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.
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.
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.
Mars Spacecraft 1988–1999 Spacecraft Outcome Phobos 1 Failure Phobos 2 Failure Mars Observer Failure Mars 96 Failure Mars Pathfinder Success Mars Global Surveyor Success Mars Climate Orbiter Failure Mars Polar Lander Failure Deep Space 2 Failure Nozomi Failure
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.
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.
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.
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"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- The writer is harnessing the awesome archetypal power and universal appeal of myth
- The plot is already written
- 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."