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The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 10 of 16
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18. More About the Appeal of Star Wars vs. Star Trek

By far the most powerful filmed space myth, the one with the most universal appeal for audiences not already familiar with its characters, is Star Wars— and to a lesser extent the whole trilogy, though unfortunately Return of the Jedi is flawed to the extent of being anticlimactic. I know Star Trek fans will jump on me for saying this! Star Trek is an extremely powerful myth too, as I’ll discuss below; but the nature of its power is somewhat different, and it initially affected a smaller percentage of the population (though quite probably a more devoted one). It was Star Wars that broke all box office records and made the new mythology come alive to millions of people who didn’t watch Star Trek reruns and who, in many cases, had never responded to any science fiction at all before.

The Star Wars trilogy was a deliberate—and in the case of the first film, overwhelmingly successful—attempt to translate the underlying elements of traditional mythology into the new idiom. When I first saw Star Wars I wondered whether George Lucas was a trained mythologist who knew what he was doing, or whether he was just intuitively gifted and very, very lucky. By now, having read everything I could find about him, I know it’s a case of both. Lucas did study the writings of mythologists, most notably Joseph Campbell, and he knew what he wanted to do. But he didn’t structure the story analytically, he merely experimented with various elements. Accounts of preliminary scripts of Star Wars, over which he struggled a long time, reveal that they were unbelievably bad. He just kept trying until he hit it right. And everybody including Lucas himself was surprised by how unerringly right it turned out to be, as evidenced by public response and by the reactions of critics outside the science fiction field.

The science fiction experts, not surprisingly, were the most apt to misunderstand Star Wars. A good many of them mistook archetypes for stereotypes. Some claimed that it was derivative in the pejorative sense of that concept, apparently assuming that Lucas couldn’t think up anything new so he just copied from older works. Actually, though many elements were indeed derived (purposely) from past mythologies and past films, the alleged derivation from particular science fiction works existed only in the eyes of people familiar with those works who noticed a similarity without having enough background to realize that all mythology now draws on a common body of accepted symbols.

The power of Star Wars arises first, from the psychological elements of its story line and archetypal portrayal of characters (see lecture 12), which can be, and to some extent have been, analyzed in terms of the specific patterns established in traditional mythologies; and second, from the very fact that it did present space mythology—still new and strange to many viewers—in terms of the familiar. Everyone who saw the film, even those who for one reason or another didn’t like the script, instinctively felt that it portrayed a “real” environment closer to a “true” picture of the universe than our limited environment of Earth. Nearly everyone found it tremendously uplifting. Most of us recognized that of course the future isn’t going to be as it’s shown in Star Wars, but we didn’t care; it was emotionally satisfying anyway.

Star Wars, incidentally, doesn’t claim to be about the future. It begins, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” which is the exact and intentional equivalent of the traditional “Once upon a time” and reflects the timeless quality of myths often commented upon by scholars. It is not speculation about what’s yet to come, but a symbolic statement about the universe as it is now, has always been, and will remain.

Now this can be said of all mythologies that have endured, whether they are the literature of an ancient culture, the scriptures of a living religion, or mere collections of traditional legends and fairy tales. All these mythologies, plus fantasy patterned after them, are still available to readers, and are often filmed. In particular, retellings of them are commonly given to children and it’s assumed that children will like them even when they have been “outgrown” by most adults. And children do love fairy tales. Yet even young ones without prior knowledge of space find Star Wars far more exciting than a story with a traditional setting, despite essentially identical characters and incidents.

Furthermore, though it was conceived and announced as a film for children, adults flocked to Star Wars from the time of its initial release. Most of them didn’t even use the excuse of taking their kids. The summer it came out, I happened to be listening fairly regularly to an FM station that had a sophisticated DJ in his 30s who played the latest jazz and electronic albums. The day Star Wars opened he played the soundtrack album, somewhat apologetically. The next day he said a few people had called to complain, but he wasn’t going to apologize, he was going to play the 2-record set without interruption because it was such a great movie. The complaints were soon overwhelmed by requests for replays. Before the summer was out he had seen the film at least 15 times and was giving a regular report about how long the lines were and how many hours it had taken his friends to get in. Yet this was a late-night program for adults, with no child audience. No other fantasy film before or since has ever evoked such a strong reaction from such a large cross-section of the public. Clearly, the combination of traditional mythic elements with a space setting draws a much wider and deeper response than either factor alone.

I believe Star Wars to be an enduring myth, one that will have as much meaning a century from now as it does today. It is not, however, a growing myth. I have heard that George Lucas is now making the prequel trilogy he originally planned (having decided against sequels, he has allowed them to appear in the form of novels, many of which have been bestsellers). [The prequel films are sadly lacking in the mythic quality of the original trilogy, which accounts for the disappointment they have aroused despite impressive special effects and action sequences.] But even so, the Star Wars universe isn’t one that inspires further extrapolation or lasting, total identification with its inhabitants. Though young people identify strongly with Luke Skywalker, they don’t wish to know more about him or to live in a world like his. Despite the films’ immense popularity, they didn’t inspire many fanzines or organized groups of devoted followers.

Not so with the Star Trek series! This myth, which has far less universal immediate appeal, is of a quite different sort. It deals directly with our growing desire to explore space and our long-term cultural aspirations; furthermore, its characters are convincing not as archetypes but as people we would like to know or be. As a result, even viewers who aren’t impressed at first get caught up in it, and to some of them its universe becomes a prime reality. Quite possibly Star Trek does affect the development of our culture’s worldview, by convincing doubters not just that the universe beyond Earth is real (as all good space films do) but that men and women like ourselves will someday inhabit it.

In The World of Star Trek David Gerrold says, “There’s all the future and all the past—and all of space stretching in all directions. The concept is almost frightening. You need something to hang onto; you certainly need a couple of strong authority-images to identify with. The Enterprise filled the need for a stable frame of reference, and Kirk and Spock (and the rest of the crew) provided the emotional reassurance.” As does Picard in the “Next Generation” series. “The way the show was set up, Star Trek made it almost safe to confront the rest of the universe.”

This factor, I think, accounts for the growing appeal of Star Trek among people who are not, personally, dedicated to the mission of the Enterprise at all. Large numbers of people have become aware of the universe during the past 25 years, and subconsciously, many of them do find it more frightening than inspiring. Yet they are drawn to it, for they know it is part of our reality. Star Trek’s strength lies in the fact that it meets the needs of both type of viewers, those who long to explore space, or at least to see humanity do it, plus those who feel, as Gerrold says, “This is a strange new place for people, but the Enterprise crew is pretty good company to investigate it with.”

To be sure, Star Trek also has intellectual appeal; increasingly, it has drawn on scripts from authors also involved in literary SF. For this reason, the plots of individual TV episodes cannot and should not be analyzed in terms of their mythic content. They’re not myths, but rational speculation in a mythic setting, which is something quite different. Often they’re deliberate allegories (see lecture 6 for the difference between metaphor and allegory.) Nevertheless, the series overall is mythology rather than genre-oriented science fiction, and the devotion of its audience must be seen in that light.

Large numbers of Trekkies are young women without any technical background or interests; this phenomenon was noted in the press back in the early 70s. Some of them publish fanzines devoted to amateur stories not about exploring space or any other issue of the future, but about the private lives and relationships of the Enterprise crew. It’s questionable how many of them favor devoting a significant share of tax funds to real space missions, and certainly they are not putting their time and money into space activism, where it would do a lot of good. Yet unless, underneath, they feel the goals represented by the Enterprise are important, why the fanatic devotion? Why not focus on an earthbound soap opera?

I have sometimes been tempted to wish that half the energy given to Star Trek fandom could be channelled into getting space settlements established, yet I know that in reality, that energy is not misdirected. It’s serving its purpose among the first tentative steps toward moving our species into a larger environment.


19. Themes and Premises of Space Age Mythology

Some of you may feel that I am approaching the meaning of pop-culture SF backwards. Even apart from the issue of media hype (which brings forth a lot of discussion every time I teach this course) many people assume that science fiction creates new worldviews rather than the other way around. They would say that if people’s worldview is changing, it’s because they have seen TV and space films that gave them new ideas, and yet I am claiming that they respond to these films because their Space Age worldview is already established.

Well, there is a feedback effect, of course. Naturally TV and films do spread the worldview faster than it would spread if there were none for people to see; this is one reason why attitudes today are so different from what they were at the time of the first moon landing. Though awareness of real space missions contributed to the change, that alone did not encompass all the elements of the new worldview, and science fiction films certainly have played a role. Most significantly, what people see does determine the specific forms Space Age metaphors take. For example, if people have an idea of what a starship “ought” to look like, it’s because they have seen Star Trek.

I maintain, however, that Star Trek and space films were not, and could not have become, big hits with mass appeal, as distinguished from appeal to a specialized audience of space enthusiasts, before the time was ripe. And what made the time ripe was not innovation on the part of the media, nor even technical innovation in special effects, important though those were to filmmaking. The essential factor was prior acceptance by the public of the films’ underlying premises (see lecture 15).

It’s interesting to examine these premises. In my opinion, Space Age mythology has four definitive themes, all of which concern humankind’s future evolution as a species and future adaptation to a wholly new environmental niche. The first, obviously, is space travel itself, which is generally assumed to include interstellar travel although, notably, most scientists reject this possibilty on the logical level (equally notably, many of the same scientists accept it enthusiastically on the mythopoeic level). The second is the concept of nonhuman extraterrestrial civilizations, of which much the same can now be said; though since the late 70s astronomers have been less unanimous than was once the case in considering existence of such civilizations likely, this swing of the pendulum has had no effect on mythology whatsoever. The third theme is the idea of developing new—or new control over—human psychic abilities such as ESP; though this may not seem related to space, in our emerging mythology it is clearly associated (see lecture 17). And finally, there is the theme of artificial intelligence as embodied in robots, androids or conscious computers, which touches the wider question of what it means to be human in a universe that may contain other forms of sentience.

These are the major themes, but specific premises and metaphors associated with them can also be identified. Science fiction analysts sometimes do this. Donald Wollheim, writing in 1971, made what I feel is a crucial point: “We can establish a pattern of premises accepted without acknowledgment... When all the many highly inventive minds of science fiction writers find themselves falling again and again into similar patterns, we must perforce say that this does seem to be what all our mental computers state as the shape of the future.” Though he is not speaking specifically of pop-culture science fiction, he does exclude so-called “New Wave SF;” he has in mind the science fiction of the 40s and 50s, which was indeed part of the new mythology that has arisen spontaneously in our culture as a response to the perception of a new environment.

When we discuss specific premises, we’re going to find that we don’t all agree on which are “real” premises and which are symbols. This is a complicated issue that I’ll be talking about a lot, but to sum up what I’ve been saying so far, it’s important to remember that a myth (in the sense we’re using the word here) is always “true” on one level or another—the real disagreements concern which level. And of course, we can’t resolve those disagreements, nor should we try. Mythology, by definition, concerns issues that cannot be settled rationally (though rational speculation about them is valuable) but which a culture can’t ignore and must therefore deal with through the mythopoeic mode of thought.

For example, the idea of extraterrestrial life pervades Space Age mythology. This is not a mere fad or somebody’s invention that “caught on;” it’s a fundamental feature of our culture’s emerging worldview (in this particular case, one with roots going back to the 17th century—see lecture 22). Now we are certainly all agreed that portrayals of alien life in space films are imaginative; in other words, we know better than to think there are really any space beings who look just like ET. We also know there aren’t any who look just like Spock, but that case is a little different; possibly, some of us conceive of Spock not as a symbol but as merely fictional, in the way any character who never really lived is fictional. In other words, we may believe that someday our starships crews will indeed include humanoid beings from other worlds, possibly (in defiance of the laws of genetics) the offspring of inter-species marriages. On the other hand, we may take a far more symbolic view and feel that alien species are nothing whatsoever like us, that Spock’s Vulcan/Human descent simply symbolizes the fact that we hope to be on friendly terms with them. And some of us—Paul Levinson for example—do not believe extraterrestrial civilizations exist, yet still respond to Star Trek! What does the myth mean, if one feels the very idea of alien beings is mere fantasy? I’d guess that perhaps it’s a symbol of the belief that the universe isn’t hostile to our species, that though we may encounter dangers when we explore our new environment, what we meet will be basically compatible with our way of life.

All the premises of Space Age mythology can be accepted on different levels like this (as, for that matter, can those of other mythologies, including religious mythologies which scientists are too prone to write off as meaningless). But it’s important to recognize that this is rarely done consciously. Most people do not sit down and ask themselves why they enjoy space fiction despite recognizing that a lot of it is ridiculous if taken literally; they just enjoy it.

Furthermore, a great many of them care about it; they become emotionally involved to a far greater extent than with other fantasy. This, I think, is a sure sign that they know underneath that it says something, on one level or another, about our species’ future. Furthermore, I can’t think of any major themes of popular culture science fiction that aren’t associated in at least a minor way with space; even Superman shows his origin on the planet Krypton in such detail as to qualify the film as space fantasy. Blade Runner, while set on Earth, postulates offworld colonies. There just aren’t any such works that don’t involve space travel, unless you count the “day after tomorrow” and horror genres as science fiction (which is no longer done as a general rule). Other topics once dealt with in near-future SF, such as advanced computers and genetic engineering, aren’t metaphorical anymore, just as near-future space films aren’t; they are simply extensions of technology we already have.

All in all, it seems that in the mythic sense, both our highest aspirations and our deepest fears are inevitably focused on exploration of space or visitation from space (or, in the case of the commonest perception of the Gaia myth—which I’ll talk about later—on isolation from space). And this is natural enough, since we are newly aware that accessible space surrounds our world, whether or not we like the idea. If this situation did not evoke a new mythology, as awareness of unknown lands and seas evoked the mythologies of ancient times, it would be very surprising indeed.


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

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