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The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 8 of 16
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14. Myth as a Culture’s Adaptive Response to its Perceived Environment

As I said in my paper The Mythic Role of Space Fiction, the anthropological theory of myth I find most illuminating holds that mythology deals with human relationship to environment: it serves the adaptive purpose of helping people confront the environment in which they perceive their culture to exist. I don’t mean, of course, that this is myth’s only function. Functions pertaining to the individual psyche are extremely significant, too. But a particular body of mythology, as distinguished from myth in general, expresses a view toward the human environment that depends on that environment’s perceived characteristics and dimensions.

I must emphasize that by “environment” I mean the total universe of which the culture is aware. I’m not referring just to “the environment” in the sense of our planet’s biosphere, although fanatic environmentalists appear not to perceive one larger than that, and have their own mythology based on what seems to me a very narrow conception of our species’ ecological niche. Actually, the definition holds up very well in their case. There’s now a revival of interest in older mythologies that emphasized closeness to nature—meaning not all of nature, but just Earth—and their adherents (as distinguished from those who simply enjoy and appreciate mythologies not their own) tend to be no more aware of the rest of the universe than were members of the ancient cultures in which these myths arose. Or, in some cases, they’re suppressing awareness; their response to the larger environment is to withdraw from it, to say Earth is the only home we’ve got and we’d better preserve its status quo. Not incidentally, few of these people like pop-culture space fiction.

Of the written definitions of myth I’ve seen, the one of most general applicability is that of Melville and Frances Herskovitts in their 1958 book Dahomean Narrative. “As a point of departure, we may define a myth as a narrative which gives symbolic expression to a system of relationships between man and the universe in which he finds himself... On another level, we may define myth as those narrative forms that embody a system of symbolized values which, in each separate society, phrase the philosophy underlying its concepts, ideals and ends... Myth, in these terms, implies a social acceptance of approved symbols that, by transcending the generations, are at once the instrument of identification with the past and with the continuities of present and future. That is to say, like all manifestations of culture, myths draw their deepest sanctions from the fact that for the individual of a given society they existed before he was born, and that he carries the conviction they will continue after he is dead.” (I’ll comment on those last two sentences, which may seem inapplicable here, in the next lecture.)

If mythology is a symbolic expression of relationships between human beings and their environment, then if the perceived environment changes in a fundamental way, the mythology must change. Seen in this light, Space Age mythology is a response to the first major change in our environment since prehistoric times. All previous mythologies were based on a perceived environment encompassing known regions of land, unknown regions, and sometimes sea; they viewed the sky as a supernatural realm. Most put great emphasis upon it, and in fact ancient myths contain concepts of the sky as a conceivable dwelling place—albeit not one for mortals—that suggest intuitive knowledge not derivable from experience. But only in our culture has travel beyond Earth been perceived as a real possibility, thus enlarging the scope of human/environmental interaction. This perception demands a mythology compatible with it; so, inevitably, one is arising.

Not everyone recognizes the significance of this because some people don’t share the worldview in which space is accessible, and it doesn’t occur to them that it’s fundamental to others. This has nothing to do with the issue of whether it is or is not possible to humanize space; it’s a fact that many people today believe it is, and their belief is what counts in terms of what mythologies they respond to. And in fact, many respond who doubt the feasibility and/or desirability of space exploration on rational grounds, which I think says something about their underlying unconscious outlook.

Campbell himself didn’t recognize science fiction as a new mythology, and this fact is interesting. A student once asked me if it was merely due to his being old. No, it wasn’t, for he was very interested in space at the time of the Apollo moon landing, and he was interested in Star Wars at the time of its release. He filmed his series at George Lucas’ ranch; they had become friends. Yet he never saw science fiction the way I do. Though he recognized certain specific mythic themes in particular works, he never perceived them collectively as a new body of mythology. At first I thought this was because he personally didn’t accept the definition of myth that calls it a response to a new environment, but then I realized that he didn’t believe space is our future environment.

Over and over, in various books, Campbell said he believed myths deal with “inner space” rather than “outer space”—he even titled one of his last books The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, and that’s its point. Space was not a physical place to Campbell in the sense of an environment for humans; all myths, old and new, that referred to the cosmos he found meaningful only as references to the human psyche. I don’t deny that the traditional ones often have such significance, but I think there’s also a real attitude toward the physical universe involved. Campbell didn’t think so. He saw the human environment as a constant. So of course, he did not see anything inherently mythic in tales of space exploration, at least not beyond the ideas in any “hero’s journey.” And he didn’t believe in extraterrestrial life, so of course he did not see metaphorical portrayals of ET life as meaningful.

In The Power of Myth, Moyers said he wasn’t so sure the future of the race and the salvation of the journey is in space, and Campbell agreed with him. His description of space suggests that he found it terrifying; he could realize that we must be in some sense one with it, but he didn’t conceive of our species literally inhabiting it. And there is really nothing uniquely mythological about pop-culture SF without that premise, except elements of traditional myth which he and others have recognized. Campbell saw no new metaphor in Star Wars except in the area of human relations with machines. Did he close his eyes to the rest because the thought of confronting the universe—the physical universe—appalled him? I’m sure he’d have said that for modern humans there are no new environments, only new perceptions of the same one we’ve always lived in.

This, I think, is why Campbell felt so strongly that our era has no viable mythology. Moyers asked him if he thought that our civilization has been disintegrating since our myths began to disappear, just as that of primitive societies did when their myths lost credence because of the white man’s civilization, and he replied, “Absolutely, it has.” He felt old myths do not reflect today’s values. Personally, I think it’s more a matter of their not reflecting our current conception of our place in the universe, as distinguished from their merely using imagery from an obsolete cosmology (something he and others have mentioned as a factor in their loss of credibility). I say that since a prime function of myth is to help a culture confront its cosmic environment, old myths can’t serve when the conception of the environment with which we potentially interact is enlarged.

Anthropologists interested in cultural evolution place great emphasis on the concept of adaptiveness, just as those interested in biological evolution do. The former is known as exosomatic evolution, in contrast to genetic evolution; and although the mechanism of the two is not the same (for Darwinian theory applies only to biological evolution) the principle of adaptation to (or of) the environment underlies both. Species are successful insofar as they are able to adopt adaptive ways, and culture is the human way of adapting. It is a much faster and more flexible means of adaptation than genetic evolution; that’s why, with our species, exosomatic evolution is the primary avenue of change. We’re not dependent on bodily alterations, since we alter our behavior and our surroundings— for example, we raise crops and we build cities, just as in the future we may build offworld colonies. By these means, we widen our ecological niche and, if we remain successful in the evolutionary sense, will expand to the new niche of space and planets beyond Earth.

Myth has not been studied before in connection with evolution because all mythologies have been specific to particular cultures, and they’ve been seen as agents not of change but of stability. They’ve been adaptive mechanisms only in the sense of helping people deal with the physical and social environments in which they found themselves. Space Age mythology is quite different in this respect because our culture, unlike former ones, places greater value on the future than on the past. The “philosophy underlying [society’s] concepts, ideals and ends,” in the Herskovitts’ words, is now one of continued progress. Thus for the first time in human history, myth may play a significant role in enabling exosomatic evolution to continue.


15. Myth In and Outside of Time

It’s not hard to see why young children like space fantasy, but older people find it difficult to understand why kids prefer it to similar stories they themselves loved when they were young. Why should a child never before exposed to such fantasy prefer a space story to one with dragons, or pirates, or cowboys? Now this is a jackpot question, which I can’t answer fully here because its implications are tremendous. One idea I’ve seen is that our culture’s acceptance of starship stories reflects “a built-in gene-directed drive for the spreading of the species and its continution” (Wollheim). Also it may have something to do with Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious; I suspect that not only the response to archetypes, but the awareness of expanding environment, arises from unconscious sources, and if so, this applies to adults as well as children. Needless to say there is no agreement about how concepts get into unconscious minds, via genes or otherwise, and I don’t pretend to know; but I think the evidence shows that fascination with space is not always something learned.

If I had no other evidence of this, I would have my personal experience. I first heard about space in a 9th-grade science class when I was 12 years old. I had never read any science fiction and knew nobody who was interested in astronomy, let alone space travel (this was in 1946, after all). Space stories did appear in pulp magazines and comic books at that time, but I had never seen any. My reading had been confined to classics and library books, mainly fiction with historical background, and of course, traditional fantasy. Yet one day in that science class the teacher read aloud a short description of what it might be like to travel in space, and from that moment I knew this was both true and important. From then on I did seek out relevant reading material, but the conviction preceded that, and was entirely intuitive.

Probably no one else here can recall becoming aware of space, since anyone younger than I would have heard of it when too young to remember. But do you remember when you first found fantasy about it meaningful? Was this the result of reading or hearing about real possibilities, or did you just “naturally” love space stories? And did they seem strange to you at first? I suspect not; I think that almost always, among people who didn’t grow up with the new mythology yet nevertheless respond to it, its symbols are first perceived not as novelties, but with what in other contexts has often been termed “the shock of recognition.” There are individuals who don’t like space fantasy at all, but it’s rarely if ever a slowly-acquired taste.

This fact is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for my belief that space fantasy and related phenomena constitute a mythology. Fascination with such ideas has long been, and still is, alive even among people who profess to be unimpressed by actual, observable moon landings—perhaps especially among those people. Myths aren’t derived from news reports. They center upon figures removed in time, either toward the past or toward the future, or into time of a different nature; they cannot be seen in present reality unless the reality is perceived as ritual reenactment, as in the case of traditional myth, it often is.

Emerging mythology has similar characteristics, strange as that may seem. Returning to the Herskovitts’ definition of myth in lecture 14: the last part of it may have struck you as incongruous. How can we accept a demand that myth draw its sanction from having existed before the individuals in a culture were born? Space Age mythology didn’t exist before older generations were born, and few of today’s young people care what happened before they were born anyway. (Though there’s been some revival of interest in history among college students—in contrast to the situation that prevailed in the 70s—it’s still true that most teenagers, and certainly most children, view the past as irrelevant to their lives.)

Actually, the eternal validity demanded of myth has little to do with actual chronology. According to many theories, myths take place outside linear time entirely, in what’s called “mythic time” or “sacred time” (or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”). In the past, when mythologies have been analyzed, it has been a self-evident and uncontestable fact that they existed long before the birth of their adherents; in fact most bodies of mythology include creation myths, and are perceived as tales of an era before the dawn of history. Though their cultures (including our own with respect to traditional myths) think of them as ancestral, we have, after all, studied them only when they were already old. They did not spring into being in a single generation, at least not in the form in which they were carried forward; and as they were developing, they did receive mythic sanction—if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have lasted long enough to transcend generations.

Where did this sanction come from? Partly from the conviction that they would indeed outlast individuals’ lives, and that factor is especially important today, when aspirations are oriented more toward the future than toward the past Golden Age many cultures revere. But also, I think, from the intuitive conviction that what is now seen as true has always been true. The person who believes in the validity of a mythology doesn’t do so because of his parents’ or grandparents’ authority—he simply accepts his worldview as the way the universe is. And he does perceive it as having been that way always, even before his own birth.

Even Star Trek, which is far more future-oriented than the Star Wars trilogy and may seem to have nothing at all to do with the past except insofar as some of its plots transferred episodes from our culture’s past into extraterrestrial settings, derives mythic sanction from being perceived as outside time. These words of Tyrrell (see lecture 12) are not invalidated by his emphasis on the past; it’s a truth, if not the whole truth, that “...the series itself mediates between the past and present by establishing a third time, that of first beginnings ... a time filled with the anticipation and wonder of the future without the anxieties of the present, with the glory and security of the past without its remoteness. By transcending in an ultimately inexplicable way the sum of message and medium Star Trek puts the fan-become-believer in that time... For the believer ‘Star Trek Lives’ is more than a slogan of a TV show that would not die. It is the ritual cry to a world where he belongs, where he has it all together. Star Trek offers the comfort of religion.”

Some people are startled by the fact that Space Age mythology, like all major bodies of mythology, is in essence religious; but of course it is, in most instances far more explicitly so than Star Trek. I’ll have more to say about this aspect of it in my next lecture.

First, though, a brief thought about creation myths. Our first instinct might be to say that though they are characteristic of other mythologies, Space Age mythology, being future-oriented, is incomplete in this respect. But is it really? Consider the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the earliest major films in which the new mythology is expressed—and if we are left in doubt about the scope of that, we have only to look at the conclusion of the sequel 2010, where the intelligence behind the monoliths creates not merely life on Europa, but a new sun. Not all creation myths describe creation of the universe out of nothing; those of some cultures deal only with the origin of the world and humanity. What other interpretation can we give to a story that says humans were like apes until altered by an extraterrestrial agency, that we may be further transformed through the continued action of that agency, and that new species comparable to humans may someday arise if that same agency chooses to create a new sun and place its worlds off-limits to us? This is surely the mythic equivalent of many an ancient tale of elder gods.


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

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