Myth is a powerful component of human culture, and presumably this will be true in the science fiction future. Space explorers and interstellar colonists will have new myths to sustain them.

And on a more mundane level, science fiction authors can harvest ancient myths to fortify novels they write.

Space Myths

Futuristic people living in a futuristic future will have a cultural heritage of futuristic mythology. Along with their futuristic food-pills, jet-packs, and flying cars. Science fiction authors need ways of reminding their readers that they are not in Kansas any more.

Examples include:

In this fascinating novel, six thousand years from now humanity lives in genetically engineered living space habitats and spaceships. The surface of planets are considered to be evil, and society is set up along the lines of the peons and aristocrats of DUNE.

The entry into space is considered to have been started by the Trickster Gagarin "First Man in the Deep", a mythological figure who is sort of a combination of the Trickster Coyote and Yuri Gagarin. He represents the principles of uncertainty and surprise, the uncountable and unknowable aspects of life in general and warfare in particular.

The Four Resources are Space, Time, Energy, and Matter. By the standards of the culture of The Helix and the Sword, our current world has abundant matter, but is starved for energy. Their culture on the other hand has abundant energy (solar power) but is starved for matter (since both gravity and planets are considered evil).

The Four Nucleotides form deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). They are mythologically symbolized as four beautiful sisters dancing about with one another. This creates the Tree of Life. Their dance provides occasional mutations, which are distractions for the Four Horsemen. One of the sisters symbolizes Abundant Space, others symbolize Abundant Time, Abundant Energy, and Abundant Matter.

The Four Horsemen are the Forces of Selection, Pruners of the Tree of Life (i.e., symbols of evolutionary natural selection). "First is Famine, Hunger's Waste; Second War, his thrall; Third is Pestilence, of Earth; And Fourth is Death for all!". Famine symbolizes Lack of Matter, War symbolizes Lack of Space, Pestilence symbolizes Lack of Energy, and Death symbolizes Lack of Time.

The novel also has semi-mythological figures such as the Blessed Gerard O'Neill, Saint Charles Darwin the Deliverer, and the Blessed Arthur Clarke. After six thousand years the biographical details become fuzzy, historical figures are transformed into mythic heroes.
When colonist Benjamin Driscoll arrives on Mars, he passes out because the oxygen is so thin. Inspired by American Mythology, he sets out to become the "Johnny Appleseed" of Mars. The idea is that trees will produce oxygen.

But Van Rycke was not just a machine of facts and figures, he was also a superb raconteur, a collector of legends who could keep the whole mess spellbound as he spun one of his tales. No one but he could pay such perfect tribute to the small details of the eerie story of the New Hope, the ship which had blasted off with refugees from the Martian rebellion, never to be sighted until a century later — the New Hope wandering forever in free fall, its dead lights glowing evilly red at its nose, its escape ports ominously sealed — the New Hope never boarded, never salvaged because it was only sighted by ships which were themselves in dire trouble, so that "to sight the New Hope" had become a synonym for the worst of luck.

Then there were the "Whisperers", whose siren voices were heard by those men who had been too long in space, and about whom a whole mythology had developed.

Van Rycke could list the human demi-gods of the star lanes, too. Sanford Jones, the first man who had dared Galactic flight, whose lost ship had suddenly flashed out of Hyperspace, over a Sirius world three centuries after it had lifted from Terra, the mummified body of the pilot still at the frozen controls, Sanford Jones who now welcomed on board that misty "Comet" all spacemen who died with their magnetic boots on. Yes, in his way, Van Rycke made his new assistant free of more than one kind of space knowledge.

From SARGASSO OF SPACE by Andre Norton (1955)
MURPHY'S HALL by Poul Anderson
In the future, astronauts and space explorers who die with their magnetic boots on expect to meet afterwards in the mythic "Murphy's Hall". Or Murphy's Whatever. Anderson also wrote a short commentary about the story.
LEVEL 7 by Mordecai Roshwald
After the atomic war, Terra is a dead radioactive wasteland. Except for the survivors in the US underground complex at the seventh level (and their Soviet counterparts). They will have to live there a few generation before the radiation level decays to something halfway safe. The protagonist's girlfriend amuses herself by writing educational children stories for the kindergarten kids. One is about the deadly Saint, who is called St or Strontium-90 (somebody points out the symbol for strontium is Sr, not St). The other is about the funny mushroom that grew bigger and bigger. Until it blew up.

I have just finished reading what is written on it: a story for the children of the future generations. I find it a very interesting story, and here it is, copied word for word:

Gamma, Alpha and Little Ch-777

Once upon a time, many years ago, there lived on Level 7 a little called Ch-777 (Ch for Child). He was a nice little boy and a good pupil, but he had one strange weakness; he was curious to know what went on above him, above our good Level 7.

“Tell me,” he used to say, “please tell me what goes on up there.” And when his parents heard him ask that they were frightened, for they did not want even to speak of the hell up there. But the little boy kept on asking: “Tell me, please tell me what goes on up there.” So one day they told him.

The higher you went up from Level 7, they said, the closer you came to Him whose name must not be mentioned. He could not be seen, and He could not be heard, and He could not be touched, and He could not be smelled, but up there His power was infinite. If anybody went near His kingdom, said the parents, he would be killed at once by His invisible servants.

At this Ch-777 became very frightened, and many days went by without his asking a single silly question. But after a while his curiosity got the better of him again, and this time he asked his teacher: “Tell me what goes on up there.”

The teacher, who knew more about the world outside Level 7 than little Ch-777’s parents did, told him that He who ruled up there was called—and even she was afraid to pronounce His name aloud—St 90. She called Him ‘Saint 90’, for she did not want to say His real name which was (she said in a whisper) Strontium 90.

Saint 90 was the omnipotent master of death and destruction. He was the supreme ruler of the upper world, and to carry out His evil designs He had servants who obeyed His every command—wicked little devils whose touch was deadly too.

Such were the two small devils called Alpha and Gamma. Their job was to wander around in the upper world, trying to find somebody to kill. They got very bored doing this, because the upper world had long before been conquered by St 90 and his servants, and now there was no living creature left to kill.

“Would they kill me too,” asked Ch-777, “if I went to the upper world?”

“Of course they would, you silly boy,” the teacher said. “And probably they would catch you before you even got there.”

After this Ch-777 did not ask any more questions. But he could not forget the story about the upper world. Every night he dreamt about little Alpha and Gamma, who appeared as two lovely sisters of his own age who wanted him to play with them. Before long he really believed that these two devils were just two friendly little girls.

Now he stopped paying attention to what was going on around him on good Level 7. He became bored with all the interesting things that were happening, he became a bad pupil, and one day…he disappeared.

How he managed to get out, nobody knew. But he left a letter saying that he was going up to join the little girls Alpha and Gamma.

Nobody ever saw him again. No doubt he was killed by Alpha or Gamma, or by some other devil, on his way up.

And this, children, is the moral of the story: Do not think of the world above you. Be happy here. If you are curious to know what happens above Level 7, think of poor Ch-777 who paid for his curiosity with his life.

     I think this story is quite good in its way, though it has room for improvement. For instance, why blame Ch-777’s sense of curiosity for his tragic end? It could be suggested that the devils Alpha and Gamma, on the orders of St 90, entered his head and made him mad enough to want to go up where their master would be able to devour him.
     I think this version is more frightening. I shall suggest it to R-747. It could be used to make children obey adults’ commands: if they don’t, they can be warned, Alpha and Gamma will enter their heads and make them go up to be killed by St 90.
     I gave R-747 her story back today and suggested my alternative version. She agreed that mine probably was more frightening and better as a mythological story, but still preferred her original because it kept closer to the facts and so was of greater educational value. P-867, Who was listening (rather quietly, for a change), remarked maliciously: “I think Alpha and Gamma have entered your heads already! The whole idea’s insane.”
     I could not deny that her remark was sharp, but I did not let her see that I had enjoyed it.
     An atomic energy officer, AE-327, had been listening to our conversation too. He asked to see R-747’s manuscript, and after glancing through it made a few technical com- ments. First, he said, she was wrong about the chemical symbol of Strontium, which was Sr and not St. “So there’s nothing saintly about Strontium,” he said. Then he added that, unfortunately for the nice story, Strontium 90’s half-life (the time which elapsed before its radioactivity fell to half of its original value) was only twenty-five years. “So your saint would be a very short-lived one,” he said with a laugh.
     “Why not take Plutonium 239, an isotope with a half-life of 24,100 years? Better still, choose Thorium 232: that has a half-life of 13,900 million years!”
     “That would be splendid,” remarked P-867 mischievously. “With the symbol ‘Th’ it’s really theological.”
     AE-327 smiled and went on to object to R-747’s devils too. “Gamma rays and alpha particles aren’t really as alike as the sisters of the story,” he said. “What’s more, Strontium 90 emits beta particles, not alpha. If you’ve got to have alpha particles, you’ll have to make Plutonium 239 or Thorium 232 the villain of the piece. As for gamma rays—”
     Here I, rather impolitely, interrupted my learned colleague. I could not stand his pedantic objections, which seemed to pour even colder water on the idea of a new mythology than P-867’s cynical remarks. I said that stories for children need not be scientifically accurate. If they were, they would not be stories!
     It was time for us to leave the lounge, but before we parted I promised to give R-747 a story of my own next time we met.

The Story of the Mushroom

Here is a story from the Sacred Tape which can be heard by any child who pushes the ST button.

Once upon a time, many years ago, people did not live on Level 7, but far above, on the crust of the earth. They had no natural roof over their heads, and they used to be made wet by water falling on them, or burned by a huge fiery ball which was suspended over them for about twelve hours each day. This made their life very hard.

For a long time the people were very miserable because of the falling water and the fiery ball, not to mention the violent air currents which blew with the strength of a million electric fans. Little by little, however, they learned to erect roofs over their heads, and even to build small boxes to live in.

They taught these skills to their children, and the children taught them to their children, and so on for many generations. And as time went by the people grew better and better at making their boxes. Before long the little boxes gave place to huge, high ones—some as high as our dining-room is long, and some even higher than that…

But this did not satisfy them. They no longer wanted just to be protected from the wet and the burning ball and the air currents: they wanted to go higher and higher. So they invented gadgets which made them able to walk around in the air, and they thought that the higher they went the better they were. After some time they had gadgets which went up so high in the air that people standing on the earth could no longer see them.

But even this was not enough for them. They had shown that they could build big things and could go high in the air. Now they wanted to take a very small thing and make it change itself into a giant, so that it would grow high into the air all by itself.

So they found a small and fragile thing that grew out of the earth, something called a mushroom. It was so small and weak that a child’s foot was enough to crush it to pieces. But unless they could transform this tiny mushroom into the biggest and strongest thing on earth, the people would not consider themselves happy.

So the most learned ones put their heads together, and thought and worked, and workedand thought, until one day they succeeded. The mushroom began to grow!

There was a big celebration, and the people who had discovered how to make the mushroom grow became very important.

And the mushroom grew and grew and grew. Before long it was higher than the highest boxes. And still it went on growing. Now it reached the flying gadgets. And still it grew.

But something was happening which the people had not intended: as the mushroom grew it emitted a strong smell. Few people noticed it to start with, but as the mushroom got bigger the odour became stronger, and more and more people began to smell it. Some could not endure it and became ill and died. In spite of that the others put up with the bad smell, happy that their mushroom was growing so large.

As time went by, the mushroom grew so big, and its smell grew so strong, that some people began to be afraid of it. So they looked for a place to hide. There was no place they could find on earth where they could not smell the mushroom, so they started to dig down.

Down they dug, down, down, down…until they arrived at Level 7. And when they got to Level 7 they could not smell the mushroom any more.

But the thing they had escaped from was still growing and growing, swelling and covering the whole earth with shadow and stink, until one day—it burst!

In a split second the mushroom exploded into millions of little pieces, and the air carried the particles into the people’s boxes, into their flying gadgets, everywhere. And everyone who was touched by a particle, or who smelled the bad odour, died. And it was not long before there was not a single person left alive on the surface of the earth. Only the few who had dug into the earth survived. And you, children, are their offspring.

And this is the moral…

No, I do not feel like adding a moral. I wonder what R-747 will think of my story.

From LEVEL 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1959)

(ed note: in the novel Earth has been rendered uninhabitable and among the few survivors are the people in the space arks Noah and Pegasus. Bamboo is an important resource.)

Lester Rajani spoke also to the children. They must learn to work, plant, harvest, respect and love bamboo as he did, he told them, and he told them stories. I will repeat one here as he told it. The American woman-astronaut, Stacy Thorpe, has typed out the moment—

"Once upon a time, long ago and far away, so far away that no one knew where it really was, there were dragons who lived in Ishmoteer. This was a fabled and a truly marvelous land. Now the dragons here were considered to be magic, because with only the great bamboo forests about them, they did wondrous things. Using only their bamboo, they grew food and they built houses, they made their own furniture and floor mats and even their cooking utensils. They made wheels and wonderful chariots, and little cages for their pet crickets, because dragons have pets, also. They made paper for writing and telling stories and for very fine painting, They made all sorts of marvelous things. They made drums and flutes and fifes and pipes and clarinets and bongos and laughing music with their instruments. They made perfume, and fine jewelry, and even crutches for the dragons who stubbed their big toes. They made vases for their flowers and long tunnels to carry water and ovens and stoves for cooking and baking. They made writing pens and combs and shoes and when they went high into the mountains where there was snow they made sleds and toboggans and even skis. These dragons of Ishmoteer built soaring bridges and wonderful temples, they made candles from bamboo, and on warm summer evenings they sailed their bamboo boats and played music and sang songs"

"Were the dragons really real?" an excited little boy asked.

"And was there really an Ishmoteer?" cried a young girl.

Rajani smiled upon the children who had glided through the bamboo thickets of Noah, growing tall and straight under the ultraviolet suns crafted by man, glistening in the light of charred bamboo in the decorative lamps, looming over the bamboo chairs and benches, holding drinks in bamboo cups and gourds. Rajani brought a bamboo flute to his lips and an airy tune flew forth. He lowered the flute and his eyes shone.

"Of course the dragons are real," he told the children. "And do you know where Ishmoteer is?"

"Tell us! Tell us!"

"Why, look around you. This is Ishmoteer, and we are its dragons."

From EXIT EARTH by Martin Caidin (1987)

Probing difficulties

Mars Spacecraft 1988–1999
Phobos 1Failure
Phobos 2Failure
Mars ObserverFailure
Mars 96Failure
Mars PathfinderSuccess
Mars Global SurveyorSuccess
Mars Climate OrbiterFailure
Mars Polar LanderFailure
Deep Space 2Failure

The challenge, complexity and length of Mars missions have led to many mission failures. The high failure rate of missions launched from Earth attempting to explore Mars is informally called the "Mars Curse" or "Martian Curse". The phrase "Galactic Ghoul" or "Great Galactic Ghoul", referring to a fictitious space monster that subsists on a diet of Mars probes, was coined in 1997 by Time Magazine journalist Donald Neff, and is sometimes facetiously used to "explain" the recurring difficulties.

Two Soviet probes were sent to Mars in 1988 as part of the Phobos program. Phobos 1 operated normally until an expected communications session on 2 September 1988 failed to occur. The problem was traced to a software error, which deactivated attitude thrusters causing the spacecrafts' solar arrays to no longer point at the Sun, depleting Phobos 1 batteries. Phobos 2 operated normally throughout its cruise and Mars orbital insertion phases on January 29, 1989, gathering data on the Sun, interplanetary medium, Mars, and Phobos. Shortly before the final phase of the mission, during which the spacecraft was to approach within 50 m of Phobos' surface and release two landers, one a mobile 'hopper', the other a stationary platform, contact with Phobos 2 was lost. The mission ended when the spacecraft signal failed to be successfully reacquired on March 27, 1989. The cause of the failure was determined to be a malfunction of the on-board computer.

Just a few years later in 1992 Mars Observer, launched by NASA, failed as it approached Mars. Mars 96, an orbiter launched on November 16, 1996 by Russia failed, when the planned second burn of the Block D-2 fourth stage did not occur.

Following the success of Global Surveyor and Pathfinder, another spate of failures occurred in 1998 and 1999, with the Japanese Nozomi orbiter and NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander, and Deep Space 2 penetrators all suffering various fatal errors. The Mars Climate Orbiter was noted for mixing up U.S. customary units with metric units, causing the orbiter to burn up while entering Mars' atmosphere.

The European Space Agency has also attempted to land two probes on the Martian surface; Beagle 2, a British-built lander that failed to deploy its solar arrays properly after touchdown in December 2003, and Schiaparelli, part of the ExoMars mission consisting of itself and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. Contact with the Schiaparelli EDM lander was lost 50 seconds before touchdown. It was later confirmed that the lander struck the surface at a high velocity, possibly exploding.

From the Wikipedia entry for

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.

"Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory," said the little old lady.

"And what is that, madam?" Inquired James politely.

"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,"

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

"If your theory is correct, madam," he asked, "what does this turtle stand on?"

"You're a very clever man, Mr. James, and that's a very good question," replied the little old lady, "but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him."

"But what does this second turtle stand on?" persisted James patiently.

To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. "It's no use, Mr. James – it's turtles all the way down."

J. R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax (1967)


Mythical Gremlins

Gremlins are mythical creatures that enjoy causing freak malfunctions in aircraft. They appeared in folklore sometime after the 1920s as one of the new superstitions that came with the dawn of the machine age. During World War 2 there are some psychologists who were of the opinion that military flight crews belief in gremlins boosted morale.

So it is logical to assume that the dawn of the Rocketpunk era and the proliferation of manned spacecraft will create a new mythology of "space gremlins." Especially since one of the theories about World War 2 gremlin sightings was hallucinations due to lack of adequate oxygen in the high-flying aircraft. Anoxia is also common in such rocketpunk settings as a spacesuit low on breathing mix and habitat modules with malfunctioning life support.

Real Gremlins

In Niven and Pournelle's THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE space gremlins are not superstition, they are dangerously real. The Terran Empire makes first contact with an alien race they dub the "Moties". The moties have diverged into several species. The sentient "Engineer" species is assisted by the non-sentient Motie Miniatures or "watchmakers". The watchmakers are about half a meter tall, are gadgeteer geniuses, and breed like rats.

On board the Imperial battlecruiser INSS MacArthur a breeding pair of watchmakers escape. Though several attempts are made to exterminate the watchmaker infestation, the watchmakers easily survive, nay, thrive. Venting the ship to vacuum doesn't work since the watchmakers can cobble together little space suits and airlocks. The enlisted men really enjoy how they can leave their laser pistols under their bunks along with some food, and in the morning discover the pistol's hand grips have been custom altered to perfectly fit their hands.

Then the captain discovers that the miniatures are altering the entire ship. Including the fusion reactor, the hangar bay, defensive Langston field generators, and laser cannon. The captain freaks out because his primary order is to prevent the secret of the FTL drive from falling into motie hands at all costs. He tries to eliminate the watchmakers, and all hell breaks loose. The watchmakers have laser weapons, control over all the airlocks, and control over the self destruct mechanism.

There are heavy casualties as the crew abandons ship and escapes to the battleship Lenin. The battleship has strict quarantine protocols, which is a good thing when they discover some of the "escaping crew" is actually space suits full of watchmakers who use the suit as a life-size puppet.

The battleship then turns all its weapons on the MacArthur, which initially has little effect because the freaking watchmakers have drastically improved the efficiency of the defensive force fields. The only reason the battleship survives is because the miniatures do no know how to aim the MacArthur's weapons. After a prolonged struggle the battleship finally manages to destroy the MacArthur.

The Moties politely ask why the humans are destroying their own battlecruiser and is there anything they can do to help? The battleship tells them, oh no, everything is just fine, no problems, nothing is going on here. But they will have to take their leave because they suddenly remembered they left the stove on back at their home planet. Bye-bye, see you later.

The reason the watchmakers do not wreak havoc on Motie ships is because those watchmakers have been domesticated. The watchmakers who destroyed the MacArthur are feral.

In Terry Pratchett's satirical fantasy novel RAISING STEAM, there is a sad little species called goblins. They are humanoids about two feet tall who are considered vermin by the humans, the dwarfs, the trolls, the vampires, and the werewolves. Everybody hates them.

Until it is discovered that the goblins are gadgeteer geniuses with technology. This was unknown since until recently there wasn't any technology. But when the local tech level undergoes their equivalent of the industrial revolution, the goblins are suddenly in great demand.

The fun really starts when engineer Dick Simnel invents the rail-road train. Goblins think the train is the coolest thing they've ever seen, and become obsessed. They live in the trains, constantly oiling, tapping the wheels, keeping things tuned, making repairs on the fly. The engineers are very happy, and amazed that the goblins actually ask intelligent questions. Goblins will take machinery apart but can put it together perfectly. Sometimes more than perfectly, often they make improvements in the process.

In the Dragonlance fantasy novels there is a species called gnomes. They are distant cousins of the dwarves, but their main claim to fame is they are the tinkerers. They are famous for inventing things. The trouble is they don't know when to call an invention finished. They keep adding embelishments until the thing collapses under its own weight.

Gnomes personify that old adage: "There comes a time in the history of any project when it becomes necessary to shoot the engineers and begin production"


A gremlin is a fictitious mischievous creature that causes malfunctions in aircraft or other machinery.

Origins in aviation

Although their origin is found in myths among airmen, claiming that the gremlins were responsible for sabotaging aircraft, John W. Hazen states that "some people" derive the name from the Old English word gremian, "to vex." While Carol Rose, in her book Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia attributes the name to a combination of the name of Grimm's Fairy Tales, and Fremlin Beer. Since World War II, different fantastical creatures have been referred to as gremlins, bearing varying degrees of resemblance to the originals.

The term "gremlin" denoting a mischievous creature that sabotages aircraft, originates in Royal Air Force (RAF) slang in the 1920s among the British pilots stationed in Malta, the Middle East, and India, with the earliest recorded printed use being in a poem published in the journal Aeroplane in Malta on 10 April 1929. Later sources have sometimes claimed that the concept goes back to World War I, but there is no print evidence of this.

An early reference to the gremlin is in aviator Pauline Gower's 1938 novel The ATA: Women with Wings, where Scotland is described as "gremlin country", a mystical and rugged territory where scissor-wielding gremlins cut the wires of biplanes when unsuspecting pilots were about. An article by Hubert Griffith in the servicemen's fortnightly Royal Air Force Journal dated 18 April 1942, also chronicles the appearance of gremlins, although the article states the stories had been in existence for several years, with later recollections of it having been told by Battle of Britain Spitfire pilots as early as 1940.

This concept of gremlins was popularized during World War II among airmen of the UK's RAF units, in particular the men of the high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU) of RAF Benson, RAF Wick and RAF St Eval. The flight crews blamed gremlins for otherwise inexplicable accidents which sometimes occurred during their flights. Gremlins were also thought at one point to have enemy sympathies, but investigations revealed that enemy aircraft had similar and equally inexplicable mechanical problems. As such, gremlins were portrayed as being equal opportunity tricksters, taking no sides in the conflict, and acting out their mischief from their own self-interest. In reality, the gremlins were a form of "buck passing" or deflecting blame. This led folklorist John Hazen to note that "the gremlin has been looked on as new phenomenon, a product of the machine age—the age of air". Some experts believe this form of "passing the buck" was important to the morale of pilots. Author and historian Marlin Bressi stated, "Gremlins, while imaginary, played a very important role to the airmen of the Royal Air Force. Gremlin tales helped build morale among pilots, which, in turn, helped them repel the Luftwaffe invasion during the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940. The war may have had a very different outcome if the R.A.F. pilots had lost their morale and allowed Germany's plans for Operation Sea Lion (the planned invasion of the U.K.) to develop. In a way, it could be argued that gremlins, troublesome as they were, ultimately helped the Allies win the war." Bressi also noted: "Morale among the R.A.F. pilots would have suffered if they pointed the finger of blame at each other. It was far better to make the scapegoat a fantastic and comical creature than another member of your own squadron."

Author Roald Dahl is credited with getting the gremlins known outside the Royal Air Force. He would have been familiar with the myth, having carried out his military service in 80 Squadron of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East. Dahl had his own experience in an accidental crash-landing in the Western Desert. In January 1942, he was transferred to Washington, D.C. as Assistant Air attaché at the British Embassy. It was there that he wrote his first children's novel, The Gremlins, in which "Gremlins" were tiny men who lived on RAF fighters. In the same novel, Dahl called the wives of gremlins "Fifinellas," their male children "Widgets," and their female children "Flibbertigibbets." Dahl showed the finished manuscript to Sidney Bernstein, the head of the British Information Service, who came up with the idea to send it to Walt Disney.

The manuscript arrived in Disney's hands in July 1942, and he considered using it as material for a live action/animated full-length feature film, offering Dahl a contract. The film project was changed to an animated feature and entered pre-production, with characters "roughed out" and storyboards created. Disney managed to have the story published in the December 1942 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine. At Dahl's urging, in early 1943, a revised version of the story, again titled The Gremlins, was published as a picture book by Random House. (It was later updated and re-published in 2006 by Dark Horse Comics.)

The 1943 publication of The Gremlins by Random House consisted of 50,000 copies, with Dahl ordering 50 copies for himself as promotional material for himself and the upcoming film, handing them out to everyone he knew, including the British ambassador in Washington Lord Halifax, and the US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who read it to her grandchildren. The book was considered an international success with 30,000 more sold in Australia but initial efforts to reprint the book were precluded by a wartime paper shortage. Reviewed in major publications, Dahl was considered a writer-of-note and his appearances in Hollywood to follow up with the film project were met with notices in Hedda Hopper's columns.

The film project was reduced to an animated "short" and eventually cancelled in August 1943, when copyright and RAF rights could not be resolved. But thanks mainly to Disney, the story had its share of publicity, which helped in introducing the concept to a wider audience. Issues #33-#41 of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories published between June 1943 and February 1944 contained a nine-episode series of short silent stories featuring a Gremlin Gus as their star. The first was drawn by Vivie Risto, and the rest of them by Walt Kelly. This served as their introduction to the comic book audience as they are human gremlins who lived in their own village as little flying human people.

While Roald Dahl was famous for making gremlins known worldwide, many returning Air Servicemen swear they saw creatures tinkering with their equipment. One crewman swore he saw one before an engine malfunction that caused his B-25 Mitchell bomber to rapidly lose altitude, forcing the aircraft to return to base. Folklorist Hazen likewise offers his own alleged eyewitness testimony of these creatures, which appeared in an academically praised and peer-reviewed publication, describing an occasion he found "a parted cable which bore obvious tooth marks in spite of the fact that the break occurred in a most inaccessible part of the plane." At this point, Hazen states he heard "a gruff voice" demand, "How many times must you be told to obey orders and not tackle jobs you aren't qualified for? — This is how it should be done." Upon which Hazen heard a "musical twang" and another cable was parted.

Critics of this idea state that the stress of combat and the dizzying heights caused such hallucinations, often believed to be a coping mechanism of the mind to help explain the many problems aircraft faced whilst in combat.

From the Wikipedia entry for GREMLIN

(ed note: this was a promotion for Walt Disney's project to make an animated movie out of Roald Dahl's book The Gremlins: A Royal Air Force Story. For various reasons the project was cancelled.)

Lt. Com. Walter Winchell of the U.S. navy is temporarily unable to produce his column, which is being handled by guest columnists.

Pukka Gen* on Gremlins

*(RAF Slang for “the real low-down”)
     Ever seen a real Gremlin? No?—Well, maybe it’s because you haven’t been up in a British Spitfire swapping bullets with a Messerschmitt, or dodging German flak in a bombing raid over Hamburg.
     RAF fighter pilots and members of bomber crews who have seen real action are the only ones eligible to see real Gremlins.
     Of course, lots of others think they’ve seen them, but they’ve only seen the imitations:—Gound Wallopers the pilots call them.

* * *

     Ever since the Gremlins were discovered, the press has been deluged with drawings of grotesque hobgoblins, bearded dwarfs, misshapen elves, pixies, spooks and what-not, all trying to pass themselves off as Gremlins.
     But don’t let them kid you. The real Gremlins, discovered by the RAF are a distinctively individual race; and are by no means ugly. They have their own original characteristics, and bear no resemblance to the outlandish monstrosities and gruesome nightmares cooked up by artists of the past.

* * *

     How are we going to make a picture and write a book about them if we can’t see them?
     That’s where we get a real break. Thanks to the British air ministry, all the RAF pilots who have seen Gremlins have promised to give us first hand information on them.
     They’ve already supplied us with plenty of Gen to get started on, and letters are coming in every day filled with blow-by-blow accounts of the latest contacts with these remarkable little guys. The general consensus is that they’re less than a foot high and built on the chunky side. They wear zippered flying suits and their horns grow right thru their helmets.
     Some affect green bowler hats and all have black suction-boots for walking on wings at 300 miles an hour.
     After all, the RAF feels responsible for its Gremlins and wants them pictured just as they really are. And that puts us on a spot. They warned us that if we fall down on the job or put up any blacks they’d take a dim view of our efforts and probably tear us off a colossal strip, which we assume means pinning our ears back.
     Only last month the British embassy sent one of the foremost Gremlinologists out to the studio; a flight lieutenant who has been on speaking terms with every known type of Gremlin.
     He put us straight on lots of things. We found out, for instance, that Gremlins never operate higher than 30,000 feet. It’s the Spandules who take over above this altitude.
     They hang on to the leading edge of your wing and slowly exhale, forming a nice thick coating of ice. Spandules are flat rug-like individuals covered with fur and have large pockets for storing hailstones, which they chew constantly.

* * *

     From all reports, the Fifinella (that’s the female Gremlin) is a honey. They tell us her face is fizzing’ and she has wizard curves, all in the proper places. Nothing ropey about this little crumpet. We gather from this that she’s really an eyeful. The boys tell us that you’ll never catch a Fifinella drilling holes in your wing, cutting your parachute straps or draining the alcohol from your compass. All a Fifinella has to do is hop aboard a plane for a joyride and the Gremlins will follow her in droves. (Statistics show one Fifinella to every 12 Gremlins.)
     By the time they've chased her back and forth from one wing-tip to the other, wiggling your wing flaps, swinging on your aerial wire and playing see-saw on your elevators, you’ll wish she'd stayed at home to mind the Widgets.

* * *

     Widgets?—They’re the new born Gremlins that appear in nests hidden in the dark corners of your aircraft. In every batch of Widgets you’ll find a Flibberty-gibbet. She’s the one who eventually becomes a Fifinella. Before they’re a day old, Widgets are up to mischief.
     They have very high baby voices and chatter incessantly. Since they're not equipped with suction boots like older Gremlins, they usually concentrate on the instrument board and have a marvellous time putting all the gauges out of whack.

* * *

     The fact that Gremlins have become so real and play such an important role in the thoughts and conversations of the flyers is really a tribute to the courage, morale and sense of humor of the RAF.
     And when the gong sounds ending the final round of the war, the chances are that the Gremlins will be entitled to a large slice of credit for making their appearance during England’s darkest hour and carrying on in their mischievous way until victory was certain.

(ed note: No, I am not related to Walter Winchell. That is my first name but his last name)

From PUKKA GEN ON GREMLINS by Walt Disney (1942)

However, what some people may not realize is that these were actually based upon allegedly real entities which, during the Second World War and even before, plagued pilots and aircraft crew with all manner of mischief as they battled in the skies during one of the bloodiest eras of human history. Here in the bloody skies of WWII, among the seemingly never-ending smoke, bomb blasts, strafing antiaircraft fire, buzzing enemy aircraft, and death, the crews of various aircraft from all sides were faced with a new enemy; bizarre impish beasts that were said to infest aircraft and seemed to want nothing more but to create havoc and bring them down from the clouds.

The origin of the modern term “gremlin” is disputed, but is often said to derive from the Old English word greme, which means to vex or annoy. It refers to a type of mischievous gnome-like imp or demon, typically said to be around a foot tall, which probably has its roots in the old folklore of goblins and fairies. The original early representation of these creatures was that of skilled craftsmen with a superhuman proficiency with machinery of all types, and they were once credited by some with helping mankind along with our technology, such as in the creation of the steam engine and even claims that they helped with Benjamin Franklin’s work with electricity. Yet for all of the benevolent early folklore associated with the impish creatures, it was their penchant for mischief and mayhem that they would become most known for.

The modern version of the gremlin as a malicious, trouble making hell raiser has its origins with British airmen, some of whom believed that there were miniature imps, gnomes, or fairies which seemed to show an intense interest in aviation and caused aircraft or navigational malfunctions. One of the first mentions of the creatures can be traced back to an early reference to them in the early 1900s in a British newspaper called the Spectator, in which it was written:

The old Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 and the newly constituted Royal Air Force in 1918 appear to have detected the existence of a horde of mysterious and malicious sprites whose whole purpose in life was…to bring about as many as possible of the inexplicable mishaps which, in those days as now, trouble an airman’s life.

The existence of such weird entities became truly popularized starting in 1923, when a British pilot crashed his plane into the sea and later reported that the accident had been caused by tiny creatures which had followed him aboard his plane and proceeded to create havoc aboard the aircraft, sabotaging the engine, messing around with the flight controls, and ultimately causing it to crash. The story spread, and it wasn’t long before other British pilots also began to complain of being harassed by similar miniature troll-like creatures with a mastery of technology and machinery, which caused engine failures, electrical malfunctions, communications shutdowns, bad landings, freak accidents, and pretty much anything else that could possibly ever go wrong with an aircraft.

Gremlins were said to engage in such a myriad of bad behavior as sucking the gas out of tanks through hoses, jamming radio frequencies, mucking up landing gear, blowing dust or sand into fuel pipes or sensitive electrical equipment, cutting wires, removing bolts or screws, tinkering with dials, knobs or switches, jostling controls, slashing wings or tires, poking or pinching gunners or pilots, banging incessantly on the fuselage, breaking windows, and a wide variety of other prankish acts. There were even pilots who claimed that the creatures had telepathic powers and could create realistic illusions in a victim’s mind, such as the appearance of the ground or a mountain emerging suddenly from the clouds. They were also sometimes reported to be seen sitting out upon the nose of the plane or the wings of aircraft in midflight tampering with the wings or even the engines. On occasion the gremlins were said to shout, giggle, whisper, growl, or otherwise make noise so as to distract aircraft crews, in particular gunners as they were lining up their sights on an enemy and pilots when performing maneuvers for which total concentration was a necessity. Such reports spread quickly through the ranks and by the end of the 1920s it seemed like any pilot who had ever had an aircraft problem of any kind had seen the things, and they were commonly reported throughout the Royal Air Force by pilots stationed in such far flung places as Malta, the Middle East, and India.

One of the most famous alleged gremlin accounts from this period was made by none other than the renowned American aviator, author, inventor, military officer, explorer, and social activist Charles Lindbergh as he was engaged in his historic nonstop solo flight over the Atlantic from New York to Paris in May of 1927. Lindbergh had been flying his single-engine single-seat plane Spirit of St. Louis from the Roosevelt Field in Garden City, NY to Le Bourget Field in Paris, France, which was to be an epic 3,600 mile (5,800 km), 33 and a half hour flight and the first ever of its kind. In the 9th hour of being airborne, Lindbergh reported that he had suddenly felt somewhat detached from reality and found himself surrounded by several vaporous, strange looking beings within the cramped confines of his tiny cabin, which spoke to him and demonstrated incredibly complex knowledge of navigation and flight equipment. Interestingly, in this case rather than cause mischief, Lindbergh said that the gremlins actually kept him alert and reassured him that he would remain safe on his journey. Lindbergh kept this bizarre experience to himself for years until the account was finally published in his 1953 book The Spirit of St. Louis. Interestingly, this would not be the only report of benevolent gremlin activity, as there were other accounts from time to time that told of the typically mischievous monsters helping pilots avert disasters or alerting them when to turn or change course or altitude, which showed there was more than one facet to whatever the things were.

The actual physical descriptions of gremlins varied rather wildly. In some cases they were described as being little elfish beings similar to humans, wearing bright red or green double-breasted frock coats, old fashioned hats with feathers, and pointed shoes. The skin color could be green, gold, pink, or red. Others gave the entities a more sinister appearance, saying that they looked animalistic, with hairy bodies, large, pointed ears, deep red or even glowing eyes, and horns. Still other reports speak of gremlins as having hairless grey skin, being vaguely reptilian in appearance, and having enormous mouths filled with pointy teeth. There were cases that said they looked like jackrabbits, bull terriers, or some combination of both. In some cases they were merely wispy entities seemingly composed of mist or smoke. Some accounts mention webbed hands and feet, fins, or bat-like wings. Size descriptions also varied considerably, with gremlins said to be anywhere between a mere 6 inches tall all the way up to three feet in height. In some cases, they were said to have large feet with suction cups or even leather shoes with hooks, both of which enabled them to walk about on the outside of aircraft or to hang upside down. One common trait in all reports is that through whatever means, gremlins were known to be able to adhere to the outer fuselage of planes and to withstand incredible temperature extremes, high altitudes, and violent winds.

Gremlins and their bothersome antics were reported throughout the 1920s and 30s, but perhaps the period of the most intense alleged gremlin activity was during the fierce fighting of World War II. Reports of gremlins were especially prolific among the UK’s RAF (Royal Air Force) units, especially the high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU), which flew perilous missions in unarmed, unarmored Spitfires and Mosquitoes at great heights on photographic missions over enemy territory. It was during these harrowing missions, when pilots operated in bitter, biting cold as heat was redirected to the cameras to keep them warm, that the little monster tricksters were regularly seen and blamed for all manner of otherwise inexplicable technical troubles and woes. In some cases, mechanical problems would arise only to mysteriously right themselves again as soon as the planes landed or the gremlins were gone.

The Battle of Britain, an enormous air campaign waged against the United Kingdom by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) during the summer and autumn of 1940 in particular saw many cases of reported gremlin activity, so much so in fact that the British Air Ministry even acknowledged the problem and made serious attempts to investigate the phenomenon. The Ministry even went as far as to have a service manual written up by a “Gremlorist,” Pilot Officer Percy Prune, which was an official document consisting of a list of the creatures’ exploits, how to placate or distract them, and various ways to avoid accidents due to their presence, such as not displaying bravado, arrogance or over confidence, which was thought to attract the creatures. There were also posters that warned of the malicious little monsters, as well as bulletins which often included the following ditty:

This is the tale of the Gremlins
As told by the PRU
At Benson and Wick and St Eval-
And believe me, you slobs, it’s true.

When you’re seven miles up in the heavens,
(That’s a hell of a lonely spot)
And it’s fifty degrees below zero,
Which isn’t exactly hot.

When you’re frozen blue like your Spitfire,
And you’re scared a Mosquito pink.
When you’re thousands of miles from nowhere,
And there’s nothing below but the drink.

It’s then that you’ll see the Gremlins,
Green and gamboge and gold,
Male and female and neuter,
Gremlins both young and old.

It’s no good trying to dodge them,
The lessons you learnt on the Link
Won’t help you evade a Gremlin,
Though you boost and you dive and you jink.

White one’s will wiggle your wing tips,
Male one’s will muddle your maps,
Green one’s will guzzle your glycol,
Females will flutter your flaps.

Pink one’s will perch on your perspex,
And dance pirouettes on your prop,
There’s a spherical middle-aged Gremlin,
Who’ll spin on your stick like a top.

They’ll freeze up your camera shutters,
They’ll bite through your aileron wires,
They’ll bend and they’ll break and they’ll batter,
They’ll insert toasting forks into your tyres.

And that is the tale of the Gremlins,
As told by the PRU,
(P)retty (R)uddy (U)nlikely to many,
But a fact, none the less, to the few.

At first this seemed to be a phenomenon completely unique to the Royal Air Force and it was often whispered among airmen that the gremlins were in league with the enemy, but it later became apparent that enemy aircraft were also suffering from the creatures’ tomfoolery and that they took no sides, taking equal glee in harassing both British and enemy aircraft alike. When the American Allies came to British shores, they too began to experience the strange phenomenon. American pilots and airmen typically described seeing strange creatures out on the wings of the aircraft, where they would fiddle around with the aileron, which is the hinged flight control surface on the wing that allows it to roll or bank. So persistent were the stories of gremlins fiddling and tampering with the aileron of American aircraft that the Americans often referred to the creatures as Yehudis, after a famous violinist of the time, because they were always fiddling.

Reports of gremlins and their knack for hiding aboard planes to sabotage them persisted throughout WWII, from all sides and nations involved in the conflict, more often than not by experienced pilots and aircraft crew that were sober, level-headed and rational. What could have been at the heart of these accounts? What were all of these people seeing or experiencing? It is often pointed out that the lack of adequate pressurization of aircraft back in those days most likely led to hallucinations, which were then shaped by the stories of little trickster, prankish imps with a tendency to sabotage or damage machinery. There could also have been some element of “passing the buck” so to speak, or deflecting blame for human error by blaming accidents on these fantastical creatures. This could have helped build morale among the men, as it would have been more constructive to blame the gremlins for aircraft mishaps rather than accuse members of their own squadron.


This is from a set of advertisements created by the Esso company in 1943. Each was associated with particular car part or system, and the Esso promised to protect your automobile from the little monsters if you brought it in for regular maintenance. They are sort of the embodiment of various automobile failure modes. A pantheon of malfunctions, so to speak.

Rocketpunk crew will think up their own gremlins that relate to spacecraft systems: e.g., nuclear reactor, propellant tanks, life support, etc.

Crazy Eddie

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote the Hugo and Nebula nominated novel The Mote in God's Eye, which is arguably the best "first contact with aliens" novel ever written.

In the novel, the Motie aliens have a biological problem which has caused their civilization to rise and fall with depressing regularity over a couple of million years. Without fail. Despite every single attempt at a solution being tried. Don't try to propose a solution because it has already been tried, multiple times. Several thousand civilizations have risen and collapsed.

So from bitter experience they have come to the conclusion that Not All Problems Have Solutions. They are the ultimate pessimists.

As a cultural educational tool to teach young Moties, they have a mythological anti-hero/horrible example. To humans they translate the anti-hero's name as "Crazy Eddie." In all the myths whenever Crazy Eddie tries to solve a problem it just makes things worse. Usually because he is sacrificing long-term advantages for short-term rewards. This teaches the young Moties a healthy fatalism. Richard Harter makes a good case that the end result is erratic neurosis.

In the novel on the surface it appears that Crazy Eddie is strictly a phenomenon of the Motie aliens. But ConsistentHobgoblin makes a good case that among the humans in the novels are some Crazy Eddies as well.


(ed note: The human expedition to the Motie star traveled in starships using the Alderson Drive, starting at New Caledonia and materializing at the Motie jump point. The Moties call the propulsion system the "instantaneous drive". Each of the contact humans were assigned a Motie who would try to learn their human's personality.)

      “You might have come from anywhere,” said Renner’s Motie. “Though it seems more likely that you came from a nearby star, such as—well, I can point to it.” Stellar images showed on a screen behind the Motie; screen within screens. She pointed with the upper right arm. The star was New Caledonia. “We know that you have an instantaneous drive, because of where you appeared.”
     Renner’s image sat forward. “Where we appeared?”
     “Yes. You appeared precisely in the…” Renner’s Motie seemed to search for a word. Visibly, she gave up “Renner, I must tell you of a creature of legend.”
     “Say on.” Renner’s image dialed for coffee. Coffee and stories, they went together.
     “We will call him Crazy Eddie, if you like. He is a… he is like me, sometimes, and he is a Brown, an idiot savant tinker, sometimes. Always he does the wrong things for excellent reasons. He does the same things over and over, and they always bring disaster, and he never learns.
     There were small sounds of whispering in MacArthur‘s wardroom. Renner’s image said, “For instance?”
     Renner’s Motie’s image paused to think. It said, “When a city has grown so overlarge and crowded that it is in immediate danger of collapse … when food and clean water flow into the city at a rate just sufficient to feed every mouth, and every hand must work constantly to keep it that way… when all transportation is involved in moving vital supplies, and none is left over to move people out of the city should the need arise … then it is that Crazy Eddie leads the movers of garbage out on strike for better working conditions.”
     There was considerable laughter in the wardroom. Renner’s image grinned and said, “I think I know the gentleman. Go on.”
     “There is the Crazy Eddie Drive. It makes ships vanish.”

     Sally shuddered. “And your Motie said they’d tried it often.” She shuddered again. Then: “But, Mr. Renner—none of the other Moties ever talk about astrogation or anything like that. Mine told me about ‘Crazy Eddie’ as if he were around only in primitive times—a lost legend.”
     “And mine spoke of Crazy Eddie as an engineer always using tomorrow’s capital to fix today’s problems,” Sinclair blurted.
     “Anyone else?” Rod prompted.
     “Well—” Chaplain David Hardy looked embarrassed. His plump face was almost beet-red. “My Motie says Crazy Eddie founds religions. Weird, very logical, and singularly inappropriate religions.”

     (Whitbread's Motie said) “Right. Even if the Emperor had conquered all of Mote Prime and stabilized the population—and think about it, Jonathon, the only way to do that would be for the rulers to pass control on to breeders while never having any children themselves—even if they did, they’d have been attacked by the asteroid civilizations.”
     “But man, it’s a start!” said Whitbread. “There’s got to be a way—”
     “I am not a man, and there doesn’t got to be a way. And that’s another reason I don’t want contact between your species and mine. You’re all Crazy Eddies. You think every problem has a solution.

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1974)


     Names of aliens? You get three choices:
  1. The alien's own name, rendered phonetically. Nonsense to you, but you must decide whether it should be pompous and complex, whether it should include gestures or other signals; and remember the alien's mouth structure.

  2. A human-chosen name may derive from the alien's appearance. Snakes, or Blobs, or Wogglebugs: such names may well be insulting. But the two-headed Pierson's puppeteer was named for the brainless heads whose mouths had evolved as hands: like two Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent puppets.

  3. A bright alien — brighter than human, or one assisted by a bright computer-translator — may choose his own name. Puppeteers prefer the names of legendary centaurs: Nessus, Chiron. Jock and Charley were female Motie Mediators contacting a male-oriented society; their sex was not obvious, and they chose to imitate male voices.

     This subject can get arbitrarily complex. Let us consider, in detail, the Crazy Eddie symbol from The Mote in God's Eye.
     Within the Motie culture there is a form of silliness so common that it is represented by a legendary being. A Motie goes "Crazy Eddie" by trying to keep things as they are when they are clearly about to change. He sacrifices long-term for short-term goals.
     When a city is so heavily populated that all available vehicles are engaged in moving food and water in and garbage out, and none are left even to evacuate the inhabitants, then it is that Crazy Eddie leads the movers of garbage out on strike for better working conditions.
     Crazy Eddie fights population pressure by killing off all the nonsentient Doctor forms — except that Masters who hid their own Doctors will afterward find them priceless.

     Obviously the Moties have their own name for him. But when speaking to humans, the Mediators called him Crazy Eddie.
     Robert Heinlein was kind enough to suggest numerous changes in this book. Jerry and I owe him a great debt: we followed most of his suggestions and thereby improved the book immensely. But I instantly rejected this one:
"Since this name must be alien, why not make it something clearly alien. Yddie? Waddie? Kuddie? Something else? Certainly you want to keep the scansion — but any two-syllable word accented on the penult will do as long as it doesn't shout that it is a human name."
     Wrong! I, being without false modesty, saw fit to lecture that great man for a page and a half on this trivial subject. He says I convinced him.
     The trick is to think like an alien.
     The Mediators are frighteningly good at learning languages. They won't teach humans to pronounce Crazy Eddie's true name. It probably can't be done anyway. Instead, they translate.
Is there any point in their making up a clearly alien word pronounceable to humans? I don't see one.     Well, what are they trying to convey?
  1. Crazy Eddie is a form of insanity. Hence, "Crazy." "Foolish" isn't emphatic enough, "insane" is less common and has the wrong rhythm.

  2. Crazy Eddie is ubiquitous. He's always been there, throughout the culture, back to the dawn of time. We choose a common name. (If the battleship Lenin had made the contact, Crazy Eddie might have been Crazy Ivan.)

  3. His intentions are always good. Crazy Eddie is not a monster, and his existence is tolerated. We show that half-amused tolerance with the diminutive of a common name.

  4. The human Empire is male-oriented. We choose a male name.

  5. We keep the scansion. Not "Crazy Maurice" or "Crazy Jack" but "Crazy Eddie."

From THE WORDS IN SCIENCE FICTION by Larry Niven (1976)

Crazy Eddie is one of the more interesting ideas in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's book The Mote in God's Eye. Crazy Eddie is clearly the key to understanding the Moties. The question is, does Crazy Eddie help us understand humanity?

Who's this Crazy Eddie guy? (for the unlettered)

The Mote in God's Eye is about humanity's first encounter with another intelligent species, the Moties. As the book's human characters get to know the Moties, they repeatedly hear about a legendary fellow called "Crazy Eddie." Crazy Eddie seems to be very important to the Moties, since the aliens mention him when they talk about almost all important historical events.

As it turns out, Crazy Eddie is as much a concept as a character. To understand Crazy Eddie, it is necessary to know a little about Motie biology. A Motie must reproduce regularly if it is to continue living. Obviously, this double incentive—genetic offspring plus extended life—is so compelling that very few Moties will ever choose abstinence. Since there aren't sufficient environmental pressures to balance out all the new offspring, the Motie population keeps increasing at an exponential rate.

This population pattern creates a truly vicious cycle. Moties breed and breed, all the while creating cultural solutions to support the burgeoning population. You can't fight mathematics, though, especially when there's an exponent involved. Eventually, the Motie population just gets too big to support. War, famine, and all hell in general breaks loose, most Moties die, and civilization is wiped out. The surviving Moties start to breed and build and innovate again, and the cycle begins anew. The Moties have been around a lot longer than humans, but their population biology puts them in a more primitive state. To make matters worse, the Moties are confined to a single solar system, increasing the pressure.

Sometimes, though, a Motie will try to break out of the cycle. Usually a sterile mediator, this individual will come up with some grandiose plan to change biology or escape the solar system or institute population controls. Invariably, though, the scheme fails, usually making matters worse, and sometimes prompting the collapse of Motie civilization. The individuals who try these schemes are said "to have gone Crazy Eddie." Crazy Eddie is the one who has a well-intentioned but misguided plan to cheat fate, which is a very real thing for Moties.

Crazy Eddie may be the most important character in the novel. The humans discover the Moties because of the "Crazy Eddie probe" sent out from the Motie system. A deadly "Crazy Eddie point" in space is what keeps the Moties bottled up, without hope of interstellar travel. Each section of the book is named after Crazy Eddie. And perhaps most importantly, Crazy Eddie provides almost all the dramatic conflict in the novel, with both humans and Moties constantly arguing over whether to pursue Crazy Eddie schemes or to hold to a grimmer, more pragmatic course of action.

What does Crazy Eddie mean to a human?

On the one hand...

Crazy Eddie is a science fiction kind of guy, and The Mote in God's Eye is a sci-fi novel. A lot of science fiction, including the kind Niven and Pournelle usually write, is pretty optimistic stuff, with adventures in space and marvelous technology and, generally, a bright future for humanity. Despite pessimistic elements (organleggers, war, horrible destruction from the center of the galaxy), Niven and Pournelle are upbeat writers. All the heroism and clever ideas and amazing technology and consequence-free sex and adventure make their future worlds seem like fun places to be.

In other words, Niven and Pournelle make their livings by saying how great Crazy Eddie ideas could be. Even the specific examples the Moties give of Crazy Eddie's schemes—a time machine, a solar sail probe, FTL travel, world government—are sci-fi staples which have appeared in the authors' works as well as many other science fiction pieces. The Mote in God's Eye makes the case that humans could be in the same spot as the Moties, except for the fact that humans' Crazy Eddies have succeeded on occasion. The characters refer to what a disaster Earth itself is repeatedly, but because humans invented FTL travel (Crazy Eddie #1), broke out of the Sol system (Crazy Eddie #2), and established a galactic Empire (Crazy Eddie #3), things turned out okay for H. sapiens.

In this interpretation, then,The Mote in God's Eye says that Crazy Eddie is important because he holds the spirit of human invention that science fiction shows us.

On the other hand...

A closer look at the human characters suggests another interpretation. It is fairly easy to divide the major characters into two groups, hard nosed pragmatists and starry eyed optimists. Again and again, the book pits a character from one group against a character from the other on some question about the Moties (or the Brownies). The most obvious pragmatist is the admiral Kutuzov, whose job is to use as much force as is necessary to keep the Moties from getting FTL technology from the humans. A more reluctant pragmatist is the main protagonist, Rod Blaine, who wants to trust the Moties but will ultimately do what is militarily prudent. On the other side are the optimists, who are willing to take a leap of faith in order to get what the Moties have to offer. Kutozov's mirror image on the optimist side is the scientist Horvath, who is sure that the Moties are a peaceful group who can only bring good to humanity. Blaine's counterpart is the anthropologist Sally Fowler, who knows that the Moties might not be as innocuous as they appear but still believes that the aliens are basically friendly and a source of great opportunity.

The distinction between the two groups is important because the optimists are, in essence, Crazy Eddies. They want to do the wrong thing for the right reason: they trust the Moties because of what the Moties could represent, instead of what the Moties actually are. Even after the humans discover the Moties' secret, the optimists remain as Crazy Eddies. Sally, in particular, is convinced that humans can break the cycle of breeding, war, and collapse. The pragmatists know that the Crazy Eddies are willing to take risks that humanity can't afford.

It's pretty clear that the pragmatists have the authors' sympathies. For one thing, the pragmatists end up being right. Kutozov has to destroy Blaine's ship, the humans have to flee the Motie system, and the Moties turn out to be duplicitous and quite dangerous to humanity. Moreover, the pragmatists are written as intelligent, level headed, worldly, and thoroughly professional characters. In contrast, the optimists are all ivory tower types who make bad decisions because they let their ideology trump the realities of strategy, diplomacy, and war. Reading the book from this perspective, it is obvious that the authors' regard Crazy Eddies the same way Moties do, at least in potentially military matters. This interpretation is bolstered when one considers the politics of the book. The Mote in God's Eye is a pretty conservative book, and the pragmatists are clearly the conservatives of the novel. They are the hawkish men of the world in contrast to academics like Horvath and Fowler who love peace but don't understand war. Jerry Pournelle, at least, was a ardent cold warrior, and The Mote in God's Eye is very easily calqued into a tale of why liberal doves are wrong despite their best intentions***.

In this interpretation, Crazy Eddie is important because he is present when humans foolishly let their hopes and ideals obscure reality. This interpretation is particularly salient if The Mote in God's Eye is read as a novel of the Cold War.

On the gripping hand...

One can take the novel at face value. Crazy Eddie is important to the Moties because he is part and parcel of their genetic heritage. Humans, free to control their population by a number of means, don't have to live with Crazy Eddie. Even though Niven and Pournelle show that humans have wars and collapses and population problems, humanity is clearly free of the Motie's hamster wheel.

But what fun is that? You can't just leave a guy with a name like Crazy Eddie out in the cold. If nothing else, Crazy Eddie would make a great meme. Imagine a politician: "Don't get me wrong, I'm no Crazy Eddie. If we can manage to pass my bill, though..."

*** - If you aren't convinced that The Mote in God's Eye is about attitudes toward war and peace, consider that another Kutuzov is chief of the Russian army in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

From Everything2 CRAZY EDDIE (PERSON) by consistenthobgoblin (2003)

"Aren't you taking all this too seriously?" Horvath asked. "After all, Captain, the Viceroy's orders were given before we knew much about Moties. Now, surely, we can see they aren't dangerous, and they certainly aren't hostile."

"Are you suggesting, Doctor, that we put ourselves in the position of countermanding an Imperial Directive?"

Horvath looked amused. His grin spread slowly across his face. "Oh no," he said. "I don't even imply, it. I only suggest that if and when — when, really, it's inevitable — that policy is changed, all this will seem a trifle silly, Captain Blaine. Childish in fact."

"Be damned to you!" Sinclair exploded. "That's nae way to talk to the Captain, mon!"

"Gently, Sandy," First Lieutenant Cargill interjected. "Dr. Horvath, I take it you've never been involved in military intelligence? No, of course not. But you see, in intelligence work we have to go by capabilities, not by intentions. If a potential enemy can do something to you, you have to prepare for it, without regard to what you think he wants to do."

(ed note: And as the novel turns out, Cargill was right, and Horvath was very seriously wrong.)

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1975)

Moldaug Demon Of The Dark

In Gordon R. Dickson's NONE BUT MAN, the Moldaug aliens do not care about "right" and "wrong" the way humans do. Instead they worry about "Respectability" and "not-Respectability". TV Tropes calls this Blue and Orange Morality.

The conflict in the novel is this morality makes the Moldaug culture superficially appear to be identical to human culture, or at least close enough to fool the idiot human diplomats who didn't do their homework. This confusion is forcing the Moldaug into declaring interstellar war on the human colonies by the ill-advised initiatives pushed by the idiot human diplomats. The protagonist Culihan O’Rourke, is forced to travel to a Moldaug planet to try and clean up the mess. He has to make the Moldaug understand the human's position in terms the Moldaug can understand.

The key is the Moldaug myth of the "Demon of the Dark." Much like the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Demon heralds the start of catastrophe. But because this is a Moldaug myth not human myth, the catastrophe is one of Respectability, not of Evil. Culihan cleverly uses this to force the Moldaug to understand what is going wrong in the peace talks.


      “I’ll tell you a story,” he (Will) said. “But you tell me first—have you ever had anybody who seemed to want to talk uncomfortably close to you, breathing in your face all the time he talked?”
     “It’s happened to me, yes,” said Cully.
     “Well, keep that in mind now, while I tell you my story,” said Will. “As far as I know—it may go back farther—it dates back to the twentieth century on Earth. As it goes, there was a diplomatic cocktail party somewhere at which the English and Italian Ambassadors were standing face to face, talking to each other; and as they talked they gradually, without realizing it, drifted across the room—the Englishman backing up, the Italian advancing.”
     Will broke off abruptly. He stared at Cully.
     “Have you got any idea why?” he asked.
     “Not an idea,” said Cully.
     “Well, as it happens, the distance that’s considered comfortable between people in conversation varies from culture to culture,” said Will. “What was a comfortable conversational distance for the Italian was about half the distance comfortable for the Englishman. The result was that the Englishman, being vaguely uncomfortable at the Italian’s closeness, was unconsciously continually trying to back away to his own comfort-distance. But any increase in space between them made the Italian uncomfortable, and unconsciously, he would move forward to try to decrease the distance between them. And all this was going on at a low level of awareness without either one realizing just why he was uncomfortable.”
     Cully laughed.
     “I see,” he said. “Yes, I can see that happening.”

     “Good,” said Will. “Now, as it happens with the Moldaug, there’re two conversational distances. The ‘individual,’ at about eight feet; and the ‘personal,’ at about twelve inches. But never mind that now. Tell me,” said Will. “Have you ever read anything by a twentieth-century writer named Edward T. Hall?”
Cully shook his head.     “He wrote a book, among others, called The Silent Language,” said Will. “In that book, Hall tells about a western American town in which most of the local government officials were of Spanish-American cultural descent, but a good many people driving through the town were of Anglo-American cultural descent. The town’s speed limit was fifteen miles an hour, and the Spanish-American policeman infallibly arrested anyone going even one mile per hour over that. This wasn’t so bad, but the Anglo-Americans soon noticed that the Spanish-Americans who were arrested usually had a relative sitting on the bench, and were usually quickly acquitted, while they themselves almost never got off easily. This made the Anglos furious.”
     Cully laughed again.
     “I’d be a bit furious myself, maybe,” he said.
     “Your cultural descent is undoubtedly more Anglo than Spanish,” said Will. “But the truth of the matter was that both the Spanish-cultured and the Anglo-cultured were doing what was right, according to their own cultural patterns. To the Spanish-cultured the law was a formal matter. A law could only be either unbroken or broken. There was nothing in between. So when they were arrested they took it without complaint. It was only after they were arrested that they invoked the informal, by turning to a system of relatives which had grown up in response to a weak government. On the other hand, the Anglos were informal about the actual violation. They felt that the speed limit should be somewhat flexible, according to situation and conditions. But once the machinery of the law was invoked, they tended to get very formal and unyielding. Anything less than strict judicial impartiality was unthinkable. The inter-cultural conflict that developed finally got to the point where the policeman was deliberately hurt in an accident, and to where he got to the point of making his arrests with drawn pistol. There you have it—both cultural groups doing what they thought was right, and both at swords’ points because of it.”

     “All right,” said Cully when Will had finished. “I see your point. The Tri-Worlds Councilmen and the Moldaug Ambassadors could be misunderstanding each other without knowing it—”
     “They have to be misunderstanding each other!” Will interrupted emphatically. “That’s the point. The only way they can avoid misunderstanding is by being completely understanding—and this they aren’t; the Moldaug of we humans, or we humans of the Moldaug. For example, Admiral Ruhn is the chief of the three Ambassadors on Earth right now. Most humans, therefore, take it for granted that the other two are either his assistants or simply diplomatic window dressing. dressing. But what do you suppose is the actual, Moldaug, reason for there being three of them?”
     “No idea,” said Cully. “But you’ll enlighten me, no doubt.”
     Will missed the humor of the answer entirely. He was too deeply immersed now in his own subject.
     “There are three of them,” he said, “because there’s no such thing as an individual, as we know it, in Moldaug terms. The closest thing to it is a tight association of three persons. Theoretically, three brothers or sisters, but actually any combination of three. They’re the basic unit of Moldaug society. They make up their minds as a unit and act as one person; in fact, as a human individual acts and decides for himself. That’s why there have to be three Ambassadors, even though Ruhn is the Elder Brother—the dominant. I’d be very surprised if Braight and his fellow Council Members realize how bound Ruhn is by the opinions of his two Brothers, let alone appreciate the diplomatic implications of dealing with a three-person ‘individual.’”

     “I’d be, myself,” said Cully. “But you’re sure about this? How can you be sure of such things on a basis of myths and legends, where anything can happen? Our fairy stories of elves and ghosts and goblins have little enough to do with actual human ways, it seems to me.”
     “You’re wrong. Very wrong,” said Will energetically. “All our myth figures represent deep cultural elements. And deep variations in attitude from culture to culture even among our own race. Look at the Balkan myth of the vampire who made a fellow vampire out of his victim by drinking the victim’s blood. The cultural element reflected here is the treachery running all through the history of the Balkan region. The cultural message of the vampire legend was that there was no one you could trust, not even the woman who loved you, or your best friend. The bite of the vampire could turn either of them into your most dangerous enemy overnight. Now, in contrast, look at the areas of the British Isles and Northwestern Europe. Look at the myth of the English brownie or hobgoblin, or the Scottish fairy. Do you see something in these, different from the vampire-legend figure?”
     Cully thought for a second.
     “They’re not … deadly,” he said, “not in the sense that the vampire was deadly.”
     “Exactly!” said Will. “The brownie, elf, hobgoblin or fairy was mischievous, but not really harmful—unless you cheated one of them! In short, they had something that was almost the opposite of the vampire trait. A sense of honesty—or fair play.”
     “True,” said Cully thoughtfully. “‘Fair play,’ come to think of it, is pretty much an English phrase.”
     “More than that,” said Will. “The English have been called a nation of shopkeepers—with some reason. And both English and Scots have been celebrated for sticking to their bargains—particularly to the spirit behind the letter of their contracts.”
     “The Irish,” Cully grinned, “haven’t exactly been known as a nation of shopkeepers.”

     “No,” said Will. “But parallel myths and cultural qualities exist there too. The Old Nick of Irish legend is supernatural enough. But a stouthearted Irishman, particularly if he has right on his side, can outwit or outfight Old Nick. Again—the human is able to meet the mythical figure on even terms if he has the courage for it. Grendel, in the Beowulf legend of early Germanic literature, was a monster who fed on human flesh—first cousin to the vampire. No one could withstand Grendel—until the hero Beowulf appeared, and not only outfought the demon but pursued him down under the waters of a marsh and slew him. Now, though, compare a human legend with its closest parallel among the Moldaug. On the human side, you’ve heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?”
     “Yes,” said Cully.
     “Well,” said Will. “There are four figures in that myth. The parallel Moldaug myth has only one—or rather, three-in-one—called the Demon of Dark. I say three-in-one because the Demon of Dark, like all Moldaug individuals, is actually composed of three persons. The Demon himself is the dominant member, or leader, of the tripartite ‘individual,’ which also includes the Scholar and the Madman. In the legend, the Scholar and the Madman combine to free the Demon, who then goes forth as a tripartite ‘individual’ to forecast doom among the Moldaug—”
     “Wait a minute,” interrupted Cully, suddenly very interested. “What kind of doom?”
     “That’s my point,” said Will. “The Four Horsemen of the human legend forecast famine, war, pestilence, death—all the physical forms of destruction for a race. But the Demon of Dark doesn’t directly threaten any kind of physical destruction to the Moldaug, because to the Moldaug such things aren’t so much evils in themselves as symptoms of the one Great Evil—”
     Will broke off on a particular note of emphasis, staring at Cully.
     “Which is what?” Cully prompted him.
     “A Change,” said Will solemnly, “in the Aspect of Respectability.”

     “Aspect of Respectability?” Cully repressed an instinctive urge to chuckle—but his face must have betrayed him.
     “It’s very much something you don’t laugh at if you’re a Moldaug,” said Will reprovingly, “Remember, I told you it was Respectability that was the peg on which the Moldaug culture turns, just as ours turns upon the peg of Righteousness? To be right, instead of wrong, in the way he lives and what he does—no matter what cultural standard of right or wrong he uses—is important to the people of all human cultures. But now, suppose you’re a Moldaug, the dominant member or one of the two subjectives of a tripartite ‘individual.’ Your concern, both as a person and individual, is the supreme importance of being Respectable, as opposed to not-Respectable.”
     “How do I know when I’m Respectable?” Cully asked.
     “You don’t,” said Will. “And there’s one of the great differences from human thinking. A single human’s personal standards or belief in what’s right can’t be taken from him or changed—witness the long line of martyrs down through human history. But your standard of Respectability as a Moldaug can be changed on you without your being able to control it. That’s one aspect of your culture with which you live as a Moldaug—and die; because to lose Respectability in any large measure can be literally a fate to which you’d prefer death.”

     Cully stared at the older man, sitting crosslegged in the shadow of the staircase.
     “Now, why?” he asked softly.
     “You’ll have to stretch your imagination to understand,” said Will. “You see, to be Respectable among the Moldaug is to be in proper accord with the actions taken by the leaders of the race, that ensure and maintain the survival of the race. To be connected in any way with an action that leads to a plague or an unsuccessful war—any symptom of countersurvival developments—is to lose some part of your Respectability. If the developments are serious enough to threaten the existence of the race as a whole, or if they simply multiply beyond the endurance of the majority of the Moldaug, then those responsible lose Respectability to the point where they must be deposed as leaders. In Moldaug terms, as well as they can be expressed in any human tongue, the Aspect of Respectability has ‘Changed’—in short, the quality of Respectability has abandoned the present leaders of the race and settled elsewhere, on other Moldaug, who must be discovered and installed as leaders instead.”
     Cully whistled softly.
     “You see,” said Will, “what that means is that as a Moldaug you can never be sure that the action you have just taken is Respectable or not until it has safely become a part of successful racial history. You can only make the best possible decision and hope that events prove you Respectable.”
     “Respectability’s bigger than the individual, then?” asked Cully, thoughtfully.

     “That’s right,” said Will. “And it’s important to remember that if you’re a Moldaug. It’s not just your own failure you have to worry about. To be connected with failure can destroy your Respectability just as quickly, and the connections are beyond your control. You see, all this is a survival characteristic of Moldaug culture that tries to make sure the best possible people are in charge of the destiny of the race at all times. Guilt by association is not an arguable point among the Moldaug. It’s a foregone conclusion.”
     “You say the connections are beyond an individual’s—I mean, a person’s—control?” asked Cully. “Why?”
     “Because the Moldaug society is hierarchical in organization,” answered Will. “As a single Moldaug, you belong first to the basic, three-person individual, within the family structure. A number of families make up a sept. A number of septs makes up a clan. The clans together make up the race and are headed by the ruling clan, within which is the ruling sept, family, and finally the ruling ‘individual’—a three-person unit. If the race gets into trouble, the social structure loses Respectability from the top downward. The ruling clan is deposed and the other clans fight among themselves to discover who is now Most Respectable—or, in plain language, who is strongest. And when the Most Respectable clan triumphs, the society reorients itself around them, and the clan’s inner hierarchy produce the new set of authorities up to the ruling ‘individual’ himself—or themselves.”

     “And the former ruling clan becomes Unrespectable? Is that it?” said Cully musingly.
     “Well, not the whole clan—just the royal family,” Will hesitated. “‘Unrespectable’ is the ultimate term. If you’re ‘Unrespectable’ you’re effectively canceled out already. It’s like a strong version of our word ‘inhuman.’ If you’re really inhuman, you’re no longer a human being. It’s the same way with the term ‘Unrespectable’ among the Moldaug. A Moldaug would never call you ‘Unrespectable,’ no matter what your crime might be. If he really considered you ‘Unrespectable,’ he would see no point in naming you at all. The most he would accuse you of being would be ‘not-Respectable.’”
     “Then what happens to the rest of the clan?” asked Cully. “Do they get off scot-free?”
     “No, the Aspect of Respectability has abandoned the whole clan,” said Will. “Only, it’s abandoned the social units within the clan in direct ratio to their former power and responsibility. First, the original tripartite ‘Ruler,’ or ‘Rulers,’ lose Respectability to the point where suicide is the only possible course for them. Then their action may be imitated by a good share of their closer relatives within their immediate family, the decision being taken as tripartite ‘individuals,’ not on a personal basis. The other families in the royal sept generally lose Respectability to degrees not requiring suicide, both as families and ‘individuals,’ and the other septs in the clan related to the royal sept also lose it to an even lesser degree … and so forth.”

     “And,” said Cully thoughtfully, “according to the legend, all this is caused by the Demon of Dark?”
     Will shook his head. “The Demon doesn’t cause Respectability to leave one clan and settle on another. He simply signals the Change—in the Aspect of Respectability. Where he appears, disasters of various kinds will follow. Enough of these disasters and the Moldaug begin to conclude that the Aspect of Respectability has abandoned the ruling clan and its inner hierarchy. Once this realization occurs, each clan naturally assumes that it has now acquired the Aspect. This leads each clan to attempt to assume authority over the other clans—and the fight starts to choose a new set of leaders.”
     “So,” said Cully, “that’s it. When the Demon appears, everything goes wrong.”
     “Yes,” said Will. “You see why he’s the ultimate in horror figures among the Moldaug. Now, of course, they’ve outgrown direct superstition since becoming a technical race, just as we have. In spite of that, the cultural elements that the myths and legends pictured in them still exist in them.”

     On conventional drive they crept in toward this, the outer-most of the two alien-inhabited worlds in the system, shielding themselves behind the disk of the lesser of the two moons that circled it. Once in orbit about the world, Cully put all controls on standby and called all crew members into what was left of the ship’s lounge to brief them.
     “All right,” he said to them, “it’s time to let you all in on why we’ve come first to this particular planet. This first expedition isn’t going to be a raid on Moldaug ships or even Moldaug surface installations. We’re here to raise a devil.”
     There was a mutter from the listening men—a mutter halfway between laughter and the sounds of surprise.
     “I mean that, just the way it sounds,” went on Cully. “The idea is to get ourselves a name, a Moldaug demon name. And the name we’ve decided to get is the name of one of the Moldaug mythological characters, known as the ‘Rath i’Lan,’ who rides a ship called the Bei. He’s a devil out of their superstitious past, and his name means ‘The Demon of Dark.’ Like most Moldaug mythological characters, he’s a tripartite demon. That is, while there’s only one actual demon, that one never moves or acts without his two mortal Moldaug ‘Brothers.’ So what we’re going to do is go down to the place where Moldaug legend says the original raising of the Rath i’Lan took place, and re-enact the raising, making sure the local Moldaug know about it. I’ll be the Demon, and Will and Doak will play my ‘Brothers.’ So it’ll be the three of us going down, plus five men to handle the shuttle boat and help us fight our way back, if necessary. Who wants to volunteer?”

     A number of hands went up; but the Navigator, Pete Hyde, spoke up.
     “Mind if I ask a question first, Cully?”
     “Go ahead,” said Cully.
     “Do the Moldaug still believe in demons? First I heard of it,” said Pete.
     “No, Pete, of course they don’t—any more than we do,” answered Cully.
     There was more laughter. Cully paused and ran his eyes over the group.

     “No. The point is,” Cully said good-humoredly, when they were quiet again, “that while you can’t call us really superstitious any more, on the other hand, superstition isn’t dead among us. Will tells me it’s pretty much the same among the Moldaug. They don’t believe in the Demon of Dark nowadays—not with the front of their heads anyway. On the other hand, there’s enough superstition left in the back of their minds so that the fact of this demon’s name being tied to us will trigger off all sorts of basic emotional responses when we start making trouble. Any objections or suggestions?”

     “The legend that the Moldaug tell,” he said, “is that from time immemorial there’d been a demon sleeping in the cliffs over there.” He pointed toward the monolith. “All Moldaug knew the Demon was sleeping there, but none of them were foolish enough to wake him. Now, as some of you already know, where our human basic unit of population is the single individual, among the Moldaug it’s never less than three of them working as a team. For this reason, the Demon would never wake up of his own accord, because he was harmless unless joined by the two other living parts that would make him a normal, full, tripartite ‘individual,’ in Moldaug terms.”
     Will paused, then went on.
     “Let me say that again,” he said. “The tripartite individual is ‘normal’ in Moldaug terms. But there are abnormal Moldaug, just as there are abnormal humans. Among the Moldaug these abnormals take the form of single persons who can’t or won’t fit into the basic, three-person, ‘individual’ unit. One type is the Moldaug whose particular work or study is one that no one else shares—so that he’s forced to live and work alone. This type has the name which can be roughly translated by the human word ‘Scholar.’ Another type is one which is simply temperamentally unsuited to the three-person unit. The Moldaug name for this type translates literally as ‘Solitary.’ But, since the Moldaug can’t imagine anyone but a deranged person being unable to fit into a three-person unit, the label on this latter type actually means something more like ‘Madman.’ Since the role that the Solitary plays in this legend is one that is only possible to a deranged person in Moldaug terms, let’s use the title ‘Madman.’ “

     Will paused and drew a deep breath. He glanced toward Doak. But Doak looked back, innocently and undisturbed.
     “Now—to get back to the legend itself. The legend says that by sheer chance two of these abnormals happened to run into each other at this particular spot. One was a Scholar—and that’s the role I’m going to play. The other was a Solitary, or Madman—that’s Doak’s part. The legend says these two started talking and, since night had fallen while they were still talking, they sat down, built a fire and ate supper. They talked on into the night; and they learned that each of them had a quality that complemented the other—the way that individuals fitted together in a normal Moldaug three-person unit. The Scholar had a knowledge of the semimagical techniques needed to raise the Demon slumbering in the cliffs behind them. The Madman had the courage—I mean he had the will or desire—to do the raising. So, driven by a warped version of the instinctive Moldaug desire to be part of a three-person ‘individual’ unit, the two of them joined forces and woke the Demon.”
     Will hesitated. There was an unusual solemnity in his voice when he went on. “Then things began to happen. A terrific thunderstorm burst about them. The Demon came forth and immediately joined them to complete the three-person ‘individual’ that was the full Demon of Dark. In other words, he became a full, effective Demon by becoming the dominant personality of the individual group also containing the Scholar and the Madman. They set out together then, according to the legend, to roam the lands and cities of the Moldaug, wherever these might be. And wherever they went, a Change in the Aspect of Respectability followed close behind them. And there you have it.”

     Will fell silent. Cully took over.
     “So now you know,” he said to the other men. “Now I’ll tell you how we’re going to work this. The Moldaug have pretty good scent-perceptive instruments. With those, they’ll be able to reconstruct what happened outside our immediate area, here on this island. Here on the island we’re going to burn some sulphur decontamination flares to foul up their instruments. But outside the island, across the stream there, Will and Doak are going to play out their parts in the legend. That, the sulphur flares, some flash markers for lightning, and a loudspeaker broadcast of thunder ought to take care of the stage dressing. So, while Will and Doak are busy across the stream, the rest of us’ll haul the supplies out of the shuttle boat and set up here. Let’s go.”

From NONE BUT MAN by Gordon Dickson (1969)



Junghaus doesn't look old enough to be a veteran. He can't be more than nineteen. Just a pimply-faced, confused kid who looks two sizes too small for his uniform. Yet he has four little red mission stars tattooed on the back of his left hand, over the knuckles at the roots of each finger. "Catch a fistful of stars..." They'll creep along the next rank of knuckles now. A barbarous custom that's scrupulously observed. One of the superstitions…

…I've begun to note quirks. Chief Nicastro gets furious if anyone passes him to the left. Better you ask him to drop what he's doing and let you by. Kriegshauser never removes his lucky underwear.

The Commander himself has a rigid ritual for rising and departing his quarters. Faithfully observed, I suppose, it guarantees the Climber (warship) another day of existence.

From PASSAGE AT ARMS by Glen Cook (1985)

      71-hour Ahmed was not superstitious. He was substitious, which put him in a minority among humans.

     He didn't believe in the things everyone believed in but which nevertheless weren't true.
     He believed instead in the things that were true in which no-one else believed.

     There are many such substitions, ranging from 'It'll get better if you don't pick at it' all the way up to 'Sometimes things just happen.'

From JINGO by Terry Pratchett (1997)

      "Quite a lot, " said Miss Beedle, "but far more about goblins, and they believe in the Summoning Dark, just like the dwarfs, after all, they are both creatures of the caves and the Summoning Dark is real. It's not all in your head, commander: no matter what you hear, I sometimes hear it too.

     "Oh dear, you of all people must recognize a substition when you’re possessed by it? It's the opposite of a superstition: it's real even if you don't believe in it."

From SNUFF by Terry Pratchett (2011)

Chariots Of The Gods

In this concept, future space explorers discover that mythological creatures are actually garbled stories of alien visitations made by primitive humans. Much the same idea as the silly Chariots of the Gods?, but done a bit more plausibly.

Examples include:

CHILDHOOD'S END by Arthur C. Clark
It would be a spoiler to explain. Just read the novel. It is a classic.
TIMEDIVER SERIES by L. E. Modesitt Jr.
This series is about a species who can travel through time and space using nothing but their innate abilities. They spend their lives scavenging high-tech goodies from other planets and time periods, while destroying any species who might pose a threat. In The Fires of Paratime the characters have names like "Odinthor" and "Heimdall." Thing are interesting until they become afraid of the new recruit and try to covertly kill him. Somebody named "Loki." Then the book becomes so exciting you literally cannot put it down.
WHO MOURNS FOR ADONAIS? episode from Classic Star Trek
Captain Kirk and the valiant crew of the starship Enterprise meet the last surviving Greek God Apollo. They are space-traveling aliens with innate abilities to manipulate energies. The ancient Greeks worshipped them as gods, until the Greeks got too sophisticated. Zeus et al grew weary and weak without worship from humans and discorporated.
HOW SHARPER THAN A SERPENT'S TOOTH episode from Animated Star Trek
Captain Kirk and the valiant crew of the starship Enterprise meet a technologically advanced alien looking like a wingéd serpent, who turns out to be the Mayan god Kukulkan. He was going to vaporize the Enterprise like a fly in a bug-zapper, but at the last minute helsman Ensign Dawson Walking Bear recognizes Kukulkan and blurts out his name.
THE LORELEI SIGNAL episode from Animated Star Trek
Captain Kirk and the valiant crew of the starship Enterprise pass too close to the planet of the Space Sirens and are enslaved by the beautiful vampiric women living there (for certain values of "beautiful", predictably for an American show they are all thin, Caucasian, and blond). The men start to rapidly age as the Sirens devour their life force (there is no way to phrase that without it sounding like a double entendre). Luckily the Siren's ability to cloud men's minds only applies to men. Lt. Uhura, Nurse Chapel, and the rest of the female crew arrive to kick butt and take names.
Several thousand years ago on Terra, the inhabitats of the continent of Mu were in constant warfare with the race of Teff-Hellani. These were savage creatures who evolved from primate goats. They had horns, cloven hooves, red skin, loved living under ground near fires, and had a taste for human meat. Yeah, you get the picture. Teff-Hellani = Deff-Hell = Devils.

The conflict started with stone-age technology and persisted up to the age of ray-guns and spaceships. Finally king Tsoo-Ahs ("Zeus") leads a spacefleet to attack the Teff cave entrance. The continent of Mu is sunk in the ensuing battle, the warring fleets are flung through a space warp to a distant star, both fleets crash on separate planets and have to rebuild civilizations from scratch.

In the future when Our Heroes are flung through the same space warp, they find the two sides are still fighting.
THE INFINITE ATOM by John W. Campbell Jr.
In this sequel to The Mightiest Machine author Campbell re-uses the aliens-into-mythological-creature theme. Around 700 BCE centaur-like aliens are marooned when their spaceship crashes in ancient Greece, inspiring Greek myths of centaurs in a meta-like fashion. Most of them are cruel to the local Greeks in their efforts to launch a message torpedo to their homeworld. But Zhi Athron kindly teaches the Greeks, and is remembered in myth as "Chiron". The aliens all die out and become myths. Four thousand years latter the message torpedo brings an invasion of Centaurs hungry for living space, and the interstellar war is on.
SHAMBLEAU by C. L. Moore
Interplanetary rogue Northwest Smith meets his match when he finds out the hard way that the old myth of the snake-haired Medusa turning people into stone is no myth. But author Moore adds a touch of existential eldritch horror. The only thing that saves Smith's sorry derrière is the fact his Venusian side-kick Yarol remembers the rest of the myth, and uses a mirror to do an over-the-shoulder trick shot with his heat-ray gun.
YVALA by C. L. Moore
Interplanetary rogue Northwest Smith proves that he is incapable of learning from his mistakes by getting captured by another mythological woman. This time her name is Yvala, and she inspired the myth of Circe. Including the ability to turn men into beasts. Since Smith and Yarol were on the Jovian moon specifically to kidnap beautiful native women for the sex-slave trade, it is impossible to find any sympathy for their fate.
They look like two crazy guys trying to kill each other, but they are actually immortal humanoid aliens who inspired the myth of Thor and Loki. They have been on Terra for several thousand years, trying to kill each other for all that time.
THE MIGHTY THOR by Stan Lee, Lerry Leiber, and Jack Kirby
This Marvel comic book gives Norse mythology a decided sci-fi twist. They were latter made into fun movies.
QUATERMASS AND THE PIT aka Five Million Years To Earth movie by Nigel Kneale
Five million years ago insectoid Martians genetically engineered human beings to be slaves. Human's mental image of the devil is a distorted memory of the insect Martian face, with antennae for horns.
This story turns the "Chariots of the Gods" concept on its head. Instead of aliens inspiring the myth, the myth inspires the aliens. On the colony world Roland the humans are mostly unaware of the native aliens. They study the humans telepathically, and find deep archtypes in the human psyche of elves and fairies. They use these archtypes as telepathic images when dealing with humans.
In this novel, the land of Fairie is another dimension. The inhabitants are aliens who are vaguely humanoid but look like the typical mythological Fair Folk. What is interesting is that the Fairie dimension adjoins every other planet in the galaxy. So one can still stumble into Fairie even though you are living on a colony world hundreds of light-years away from Terra.

Everything Old Is New Again

On a meta level science fiction authors can use ancient myths to inspire their stories. Which is no news to anybody who has read about the monomyth in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Certainly no news to George Lucas.

From a science fiction writer's standpoint being inspired by myth has three great benefits:

  1. The writer is harnessing the awesome archetypal power and universal appeal of myth
  2. The plot is already written
  3. Myths are way way past the expiration date of their copyright

This is a variant on the old science fiction author trick of using history to plot their novels.

But authors would be wise to avoid grafting a simple-minded science fiction framework over Biblical myths. It has been done to death already. There are hundreds of pulp SF stories where a couple crash-lands on a virgin world, all such stories ending with the punch-line that their names are Adam and Eve. Brian W. Aldiss calls these "Shaggy God Stories."

Examples include:

Based on the monomyth
Also based on the monomyth
Pretty much a science-fiction version of Shakespeare's The Tempest
The novel is a retelling of Norse mythology, especially the story of Ragnarök. The gods are instead mercenary bands, Ragnarök is the federation outlawing and disbanding the mercenaries, Gneaus Storm is Odin complete with two telepathic flying lizards like Huginn and Muninn, Valkyrie-like medical drones roam battlefields to retrieve valiant soldiers fallen in battle to be brought back to life by advanced medical techology and given the opportunity to enlist with Storm's mercenary legion in a sort of high-tech Valhalla.
The novel is a interpretation of Wagner's Ring Cycle set in the future.
STARSONG by Fred Saberhagen
This classic Berserker tale is a retelling of the Orpheus myth.
FOOL'S RUN by Patricia McKillip
This is another retelling of Orpheus.
GOAT SONG by Poul Anderson
Still yet another retelling of Orpheus.
SPACE CHANTEY by R. A. Lafferty
This entire book is a satirical futuristic version of Homer's Odyssey.
DIES IRAE TRILOGY by Brian Stableford
A science fictional version of the Odyssey but in full trilogy form.
Each book in the series is a science fiction version of a myth from the Finnish Kalevala. Each centers around an avatar of one of the Finnish gods reliving their legend in a futuristic world.

The Unicorn and the Virgin

In medieval times, it was commonly believed that there existed a fabulous beast called a Unicorn. This was a goat-like or horse-like animal with a single long horn growing out of its head. Legend had it that the easy way to capture such a a beast was to have a young virgin maiden sitting in the forest. When espied by the unicorn, the sight of the virgin would make the creature forgets its ferocity and wildness. It would lay its head in the maiden's lap and go to sleep. Then the hunters kill it.

Actually RocketCat thinks a story about a beast trotting around sporting a long erect phallic symbol while being so irresistibly attracted to virgin maidens that it simply cannot resist putting said phallic symbol into the lady's lap and then falling asleep has a pretty obvious meaning. Patriarchal, especially the falling asleep afterwards part. Even more so if you replace "hunters" with "angry father of the former virgin."

Anyway the main take-away of the unicorn story was that only innocent maidens need apply (using a very medieval concept of "innocence"). Non-innocent maidens have no power over a unicorn.

Enkidu and priestess Shamhat

This innocence-fixation is far older than medieval times, though. Blasted thing appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh from around 2100 BCE, arguably the earliest surviving great work of literature.

Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk, and was apparently two-thirds demigod and one-third human. He turned out to be a bit overwhelming for the citizens of Uruk, forcing them to labor at huge public-works projects, wearing them out in athletic contests, enraging new husbands by insisting upon the right of droit du seigneur with the new wives, that sort of thing.

The citizens pleaded with the goddesses and gods to send a man of equal strength to put a brake on Gilgamesh's excesses. In response the goddess Aruru created Enkidu the warrior.

As requested, Enkidu was equally as strong at Gilgamesh. However he was a "primitive man", far closer to the beasts of the forest than to civilization. He was wild, had long hippie-like hair, and lived with his animal friends. He was a vegetarian, grazing with his buddy gazelles. The animals accepted Enkidu as one of their own, because he was innocent of such nasty ideas as hunting animals for food.

In fact, Enkidu had a very dim view of other humans hunting and killing his animal pals for meat. He quickly made life miserable for a local hunter by filling up the hunter's pitfalls with dirt and breaking the hunter's traps.

The hunter asks his father for advice on how to deal with this wild-man ethical-vegan Hercules. His father has a cunning plan. The father figures that the only reason the animals are Enkidu's friends are because he is "innocent." Get rid of Enkidu's innocence and you get rid of his animals pals as well. The animals will suddenly not recognize him as one of them. Then Enkidu can be brought into Uruk and taught to eat meat like all civilized folk. This will put a stop to his sabotage of the hunter's traps.

How to get rid of Enkidu's innocence? The good ol' fashioned way. The father told his hunter-son to go to the temple and enlist the help of Shamhat, the high priestess of the sacred sexual temple rites. Lead her to the watering hole frequented by Enkidu, let her "take off her clothes and reveal her attractions" when he comes to drink. Nature will take its course.

The hunter and Shamhat go to the watering hole, and soon thirsty Enkidu shows up. The hunter begs Shamhat to "…bare your bosom, open your legs and let him take in your attractions! Spread open your garments, and let him lie upon you. Do for him as women do" (this is what a four-thousand-year-old blue-novel written in ancient Sumerian reads like).

Enkidu doesn't stand a chance.

After six days and seven nights of hot sex, Enkidu is startled when all his animal friends run away as if they don't know him any more. Shamhat smiles, then leads Enkidu back to the city to make some new friends that are human beings. There she teaches him how to become a civilized person: wearing clothes, living in buildings, eating bread, meat, and especially drinking this new stuff called "beer." And no more breaking the hunter's traps.

Oh, and Enkidu does take exception to Gilgamesh's habit of droit du seigneur and they have a prolonged fight that takes the king down a peg or two.

Alta and the Tiger

But remember, Everything Old Is New Again!

It was previously mentioned the plot of the science-fiction movie Forbidden Planet is based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. But there is more.

The intrepid crew of the United Planets Cruiser C-57D arrive at Altair IV to investigate what happened to an exploration mission sent twenty years earlier. They find the entire crew had died, except for Dr. Morbius. And his nubile very-pretty nineteen-year-old daughter Alta, born on the planet. Her full name is "Altaria", which shows why one should never have an old scientist as a single parent.

There are a few Earth animals on the planet, all of whom are utterly unafraid of of Alta. Including the full grown Bengal tiger, who acts like a big kitten and never ever threatens Alta.

In a scene deleted from the movie but included in the novelization, Doc Ostrow comments about the Unicorn myth, in which a sexually innocent maiden could soothe the savage unicorn by her purity alone.

Aha. The Unicorn

But that innocence is rapidly eroded by the arrival of a ship full of handsome young men. Some movie reviewers are of the opinion that Dr. Morbius has Alta wearing short skirts so he can pretend his daughter is still only five years old. Those movie reviewers note that in Western girl-child fashions the length of the skirt increases with the age of the child.

Whatever the reason, Alta's dresses have quite the opposite effect on the saltpetre-deprived crew. Infamous Lothario Lt. Jerry Farman introduces Alta to hugging and kissing. Until Captain Adams shows up and angrily sends Farman back to the ship and reads Alta the riot act about the importance of avoiding his sexually frustrated crew.

In the end Alta and Adams fall for each other and share a passionate kiss (and only a kiss since this was a 1956 movie and "R" ratings wouldn't be invented until 1968). But the implication is that it went a little bit further than just a kiss. At any rate, the tiger suddenly doesn't recognize Alta and tries to kill her. The innocent maiden is now insufficiently innocent.

Aha. Enkidu and priestess Shamhat.

And I'll leave you with a thought that since the movie came out in 1956 the unicorn-Enkidu theme is over-due to be rebooted.

Atomic Rockets notices

This week's featured addition is Spacecraft from RACE TO MARS

This week's featured addition is Space Rescue Vehicle

This week's featured addition is Dusty Plasma Fission Fragment Rocket

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