Saturday, September 10, 2011
I recommend this book
I am totally engrossed in a book of SF theory called The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence, by Alexei and Cory Panshin. What the authors lay out in this tome (of 685 pages) has provided me insight into what I am doing with my life. So it’s an important book to me, and I’d like to tell you about it.
Chapter one begins: “Science fiction is a literature of the mythic imagination. In science fiction stories, spaceships and time machines carry us outside ourselves, outside our world, outside everything we know, to distant realms that none of us has ever seen . . .” Here is outlined the two chief themes of the book, myth and transcendence.
Transcendence can be defined as moving beyond the range of normal human experience to realms that are irrational, elusive, wonderful, and never completely to be known. The label used throughout the book to denote normalcy is “the Village,” the place we spend our daily lives. Transcendent reality, the land of mystery and wonder, is denoted by the title, “The World Beyond the Hill.” Most humans throughout history have been content to live out their lives in the relative safety of the Village while yearning to glimpse the World beyond the Hill. For most of human history, that outer world was occupied by supernatural forces, gods, and demons. Direct experience of that world was never a good idea, was mediated by shamans and priests, and required sacrifice and prayer.
A myth, by popular definition, is a false idea or belief, such as the myth that corporations are people or that lowering taxes can spur employment. In popular usage, mythology is the study of a belief system that is as ancient and dead as the gods of Greek mythology.
A more scholarly definition of myth is a little more complicated. A myth is a set of principles (or collection of stories) that, using the best, most reliable knowledge of the day, explains transcendent mysteries: who made us? where did we come from? what does it all mean? where do we go when we die?
Because there is a tendency for people to not recognize the tenuous nature of their own belief systems, they tend to call their view of reality the truth and everyone else’s a myth. It’s easy today to dismiss Mount Olympus and its cast of titans, gods, and mortals--Zeus, Cassandra, Achilles--no one believes that stuff anymore. It’s myth. What we too often forget is that, during its own time, Greek mythology represented the cutting edge of knowledge and helped explain everything from lightning bolts to love. We also forget that our own era’s myth of science, no matter how rational it seems to us today, may well be supplanted tomorrow by a whole new set of operating principles and that our truths may then seem just as quaint and dead.
This book, then, follows the rise of the myth of science through the lens of fiction. From the Ages of Reason and Romanticism, through the Age of Technology, to the Atomic Age, the authors trace the decline of the myth of spirit in the West in favor of the new myth of science. Part world history, part chronicle of seminal works of fiction, this book creates a framework for understanding the genesis and effect of major works of science fiction (and proto-SF) such as Frankenstein; The Time Machine; War of the Worlds; Looking Backward, 2000-1887; “Who Goes There;” I, Robot; and hundreds more.
Through this book, I have been able to view my own scribbling as part of a grand tradition of myth-making. Now I see why I am drawn to writing SF and not your everyday, Village-centric, mainstream fiction. My only disappointment is that the authors stopped their critique of history at the year 1945, the dawn of the Atomic Age. How I wish they’d take up their pens and resume their analysis to include our current era, the Information Age.
I have only one quibble with the book: the authors seem to presume that the myth of science reins supreme everywhere in the West, that everyone agrees that spiritualism and supernaturalism are as archaic as the Greek gods. I don’t know where the authors live--in Europe?-- but here in the U.S. the vast majority of people still have at least one foot firmly planted in the Dark Ages. When leading presidential candidates refudiate the “theory” of evolution, claim Jesus as their personal savior, or believe a guy named Smith dug up heavenly golden plates that only an angel could interpret, science gets short shrift. It occurs to me that the sustaining force motivating me to write my current novel is the desire to finally and fully bust the myth of the supernatural.
Good luck with that, dude.