Boskone: Mythology in Science Fiction


Mythology in Science Fiction
    How have myths and fables from our past affected SF writers’ development of fictitious off-world or future-world mythology? Are most of their myth systems just the old stuff dressed up with different names, or is anybody coming up with anything truly new? Does a mere hint of myth make an SF story a fantasy?
    Julia Rios (M), Debra Doyle, Greer Gilman, Margaret Ronald

Doyle: Myth is great for structure. Use it as a template.

Gilman: As humans we make patterns and map the heavens — this is how we navigate the unknown. Stories are mapmaking, stories are cosmography — little candles to help us along the way. They are the intersection of the familiar (story tropes) and the totally alien.

Rios mentions that Western stories are often the template, and wonders if we are telling the same stories over and over again, in space.Refers to the dichotomy between known myths on the one hand and the totally new on the other. (Note: I think there is room for the in-between. E.g. myths that are not totally new, at all, just unknown to the bulk of English-speaking readers. Why not bring in more eastern, middle-eastern, african, and native mythologies from around the world? Some of these are used more than others, in more or less “diversity-shopping” ways, but I think there is a huge set of untapped possibilities here.)

Panel and audience mention some sci fi that do mythology well: Stross’ Accelerando, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and Anderson’s Goat Song.

What are the oppositions between science and myth? Cursory discussion.

I ask the question, what makes a mythology credible in fiction, and is that related to what makes it publishable? Ronald responds that she would have to believe that this is a story that would be voluntarily told over and over again, because it is really a story about the people who tell it. Gilman says that stories are the old way and the best way, those that are told over and over again. Ronald continues that the mythology can’t be “too tailored” to the story, e.g. too convenient to the plot or characters to where it seems contrived. There needs to be some sort of cognitive dissonance related to a sense of awe. Rios says that she thinks what makes a mythology believable is that everyone sort of has their own take, that the story is told over and over but in different ways, and that the whole thing is actually inconsistent leading to a modicum of instability and dissent. Real myths and real societies are inconsistent, and it is a mark of human authenticity to be so.

Gilman: A good mythology should give us “the illusion of a huge cultural space” behind what we see.

Audience member points out that the mythical tends to stimulate the emotional side of us rather than the cerebral side, which is counter to the purist notion of what science fiction is. (Note: I think some of the most wonderful science fiction out there is on the more human side… consider Flowers for Algernon, GATTACA, and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind… excellent books and movies that many don’t even consider to be science fiction because they are so human, though of course they are.)

Panel considers the difference between a story based on a mythological template (mythology of the writing) vs a mythology that is espoused and believe by the characters (or encountered by the characters).

Gilman wants to see more stories that alien races tell about themselves, with writing that has something to say about who we the audience are as humans. What would an AI that just woke up believe about it’s origins? If it were truly intelligent, would that mean that it would create a story about its own beginnings and purpose?

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