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The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 14 of 16
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26. Early Development of Space Age Mythology

As can be seen from the history of views toward other worlds and their hypothetical inhabitants, the fundamental themes of Space Age mythology—those concerning our culture’s outlook on the universe and our place among its lifeforms—did not originate in science fiction. On the contrary, science fiction reflected assumptions already deeply embedded in public consciousness. The same is true of the underlying themes concerning the human meaning of science and technology. Though written science fiction explored these in an intellectual way, pop-culture science fiction drew on feelings about them that were already widespread, though often unconscious.

Although fiction dealing with such ideas as voyages to the moon appeared occasionally in previous centuries, these were simply satires on Earthly affairs. The first novels to take seriously the idea that human progress may lead to new human environments and/or interactions with extraterrestrials were those of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, whose War of the Worlds was published in 1898. Public interest in Mars was high in the late 19th and early 20th century because of the discovery of markings on it that were widely believed to be canals; the idea that Mars might be inhabited was common, and for the first time people had begun to fantasize about travel between worlds. The pulp romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs, perhaps the first pop-culture as distinguished from literary SF, were popular around the time of World War I. During the 20s many “science fantasy” stories appeared in fantasy and/or horror magazines, and publication of SF as a separate genre began in 1928 when the magazine Amazing Stories was founded; one of its serials, E. E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space, dealt for the first time with starships.

By the 30s and 40s science fiction was well established, and many of the authors best known outside the field, such as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, were writing. And increasingly, there was a distinction between literary and pop-culture SF. As one critic in the 50s pointed out, “Science fiction, as a literary form, got its start in the United States in pulp magazines whose total combined circulation would not keep a single large radio station on a paying basis, and which is an insignificant drop in the bucket compared to the enormous audiences that must be reached, and entertained, by a major network.” The genre-oriented readers sought fiction of a special kind; writing in 1953, the critic quoted above stated, “The emphasis on rationality, the supremacy of the intellect ... not only distinguishes science fiction, but in the main disqualifies it as a popularly acceptable form of literature and as mass entertainment.”

It also disqualifies it as mythology. This critic, explaining why radio, movie and television science fiction was in his opinion inferior to written SF, described well the elements that make the former more indicative of the outlook of our culture as a whole. “‘Good’ science fiction depends on intellectual stimulation and the logical development of a premise ... but mass movie audiences do not go to a theater for intellectual stimulation, they go to be entertained,” he wrote. And he felt that the greatest deficiency of one of the better SF movies of the era was that it was “based on an old and out-worn theme,” meaning not one outworn in our culture, but one already familiar to SF-genre readers. So mythological and literary science fiction went their separate ways, for myth, by definition, is entertaining to mass audiences of the culture in which it arises.

The “space opera” type of SF, such as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Superman, was highly successful on radio as well in comics and the movies in the 30s and 40s; in the early 50s it dominated children’s TV with such serials as Captain Video, Space Cadet and Space Patrol. These were broadcast several times a week in 15-minute time slots. A whole generation grew up on them. Though plots of these serials were often identical to Westerns, which at that time were still popular with kids, they drew audiences who clearly preferred them yet could not possibly have derived their interest in space from that source. They were in black and white and special effects were primitive; only viewers already fascinated by space and/or the future could have grasped what was going on. Space Cadet did not “battle against living enemies so much as against the vicissitudes of space itself. Asteroids, runaway meteors, strange interplanetary diseases, and the like” were the villains, and there was no bloodshed or death. The mere idea of space travel seems to have been the key to their appeal.

Popular with teenagers in the 50s was Heinlein’s fine series of Young Adult novels, which appeared one per year from 1947 through 1958. (They have been issued in paperback as adult novels and are still in print; you can identify them by the fact that the original publisher was Scribner’s.) These novels were realistically-told stories of space exploration and colonization. The only seriously-outdated metaphors in them are the portrayals in the earliest ones of alien civilizations on Venus and Mars; Heinlein knew better even then, of course, so was deliberately using the mythic imagery most familiar to the public.

[However, on recent re-reading, I was surprised to notice a fundamental concept in them that is now outdated, and which indicates how our view of our relationship to the universe is evolving. Although in all these novels, both those dealing with our solar system and those about extrasolar planets, peaceful relations with aliens is advocated, establishing human colonies on planets with indigenous inhabitants is also advocated. It’s assumed that this is a good thing to do as long as native customs are respected. The question of how we would feel if they established a colony on our planet is never raised, and in the case where the native species proves violently hostile, the colonization attempt is viewed as an unfortunate failure rather than a mistake. When I read these novels in my youth this did not even occur to me, and I don’t think it did to their many other enthusiastic readers. Today, of course, few if any of us would approve of human settlement on planets belonging to aliens; but in the 50s authors and editors didn’t take the issue seriously—they simply felt that since the presence of exotic aliens made a story interesting, that was all that mattered in what was considered “fantasy.”

Despite the fact that it is unthinkable that our civilization would now seek to colonize an inhabited planet, the possibility is still deeply embedded in Space Age mythology, as shown by the success of the 2009 movie Avatar, in which humans do just that. It reflects the general pessimistic view of human nature that is prevalent in our era. But the alien culture in the film, and the world portrayed, are shown in an entirely positive light. In other words, space is viewed as a good place to be, even when we are perceived as unworthy to go there.]

Heinlein’s YA novels appealed to a general audience, not just to SF readers, and were extremely influencial in forming our culture’s specific ideas about what space travel would be like. He also wrote some adult stories for a general audience which appeared in the late 40s in the Saturday Evening Post, also very influencial in forming people’s conception of a moon colony. The fact that the Post, then the top market for short-story writers, published these reveals that people of the post-war era no longer viewed space travel as fantasy. His adult novels of the 50s were more fantastic, but still focused on ideas about the universe and its inhabitants. All of this work was totally unlike his later novels, which, despite imagery from Space Age mythology, are of a different nature—Stranger in a Strange Land, for instance, has nothing to do with our mythical view of Martians.

The first major Technicolor science fiction movie with impressive special effects was 1950’s Destination Moon, also from a Heinlein story. The Day the Earth Stood Still was the first film portrayal of ETs as “gods from outer space.” But more prevalent the 50s were, of course, the numerous alien invasion films, which most critics have labeled mere allegories about fear of the Russians. That is an interpretation with which I disagree. If the early alien invasion films are interpreted solely on the socio-political level of mythic significance, of course such symbolism will be seen; it may occasionally have been intentional (as in the case of Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters, filmed not in the 50s but recently, which in its original form is indeed an allegory about Communist mind control; this is clear from the fact that none of Heinlein’s other portrayals of aliens were negative). Also, on the psychological level, an interpretation of invasion films as fear of “the monster within,” arising from awareness of nuclear peril, is possible. But to consider only these levels is to ignore the question of why the films dealt with extraterrestrial invasion rather than with more traditional metaphors.

No doubt some viewers of alien invasion films were consciously aware only of the fears prevalent in that era, such as the real possibility of Soviet attack and the real dismay about Hiroshima. But these alone did not require expression on the mythopoeic level. They were, in fact, openly discussed both in the media and in every home, as—unlike younger critics who didn’t live through the 50s—I clearly recall; there wasn’t any impulse to disguise them. There is thus no valid reason to deny that the basis of alien invasion films was the view of the universe they embodied: an underlying public awareness that we were on the verge of space travel, and that because we were, ETs might already possess it. If nations on Earth could attack each other from the sky, how much worse would an attack from space by a superior civilization be? That, I feel, was the fear with which we came to terms in the 50s, one alleviated only by passage of time and by our preoccupation with more immediate threats.

It must not be forgotten that as far back as the 30s, invasion from space was not perceived as total fantasy. This was shown by the reaction to the famous 1938 radio dramatization of Wells’ War of the Worlds, which has been studied by sociologists ever since: people did not recognize it as fantasy and took the “radio newscast” format literally, creating panic in New Jersey—where the Martians had allegedly landed—and jamming switchboards elsewhere in the nation. (That was what brought about the regulation, taken for granted today, that broadcast fiction must be specifically identified as such.) Though by the 50s we were more sophisticated, and Mars was recognized by then as uninhabited, there is no reason to suppose that there was any change in the ambivalence of our feelings toward extraterrestrial life. Today, 50s-style alien invasion movies would not be credible because we know technologies whereby aliens could wipe out Earth’s population before anyone knew what was happening. There would be no story, let alone possibility of a happy ending. So for the most part, current mythology concentrates on the bright side of alien contact, with the exception of a few films like Alien that are far removed from today’s worries in both space and time.

[Since 1995 when I taught this course, Independence Day has been a hit and there have been a number of other films and TV series based on alien invasion or on the growing phenomenon of supposed “alien abduction,” so this statement is no longer entirely true. Films with positive portrayals of aliens, such as Close Encounters, ET, Starman and Cocoon, seem to have been a reflection of the more favorable public attitude toward space in the 60s through 80s. It remains to be seen whether there is a natural pendulum swing in this respect, or whether, as awareness grows of the reality of our confrontation with a new environment, fear will prove stronger than enthusiasm.]

However, in the 50s the fears—and hopes—aroused by the concept of alien visitation were not confined to science fiction. They were also expressed in another facet of Space Age mythology, the UFO phenomenon, which is growing in significance and which I’ll discuss in the next lecture..

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

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