Science Fiction as Contemporary Mythology
Those who read the great works of history – both literary and philosophical – probably already understand how inspiration, nurture and even revelation can come from reading literature. But many people cannot imagine how science fiction could provide the same benefits. Part of the reason for this is that science fiction is often seen as not being serious literature. This is not helped by the fact that a related genre that will come into play is called “fantasy” literature. The science fiction and fantasy genres are frequently viewed as escapist reading.
Science fiction has been an exciting genre of literature now for many decades. For those who do enjoy science fiction and fantasy, it stretches the mind, enlarges one’s world, feeds the soul and enriches one’s spirit. Isaac Asimov, in an introduction to a science fiction anthology, Where Do We Go From Here?, wrote, “I have long maintained that science fiction has potential as an inspiring and useful teaching device.” Science fiction does what Joseph Campbell said mythology does – it helps us explore our inner space and, by drawing us into participation, makes us feel alive. That science fiction and fantasy does draw people into participation can be seen from the fact that a very high proportion of readers have thought about or actually tried their hand at writing.
Sience fiction and fantasy are, by their very natures, in a position to be contemporary mythology. Mythology, like religion, is grounded in metaphor. Why is a particular symbol significant? What gives a metaphor its power? A metaphor’s power is its particular significance, its setting. The powerful metaphors and symbols of mythology that feed the human spirit flow out of the story, the saga. And at the heart of such story, in the midst of a dangerous and often unknown setting, human ingenuity and courage and faithfulness are put to the test.
Mythic story often involves an ordinary sort of person with whom we can relate, or perhaps an ideal person whom we can admire, and sees that individual through a variety of tests and trials, often through great suffering. It calls forth the best of that individual, including the ability to face challenges, change and grow. In some mythic tales, the hero may be particularly courageous. In other stroies, he or she may be bright, clever, resourceful, etc. Or the person may be pretty common and ordinary who is drawn in beyond their apparent abilities to cope.
The hero is someone we can either admire, or at least or relate to, because mythic story is about not only the hero in the tale but also about the inner territory of adventure of us the readers – our inner space. It offers hope and assurance to us that we, too, may be able to rise to the occasion, do heroic deeds, overcome great challenges, and be transformed and remade into something better and greater.
Mythic story is spatial – it often involves unknown, perhaps terrifying terrain. What better setting for contemporary myth than outer space? At this stage of human growth and progress, we know very little about outer space. Our relative scientific ignorance makes space something of a clean slate. If we were able to travel to distant stars – or close ones, for that matter – every visit, every mission would be an adventure. What better setting to pose the basic premise of all fictional literature: “What if?” What if this or that were to happen, or if some particular situation were to occur?
What if a former space engineer – now blind – were to find himself a passenger aboard a spacecraft whose nuclear engine was about to explode? (Green Hills of Earth) What if a great war occurred between space faring cultures, inspiring a great space station to be built as a neurtral place where diplomacy and commerce could occur (Babylon V)?
These scenarios are possible to varying degrees, or perhaps we should say improbable to varying degrees. In the case of the Babylon V example, by our current scientific understanding, it is not even possible. So why should we be drawn to stories that are scientifically impossible (as far as we know?) Because they are good story, and they touch a chord, they make a connection within us. Perhaps by reaching beyond the possible, we reach a seemingly impossible place within ourselves.
While space is an excellent place for science fiction, the story itself does not have to occur in space. What if a genetically engineered virus were to escape and kill 99% of the world’s population (The Stand)? Might we discover parts of our human nature that get covered over in the press of so many people around us? And what if technology made it possible for us to wear a device that made it possible for another person to share their thoughts and feelings with us, for us to really know how they feel? (Brainstorm) How would such a device affect individuals? Or what if a device were developed that could let us see around corners or even back in time? (The Light of Other Days) What affect would this have on individuals and the world?
These examples illustrate that science fiction does not just speculate on futuristic techonological development. Science fiction may use futuristic technology to set up a story, but good science fiction will still be primarily interested in how such technology would impact human beings. It wants to know how human nature might be further illuminated and explored through interesting juxtapositions of technology. What if an android could be created to be, sexually speaking, fully operational (Star Trek The Next Generation)? What about the possibility of the development of androids? Could androids be made with certain rules so as to never cause harm to humans (I, Robot)? Could androids overcome such programming, not to cause harm, but to make a difficult decision that might be for the greater good of the human race?
Many dislike the multitudes of aliens that crop up in science fiction. While space travel is not likely to ever bring us in touch with many alien species, if any, aliens are another way to explore our own humanity. What if a particular race of humanoids (human-like aliens) served as a host for another being that would be implanted in successive individuals over many generations, retaining and making available to the new host numerous lifetimes of memories (Star Trek The Next Generation and Star Trek Deep Space Nine). What would it be like to host such a being and to have several lifetimes of memories? What would it be like to have known a previous host and then meet with the current host? What if there were a humanoid species that could be either male or female, depending on the relationship (The Left Hand of Darkness)? Would human beings seem to be perverted to them? Would humans be able to relate to such a species? Would there ever be any mutual attraction between a human and an individual from such a species?
These are just a few of the possible questions that can be raised and but a fraction of the avenues that can be explored in using science fiction to illuminate human nature, better understand human character, and to see ourselves in a different light. The genius of science fiction is that we can get caught up in a really great story, be in the middle of the action in the midst of really strange aliens a long, long way from earth and from our own time (perhaps a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). The entire situation and context can be alien beyond belief, and with the turn of a phrase or a twist of perspective, suddenly we are looking at ourselves.
And that is what good myth does as well. Science fiction as myth can be a window into our own souls, a way of sounding the depths of the human psyche. And science fiction is a popular way of spinning a contemporary, entertaining story even while exploring serious ideas. A story that just may touch the deeper recesses of the human psyche, giving expression to feelings and dreams and beliefs in ways that are sometimes similar to traditional religions and sometimes in ways that traditional religions fail to do.
(C) 2004 Ron L. Clayton