Julia (skogkatt) wrote,

Boskone Panel Notes: Mythology in SF

Okay! I am putting all my panel notes from this weekend up one panel at a time. This is Mythology in SF, which was Friday at 8pm. These are not transcripts, but incomplete notes I hastily scribbled down. Please feel free to offer additions or corrections in the comments.

Here's the official blurb:

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

Debra Doyle co-writes books with her husband, Jim Macdonald, and had stayed up until 5am Friday morning finishing a novel. They have a website here, and they are both instructors at Viable Paradise (they were two of my instructors when I attended in 2009, in fact).

Greer Gilman
writes fantasy which is very mythic, and she won the Tiptree Award in 2010 for her novel, Cloud and Ashes. Her website is here.

Margaret Ronald is the author of an urban fantasy trilogy set in Boston (Spiral Hunt, Wild Hunt, and Soul Hunt), and which draws heavily on mythic themes. Her website is here.

Mostly our output tends to be fantasy, but we all like to read science fiction. Doyle has used myth in science fiction in the Mageworlds series. Maggie has written some SF short stories.

Julia: How have myths from the past influenced and affected SF writers? Why is myth so attractive?

Greer: This has a very long history. We mapped the heaves with myth. Constellations have mythical stories attached to them. Stories are a way of mapmaking.

Doyle: Myth can be really useful in establishing structure.

Maggie: One of her favorite books is The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge, which is hard SF, but uses the Snow Queen and the White Goddess for theme and structure.

Greer: SF can thrie on the tension between familiar stories and alien experiences and environments.

Doyle: Rocannon's Worldhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocannon%27s_World by Ursula K. Le Guin is a great example of using myth in SF.

Greer: "Semley's Necklace" (the short story which opens that book) -- We have taken alien object and put it it museum. Aliens come back to reclaim. [I am not entirely sure how this tied into the discussion, but at the time is made perfect sense.] Tolkien said Christianity story gets told over and over, so must have truly happened once.

Maggie: Terry Pratchett uses myth to great effect, but that's really getting into fantasy.

Doyle: All of this keeps coming back to Earth cultures and people fighting in real life because they misunderstand each others' myths. Recommendation for Mr. Bligh's Bad Languagehttp://www.amazon.com/Mr-Blighs-Bad-Language-original/dp/0521467187.

Julia: Where is the line between fantasy and SF? Are there examples of truly alien myths, or are they all just our myths retold?

Maggie: Tried to play with alien myth in thinking about the world of "Salvage" (short story in Beneath Ceaseless Skies). Thought a lot about what sort of creation myths robots would tell themselves.

Greer: It's hard to write completely alien mythology because how could humans understand it?

Doyle: John M. Ford might have tried... If you are going to write this stuff from the inside, you have to believe it while you're writing it. Lovecraft may have done a good job of imagining truly alien, but it made people lose their minds.

Julia: One example of really alien-feeling creatures are the lobsters in Charlie Stross's story that later because the beginning of Accelerando. But I'm not sure what myths they might have.

Maggie: Lots of aliens seem to be pulled from myth.

Greer: Out of the Silent Planet -- Different perspective, but empirical presence (so that makes is somewhat familiar). But that doesn't explore the question of what the aliens would tell each other.

Maggie: In Old Man's War by John Scalzi, there's an alien race who have a myth that a planet will be redeemed by battle.

Greer: Bradbury's Martians are inversions of humans.

Doyle: Aliens as fairies.

Audience: For elves in space, what about Poul Anderson's Selenites?

Audience: For robot mythology, there's a webcomic called Freefall where robots believe if God is omnipotent, then all religions must be true.

Audience: For alien myth, Zelazny.

[Speaker not listed in notes]: A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge has echoes of The Ant and the Grasshopper.

Greer: Michael Swanwick has a story called "Mother Grasshopper", where the planet is actually a giant grasshopper.

Audience: Don't need to go into space to find alien SF. Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun has the dying sun--very alien, but on Earth.

Audience: Battle Star Galactica has aliens who seem more familiar to today's societal norms than the humans. Humans there are more open and Cylons are monotheistic and very conservative.

[Speaker not listed in notes]: Zelazny, Lord of Light [illegible] Zeus in space...

Maggie: Vorlons in Babylon 5 use myth to manipulate people and get what they want.

Audience: Fantasy, but alien feeling: Lord Dunsany's The Gods of Pegana.

Audience: Poul Anderson's "Goat Song" is an SFnal retelling of the Orpheus myth.

Greer: Stories of opposition between science and myth.

Maggie: "The Nine Billion Names of God" is a good example of that.

Doyle: Also by Arthur C. Clarke, "The Star".

Julia: So where is the line between SF and fantasy? Is there one? Is Science Fantasy a thing?

All panelists: We hate lines. It's all genre.

Doyle: It really frustrates SF authors if you tell them that SF is just fantasy where scientific method is the going mythology. Hard SF is like the ultra orthodox, pure form of genre faith. [Whole room laughs.]

Greer: And we're a literary UU. [More laughter.]

Maggie: Heard Doyle at a previous Boskone say that SF or fantasy depends on book covers. Rocket? SF. Holy Grail? Fantasy.

Audience: What makes a myth creditable/publishable?

Maggie: Have to believe it would be told again and again.

Greer: Stories are maps. Good ones get used.

Maggie: On a more meta level, depends where they are in the overall story. If they come early and seem too much like on the nose foreshadowing, it can be hard to believe in them.

Greer: Real mythologies are not consistent.

Julia: Sita Sings the Blues is a great example of this. The movie itself has some problematic aspects because it's a white American woman using another culture's mythology to process her breakup, but it also has beautiful art, and these fantastic interludes where she gets a group of Indian people to talk about what happens next in the story. There are lots of overlapping voices saying things like, "In the version I know..." and, "Wait, I thought this happened..."

Audience: Do you see many authors using mythology to make aliens understandable to humans (like Klingons having culture of honor, for instance)?

Maggie: One way to understand a person is to ask them to tell a story about themselves.

Audience: Jane Yolen is an example of an author who lets you have different versions of myth. Some of her stories end multiple ways. She writes in the text things like, "Some people say it ended this way, and some people say this happened..." She doesn't tell you the One True Ending.

Audience: Neal Stephenson deals with myth and religion from the perspective of a computer nerd. Star Wars, by contrast, is ostensibly SF, but feels very Jungian. Do panelists have examples of SF that feels like fantasy or vice versa?

Audience: There's no reason SF has to feel more cerebral than fantasy, really.

Julia: First SF-feeling fantasy that leapt to mind was Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Very strongly rooted in myth and the fantastic, but also has very academic and technical magic system, and felt cerebral. SF doesn't necessarily have to feel cerebral, but apparently my brain thinks of it that way.

Greer: Le Guin's Author of the Acacia Seeds is a good example of an alien trying to tell its story.

And we were out of time.

For other panels, click the Panel Notes tag. I will be writing up others in the next day or so.
Tags: boskone, cons, panel notes
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.