Ursula K. Le Guin on the “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction” :

“Where intellect fails, and must always fail, unless we become disembodied bubbles, then one of the other modes must take over. The myth, mythological insight, is one of these. Supremely effective in its area of function, it needs no replacement. Only the schizoid arrogance of modern scientism pretends that it ought to be replaced, and that pretension is pretty easily deflated. For example, does our scientific understanding of the nature and behavior of the Sun explain (let alone explain away) Apollo’s remarkable sex life, or his role as the god of music and of the divine harmony? No, it has nothing whatever to do with all that; it has nothing to do with sex, or music, or harmony, or divinity; nor, as science, did it ever pretend to — only scientism made the claim. Apollo is not the Sun, and never was. The Sun, in fact, ‘is merely’ one of the names of Apollo.

Reductionism cuts both ways, after all.

So long, then, as we don’t claim either that the science in science fiction replaces the “old false” mythologies, or that the fiction in science fiction is a mere attempt to explain what science hasn’t yet got around to explaining, we can use the slogan. Science fiction is the mythology of the modern world — or one of its mythologies — even though it is a highly intellectual form of art, and mythology is a nonintellectual mode of apprehension. For science fiction does use the mythmaking faculty to apprehend the world we live in, a world profoundly shaped and changed by science and technology; and its originality is that it uses mythmaknig faculty on new material.

But there’s another catch to look out for. The presence of mythic material in a story does not mean that the mythmaking faculty is being used.

Here is a science fiction story: its plot is modeled directly upon that of an ancient myth, or there are characters in it modeled upon certain gods or heroes of legend. Is it, therefore, a myth? Not necessarily; in fact, probably not. No mythmaking is involved: just theft.

Theft is an integral function of a healthy literature. It’s much easier to steal a good plot from some old book than to invent one. Anyhow, after you’ve sweated to invent an original plot, it very  often turns out to be a perfect parallel to one of the old stories (more on this curious fact later). And since there are beautiful and powerful stories all through world legendry, and since stories need retelling from generation to generation, why not steal them? I’m certainly not the one to condemn the practice; parts of my first novel were lifted wholesale from Norse mythos (Brisingamen, Freya’s necklace, and episodes in the life of Odin). My version isn’t a patch on the original, of course, but I think I did the gods of Asgard no harm, and they did my book some good. This sort of pilfering goes on all the time, and produces many pleasant works of art, thought it does not lead to any truly new creations or cognitions.

There is a more self-conscious form of thievery which is both more destructive and more self-destructive. In many college English courses the words ‘myth’ and ‘symbol’ are given a tremendous charge of significance. You just ain’t no good until you can see a symbol hiding, like a scared gerbil, under every page. And in many creative writing courses the little beasts multiply, the place swarms with them.

Scholars can have great fun, and can strengthen the effect of such figures, by showing their relationship to other manifestations of the archetype in myth, legend, dogma, and art. These linkages can be highly illuminating. Frankenstein’s monster is related to the Goldem; to Jesus; to Prometheus. Tarzan is a direct descendant of the Wolfchild/Noble Savage on one side, and every child’s fantasy of the Orphan-of-High-Estate on the other. The robot may be seen as the modern ego’s fear of the body, after the crippling division of ‘mind’ and ‘body,’ ‘ghost’ and ‘machine,’ enforced by post-Renasissance mechanistic thought…

On this level, science fiction deserves the title of a modern mythology.

Most science fiction doesn’t, of course, and never will. There are never very many artists around. No doubt we’ll continue most of the time to get rewarmed leftovers from Babylon and Northrop Frye served up by earnest snobs, and hordes of brawny Gerbilmen ground out by hacks. But there will be many mythmakers, too. Even now — who knows? — the next Mary Shelley may be lying quietly in her tower-top room, just waiting for a thunderstorm.” – Le Guin, “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction”

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