It is often easy for us moderns to look with contempt upon the stories and myths of ancient peoples, wondering how peculiar and strange tales such as the Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh could possibly have captivated the hearts and imaginations of the cultures that birthed them. Our stories, after all, are far more realistic, gritty and grounded; lacking of the fantastic supernatural events present in myths such as these. Although I might agree in the instance of Gilgamesh (certainly the strangest story I have ever read), it would be foolish of us to discard this human tradition of mythology. Myths and legends are a vital part of human society, and more often than not, it is science fiction that is the genre best able to tell such important stories.
Often times the modern reader can get so caught up and distracted in the old superstitions and pantheistic supernaturalism so prevalent in the myths best known to us (those of the Greeks and Romans) that they lose sight of the greater purpose of these stories. The late scholar Joseph Campbell believed that such myths are vital in both the personal development and societal development of human beings. Myths, Campbell argued, served to open people’s eyes to the wonders of the universe (something science fiction often does, as covered in the first article in our series), the lackings of science (our human fallibility), as well as inform us about, and often validate, social orders in society (another aspect of science fiction that Luke covered). Campbell considered one function of myth to be the most important, “and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human life under any circumstances” (The Power of Myth pg.38-39). Seth touched on this in his last post, for as science fiction can prompt philosophical questions in the guise of story, myth teaches transcendent virtues and morality.
“Very well then,” you might say, “myth is important, but I certainly do not want my science fiction to become as weird and peculiar as those ancient Greek myths”. This mindset neglects the fact that science fiction’s settings and premises simply modernize the role that the supernatural (and oftentimes unnatural) played in those ancient myths. The ancients did not fully understand the phenomena of weather and storms, and so, in their myths, they are attributed to gods and spirits, and islands are populated with Cyclops and Sirens. Today we may know that individual gods do not stir up cyclones to devour the ships of those they dislike, but we know very little of the planets beyond ours, or of how to reach them, and thus we think of aliens on far distant planets, with hyper-drives and warp-engines to power our craft. Ancient stories had the god-like Odysseus, while we have the powerful Luke Skywalker. From Star Wars to Ender’s Game, The Foundation Series to Dune and even John Carter of Mars (to a certain extent), science fiction presents larger than life heroes and figures in truly mythic stories and settings.
These science fiction stories, these modern myths, present their ideas and morality on a grand scale to draw greater and more dramatic attention to the transcendent virtues and philosophies that make them so significant. Friends of mine often complain that Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side in Revenge of the Sith, motivated by hubris and an intense possessiveness for and dependence on his wife Padme, is unrealistic. However, to condemn the story as such is to miss the point entirely. Anakin’s infamous betrayal may not be “realistic”, but it is truly mythic in scope. Is the power of a story simply driven by its realism? Certainly not! Achilles is not exactly a realistic figure in the Iliad either, but yet he is a timeless image of uncontrolled passion and power, not unlike Anakin. The story of Anakin is powerful because it warns of disordering one’s loves and desires and allowing those same desires to reign without check (echoing one of the main teachings of St. Augustine, interestingly), while simultaneously cautioning against the stoicism of the Jedi Order that proved incapable of foreseeing and stopping a tragedy on a galactic scale. These transcendent human truths are littered throughout the Star Wars saga, which presents the battle between good and evil in the classic mythological style, containing the mythic figures (the Skywalkers, the Jedi, the Sith, etc.) the mythic settings (Tatooine, Coruscant, the fires of Mustafar, space travel) and the elements of the spiritual and supernatural (The Force).
Star Wars is unarguably the pinnacle of science fiction in Western culture, if simply by the weight its cultural significance alone. But there is no mistaking why it has become so successful: it fills the mythological void that our society lacks and so desperately needs. Star Wars is not alone, though, in embracing the mythological roots of science fiction. The works of literature I mentioned earlier do this admirably, and even recently, the Man of Steel film embraces the mantle of mythology. Filled with visitors from another world, acts of god-like superhuman ability, underpinned by strong moral and spiritual elements that hold Kal-El up as an example of hope to us, Man of Steel too carries forth science fiction’s tradition of supplying us with stories with which we can make sense of the world. It truly is ironic that often it is the fantastic and unrealistic that helps us make sense of the normal and the real. When one learns to look beyond the futuristic technologies and exotic settings of science fiction to the mythic qualities behind each journey to the stars, that is when one will truly reap the rewards of science fiction.