidentally, the most mythic.

There is, to be sure, one type of mythic film that doesn’t produce good feelings, and that’s the type that arouses deep-seated fears. Many of this sort are popular, especially if they can be dismissed on the conscious level as badly-done or exaggerated—witness the prevalence of horror movies. As psychologists point out, confronting fears in a non-threatening environment helps people to come to terms with them and, if the ending is optimistic, does raise their spirits. However, if fears are stirred on an unconscious level by a serious artistic film, it will leave some viewers disturbed. Paradoxically, in these cases, we can identify mythic themes by the fact of the strong negative reaction they inspire. People either love or hate films of this kind; they are rarely neutral. For example, 2001 thrilled many, but also repelled some, perhaps those who were unconsciously upset by the idea that human evolution is under the control of extraterrestrials. The unfavorable comments such a movie evokes are all the more evidence that it reflects an emerging mythology, for they show that even viewers who didn’t enjoy it have taken it seriously underneath.

A large factor in the extent of the response to a mythic film is the number of different but compatible themes it contains. Thus, Star Trek IV expressed not only our feelings about traveling between worlds, but those concerned with a hope that advanced star travelers might save our own planet from disaster; and it also dealt specifically with saving the whales, a theme to which people who don’t care about space often respond. (In addition it contained humor, an important element of traditional myth that’s often lacking in the new mythology.) In contrast, Star Trek V expressed feelings about God, which on the surface seem more “mythic,” but the specific feelings shown—that God may be a fraud, and that the offer of religion to remove people’s pain should be rejected—did not match the feelings most prevalent among audiences. On reflection, one can see that Star Trek V offered a view akin to Marx’s “religion is the opium of the people,” and that in addition it reversed Star Trek’s usual outlook toward the excitement and wonder of exploring space. Thus it was not compatible with the emerging mythology despite its use of that mythology’s settings and imagery. Had it not dealt with familiar characters it would have been a box-office disaster, not because viewers pinpointed the jarring elements of its outlook (which most of them didn’t) but because it disturbed people below the level of consciousness. It’s definitely not necessary to identify mythic themes in order to be affected by them.

Still another factor in the impact of a mythic film is its use of psychological, as well as cosmological, metaphors. A major reason for the success of the Star Wars trilogy was that unlike most SF films, it drew on archetypes with such significance in addition to reflecting views of space and the future.

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

If you got to this page by searching, please read the Introduction to the series.

Next Page