Entry updated 16 August 2023. Tagged: Theme.
The relationship of mythology to sf is close and deep, but not always obvious. Part of the confusion stems from the widely held belief that sf is itself a form of latter-day mythology, fulfilling comparable hungers in us. James Blish took issue with this argument, pointing out that myth is usually "static and final in intent and thus entirely contrary to the spirit of sf, which assumes continuous change". We restrict ourselves below to the role of traditional mythologies in sf and to the literal, new mythologies which are sometimes created within sf, usually in the context of explaining the way alien societies think.
Traditional mythology appears in sf in two ways, its archetypes being either re-enacted or rationalized (sometimes both). The re-enactment of myths is the more complex of the two cases. Behind the retelling of a myth in a modern context lies the feeling that, although particular myths grew out of a specific cultural background, the truths they express relate to our humanness and remain relevant to all our societies: the story of Prometheus, punished by the gods for stealing fire from the heavens, or its Christian variant, where Dr Faustus is doomed to eternal damnation for selling his soul in exchange for knowledge, has a direct bearing on the Scientist's aspiration for ever more information about the meaning of the Universe, and more power over matter. The entry on Conceptual Breakthrough lists many such stories; even such an apparently Hard-SF technological story as Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973) is permeated quite deliberately with echoes of ancient myths, the Promethean one in particular. But to list mythic echoes in sf (as with most forms of prose fiction) would be impossible; there are too many. Even a list of full-scale sf analogues of myths as opposed to mere echoes would be fatiguingly long.
Several of the most popular mythic analogues are discussed elsewhere in this volume. Retellings of the Christian legend are discussed under Religion and Messiahs, and reworkings of the story of Genesis are examined under Adam and Eve. Obviously the entry on Gods and Demons bears on mythology, as does that on Supernatural Creatures.
Mythology in sf reflects a familiar truth, that in undergoing social and technological change we do not escape the old altogether, but carry it encysted within us. The totally new is by its nature almost impossible for sf writers or anyone else to envisage. Far more commonly, they work out ancient patterns of love and death, aspiration and reconciliation in a new context. Several sf writers have imagined a sterile future which has consciously repudiated its myths and hence its past, only to be left with a terrible emptiness. Ray Bradbury's nostalgic "The Exiles" (15 September 1949 Maclean's as "The Mad Wizards of Mars"; vt in Beyond Time and Space, anth 1950, ed August Derleth) has literary and mythic figures exiled on Mars, perishing when the last of the books containing their stories is burned or lost; the emerald city of Oz dissolves like a mist; an Earth expedition is faced with only a desert. Robert Silverberg's "After the Myths Went Home" (November 1969 F&SF) has figures of myth reincarnated, via a time machine, for the entertainment of a far future which is suffering from ennui; familiarity soon breeds boredom, and the myths are dismissed; the society, emptied of heroism and mystery, is destroyed by invaders. James White's The Dream Millennium (1974) depicts a crew of starship colonists, who spend much of their time in Suspended Animation, as able to survive because in their dreams they have access to a kind of Jungian substratum of racial memory; the awareness they thereby derive of the mythic patterns in human history gives them the strength to survive on a new world.
Re-enactments of myth in sf take several forms. The simplest strives to deepen the emotional connotations of a story by permeating it with the reverberations of some great original, as C S Lewis does successfully with the myth of the temptation of Eve in Perelandra (1943; vt Voyage to Venus 1953), and less successfully with the Arthurian legend in That Hideous Strength (1945; vt The Tortured Planet). Lewis's friend Charles Williams re-enacted myths both Christian and pre-Christian in most of his novels, usually digesting the pagan elements so that they emerged as supportive to the Christian faith. Patricia McKillip's Fool's Run (1987) is one of several sf retellings of the Orpheus myth, perhaps the most accomplished, set in a Prison satellite, the Underworld. Several writers have striven for a Homeric resonance by retelling Homer's Odyssey in sf terms, whether directly or indirectly; Stanley G Weinbaum did this in a short series of stories in the 1930s, R A Lafferty in Space Chantey (1968 dos), and Brian Stableford in his Dies Irae trilogy (1971). (Space Opera generally, of course, has a good deal in common with the picaresque voyages of Odysseus.) Lafferty has several times reverted to mythic themes, notably in The Devil Is Dead (1971) and Fourth Mansions (1969); the latter categorizes mythic archetypes into four groups, the eternal conflict between which leads to many of our troubles.
The supposed Cretan myth of the Earth-Mothers, and the king sacrificed to ensure renewed fertility, is often evoked in sf, naturally enough by Robert Graves, in Watch the North Wind Rise (1949; vt Seven Days in New Crete 1949), since he is the best known popularizer of the myth in the twentieth century, particularly in his nonfictional (though anthropologically unreliable) book The White Goddess (1947). It is also used, colourfully if confusingly, in Sign of the Labrys (1963) by Margaret St Clair, in which members of a surviving witch/priestess cult prove best equipped to cope with an Underground, Post-Holocaust existence. Philip José Farmer has also been preoccupied with the image of Women in SF as archetypal seeresses, creators and destroyers, and with men as virile but doomed horned gods, notably in Flesh (1960; rev 1968). Like Bradbury in "The Exiles", Farmer makes little distinction in most of his writings between literary and religious myths, seeming to regard them as feeding the same human needs. All Farmer's work is permeated by mythology, whether the mythic creature is a reincarnated god, a great white whale or Tarzan; the mythology may be a new one invented by Farmer himself, usually on very traditional models (see below). The best known sf novel drawing on The White Goddess is The Snow Queen (1980) by Joan D Vinge, in which she designs an entire planetary culture along Gravesian lines, and adds to it a secondary and more recent myth taken from Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875).
Another bestselling book (like Graves's) about myth was The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) by Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). Many myths that make their way into modern sf have been filtered through a sort of Campbellian sorting process before getting there. Among them are Farmer's books, mentioned above, a particularly pure example being Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke (1972), a spoof biography in which Farmer draws on Campbellian ideas about the nature of the Hero. George Lucas has often spoken about his use of Campbellian ideas about myth, and his Star Wars (1977-current) films, which are intended to have many mythic resonances, incorporate these (as, indeed, does every second work of sf mythology; see discussion of Roger Zelazny below). Something of Farmer's engagingly packrat attitude towards myth can also be found in Sam Lundwall's satirical Alice's World (1970 dos), in which a spaceship returning to an abandoned Earth finds a grotesque variety of mythic and literary beings now living there.
More complex than many of the above are stories whose mythic components are seen with a degree of irony, stressing not only ancient continuities but also modernist discontinuities with the past. Several of Samuel R Delany's novels fall into this category, notably The Einstein Intersection (1967) and Nova (1968); in the former a deserted Earth is repopulated by aliens who take on human shape and, with it, the mythic burden of the past, in a confused form they do not always understand; in the latter the story of Prometheus is replayed in a tale of literally stealing fire from the heavens, but the narrative tone has as much of the deflationary as the heroic in it. Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man (September 1966 New Worlds; exp 1969) has a time traveller who wanted to see Christ's crucifixion playing an uncomfortably central role in that event; the scene he finds is more squalid than transcendent. Lawrence Durrell's Tunc (1968) and its sequel Nunquam (1970) feature a multinational conglomerate called Merlin, but the Arthurian echoes are primarily to show that there is little room for romance in a corrupt future. Michael Swanwick uses similar Arthurian echoes altogether more economically and to equally squalid effect in "The Dragon Line" (in Terry's Universe, anth 1988, ed Beth Meacham), a tale of a coke-snorting modern Mordred trying to do the right thing for the world with a resuscitated Merlin's help. Cordwainer Smith derives a considerable emotional charge from the mythic analogues, often Oriental, he uses in his stories; in "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" (August 1964 Galaxy) the parallels are with the legend of Joan of Arc. Smith's use of myth is touching but sometimes rather remote; often, as in this story, the mythic parallels are further distanced by the events of the tale being themselves remembered by later generations, and recounted with the formality and balance of a well rounded myth-myths within myths, as it were. In The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972; vt The War of Dreams 1974) Angela Carter, another ironist, has a Mad Scientist using a Machine charged with erotic energy to make the dreams and myths of men come alive; the very series of betrayals through which his plans go awry is itself, ironically, mythic. Charles L Harness regularly uses mythic archetypes both of character and of plot in his involuted, grandiose melodramas, notably in The Ring of Ritornel (1968) and "The Rose" (March 1953 Authentic), in both of which art and science dance a complex saraband and winged archetypes are confronted with Mathematics. Stories structured on myth can appear rather simple-mindedly determinist, as events run along their preordained grooves. Alan Garner, for example, specializes in a kind of cyclic history in which ancient myths of violence and betrayal work themselves out again in a modern setting, but such books as The Owl Service (1967), based on a Welsh legend in the Mabinogion, and Red Shift (1973) allow free will to loosen the mythic trap, if not escape it entirely. James Tiptree Jr evokes the legendary figure of the Rat King in "The Psychologist who Wouldn't do Awful Things to Rats" (in New Dimensions 6, anth 1976, ed Robert Silverberg), but the protagonist is not saved by its majestic appearance; indeed, he is goaded into brutal rat murder.
Within both Genre SF and Fantasy a particularly popular variant on the mythology theme is to have humans encountering mythic figures through Time Travel to the past or in a Parallel World, or conversely to have mythic survivals appearing in the modern world. Some of these stories are dealt with under the heading of Magic. They were especially associated with the magazine Unknown, and often involved a puckish or whimsical humour, as in the Harold Shea stories by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. Jack Williamson's The Reign of Wizardry (March-May 1940 Unknown; rev 1965) is from the same magazine and the same period. Edmond Hamilton's The Monsters of Juntonheim (January 1941 Startling as "A Yank at Valhalla"; 1950; vt A Yank at Valhalla 1973) is another story of this type. Naomi Mitchison gives an account of the search for the Holy Grail as told by two reporters from the Camelot Chronicle and the Northern Pict in To the Chapel Perilous (1955), but here the basic points are serious, despite the anachronistic jokes that usually feature largely in stories of this kind, as in several by Poul Anderson (see Magic). Thomas Burnett Swann made a career out of writing sweet, sometimes oversweet, narratives about mythic survivals, his point being that something wonderful and delicate left the world as modern rationalism took a grip, and as we desecrated our landscapes.
One quite popular strategy for mythology stories is to tell the myths from the viewpoint of an observer or protagonist from the time in which they happened – sometimes, of course, rationalizing them in the process. John Gardner's Grendel (1971) does this with the Beowulf story, as did Henry Treece (1911-1966) in The Green Man (1966) and Michael Crichton in Eaters of the Dead (1976), but only Crichton's book, which accounts for Grendel and his dam as Neanderthal survivals (see Apes as Human), can be seen as sf.
The majority of stories of mythic survival are more fantasy than sf, like Swann's; or like The Last Unicorn (1968) by Peter S Beagle, which tells of the sad search of the beast of the title for its seemingly extinct fellows; or like Diana Wynne Jones's Eight Days of Luke (1975), in which Loki turns up in modern England, and Fire and Hemlock (1984), in which the tale of Tam Lin's escape from the Fairy Queen is replayed (yet again) in the here and now; or like the allegorical The Circus of Dr Lao (1935) by Charles Finney, in which mythic creatures survive in a circus, and have a deep effect on the disbelieving town folk who witness them. A yearning for the survival of mystery, and an intellectual belief in the necessity of such a survival if human culture is not to become sterile and bleak, pervade most such stories, and are central to the concerns of Beauty (1991) by Sheri S Tepper, which fascinatingly (and fascinatedly) weaves a centuries-spanning construct out of folklore and fairy-tale archetypes as a possible prophylactic against a hellish, mythless future. The same yearning is to be found even at the simplistic end of the spectrum, as in Emil Petaja's Kalevala series, where avatars of the Finnish gods have adventures, or Joseph E Kelleam's The Little Men (1960) and its sequel, where Jack Odin has fights in space and elsewhere. Stan Lee (and/or Jack Kirby) resuscitated various myths, notably that of Thor, in Marvel Comics, and Thor turns up again in Douglas Adams's The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988), trying to catch a plane to Oslo. Sterling Lanier's The Peculiar Exploits of Brigadier Ffellowes (coll 1971) wittily spins yarns about confrontations with demigods, monsters, and other mythic survivals. John Blackburn also worked with the theme, but here we enter a new area, and a peculiarly science-fictional one, the rationalized myth, which becomes (not always convincingly) sf rather than fantasy.
Blackburn was not the best exponent of the rationalized myth, although Children of the Night (1966) and For Fear of Little Men (1972) elicit satisfying shudders in their accounts of hidden Lost Races in England whose existence explains legends of fairies and goblins, with a logic similar to that of the Crichton novel mentioned above, and echoing the Faerie of Arthur Machen. Manly Wade Wellman's Hok stories (1939-1942) rationalize various myths, as H Bedford-Jones had done in his Trumpets from Oblivion series in The Blue Book (1938-1939). Rather in the manner of the theories of Erich von Däniken, a number of sf stories explain myths as distorted memories of visits to Earth by aliens, as did Arthur C Clarke in Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990) – though in this case it is through racial Precognition, not memory, that the horned aliens have given rise to the legend of the Devil. Robert Sheckley's "The Laxian Key" (November 1954 Galaxy) amusingly retells the fairy tale of the magic mill that endlessly ground out salt, here as sf with an unstoppable production Machine (see Automation). In Clifford D Simak's The Goblin Reservation (1968) a rather whimsical attempt is made to explain gnomes, trolls, fairies, banshees and so forth as specialized colonists created by biological engineering. More successful was Nigel Kneale's television serial Quatermass and the Pit (1958-1959), in which the image of the Devil turns out to be a race memory of insect-like Martians, a memory that comes disturbingly to life in modern London. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle reversed the ordinary rationalization procedure in Inferno (1976), in which an sf writer finds himself, possibly deservedly, in Hell, a place he consistently and unsuccessfully attempts to rationalize as an actual physical construct in the Universe of matter; ultimately it turns out to be, indeed, Hell.
A quite different kind of mythic survival appears in Mythago Wood (September 1981 F&SF; exp 1984) and its sequel Lavondyss (1988) by Robert Holdstock. The wood of the title (which like John Crowley's hidden world in Little, Big  is infinitely bigger on the inside than its modest periphery would suggest) has the property, more fantastic than science-fictional, of incarnating mythagos from the collective unconscious of those humans who live in and around it, mythagos being, effectively, walking figures of myth. As the wood is ever more deeply penetrated, the ultimate bare myths of the Ice Age come to life. The two books are Holdstock's most powerful work, and perhaps the central mythological fantasy of the 1980s.
The sf writer who has most consistently used mythological themes in sf, as opposed to fantasy, is Roger Zelazny. His first novel, This Immortal (1966), confronts its almost immortal protagonist (see Immortality) with various Mutant creatures which are somehow archetypes of Greek myth given flesh. Zelazny stayed with themes of this type for some years, often using them ironically, typically playing off the colloquial against the archaic, in stories about quasi-gods of human origin whose powers blend advanced mental training with high technology, deliberately reconstructing and replaying mythic confrontations, in Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969), which reincarnates the Ancient Egyptian pantheon, and perhaps most successfully in Lord of Light (1967), an assured and oddly moving story of planetary colonists whose rulers – the original Starship crew plus favoured inductees – deliberately take on the aspect of Hindu gods, and become involved with a variety of appropriate metaphysical paradoxes.
These comprise a new kind of mythology story, in which myths are evoked not only by the author but quite consciously by the characters, often as a form of cold-blooded Cultural Engineering, and sometimes self-destructively, as game becomes trap. Another example is Harry Harrison's Captive Universe (1969), in which the crew of a giant Starship has been deliberately programmed into a mental state of medieval monkishness, and the colonists into an Aztec tribalism complete with Aztec "gods" (who turn out to be constructs); both crew and colonists are ignorant of the true state of affairs, and regard the starship simply as the world (see Pocket Universe). Poul Anderson's "The Queen of Air and Darkness" (April 1971 F&SF) has the native inhabitants of a colonized planet reading the minds of the colonists, picking out their archetypal fears and hopes, and creating by hallucination a world of sinister faerie to keep the colonists away, even kidnapping human children in the manner of the old ballads.
Finally, sf commonly creates its own myths. In his A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) David Lindsay invents a whole series of imaginary (but hauntingly familiar) mythologies on another planet; these ultimately annihilate one another in a kind of mutual critique, leaving its protagonist at the end annealed by fire and wholly stripped of illusion. The Sword and Sorcery subgenre regularly constructs mythologies which often, as in the case of Robert E Howard's, bear a close relation to our own. Out of the Mouth of the Dragon (1969) by Mark Geston is permeated with a myth of Armageddon, a final conflict doomed never to take place, since the forces who have volunteered to fight it keep cutting their own side to ribbons in squabbles on the way. At a more accessible level, Genre SF has created a meta-narrative Space-Opera myth which has resulted from the borrowing of ideas from story to story, with additional accretions on the way. A distinct sf version of Mars, for example, is the work of no single writer, has little to do with the real Mars, and yet exists very clearly in the imagination of readers. Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury have created some of the more poignant variations on this particular Mars myth.
With the growing interest in Anthropology in sf since the 1960s, several of the better sf writers have added richness and density to their depiction of alien or imaginary societies by creating myths for them. This is the case with most of Ursula K Le Guin's work, as in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and – with a spectacular density and length – in Always Coming Home (1985); her "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight?" (November 1987 F&SF), however, uses traditional Native American myth in its story of a girl who comes to live with incarnate animal spirits. Terry Carr's "The Dance of the Changer and the Three" (in The Farthest Reaches, anth 1968, ed Joseph Elder) presents a dangerous alien society whose enigmatic behaviour may be explained only if their myths are properly understood; it was brave of Carr to essay a mythology for beings composed of pure energy. Harlan Ellison, by juxtaposing icons and images from the ancient and the modern worlds, has forged some fine modern myths, many collected in Deathbird Stories: A Pantheon of Modern Gods (coll 1975; rev 1984), which includes "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" (in Bad Moon Rising, anth 1973, ed Thomas M Disch), in which the violence and indifference of a great city are seen to coalesce into a kind of contemporary demon; Fritz Leiber had much earlier portrayed a sinister urban spirit as the eponym of "Smoke Ghost" (October 1941 Unknown). Ellison's "Croatoan" (May 1975 F&SF) features a characteristically wild but unselfconscious metaphor in bringing together the story of the lost Virginian colony of Roanoke with (a development of a modern myth or Urban Legend) the idea of a colony of children in the sewers, descended from aborted foetuses flushed down the drains, who live alongside huge alligators which, when smaller, suffered the same fate.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus (fixup 1972) is one of the many works by Gene Wolfe in which, as with the Le Guin stories, the bearing of myth on reality is both constant and unpredictable; along perhaps with John Crowley – whose brilliant Engine Summer (1979), for example, plays cruelly with the idea of cyclic myth in a Post-Holocaust Ruined-Earth venue – Wolfe makes the most sophisticated use of myth of any modern sf writer. Clashes between free will and predestination, the first signifying an outward thrust and the second an inward pressure from the inexorable past, occur, as they must, in all mythological sf written by people who are conscious of the consequences of their themes. Certainly it is Wolfe's pre-eminent subject – especially in The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) – as it is, with the emphasis rather more on myth as elegiac trap, Crowley's also.
A theme anthology is New Constellations: An Anthology of Tomorrow's Mythologies (anth 1976) edited by Thomas M Disch and Charles Naylor. [PN]
see also: Atlantis.
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