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The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 2 of 16
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1. The Space Age and Its Mythology

Important definition #1: “Space Age” as used in this course means our era, defined by the fact that for the first time in our evolution, human beings have ventured far enough from planet Earth to see it as a globe. While this implies the possibility of further space travel, Space Age mythology isn’t limited to myths concerning such travel; rather, it is characterized by a perspective on Earth and/or humanity in relation to the wider universe.

On April 12, 1961, a human being viewed Earth from outside its atmosphere for the first time, and in December, 1968, men first saw—and photographed—it as a globe. The impact of these events cannot be overestimated. A little later, enthusiasts called our first moon landing “the most important event since the creation,” and while not everyone agreed with that assessment, or considered travel beyond our planet crucial to the evolution of our species, it can’t be denied that awareness of Earth as an island in space has forever changed the outlook of our culture. This is far less a matter of the scientific knowledge gained than of our self-image, hopes and fears: feelings that are expressed most fully in our mythology.

The Space Age is an era, our era, not just a reference to space-related activity. There have been a number of different names applied to our era, but I think “Space Age” is the most definitive for a number of reasons. One is that I do personally believe our species’ ability to expand beyond its home world is an especially crucial step in evolution, comparable—as was often said at the time of Apollo 11—to life moving out of the sea onto land. But that’s by no means the only reason for calling this the Space Age, and it’s not the one most relevant to this course.

The Space Age is the age in which humankind’s perception of the universe has changed—and by “universe” I don’t mean just the distant parts of it to which we may, or may not, someday travel. Our perception of our own planet has changed as a result of looking back at it from space. Nowadays, photos of Earth from space are normally used as symbols of environmental concerns. They have also been used by peace activists. The first view of Earth as a globe has been widely recognized as the triggering factor in the widespread public perception of our planet both as a small indivisible sphere and as a fragile habitat requiring protection.

When I stop to think about it, I realize that you younger people don’t remember a time when no human being had seen this view. To you, it’s a “given,” so you may not be aware of the tremendous effect those first color photographs had on the way people perceived the world. But I grew up in a time when only a minority, composed mainly of astronomers, futurists and science fiction writers, thought of our planet in such a way. It was comparable to the time just before the Renaissance, when although people educated in “natural philosophy” (as science was then called) knew that the world was round, everybody else assumed that it was flat. The only globes we had seen in my youth were the kind with boundaries and different colors to represent different nations. If we had never made even short trips into space, today’s feelings about the world would be quite different from what they now are.

To many of us, the implications of “looking out” toward the rest of the newly-accessible universe were, and still are, the foundation of the Space Age worldview. These are the premises that underly mass-media science fiction. They are the ones the children of our society take for granted. In the words of astronaut Michael Collins, “When the history of our galaxy is written, and I think it may already have been, if the planet Earth gets mentioned at all, it won’t be because its inhabitants visited their own moon. The first step, like a newborn’s first cry, would be automatically assumed. What will be worth recording is what kind of civilization we Earthlings created and whether or not we ventured out to other parts of the Galaxy. Were we wanderers? Human history so far indicates we are indeed. It’s human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand. Exploration is not a choice, really, it’s an imperative.”

But although in most expressions of our mythology this viewpoint is very much alive, others, less obvious and less expected, have also been emerging: those are centered upon the implications of “looking in” at Earth from the outside. Older mythologies did not do this. ”When we look into the sky it seems to us to be endless,” Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov has written. “We breathe without thinking about it, as is natural. We think without consideration about the boundless ocean of air, and then you sit aboard a spacecraft, you tear away from Earth, and within ten minutes you have been carried straight through the layer of air, and beyond there is nothing! Beyond the air there is only emptiness, coldness, darkness. The ‘boundless’ blue sky, the ocean which gives us breath and protects us from the endless black and death, is but an infinitesimally thin film. How dangerous it is to threaten even the smallest part of this gossamer covering, the conserver of life.” These feelings are an inseparable part of our culture’s reaction to the Space Age, and increasingly, they too are being mythologically expressed, although in different manifestations of myth than those evoked by “looking out.” Some people are emotionally drawn to one form of mythology, some to another; and the reasons for the contrast are one area this course will explore.

Another reason for calling our era the Space Age is its utilization of space technology. We could not have instantaneous global communications without satellites. There would be no TV coverage of worldwide news events as they happen. We wouldn’t have the ability to monitor weather and environmental conditions on a worldwide basis. Furthermore, the technological level that has given us space programs has also given us computer technology, and vice-versa. In my files I have an article from a 1933 magazine, based on scientific consensus of that era, in which it was asserted that travel to the moon would never be possible; the author knew about the potential of rockets, but insisted that there would be no conceivable way to navigate. Without computers, it could not have been done. With them, it seems obvious and natural that rockets should be used for transportation.

The technologies that place us in peril of destroying our world are interrelated with those which give us access to space. They depend on the same level of understanding in physics and in engineering; it’s inconceivable that a global civilization could possess one potential without the other (though it would not have to develop both, and in my personal opinion, with respect to full realization of their potential they are mutually exclusive alternatives). The perception that we might destroy our whole world depends on viewing it as a single globe, and that perception, in turn, makes us view our world as vulnerable: vulnerable both to invasion from without and to the consequences of our own actions. This is not a mere “Atomic Age” threat; we faced that threat in the 1950s, but we didn’t understand it in the way we do now. It’s more meaningfully termed a “Space Age” threat.

The primary Space Age perception on which this course is focused is that our species has the ability to colonize space (I use “colonize” in the biological rather than political sense of the word) and to explore the wider universe. The existence of the option is what justifies the name Space Age. From the standpoint of our culture’s outlook on the universe, it does not matter whether we actually do it or not. The potential exists, and most people are aware of it even if they don’t favor it. Mass-media science fiction reflects this view; we can observe that most of it involves space in one way or another. Its prime concern is the question of what it means to be human in a world that no longer fits the picture presented in ancient mythologies.

Part of that question centers on our relationship to our home planet, while another involves our interaction with extraterrestrial aliens we may meet. Still another part raises the issue of androids and/or self-aware computers, which though not actually connected to space travel, is almost always connected with it in our mythology, perhaps because it depends on the same level of technology as space exploration and because we may find artificial intelligence a necessary tool in such exploration—or at least now think we may. Finally, the question concerns potential human abilities like ESP, and/or hypothetical alteration of humans through such means as genetic engineering. While such changes in human nature aren’t space-related, myth dealing with them is nevertheless Space Age mythology because it’s appearing in the Space Age—being contemporary, it can’t be considered separate. Separate mythologies don’t develop in a single culture, although ancient ones may still live, or be revived.

There are, however, separate forms through which ideas about the Space Age are mythologically— that is, metaphorically—expressed. Mass-media, or “pop-culture,” science fiction is one of them. Another is the increasing veneration of Earth as Mother Gaia: a myth with roots in ancient mythologies, grafted upon a scientific hypothesis which it has far outstripped. Still another is the lore of UFOs, especially that related to “alien abduction” experiences, the mythic significance of which may prove to surpass that of any other phenomenon of this century. On the whole, individuals attracted to one of these vehicles of myth tend to reject the others. Taken together, however, they constitute a single body of mythology encompassing a variety of different viewpoints. Unlike former mythologies, it is pluralistic. There are no clearcut divisions within it, any more than there are divisions in our Space Age view of planet Earth.


2. Mass-Media Science Fiction vs. Literary SF

Important definition #2: “Science fiction” as used in this course means mass-media or “pop-culture” science fiction, not literary SF; and it doesn’t have anything to do with science. It reflects the outlook of the general public rather than scientific speculation, and its role is to entertain or inspire, not to make prophecies or provoke thought about social issues.

We don’t need to develop a full definition of science fiction here, or of the distinction (if any) between science fiction and fantasy, which has been argued about at length in scholarly papers. But I do want to make clear right away that the course is not about the literary genre of science fiction. It’s about popular-culture science fiction, the type known not just to a special group of readers, but to the public at large. This is the key point to bear in mind. Whatever we may find in SF read mainly by established SF fans (and of course there’s a great deal of interest to be found there), it cannot reveal anything about the worldview of our culture as a whole.

The two types are quite different. Fans of genre-oriented science fiction often feel pop-culture science fiction is not worthy of the name, because (a) the science in it isn’t accurate and/or (b) the ideas in it are “old stuff” and therefore hackneyed. But these are the very reasons why it qualifies as myth, whereas literary SF does not, except insofar as the author may have incorporated symbols derived from ancient myth. The concepts that have mythic appeal for a large percentage of the population in our culture do become hackneyed, and are therefore of less value as art than more original ones. In fact we can assume that ideas and images to which the public doesn’t respond to such an extent do not have mythic significance, at any rate, not yet. There may, of course, be novels that would have such significance if they got into the hands of enough readers, but are prevented from doing so by the strict categorization of the publishing business (which is a subject about which I, like many authors, am rather bitter.) But we have no evidence that this would happen. This is a media studies course, not a literature course, and our criterion of relevance is the degree to which a concept or image becomes part of the “language” of popular media.

There is another difference. Written science fiction has, since the 1960s, been directed mainly to an audience with intellectual interests. “Serious” authors have taken it over. They are concerned about their reception by literary critics, and very defensive about the reputation pulp science fiction acquired in an earlier era. Furthermore, the concepts “futuristic” science involves, now that mere space travel is no longer in itself a futuristic concept, do demand some educational background on the part of the reader. But myth’s appeal is not intellectual. This isn’t to say that educated people of high intelligence don’t respond to myth—we all do. Myth also, however, appeals to the uneducated. A novel that appeals only to people with artistic and/or intellectual background can’t be considered an example of the new mythology, although it may, of course, incorporate ideas and images from the new mythology that are also found elsewhere.

Such novels may also draw on ideas and images from ancient mythology. Good literature of all genres does that. This leads to another point of possible confusion, because you will find a lot of literary criticism that discusses mythological themes in science fiction, where what’s meant is the use of classic mythological themes concerning human nature. That’s an important field of study, but it’s not part of this course. My lectures go into detail about the difference between mythic themes that pertain to the psyche, and are therefore of timeless appeal, and those concerned with perception of the universe. Here, I’ll just point out that themes from classic myth transferred to future settings are always the psychological ones, and whereas they are appropriately used in SF—even pop-culture SF—that alone is not enough to make a work part of a new mythology. (That’s why Campbell says we don’t yet have a new mythology, which is something I’ll comment more on later.)

Most modern written science fiction is literary SF, which is “ genre-oriented” because publishers issue it as genre fiction (this involves separate editorial departments and separate marketing; it is not a label determined after publication). There are only a very few SF authors whose work has been issued as mainstream, a distinction based not on quality, but on the expected appeal to readers who have little if any background in the SF genre. And the extent of this appeal—which we can determine by whether a book has made the best-seller list—is a good measure of the story’s mythic content.

Most pop-culture science fiction appears not in written form, but as movies or TV series. All of the successful ones are at least partially mythic in their appeal, for the very good reason that such appeal is the thing that makes a story about the future a hit with large, non-specialized audiences. I should point out, however, that this is something producers don’t know—they see that science fiction movies are popular, but most of them have not figured out why; and if they go to SF specialists, they are given the wrong answers: they are told why SF readers like science fiction, not why the general public does. Therefore, we see major flops, with special effects like SF hits but none of the mythic substance. Or, occasionally, we see films that SF reviewers and fans like, but that do poorly at the box office; and this, I believe, is because they are primarily artistic and/or intellectual rather than mythic.

A case in point is the film Blade Runner. It is a highly-rated film among science fiction experts, but personally, I have never considered it a real expression of the new mythology. I find it interesting and see its artistic merit, but it doesn’t strike me as representative of our culture’s viewpoint. When teaching this course initially, I assumed this was my personal bias: my main interest is in space humanization, and I don’t believe in the possibility of androids indistinguishable from humans, so naturally it doesn’t reflect my own outlook. I felt that we must consider it mythic, however, because I mistakenly thought it was a hit, which is the only objective criterion available. But then I discovered a file about Blade Runner on the Internet, which states, “Although it was a box-office failure, it has become perhaps the definitive cult movie, and is one of the few films which remain faithful to the ideals of 20th century science fiction literature.” In other words, my instinct was right! It is not pop-culture science fiction and therefore not mythology; it’s a rare example of genre-oriented SF in the form of film.

This is not to say that it contains no references to Space Age myth, or that it contains no mythic commentary on human psychology. But on the whole, it tells us nothing about what large numbers of people in our culture think about the universe (in either the physical or spiritual sense) and humanity’s place in it. If we want to judge today’s mythic conception of human identity in relation to androids, we must look at Data in Star Trek, not at the replicants in Blade Runner—and certainly not at the Philip K. Dick novel on which the latter was based. The “ideals of 20th century science fiction literature,” to which Blade Runner is said to be true, include a deliberate rejection of common views of life for the purpose of suggesting alternate views, and this is the exact opposite of what mythology does.

A student in a former term questioned this distinction; he felt the replicants of Blade Runner and Commander Data are fundamentally the same because they both show artificial beings who yearn to be human and problematize the concept of what it means to be human. This was an important comment, I think, because it demonstrated the contrast between a philosophical view of androids and a mythic view. The former explores the problem of what it means to be human from a rational, philosophical standpoint, while the latter, on the whole (with some possible exceptions in specific Star Trek scripts) shows what the general public perceives it to mean.

Today, there is certainly rational speculation by individuals about the idea that perhaps there’s no inherent, essential difference between a human being and an artificial being (as those of you taking Paul Levinson’s AI course know). And Blade Runner deals with this idea; there’s even an ongoing debate among fans about whether or not Deckard, Harrison Ford’s character, is himself a replicant (a point Ridley Scott deliberately left ambiguous). The film focuses on the difficulty of distinguishing. But average audiences not composed of speculators don’t have any such conception of androids. They think of them as portrayed in Star Trek, where the focus is always on how Data is different from humans. In some respects he’s superior and in others he lacks qualities that he and others know humans possess, and sometimes he’s viewed allegorically to suggest that we shouldn’t look down on anybody just because he’s different (as are members of alien species). But it’s never denied that he is different! The notion that maybe you can’t distinguish between humans and androids is incompatible with the predominant outlook of our culture (and, I confess, with my own). This is the reason, I think, why Blade Runner makes average moviegoers uncomfortable—not its dark setting alone. And this is why I say it isn’t mythic, because myth always reflects the underlying attitude of the general public, or a significant portion of it, rather than of the avant-garde.


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

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