Thursday, 26 February 2009

myth in science fiction and fantasy

I have spent the last week reading and re-reading various parts of the essay "Myth and Archtype in Science Fiction", from Ursula K Le Guin's The Language of the Night. I was trying to read the entire book for Carl's Sci Fi Experience, but I've decided that there is too much food for thought in this book to rush it.

For me, there is so much to think about, about how science fiction and fantasy is serious literature. I think it has been wrongly judged from its very inception with Lord Dunsany last century, as children's literature, or just stuff about dragons and witches and magic, and therefore to read lightly, with no serious intent. Le Guin challenges that notion in her essays. Each one is thought-provoking, and passionate. It makes me realize how little even today science fiction is thought of. It is still relegated to the realm of geeks and science nerds, of people who can't quite make it in the real world. Yet that is a myth that we can only change when all of us who love it start proudly saying, "read this", or "look at the ideas in this", to people who've never thought of reading it. I don't mean we have to get on a soap box and declare it serious literature, because plenty of it is not, plenty of it is written for fun, and that's good. I just think it's time that we who love science fiction and fantasy, should be able to stop apologizing, as if we've made a mistake and will shortly correct ourselves by reading only the NY Times bestseller list. Personally, I think alot of serious literature is written, as Nick Hornby says in his collection of essays The Pollysyllabic Spree, only for other serious critics of literature. No one else is going to read it! Science fiction and fantasy can be darn good, satisfying as nothing else can be, when it's done right.

And what is good science fiction? Well, in this essay, Le Guin says it's 'the writer who draws not upon the works and thoughts of others, but upon his own thoughts and his own deep being, will inevitably hit upon common material. The more original his work, the more imperiously recognizable {her quote} it will be.........
"The artist who works from the center of his own being will find archetypal images and release them into consciousness. The first science fiction writer to do so was Mary Shelley. She let Frankenstein's monster loose. Nobody has been able to shut him out again, either. There he is, sitting in the corner of our lovely modern glass and plastic living room, right on the tubular steel contour chair, big as life and twice as ugly."

Isn't that a great quote? Frankenstein as myth. And he is. In her nightmare, Mary Shelley somehow plugged into the future where we could literally sew parts of other bodies together, which we do with our surgeries and operations. It's an awesome power, terrible and wonderful, and we haven't quite come to terms with it yet as a society. So there he sits, waiting for someone to tell him - or us - about the mysterious power of Spirit that is the animating force of the universe, which thank heavens we can't control. Waiting for us to recognize him as ourselves, which not even Frankenstein could do. For a long time as a child I was afraid of the monster because he couldn't be reasoned with, but as I became an adult, I began to feel sorry for him because his master, the one who made him, who he wants to love him, rejects him instead. It's an awful, powerful story, and touches a raw nerve that has become a modern myth. That's the power of true science fiction.

This could be said of all literature, of all good books. Le Guin says that (I'm paraphrasing here) the artist who is able to bring back something personal, something out of his or her own experience, brings back something for the rest of the world to discover themselves in. This is something I've come across in all my how-to-write books; that the only things worth writing about is what's inside me, because it's my interpretation that gives the world another insight or view. It doesn't mean I can't write what's around me - that's the stuff we use to create with, but we create out of our dreams and nightmares. That's where myths lie, I think.

I still don't quite understand why fantasy is as neglected in the literature reviews as it has been all these long years it has existed. Books keep getting taken out of the fantasy area and put into classics - The Iliad, and The Odyssey, are both great fantasy stories! - Beowulf, and if The Lord of the Rings didn't have Gandalf the Wizard, I'm sure that somehow that would find it's way onto the best books ever written, instead of getting left off all the time.

I like how she explains the danger of the fantasy archetypes: "Beyond and beneath the great living mythologies of religion and power there is another region into which science fiction enters. I would call it the area of the Sub-myth." She goes on to explain that these are motifs and characters which are alive, but have no deeper meaning associated with them; " - the blond hero of sword and sorcery, mad scientists, detectives who find who done it, brave starship captains.....They have no element of the true myth except its emotive, irrational "thereness". The artist who deliberately submits his work to them has forfeited the right to call his work science fiction; he's just a populist cashing in.
True myth may serve for thousands of years as an inexhaustible source of intellectual speculation, religious joy, ethical inquiry, and artistic renewal. The real mystery is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is. You look at it and it vanishes. You look at the Blond hero - really look - and he turns into a gerbil. But you look at Opollo, and he looks back at you.
The poet Rilke looked at a statue of Opollo about fifty years ago, and Apollo spoke to him. "You must change your life," he said.
When the genuine myth rises into consciousness, that is always its message. You must change your life."

Isn't that a powerful interpretation of how myths still work on us? Now how many bestsellers on the NY Times book list would matter? Not many.

I read fantasy because it talks to me. Somewhere in me I must have a dragon curled up, and a black cat skulking in the light. I must have a sword that still needs to be claimed, and a unicorn still wanders. Ghosts inhabit my dreams, and so I reach for books that contain them, whether it's ghost stories or fantasy stories, to better understand what ghosts have to say.

I think fantasy reaches that place that ordinary books can't reach, the place that believes that things can be different. I'm not saying fairies exist! Maybe they do, because they were in folklore long before fantasy books ever existed! I think it's a need to explain the unexplainable, the acts of mystery and wonder, the synchronicities and timings that change our lives when they happen. There is also the idea of a calling, which I think the myth of King Arthur captures perfectly - he lifts that sword out so easily - all the hard work of doing what he is called to do, is still to come. Fantasy is all about the call, and the answer, and how the world is changed or righted, by answering that call. So most of it would be sub-myth, easily. So my question to you, my dear readers, is: can you think of a fantasy that might have a touch of myth about it? Is there a fantasy book that has worked on you, so that some element in its story has become part of you? Because that's how myth works, as Le Guin and Rilke show. I may joke about having dragons and cats inside me, but I don't think it is just a joke. I do dream of ghosts, very often. My fantasy story I wrote last year is about reclaiming a power my heroine thought she was forbidden to use. I am not saying it will even be published! I haven't done the second draft yet. In the writing of it, though, and in the 25 years or so that I've been reading fantasy, I've come to know that fantasy tells a story in a way that no other genre can. So, if we need myth to live by, is there a fantasy that you would recommend to someone - other than The Lord of the Rings! - to start with? Is there a fantasy you are passionate about? I'd like to know what fantasy moves you, what book makes you really respond to it.

Being an artist is not easy. As I cruise my way among the fantasy shelves, there have been times when I have walked away with nothing in my hands, depressed because nothing new has been written. What I really mean when I say that to myself, is that nothing meaningful has been written. The danger of fantasy and science fiction is that we as readers will settle for the Submyth, the endless fantasy trilogies and wars that threaten the world, the endless inventing of worlds, without the story bringing something new into being.

The best of fantasy and science fiction? Ah, that has the power to change the world. Look at Fahrenheit 451, which I read last year, and how we are still wrestling with the idea of banning books. Look at The Lord of the Rings, which still towers over almost everything written in fantasy since. Even though not everyone can get through the three books, what the books are about is seeping through our skins into our minds, so we know even if we've never read the books, who Frodo Baggins is, and Gandalf the Wizard. They, and the ring, are moving deeper down culture's unconscious, touching the area of Myth. Le Guin is convinced fantasy and science fiction is a serious subject. She says of Tolkien, "Tolkien did it; he found a ring, a ring which we keep trying to lose...." The story of the ring is something more than itself. There's something there.

I especially like this description she gives of a living image of myth that reaches out to touch all of us through the artist's work, and why it touches us:
"A dragon, not a dragon cleverly copied or mass-produced, but a creature of evil who crawls up, threatening and inexplicable, out of the artist's own unconscious, is alive: terribly alive. It frightens little children, and the artist, and the rest of us. It frightens us because it is part of us, and the artist forces us to admit it."

And that's why I read fantasy, and keep coming back to it.


Bybee said...

I definitely want to read more Le Guin. I really loved The Left Hand of Darkness.

Molly said...

WOW - I must say that your essay is as thought-provoking and insightful as Le Guin. I will need to re-read what you have written later this weekend when I am not rushed for work. You are really helping me to understand this genre more than anyone - or any book. I am truly grateful.

A Hazra said...

You're right. Sci-fi and fantasy have been treated like stepkids for a long time, despite the fact that there is a lot of absolutely fantastic writing in these genres. i actually think that fantasy is more challenging to write as it tests your creativity, as opposed to thrillers which basically involve places and things around us.

Jeane said...

I have been wanting to read The Language of the Night for a long time. It sounds fabulous. What a wonderful post you've written here. I find it curious that while Sci Fi and Fantasy books still don't get much attention, tons of fantasy films have sprung up in recent years. And they seem to be very popular.

Shelley said...

I often feel as if I have to defend myself for enjoying fantasy! What I am drawn to the most in fantasy is the idea of a quest--both of a tangible goal and the inner quest of the character often becoming more than they thought they were. It's a great metaphor for life and the struggles we may go through.
I agree with what Jeane said about Sci-Fi/Fantasy movies being more accepted. Why is that?

Cath said...

Excellent post. I was in the Oxfam charity shop on Monday and there - on the children's rack, if you please - was a copy of Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. I politely told the assistant that the book is, in no way, shape or form, a children's book. She looked at me like I was mad. Well I must be!... I read sci fi and fantasy! :::groan:::

Anyway, my own favourite fantasy author is Robin Hobb. So far I've only read the first of her three fantasy series (Farseer... the next six are the Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man), but they were three of the best fantasies I've ever read. Her writing is amazing. Planning to start on the second trilogy for Carl's next Once Upon a Time challenge.

Eva said...

Here, here! (Picture me in the House of Commons, pounding on my table.)

Amy said...

wow, great post!

Tracy Falbe said...

Excellent essay. I've always been very comfortable with the fantasy and science fiction genres. My mother always buys me "literary novels" to improve my taste, but about 80 percent of those books are boring and lame. Genre literature is where the action is. Sometimes it's pure fun, and sometimes it summons deep feelings and insights.

Kerry said...

Wow Susan! What a fantastic essay of your own! You explain LeGuin's words so well. Thank you very much for posting.

While I agree, I wonder if it is also something about us all as readers that it is fantasy and SF that speaks to us. Surely other kinds of books speak to other people? But yes, it is these things that speak to me as a reader. The only way I have ever been able to explain it myself, is that the books that speak to me are the ones that soar.

I've just read an excellent fantasy that I think does some of those things. It's called "The Eye of Night" by Pauline J. Alama and my review of it, which I wrote today, is here.

Sherry said...

So, if we need myth to live by, is there a fantasy that you would recommend to someone - other than The Lord of the Rings! - to start with? Is there a fantasy you are passionate about? I'd like to know what fantasy moves you, what book makes you really respond to it?

Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur
C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Gulliver's Travels by Swift
Don Quixote by Cervantes

These are the classics, along with Tolkien, Most modern fantasy is derivative of one or all of these, not to say that it's all badly written or just a cheap copy of one of the above authors. I do think that when we are talking about "serious literature" we go back to these (probably a few others that I'm not thinking of) and compare and contrast. Does it live up to Tolkien and Lewis? Is it as politically and culturally insightful as Swift? Is it as profoundly playful as Alice?

The more original his work, the more imperiously recognizable it will be.
Yes, science fiction and fantasy are a very good place to recognize ourselves and our myths.

Susan said...

Bybee: I haven't read much by Le Guin, except these essays! I know, shocking :-O So I have to remedy it. I have the Wizard of Earthsea trilogy on my TBR pile, and I have to get Left Hand of Darkness. She certainly makes me want to read her work! What did you especially like about The Left-hand of Darkness?

Molly: well, thank you! I mostly wanted to get a conversation going about the ideas she was presenting about what makes science fiction work. If it helps you or anyone else have a better appreciation for sf/fantasy, then I'm really happy about that. Her essays are giving me essays into the genre, and I wanted to share it. So thank you too for being curious!

a Hazra: welcome! you're right, fantasy is challenging creatively to write, because if you pull anything less than what is inside you out, it's obvious that the work isn't genuine. I think though, the point can be made about any writing - and only the very best of thrillers move their books out of that genre into good writing, but still they get much more press and reviews than most fantasy does. I don't think it's fair.

jeane: I wonder if the films are an easier way to access fantasy for our culture? Or if fantasy is a way to bring something mythic in that I think our culture hungers for, that not any other genre has. We need that symbology of myth, and we need it to mean something, and fantasy is the closest thing that isn't religion that has that. What do you think? and thanks for the compliment about the essay!

Shelley: see my answer above to Jeane, for an answer to your question also. Why do you think we need fantasy movies now? and I know what you mean by defending ourselves! The lack of respect for fantasy is sometimes disturbing to me, and it's one that I've had to come to terms with in myself - how proud are you, or I, to be seen with a fantasy book? there was a time when I thought it was less culturally than 'literature' because again, only intelligent serious people would be seen with literary books. but time and again, I find most 'serious literature ' books these days boring. And fantasy - the good fantasy - so satisfying! I like the quest also, and as you rightly say, it's inner and outer.

Cath: it's odd, isn't it, how powerful books are shuffled off to the children's corner, as if they are a cousin everyone is embarrassed about but can't get rid of? IF they could find a way to get all controversial books sent there, and then ban them because it's not suitable for kids to read.....well, then they'd disappear of have to go underground. I think we - general society, culture - are afraid of the truth, and really good fantasy and sci fi, as Le Guin says, shows us who we are. I love fantasy, I always have, but as I said in some of the other comments, and as they have said, we always seem to have a need to defend reading it, and this is what Le Guin is saying in her essays too: she is defending fantasy and science fiction also. What do you think? Why was Left Hand of Darkness stuck on the children's shelf?

As for Robin Hobb, I LOVE her! I have the whole Farseer Trilogy, and I've read the Tawny Man series also - the Fool is such a fascinating character! - and they are so very good. I'm working on her shaman series now, which some readers haven't liked as much. Oh, this is fun that you're reading them! I have to read the Ship trilogy next, somehow I skipped over them.

Eva: I know, I didn't want to sound pompous or boring, either! but, hear hear! sounds about right! lol :-D

Amy: welcome! thank you!

Tracy: My mother and I both read fantasy and mysteries, so we always trade books back and forth. I don't have to defend my reading to her! but to the world in general - oh yes. Especially when I worked in a bookstore that specialized in Canadian fiction and I had to admit I didn't like very much of it! thank heavens for Charles de Lint, Guy Gavriel Kay, and LMM Montgomery!!! lol now of course we have good mystery writers, but Canadian literature is always striving for world recognition, so there is wide schism here between Can literature and our fantasy writers. It's quite sad actually. I agree with the 'lame' designation too! thanks so much for writing in!

Kerry: thank you! I think you are right, I mean, some people only read biographies, or romances, or historicals; I read all of them, but my favourites, the ones I turn to over and over, and that I thoroughly enjoy, are fantasy and mysteries. I like how you put that they make your soul soar. The very best of each genre does that for me, too. Kind of like music, if books could be music.

I haven't read Pauline Alama, I'll come see your review and see if we have it here in Canada yet. Thanks! :-)

Sherry: I'm not sure how many people are reading Gulliver's Travels these days, or Don Quixote. I'm not sure they can be used as the source material for either fantasy or science fiction, because the myths that fantasy and sf draw on go back much further and GT or DQ. In fact, I'd say it would be interesting to see which myths Gulliver's Travels and Don Quixote draw on themselves, that make them satisfying books to read. Also, as much as GT is funny, it hasn't shaped fantasy as much as it has shaped satire in literature, which is different. Same with Don Quixote - his travels and poking at the world around him, have been developed more in literature than fantasy. They could be examples of both, but no one is reading them, and I don't think they inform the literature in the same way that Lord of the Rings, Dune, Frankenstein, or Dracula for example, have shaped their genres. there is alot of science fiction that I don't delve into because I'm not as widely read in that as I am in fantasy. And I have had occasion to read both Gulliver's travels and Don quixote and I didn't enjoy either of them very much, though I was reading them for university courses at the time. In order for them to be serious literary books they can't be in science fiction or fantasy genres, I think I'm trying to say, which isn't fair, but I'm also looking at what has influenced fantasy and sci fi and why.

Alice in wonderland is a story all to itself, a landmark story that is unique and original and not quite understood yet, I think, even though it's been around for over 100 years!!

I think what I'm saying is that I understand your points, but the books you mention aren't generally considered classics in fantasy or science fiction. They all cross genres - and Till We Have Faces is based on the myth of Psyche and Cupid, and I'm still trying to get my hands on a copy of that book!!! That's not to say these books aren't important, and to you especially the reader, but to the world at large, you would have to fight to get them accepted as genre fiction (other than satire.) but then again, they have been relegated, haven't they? to satire!!

Morte D'Arthur - has anyone read the entire volume? I know I've tried. I have to try again. It's not an easy read. Certainly our myths about Arthur are generated here - but I think it latches on (uses) the idea of the quest, which is why we respond to it so much.

Thanks so very much for your reply, you have given me alot to think about, as you can tell from my response! I don't entirely agree with you, though I am very happy to have this debate, since it opens the field up to wider field of literary sources to draw on to make fantasy and sci fi respectable!! and isn't it sad that we are still trying to, despite Le Guin's essays, despite the good books written down through the years, it's still not respected as equal to literary books.