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The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 11 of 16
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20. Optimism of Space Fiction vs. Pessimism of Earthbound Futurism

Note: During the past 20 years space films have become less optimistic than they were previously. For commentary on this and what it reveals about current public attitudes toward space, see my 2017 essay Space Age Mythology Revisited.

One of the outstanding things about major space films is that with only a few exceptions they are optimistic, often even uplifting. In a world that many people perceive as depressing and/or terrifying, they are an island of light. And they stand out over most other contemporary films and TV drama in this respect. I can scarcely name a recent non-space film, other than comedies, musicals and family movies, that’s optimistic enough to make people feel good about life—and I’m accustomed to searching, since for the decade preceding my elderly mother’s death in 1988 I didn’t get a chance to see films in theaters and rented only those videos she could enjoy or at least tolerate. We watched a lot of movies from the 40s and 50s and some from the 60s, but comparatively few from 70s and 80s. My mother liked serious drama and appreciated good acting, but drama these days is for the most part overwhelmingly grim.

Some people say that of course space films are optimistic—they’re fantasy, after all, and people watch fantasy to escape from real life. This view doesn’t hold up. Look at all the other fantasy around. Look at the horror film genre, which proves that fantasy need not be uplifting to draw large audiences. Furthermore, look at science fiction in general. If we define “science fiction films” as those that portray a hypothetical future, a very noticeable phenomenon becomes evident. Films about space, with the few exceptions noted below, are optimistic, while those about an Earthbound future are even grimmer than the average mainstream film. Can anybody name one that doesn’t assume the destruction of civilization, totalitarian rule, terrible conditions in cities, or at least catastrophe of some sort?

Now this is very interesting. Most serious speculators have been telling us not merely that the world is headed for disaster, but that this doom can be averted if we will just adopt the philosophy of environmentalism and limits to growth. The strength of this movement is growing again after a short lapse in the 80s, and a good many of its adherents are dedicated with truly religious fervor. A lot of people assert that we should solve the problems on Earth before moving into space. A lot of peace activists in particular maintain that we can have peace on this single planet without first making the effort to expand outward. But where is the mythology that depicts this geographically-limited utopia? It doesn’t exist! While the rational mind, reasoning from inadequate premises, can conclude that a peaceful, happy and prosperous culture confined to Earth is possible, mythopoeic thought tells us otherwise. And the mythopoeic mode of thought has always been the one through which cultures deal with eternal verities.

If anyone doubts the validity of this evidence—as I’m sure many environmentalists would—let him produce a film about the utopian future he or she envisions and see how well it does at the box office. It may be protested that there has to be violence and conflict in a film to make it exciting. Yes, but there’s no lack of violence in the Star Wars and Star Trek series, and they are nevertheless uplifting not just to “fans” but to the public at large. But, it may be said, they deal with Good vs. Evil in clear-cut terms so of course people feel good when they see them. Okay, but old-fashioned Westerns also dealt with Good Guys and Bad Guys and they were once very popular, yet today only darker Westerns are successful. [The hunger for stories centered on Good vs. Evil is revealed by the recent huge success of Lord of the Rings and other fantasy fiction, the Harry Potter series, and the recent, proliferation of films about comic book superheroes; but these have nothing to do with an imagined future of Earth—precisely, perhaps, because a bright future for a civilization confined to Earth is impossible to imagine .]

There is no reason why a film about a culture that had turned had its back on space travel without deteriorating couldn’t center on conflict between Good Guys and Bad Guys, and in theory the “baddies” could be the ones trying to spoil things by introducing space travel into utopia—the point is that no such myth could be viable in our era. Possibly something of the sort has been done in literary SF; some writers within that genre are actually opposed to the space program. But our developing mythology is clearly founded upon acceptance of the new environment rather than its rejection. [Although since this was written there has been a trend toward viewing extraterrestrial aliens as malevolent, which indicates growing unconscious fear of dealing with that environment—see my essay Confronting the Universe in the Twenty-First Century.]

It has sometimes been pointed out, in criticism of space films, that they include little if any recognition of nature in the biological sense apart from strange creatures, usually monsters, from other worlds (the Ewoks and their forest world in Return of the Jedi being an exception). To some people nowadays, this does detract from the optimistic spirit of films about space. However, it’s not an essential or permanent feature of Space Age mythology. I think there are several reasons for it. In the first place, space is indeed perceived as lifeless except for human explorers, and the myths grew from this foundation. There used to be science fiction of a mythic sort about life on Mars—a whole ecology, not just vanished civilizations—but the more we learned about Mars, culminating in Viking, the less viable these became, and the general public tends to feel that if there’s no life on Mars there isn’t any elsewhere, either.

But the main reason for the neglect of biology in space myths is that so far we do not have any real myths about colonization. Space is perceived as a place to explore rather than a place to live, Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine and the short-lived series Earth 2 notwithstanding. And myths of explorers have always concentrated on human mastery of new environments; the forces of nature in a new environment have always been perceived as essentially hostile, something to be overcome. Ancient myths of the sea deal with sea monsters; even later sea stories of a mythic nature, e.g. Moby Dick, portray whales as antagonists. Harmony with nature is not a concept that fits the theme of exploring the unknown. The unknown is always feared—this is fundamental to the survival capabilities innate to humankind, and for that matter, any other species.

I feel strongly that we need mythology about space habitation, rather than mere exploration, and such mythology does indeed need to reveal the fact that space habitats are not cold lifeless places like ships. The absence of more balanced imagery from our current myths does affect the American public’s attitude toward space humanization. But our mythology is still in the process of emerging, after all. Could a TV series or film about colonization catch on with the public? I suspect it could, but if it was well written and well produced (better than Earth 2, on which Spielberg declined to put his name) yet did not draw large audiences, we’d have to say that our culture’s conception of the wider universe is still focused on its strangeness.

The true exceptions to optimism, among major space films as distinguished from the older type featuring BEMs (“bug-eyed monsters”), are Alien and its sequels, Outland, and Total Recall. I was at first upset by Alien because I felt it wouldn’t do the space program any good, but on reflection, I realized that all mythology deals with the dark side of a culture’s perceptions. There have always been monsters in strange lands, for people need to confront not only their aspirations concerning new environments, but their deep unconscious fears. Furthermore, perhaps the universe does contain species as dangerous to ours as the one in Alien. That possibility must be recognized. Real mythology, as distinguished from propaganda, doesn’t gloss over life’s perils—not all of which can be reduced to neat wrap-ups in the Captain’s Log.

Outland’s status is a bit more dubious, and despite its technically-realistic portrayal of space, it’s by no means certain that it should be considered part of Space Age mythology. (If it had been a big hit we’d have to include it, but, significantly, it wasn’t.) Outland, unlike most space films, really was a Western in futuristic costume, patterned after High Noon. But whereas people found High Noon emotionally satisfying and perceived it as a triumph of good over evil, I can’t recall hearing any such reaction to Outland. And the reason, I think, was that it was a hybrid form. It depicted not the mythic universe I’ve been discussing, but current notions of a space colony’s limits based not on vision but on mere projection (High Noon, by contrast, was set in the mythic Old West.) Projections of current trends are not a valid basis for space fantasy, or for that matter, for serious futurism—and mythopoeic thought recognizes this in a way that logical thought does not. Audiences don’t feel that people who colonize new worlds will live like those in Outland; underneath they perceive the incongruity of its premises.

In any case, public reaction proves the universe of the Star Trek and Star Wars films to be more “true” in the eyes of our culture than that of Outland, even though the technology shown in the latter is far closer to what we know of scientific fact. And that observation leads to some general thoughts about the role of technology in space films, which I’ll offer in my next lecture.

21. Space Films’ View of Technology

In a world increasingly bleak, increasingly dominated by grim realities of overcrowding and dwindling resources plus fears of eventual famine, totalitarian control or nuclear war, our species instinctively turns outward. Underneath, we sense that in space humanization lies the only hope. Whether or not one believes that it’s in fact the only hope on theoretical grounds, as I do, one cannot deny that it is the only hope our emerging mythology offers. (The subtitle of the first Star Wars film, “A New Hope,” perhaps has double meaning.) This is why more and more people are turning to space fantasy, and the major reason why they find it uplifting.

It’s noteworthy that many find even pessimistic space films uplifting. 2001 is deeply pessimistic from the standpoint of anyone who believes our species has evolved naturally and will direct its own future progress, yet this was not how 2001 was perceived by most people (or for that matter, by Kubrick and Clarke.) Its underlying nihilism was completely overshadowed by its space-environment imagery. One viewer wrote to Kubrick, “I would not be at all afraid to state that with 2001 you may have quite possibly saved any number of spiritual and physical lives. For it is within the power of a film such as yours to give people a reason to go on living—to give them the courage to go on living. For 2001 implies much more than just an artistic revelation. On a philosophical level, it implies that if man is capable of this, he is capable of anything—anything rational and heroic and glorious and good... How can man now be content to consider the trivial and mundane, when you have shown them a world full of stars, a world beyond the infinite?” Well, analysis simply does not bear out this viewer’s interpretation, unless perhaps if one sees the intelligence behind the monoliths as a symbol of universal spiritual reality rather than of extraterrestrial beings superior to man in the role of “gods from outer space,” which I’m sure wasn’t Kubrick’s intention. But the reaction demonstrates where our hearts now lie.

There is another reason, however, why space films are so evocative of optimism. Alone among contemporary mass media, they present the general public with an affirmative view of technology. (Even published SF now leans away from this; starting in the 70s there was a swing, especially among younger, newer authors, toward views as anti-technological as those of the press.) Most people with common sense are aware that the world’s standard of living as well as their own has been raised by technology, but for several decades now it has been fashionable to picture technology as “dehumanizing” and science fiction films other than space films usually emphasize this distortion. Even when they don’t, viewers have been conditioned to read it in. Thus George Lucas’s own THX 1138, which is really directed against drugs and totalitarian rule, is often perceived as part of the general trend. And perhaps that trend is not so irrational as it seems. We live in a world of high technology and much of what’s new in our world is indeed threatening; perhaps it was inevitable that “technology” should become the scapegoat.

But it’s pretty hard to make an anti-technological space film (though Outland almost succeeded) and as far as space fantasy goes, it’s impossible. This is more than a matter of mythopoeic thought drawing on intuitive perceptions as opposed to intellectual fashions; it’s self-evident that technology is the only means whereby humans can get into space and survive there. To turn around and blame technology for life’s evils would be a contradiction in terms. [There is nevertheless a good deal of written science fiction in which this is done, some of which appeals to general than than SF-fan audiences and is simply a matter of transferring today's fears to a new setting.]

The portrayal of HAL in 2001 is the closest thing in space mythology to lack of sympathy for technology (and even that was rectified by the explanation for HAL’s failure in 2010.) What 2001 really says is that man cannot rely totally on technology, that it is foolish and dangerous to give machines control over people, and people will always be more important. But this does not imply that less technology should exist, for the good it produces—the space station, for instance, and the ships themselves—unquestionably overpower the emotional impact produced by one malfunctioning computer. Furthermore, not only do the monoliths represent an extremely advanced and benign technology, but it is clearly shown that human evolution is defined by technological progress, first in the ape’s discovery of tools, ultimately in development of the space technology that enables contact with the the monoliths on the moon and near Jupiter. (My only personal objection to this scenario is that the alien monoliths are shown as the cause of our evolution; the rest of the symbolism is, I believe, wholly valid.)

Some commentators—in my opinion prejudiced ones—maintain that space films exalt technology excessively. This, I feel, is a demonstrably false charge, for I know of no mythic view of space, as opposed to future Earth, that does not show the balance between human capability and technological capability in perspective. In Star Trek, for instance, the technology of the Enterprise is rightfully emphasized, yet time after time the plot resolution depends on human intuition. In the original series a big point was made of the fact that Kirk doesn’t turn his decisions over to computers, even to the extent of not letting him use computers as much as we’d naturally use them today. Some of this can be attributed to the series having been conceived in the 60s when computers were unfamiliar to most viewers, and to the fact that the audience wouldn’t know what was going on if he got his information from a screen instead of verbally from some member of the crew; but for the most part it is symbolic. The audience needs to see that people, not machines, are in charge, and that even in the new environment, people’s feelings are indispensable.

But it’s in the Star Wars trilogy that the balance between technological power and human power is most clearly symbolized. The droids, from whose viewpoint Lucas has said he once planned to tell the projected 9-film story, are loved by everybody. No one (except a few fanatics among reviewers) feels there is anything in the least dehumanizing about turning tasks over to R2-D2 and C-3PO. With apologies to any of you here who believe literally in conscious robots, I would like to suggest that the droids are not meant to be taken literally, but are symbols. If I thought they were a suggestion that machines will someday really have feelings, I couldn’t accept them (any more than I can accept HAL on that basis). I am in fact on record as having maintained that stories about robots with emotions are harmful to children. But I don’t see R2-D2 and C-3PO as “future artificial intelligence,” I see C-3PO at least as so far from reality as to be an obvious metaphor. The presence of the droids tells us that in the Star Wars universe, despite threats like the Death Star, technology is basically friendly. There is a partnership between humans and technology, just as there is between humans and aliens like Wookiees.

However, technology is not the ultimate power in the Star Wars universe; it is only a tool. Human beings progress through the use of tools, but the outcome of the battle between good and evil depends not on tools but on the human spirit. At the key moment, one of the most exhilarating moments in this or any other mythology, Luke turns off the targeting computer and relies on the Force. The human mind is capable of more than technology, vital and central though it is to our evolution into the universe that awaits us.

This, I think, is the key theme of Space Age mythology as a whole, the concept absolutely essential to our culture’s confrontation of a new and mysterious environment. It is a human environment; we speak, after all, of humanizing space. People who oppose the space program almost invariably think of space as a cold and impersonal realm, habitable, insofar as we enter it, only by machines or by men who have given up their most human attributes to perform machine-like functions. But that is not the picture revealed by our emerging myths, in which space and technology itself are seen as they really are, no less integral to the human enterprise than the seas and ships which myths of Odysseus portrayed.

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

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