Intro

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:

THE HELIX AND THE SWORD by John McLoughlin
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.
THE GREEN MORNING by Ray Bradbury
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.
SARGASSO OF SPACE

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.
LEVEL 7

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)

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 time scavenging high-tech goodies from other planets and times, 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.
THE MIGHTIEST MACHINE by John W. Campbell Jr.
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.
THE LONG TWILIGHT by Keith Laumer
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.
THE QUEEN OF AIR AND DARKNESS by Poul Anderson
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.
DREAD COMPANION by Andre Norton
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 not 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 ficion 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:

STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE
Based on the monomyth
THE MATRIX
Also based on the monomyth
FORBIDDEN PLANET
Pretty much a science-fiction version of Shakespeare's The Tempest
SHADOWLINE by Glen Cook
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 GAP INTO CONFLICT: THE REAL STORY by Stephen R. Donaldson
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.
THE KALEVALA SERIES by Emil Petaja
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.

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