Posts Tagged ‘Julian May’

EsoterX, who blogs about monsters, recently wrote an interesting post about gremlins. It explains how their myth arose from people coping with the hazards of manned flight. It got me thinking about how we relate technology to myths in fiction, particularly sci-fi, and how that maybe misses the point.

The psychology of gremlins

Gremlins started out as a way for early airforce pilots to cope with problems with their machines. They needed to be able to face flying, even knowing that their planes might not work right, and that this could kill them. To do that, they needed to feel like they could affect their machines, reducing the chance of problems. They weren’t experts in the complex reality of the problems, so they quickly latched onto the idea of gremlins, creatures that made their machines break down, and that they could appease. That appeasement gave them a feeling of control, letting them face flying. Faith in a myth was a response to technology.

If I was flying one of these, I'd believe in anything that kept me aloft

If I was flying one of these, I’d believe in anything that kept me aloft – photo by Elsie esq. on a creative commons attribution licence

Ye olde tradition in a modern world

In science fiction, that relationship between superstition and technology is usually shown in a very different way. Star Trek Deep Space Nine, for example, explores the faith of the people of Bajor. While this faith is shown to have material roots, it is still depicted as an old tradition, an ancient institution that modern Bajorans respond to. There is no mythological or superstitious response to the technology and society they face. They don’t explain transporter malfunctions using gremlins.

The same thing applies in a lot sci-fi. Faith in something unseen, whether religion or superstition or the spaghetti man in the woods, is something the characters have picked up from old traditions, not a response to their world. Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles depicts Catholics, but no superstitions surrounding the portal into the past that allows the saga to happen.

The legend that is Whedon

If I have faith in any modern cultural force then it’s Joss Whedon, so it’s no surprise that he’s at least bucked this trend a little. The Reavers in Firefly provoke an almost superstitious response from characters. These violent lunatics have a legendary quality, and the characters’ responses to them are similar to our responses to the supernatural. Stories about them have an air of exaggeration.

But even here, Joss wants us to believe that the stories are rooted in truth, that the Reavers really are that bad. The root of their myth lies in their origin story, as revealed in Serenity, not in the way people respond to them.

So what?

EsoterX’s gremlin article provides a great example of our relationship with mythology, and one I’m now totally going to use in a sci-fi story. It shows how superstitions are something we still invent in response to problems we can’t solve for ourselves. In a world where both society and technology are increasingly complex, we face more of those problems, not less. We should expect superstition to keep springing up long into the future, not just to be a relic we cling to.

Speculative fiction isn’t just about technology, it’s about human responses to it. And mythology seems like a response we should depict more.

As always, if you have any thoughts, please share them below.

Science fiction has a very variable relationship with religion and faith. Both its pulp adventure roots and its lofty scientific ideals initially pushed it into a shallow and oppositional relationship with religion. But when it gets to grip with faith, sci-fi can create something powerful.

In a recent Guardian blog, Damien Walter asked whether God has a place in science fiction. For me, this misses a more human question. Opinions vary greatly on whether God is present in our lives. But that people experience faith, a set of religious ideas and emotional experiences, is hard to deny. And that experience has been important throughout human history.

In as far as it tackled religion, early sci-fi was concerned with the trappings and rituals rather than the emotional experience. Pulp stories used religion as a sign of the exotic, of strange foreign people the heroes should civilise/shoot/snog. More idea-oriented stories tended to set up religion as a source of superstitions, to be reasoned with and debunked. When elements of real religions turned up it was so that authors could offer rational alternatives, as in Arthur C Clarke’s depiction of the Bethlehem star as a nova (The Star, 1955) or Lucifer as a misunderstanding of our alien saviours (Childhood’s End, 1953).

In recent decades, things have got more complicated. We’ve seen Iain M Banks explore the alienness of transcendence in The Hydrogen Sonata and the emotional impact of a man-made Hell in Surface Detail. Julian May‘s Saga of the Exiles and Galactic Milieu books are full of Catholic characters, as well as a transcendent future based on the theology of real Catholic scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (a guy with some pretty wacky ideas for a Jesuit – a century or two earlier the Inquisition would have taken their flaming torches to him). The rebooted Battlestar Galactica, though not always sophisticated or coherent in its handling of faith, did place religion centre stage.

For my money, the best example is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. This uses an intriguing sci-fi setting to explore the emotional experience of faith. It made a belief system that is alien to me – Jesuit-flavoured Catholicism – feel real, meaningful and comprehensible. And it used it to shine light on its sci-fi concepts.

Sure, there are still a lot of poor portrayals of religion in sci-fi (I’m looking at you Star Trek, with your ‘this whole planet worships the cheese god‘ approach). But there are poor portrayals of everything. What matters is what the good examples do, and science fiction can do faith well.
So what do you think? Know some particularly good or bad examples I’ve missed? Think I’m completely off the mark? Have faith in every word I write? Let me know.