By Sheila Finch
Science fiction is literature about the future, yet at its core we find elements of stories that are thousands of years old. At least since Jung, we have noted that these ancient stories found around the world are more than simplistic explanations for the existence of the physical world, and the experience of humans in it, or mere entertainments – though in their day they were both. The psychological insight found in myths is no less true today than yesterday, and no less necessary to our understanding of ourselves. We respond to these ancient stories even when we do not consciously recognize their origins. The presence of mythic elements gives a work of fiction a kind of “objective correlative,” as T. S. Eliot called it, an emotional resonance that makes the experience immediate and memorable to the reader. Much of the best science fiction draws on mythic themes and tropes, sometimes consciously on the part of the author, to apply this wisdom to its dreams about tomorrow. In doing so, science fiction acknowledges that while the environment we find ourselves in may change, the element that makes us human will not.
This paper concentrates on one core myth, the Hero’s fantastic journey, as it is used or referred to in science fiction from Jules Verne to the recent work of Mary Doria Russell.
Several years ago, an anthology of science fiction used the subtitle “contemporary mythology,” (Warrick et al., 1978), an assessment that may require some explanation. Science fiction is a series of meditations on the theme of being human, our day-by-day struggle of living, loving, fighting, raising families, but set in other places – sometimes across the galaxy – and other times. Fiction’s advantage over the forecasts of political scientists, sociologists and others comes from the fact that not only are we engaged by the ideas, but we perceive the experience as being there, participating. The scenery and gadgets the author comes up with in a science fiction story may be thought provoking and are certainly entertaining, but SF’s aims are higher than that. SF compels the reader’s active participation in the conversation of the narrative, offering experience not just intellectual understanding.
That more is going on in such stories than mere speculation about future possibilities becomes obvious when we look at a couple of classic works whose forecasting skills are practically nil. George Orwell’s 1984 is no less powerful now when it looks like a failed prophecy from 1948, nor does Roger Zelazny’s vision of Mars in “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” fail to move us even though advanced life on Mars was already known in 1963 to be not possible. We appreciate such stories according to what we learn from them about the condition of being human; the more emotional resonance a story has, the more we identify with its all-too-human characters, and the more meaning we draw from it. To understand the difference, consider Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124c 41+. (Today’s texting generation can probably understand that faster than Gernsback’s original readers!) The man who gave his name to one of SF’s greatest prizes created a cast of two-dimensional characters who are basically touring the future and gawking at technology, not much else. The result is an unmemorable story where practically the only pleasure we can derive from reading it is counting the number of future inventions Gernsback got wrong.
The poet T.S. Eliot used the term “objective correlative” to describe the image that evokes the associated emotion of an experience for the reader (Eliot, 1921, p. 3); myth is objective correlative on the grand scale. While our formidable brains are capable of marvelous feats of logic and analysis, there remains a vast ocean of experience that we can access only obliquely through our emotions and the metaphors of myth. The Swiss philosopher, Carl Gustav Jung spoke of “forms or images of a collective nature which occur practically all over the earth as constituents of myth and at the same time as autochthonous individual products of unconscious origin” (Jung, 1963, p. 63). The language of this rich, worldwide dimension is metaphor; to say a thing is makes for a more powerful experience of its “thingness” than to say it is like. Asking whether the statement or image itself is true or not is to miss the whole point. The factor that makes some stories more memorable or powerful than others is the emotional resonance they evoke; this resonance derives from the presence of mythic elements. We are used to finding myth used in fantasy, but its echoes in SF are subtler.
We should not expect to find an entire myth retold in SF (though sometimes we do); what we do find frequently is a piece of action, or a plot complication that evokes a kind of recognition in us, or an oddly familiar character type, an archetype. Like dreams whose puzzling content moves us even when we cannot explain or even understand, these stories exert their power over us through the use of embedded myth. It is not important that this inclusion be conscious on the part of the author; we judge by its effect on the reader.
The Hero’s Journey is one of two major myths underlying SF (the other is the story of Prometheus). There are, of course, several minor myths that we encounter in the genre, but we will concentrate on this major one. Christopher Vogler discusses the pattern of narrative first codified by Joseph Campbell as the Hero’s Journey as follows: The Hero’s birth and background are unknown, perhaps mysterious. He grows up in obscurity, but is called to undertake a quest to save the kingdom. At first, he refuses this call; a mentor appears and gives him special training or advice. He sets out on this journey, and by a series of trials including a near-death descent into the underworld, aided by non-human spirits or animal helpers, he eventually prevails and takes possession of the “treasure.” The road back is fraught with more dangers and trials, often on a higher, more complete level. On his return to the ordinary world, transformed, he is hailed a conquering hero. (Vogler, 1998, pp. 13-16). In some versions of the myth, this acclaim is fleeting, and a few years later, he is attacked by his erstwhile followers and dies, after which his reputation grows, he is revered and sometimes accepted as a god, or at least the founder of a cult of followers. All mythic Heroes share the majority of these indicators. Among them, we find Orpheus and Osiris, Odysseus, Gautama Sakyamuni and Jesus; in SF the most obvious (and consciously used) example is Luke Skywalker. Predating George Lucas’s use of the myth in Star Wars, we find Poul Anderson’s “Goat Song,” a retelling of the Orpheus version of the story, with a computer called SUM in the place of the god of the underworld.
Before proceeding further with this discussion, it is important to note that we will be dealing here with the male form of the myth, as it is the one most used or referred to in SF even in the work of female authors. Why this should be the case lies outside the scope of this article to speculate. (The reader interested in pursuing this further is referred to the work of Maureen Murdock to be found online at www.thewritersjourney.com.)
Homer’s account of Odysseus’s wanderings in the Mediterranean on the way home from the siege of Troy is the version of the Hero’s Journey best known in the western world. It offers a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of human life, the spiritual journey of the soul, sin and redemption, the yearning for a long-lost “paradise” of home. But our fascination with voyaging certainly predates Homer; we are born with wanderlust; the lure of the long migration out of Africa is in our blood. When we are prevented from voyaging in person, by finances or health or circumstance, we have always turned to the next best thing, the tales of other explorers’ adventures. The Odyssey is the bedrock and archetype for all such tales, whether mainstream or science fiction.
It may be useful to consider that there are two aspects to the theme of fantastic voyages: the fantastic journey itself, with all its hardships, discoveries and entertainments, and secondly, the quest, the reason the voyage is undertaken in the first place. “Journey” stories are mainly about the privations and dangers along the way, scarcely concerning themselves with the projected outcome of the voyage, often ending when the farthest shore is reached; “Quest” stories, on the other hand, give fewer details of the trek or of life onboard the ship, the journey being necessary only to get the characters to the goal.
Obviously, journey and goal are frequently so inter-related that it becomes difficult to talk about one without considering the other. An early short story, Alan Nourse’s “Brightside Crossing,” gives us an example of the difficulty of separating out these two aspects of fantastic voyage stories. The adventure in Nourse’s story comes from a small group of scientist/adventurers trekking across Mercury’s hellish landscape – “because it’s there,” as the first man to make the summit of Everest said about climbing the mountain – but the central character’s desire to return to a trek that almost killed him reveals the importance of the goal: conquering a hostile planet.
We should also note that when we are dealing with a multi-volume story, apart from the over-arching focus of the series, all the books except the last can be seen as journey stories; only the last, the climax, is obviously a matter of the goal. To understand this, consider J.R.R.Tolkien’s fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings. The adventures encountered by the characters on their fantastic journey are moving and full of meaning, but they cannot be fully appreciated without the goal of the One Ring’s retrieval and disposal at the end of the cycle. Though the first volumes in the saga can be understood as journey stories, the overall story is ultimately a quest of the highest importance, an attempt to save or redeem the world (much as that other mythic journey undertaken by Parsifal). What is important in differentiating the two types of story is this central focus.
For the purpose of clarity, we shall consider the two parts of this myth separately as they appear in SF narratives.
Homer’s Odyssey is certainly the mythic root of all subsequent Western travel tales. It encompasses battles, perilous escapes, mortal danger, horrifying monsters, acts of courage and acts of treachery, the temptations of sexual attraction, the strangeness of the universe in ancient Greek terms: elements that lend themselves easily to SF narratives. Myths always contain an instructive subtext. Odysseus’s ten-year voyage illustrates the importance of faithfulness to a goal, self-reliance, strength of character, spiritual and emotional growth, the encounter with other cultures and other ways of being. It is important to note that the lengthy account ends once Odysseus’s faithful old dog recognizes him and he clears out Penelope’s hundred suitors to reclaim his kingdom. The journey itself was the point of the story.
We might digress for a moment here to consider the importance of such journeys in human history, because this aspect too is reflected in SF narratives. Over time, vast numbers of humans have shown a willingness to risk their lives on voyages of exploration, often taking artifacts of their culture with them. Consider the 15th century Chinese voyages; thousands of non-sailors were aboard the junks, including diplomats, concubines, and Buddhist priests. Nor was this solely an Oriental custom; Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, sailing around the world in the 16th century, provided musicians for entertainment as well as a parson. Today’s cruise passengers expect food and medical care, and games and other recreations are all part of the journey.
To my mind, the purest example of a fantastic journey, where the strangeness of the voyage is the story, occurs in Norman Spinrad’s novel, The Void Captain’s Tale. No priest or parson on the ships of Spinrad’s fictional cruise line, but cruise directors and the entertainment they provide make for a vivid sub-plot. Unshackled from what Spinrad terms the “quotidian world,” the passengers engage in bizarre behaviors and sexual rituals. In fact, the novel describes in some detail the culture of customs and recreation that develops on ships of the Second Starfaring Age:
The “lowest” deck of the Grand Palais module was given over to a seemingly chaotic maze of dream chambers opening off a convoluted tunneled passageway that curved and wound around them…. The organically rounded walls of the tunnel glowed an erotic rose, a hue picked up and made palpable by the perfumed mist that filled it. Many of the chambers were already occupied… the sighs and moans, the rhythmic rustlings, were allowed to suffuse into the rosy ambiance of the passageway, surrounding us with the music d’amour. (Spinrad, 1983, p. 44).
Like Odysseus, Genro Kane Gupta, the Void Captain of Spinrad’s tale, is a flawed but basically good man who finds himself sexually tempted and in considerable danger of losing both his life and his soul on the voyage.
Science fiction has long explored the idea of the generation ships that will be needed for truly long voyages in space, absent the discovery of FTL drives or “star-gates.” What Spinrad adds to this speculation is that our culture will change with and be changed by the journey itself. New Earth won’t be much like Old Earth. Customs we probably cannot even dream about will have evolved, certainly new fashions, new cuisine, new laws. But the basic human dilemmas of right and wrongdoing will remain.
The recent “Blue Tyson” series of novels by Australian writer, Terry Dowling, develop Homer’s theme with a wind-driven “ship” that crosses the desert of the near-future Australian Outback. Like an updated Odysseus, Dowling’s protagonist, Tom Rynosseros, a man with a mysterious past, is called to undertake a desperate and dangerous adventure that will determine more than the fate of the central characters, and in doing so he encounters fantastic creatures both alien and artificial. That this intersection of myth and science fiction is conscious on Dowling’s part is underscored by an epigraph he chose from Jung: “This is the task always … not to illuminate the ancient truths, the ancient intimations of the unconscious, the ancient intimations of the soul, but…to make them immediate and contemporary, to give them meaning in the here and now” (Dowling, 1992, p. iv).
For another example, Gregory Benford’s Great Sky River, followed by Tides of Light, is at heart a story of a small band of humans forced to flee alien pursuers, embarking on a fantastic journey to the center of our galaxy. Since the overall destiny of Killeen and the fugitives he leads is not met in the first books in the series, they can be considered as examples of journey stories, with the full complement of harrowing dangers, exotic creatures (some of whom are helpers), nightmare landscapes, and descents into “hell” that Homer would recognize. That a 21st century reader can empathize with the plight of augmented future humans on worlds that bear no physical resemblance to our own Earth is due not only to the author’s writing skills – though they are considerable – but also to the resonance of the underlying myth of the fantastic journey.
Benford frequently uses imagery that makes reference to recognizable human emotional reactions (the objective correlative), thus grounding the reader in the midst of very alien scenery and events. In Great Sky River we read:
They popped helmets…and kissed in incredulous greeting. Only taste and touch were trusted now, the human press of warm and pungent flesh. Killeen breathed in the rank running-smell of Sanhakan. Then the slightly muskier odor of a woman who was suddenly at his elbow… Another woman, old and weathered, smelling of salty exertion… (Benford, 1987 p. 80).
The use of sense of smell here, especially the smell of sweat, serves to make the imagined future meeting, with all its danger and poignancy, come alive for the reader so that we do not merely understand, we experience.
Other well-known futuristic voyages include Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, which has the subtitle “A Space Odyssey” in case we miss the mythic connection of this dangerous journey across our own solar system that ends enigmatically with the birth of the Star Child, certainly not a goal the journey’s planners could have foreseen or aimed for. The film and television series, Star Trek, offers another example. The Enterprise becomes a world unto itself on its long voyages; romances are not uncommon (although if they involve Captain Kirk, they’re destined to end unhappily), and later iterations of the series even have elaborate entertainment features such as the holo-deck on board for the crew to while away the long time between ports-of-call. The emotional and psychological effects of the voyage on the voyagers are often a prominent part of the plot. Since significant portions of each episode take place on the ship, we can consider Star Trek a modern Odyssey, a story where the voyage itself is at least as important as the outcome, much like TV’s western series, Wagon Train, from which Star Trek derives.
Earlier examples of what we might call this theme, where the journey has more importance than the arrival, include several Jules Verne stories, especially Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In this tale, which might as well be a voyage into outer space, Captain Nemo (the name is a reference to what Odysseus calls himself at one point: “No Man”) pilots the submarine Nautilus through a vast and well-described seascape of natural and scientific wonders. A.E. Van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle and Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero fit in this category too, as does Robert Heinlein’s Universe. Another early story, Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey,” picks up Homer’s theme of comparative ethnology, the clash of alien encounters, where Jarvis, the human explorer, meets and learns to deal with “Tweel,” a representative of the dominant race on Mars.
Reading these modern versions of the mythic voyage, we see that rather than being simply Tourists-in-Space travelogues, the best of them entail extreme jeopardy for the voyagers, and, like Homer’s tale, opportunities for psychological and spiritual growth. I suspect that this latter virtue is what gives SF its depth and power.
Robert Heinlein proposed that there were only three basic plots available to writers: Romeo and Juliet, The Man Who Learned Better, and The Little Tailor (quoted in Silverberg, para.6). This is a bit of oversimplification on Heinlein’s part, but it should be immediately obvious that all three of the categories he identifies are themselves based on archetypes such as we have been discussing. The one that concerns us here is The Little Tailor’s story, a fairy tale journey in which a character sets out to gain a boon for himself or for his society. In myths, the one on the quest seeks the rescue of someone abducted (Helen of Troy), or a magic object (Jason and the Golden Fleece); in legends, it might be the Holy Grail that will cure the ailing king and his suffering kingdom (Parsifal); in fairy tales, it is the hand of the king’s daughter (the Little Tailor). If the voyage itself is strange enough, we might be treated to the main character’s adventures along the way, but the real meat and the true focus come when he confronts the dragons that literally or figuratively guard the treasure. Whether the outcome of the quest is successful or not does not affect the emotional resonance of the underlying myth, though SF readers tend to value optimism more often than not.
In one sense of course, the vast majority of all SF stories – perhaps fiction in general – are quest stories, in the sense that the major character has a goal to achieve and obstacles to overcome on the path toward that achievement. This may reflect how deep the influence of mythic structure lies in our response to fiction. In many cases, the journey is a purely psychological one, what Heinlein might have labeled “man who learns better” stories. However, in SF, mythic quest stories frequently entail a physical journey across an alien geography as part of the plot, even when the focus is on the boon at the end.
When we considered the journey stories, we remarked on the details of the voyagers’ culture that emerge and evolve, the emphasis on landscapes and adventures along the way, and a plot that frequently terminates with the arrival at the destination. The quest story, by contrast, emphasizes the struggle for the goal, often at great cost to the main character. A clear example of this occurs in Mary Doria Russell’s novel, The Sparrow. Not only is the long voyage from Earth to the planet from which radio signals have been picked up hardly described beyond basic details (hollowed out asteroid, hydroponic agriculture), but life on Earth to which the sole survivor, an obscure Jesuit priest, returns decades later hasn’t changed that much beyond a few technological advances. Compare this situation with that of Odysseus himself, who returns to a court functioning fairly normally in spite of his long absence. The emphasis of the story is on the mission: First, to meet, interact with and understand an alien culture, and secondly to survive the nightmarish experience and bring the knowledge gained back to Earth. In the process, the priest, Emilio Sandoz, suffers greatly, very nearly loses his life along with the rest of the expedition’s members, and undergoes a profound crisis of faith in his own version of the descent into the underworld. He describes his situation as “an exact counterpart of a capuchin monkey kept on a golden chain by some sixteenth century European aristocrat,” with the added horror of physical mutilation and sexual assault (Russell, 1996, p. 389). I find it telling that the author refers to Sandoz’s horrific situation in metaphoric terms: It “is,” not “is like,” the metaphor being far more powerful than any simile. This image of an exotic captive monkey, long-fingered, sad-faced, itself named for its perceived resemblance to a Catholic order of friars, serves as the “objective correlative” here, evoking the emotional heart of the scene for the reader.
It may not appear at first that Sandoz is very heroic and it is difficult to see what boon he brings back to Earth, but this becomes clear when we remember the novel’s opening words, “The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children” (p. 5). In the harsh interrogation Sandoz is subjected to on his return by his own order, a further reference to the later, bitter experience of the mythic hero, we are brought to understand that it sometimes takes heroic effort just to survive, an effort that is not always successful, but that is a human duty to undertake. Frightful knowledge gained is better than comfortable ignorance indulged.
Other examples of quest narratives include Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, where the alien Barlennen takes on the extraordinary dangers of his home planet, Meskline, to rescue a lost human rocket probe; but more than this, Barlennen is inspired to undertake this quest by the opportunity to expand his knowledge. In Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the human envoy, Genly Ai, comes to Gethen to make diplomatic contact with its hermaphroditic inhabitants, but ends in a harrowing ice journey of escape with one of them during which he gains understanding of and compassion for the Gethenians to an extent far greater than he could have anticipated when setting out on his original quest.
It may turn out that we have already made enough preliminary voyages into space, learned enough from unmanned probe and manned shuttle, to know how long and how repetitious in terms of event such long journeys inevitably are. The SF reader will eventually grow tired of fantastic journey tales. I suspect the literary future may lie with the quest version of this myth.
On the subject of science fiction and myth, James Blish once said, “
This is the power of myth that science fiction narratives use to their advantage.
Sheila Finch is the award-winning author of eight science fiction novels. In 1998, she won the Nebula Award for her novella, “Reading The Bones.” She has been a teacher of creative writing and still offers private workshops.
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[…] about human evolution as a framework for themes in science fiction from Jean Asselin and the hero myth from Sheila Finch. James Gunn’s Ad Astra features articles on the respective themes. […]