Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Science fiction as myth

Via Locus Online (their "blinks" in the left column) I found the article Sci-Fi's Brave New World, about science fiction as mythmaking. This is a topic that interests me, as you might know if you have followed my blog. I have written about this here for example.

The article is written by a James A. Herrick, a name that didn't tell me anything (I'm not so good at remembering names). I liked some parts in the beginning, for example this:

The culture-shaping force of science fiction storytellers may be more significant and more widespread than we imagine. That's because they trade in myth. By myth, I mean a transcendent story that helps us make sense of our place in the cosmos.

I'm always astonished that people in the science fiction field are not aware of this important function of their literature: to shape our idea of the meaning and significance of science, of the future, and of our place in the world. Of course, it works just as well if you are not aware of it.

Anyway, it quickly becomes obvious that the writer of the article, Herrick, is not happy about this. He likes only one fixed set of stories, despite the fact that they are not universally helpful when it comes to interpreting the world around us.

This is where i suddenly remembered that I have read about this Herrick person recently, in the Internet Review of Science Fiction under the headline Wrong on Religion; Wrong on Science Fiction. I must say that I'm on the same side as Gabriel Mckee here: science fiction is a good medium for discussing important matters, and therefore for shaping our interpretation of things. I'm not surprised to see that Mckee also has commented the article on his blog.

It's also worth noting, again, that science fiction hardly is a homogeneous canon of ready-made myth. It's an ongoing discussion, mirroring our culture with its dreams and hopes. There are things to agree with, and things to argue against, and that's just the way it should be.


Anonymous said...

I would say that since science fiction is a literary genre, and myth is by definition not literature, science fiction can never be myth, and there is no such thing as "mythmaking".

The closest thing to a myth related to science fiction would be science itself, or rather the way people use science as an explanation of existance and something to pin their hopes to.

Elliot said...

I agree; and I think you and I and Gabriel would define the word "myth" more broadly than Bjorn is in his comment.

Åka said...

Interesting points Björn. Allow me to partly disagree. I think there might be more than one definition of "myth", and the way I understand the concept it's all about storytelling to give meaning to things. All literature can be part of this. Maybe I should say that science fiction carries myth, rather than being myth?

Science cannot be its own myth. Science is a method to find out how things are (well, oversimplified, but anyway). One reason that I think it's important to understand the aspect of making meaning through science fiction is exactly this: I would like to be at least a little bit aware that the stories we tell about things are separate from the naked facts. Science as menace, or science as a means for making life better -- those ideas are part of the myth complex. The same with the scientist: hero or threat? Passive collector of information, or active shaper of society? The same thing about the value of knowledge: is it always good to have more, or sometimes bad to know? That is the meaning we give to science and the people working with science, and that meaning is (at least theoretically) separate from the scientific process itself. This is the stuff I'm talking about, or trying to.

And this is where science fiction comes in, as carrier and as mirror of the myth(s) that we live with.

If there is no such thing as mythmaking, where do the myths come from?

Åka said...

Elliot: hello! I was writing my comment when you posted yours.

Gabriel Mckee said...

I disagree that myth isn't literature. A myth is just a pattern of a story; it doesn't really exist until somebody fleshes it out (in literature or elsewhere).

Check out Olaf Stapledon's introduction to The Star-Maker, which is all about his mythmaking aspirations... And note that, no matter what Herrick or anyone else says, the mythological scheme of that particular book has some very neat connections to 20th-century theology (like that of Teilhard de Chardin).

Anonymous said...

Åka, what I meant when I said there is no such thing as "mythmaking" is that given that myths are the stories a society believes, any story where you can actually point to the person that made it up is not a myth.

That is not to say that literary stories can't make use of mythemes (to introduce a structuralist view of mythology through the back door). But the mytheme then are still the parts of those literarary works which are believed by the society in which the work is created.

You are right that science is a method for finding things out. However, science and its results are employed as an explanation of the world, which people believe in. Science in itself is different from myth, but the story science is found to be telling us are sometimes employed as myth as explanations of the world, and as justifications for our morals and law codes.

Some of these myths are employed by science fiction, but they are not created in the act of writing science fiction.


Gabriel, please don't dismiss my opinions by redefining the terms.

Defining myth simply as a literary mode, aside from being contrary to any widely accepted theory of mythology (and there are plenty to choose from), completely disregards what actually distinguishes it, which is its function in society.

Åka said...

Björn: perhaps I have been unclear, since I'm often searching for words to express my thoughts. I never meant that myth is to any significant extent created in science fiction -- that's why I wrote things about "mirroring our culture" and so on. But nevertheless, I think science fiction is a tool for propagating and sometimes reshaping ideas.

The way you now phrase it, it seems to me that you more or less agree with me that science is not its own myth, but it is the stories we make (employ, whatever) around it that gives the meaning ("belief", if you will). But many times I'm not sure that I understand exactly what you mean, especially in your original comment. In discussions like this, misunderstanding often comes down to disagreement about definitions.

I myself don't have a strict definition of "myth", I'm just trying to use it to cover the stories that build meaning. And I know exactly how hairy it is to find a short and water tight definition of "science", so I'm happily just handwaving for now in the hope that writing about it will clarify things for myself (and maybe for the readers, maybe not...)

L. Clarke said...

G,day I find science fiction and its portrayal of new technologies to a re-vitalising hit in the arm to fiction. New concepts in medicine and time technology, such as the use of electo-magnetic time fields used to bring damaged human cells back to a time when they were once healthy to be very interesting.
I have written about such wonders in my novel Doom Of The Shem. It is a piece of Steampunk genre sci-fi really, and is fun to read.

Johan said...

Heh, I had no idea Herrick wrote about science fiction – but I own his book on the history of rhetoric.