Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Myths of the Future

This article is not about our myths that concern the future—the Third World War, the Singularity, Ragnarök etc. It is about the myths of the future, when our present days will be remote as the Trojan war, or Gilgamesh or the Yellow Emperor are from us.

Will there be myths at all? I do not think this question can be readily answered. Stone survives a long time, parchment much shorter, paper shorter still, and the lifespan of a DVD is sometimes so short it makes you shake your head over the state of technology. So it is thinkable that the tale of our civilizations will be blurred and muddied some day and turn into myth.

On the other hand, if we manage to evade the whole world falling in an age of barbary ever again, and if the world wide web of information stays alive with all information being copied and recopied scores of times, where will be the myths, unless you count the “urban legends” of the “poodle in the microwave” variant? Maybe even forum posts discussing the best way to display a bar diagram in Microsoft Excel will make it into futurity …

In short, I cannot answer that question. But join me in assuming for the time being that there will be a time when myths will be the only things of our days that arise out of the mist of time! What would they look like?

The future is the realm of science fiction, of course, and many authors have depicted future civilizations on earth and elsewhere, where only pale myths remain of the present. I will discuss two of them, of which I consider one brilliant and one bad.

The bad example, I am afraid, is by Isaac Asimov. That man is viewed as one of the cornerstones of science fiction literature, and rightly so. His works remain brilliant and seminal, even if there is much cause for criticism in them. And there is. In fact I find it incredible that I am able to find that much fault with an author and still respect him that immensely. It is a deeply paradoxical situation.

Today I have an axe to grind with Asimov’s myths of the future.

Strictly speaking they are not myths about the present day. They are myths about things that happened in some of Asimov’s books a couple of thousand years in the future, but they are told as myths is other books that take place more than 20,000 years in the future (Asimov wrote a lot of books).

I will not go into the details of these mythical stories which appear in the book Prelude to Foundation. They concern earth, which was lost, colonies and settlers, robots and renegades, and mythical heroes.

The thing that bothers me about them is that they are all true. The worst that has happened over millennia of supposedly oral tradition is that the names are changed a bit, for example one Elijah Baley is remembered as “Ba-lee”. Aside from that, as in a witness’ testimony in an Agatha Christie novel, every little detail turns out to be the truth and nothing but the truth. There is no simplification, euhemerism, no mixing-up or combination of several events anywhere.

As satisfying as this method is from the point of view of a detective novel (and most Asimov novels have that whodunnit element in them, even if there is no crime), as unsatisfactory it is when read as a history of the future.

Now for the positive example! It is by one of my favorite authors, Gene Wolfe, from his most famous work, the Book of the New Sun. I recommend that work to you most warmly! Consisting of four books it tells of the path of life of Severian, journeyman of the guild of torturers and executioners in the far future of earth. Being a curious mix of science fiction, fantasy and classic literature, it sparkles with surprising ideas, interesting characters and gems of language. I rate Wolfe in the same league as Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, and certainly superior to C.S. Lewis.

The stories of the past occuring in the Book of the New Sun are mostly rather hazy. Someone for example tells the story of Theseus, of the ship with the black sails, but it has been garbled by the centuries, the name of Theseus does not appear, the Minotaur has turned into an anonymous ogre and the point of the conclusion of the story is not clearly understood any more.

There is another little gem I want to quote to you in full (from the series’ first book, the Shadow of the Torturer):

The picure he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of the figure’s helmet was entirely gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

No further explanation is given, and the picture does not have any influence on the story either. It is just there, a small glint of the past, and it remains a mystery for the book’s protagonist.

Well, do you realize what picture Severian was looking at? I think it’s obvious, but anyway, here is the solution.

So much for the masters of the genre. To conclude this article I would like to describe to you my own attempts in this field. It is a story I began some years ago and never finished. Maybe I never will; I find my abilities as a legitimate author painfully inadequate. The ideas are there; it is the execution that falls short.

I set myself the task of retelling the story of the Cuban missile crisis as a myth or fairy tale of the future.

As befits a fairy tale I would depict Kennedy and Chruchev as two kings. In my draft I called them the star king (from the stars in the US banner) and the crescent moon king: there is a sickle in the Soviet emblem, and I though someone in the future might reason that it made sense to interpret it as crescent to match the astronomical theme of the star-spangled banner. Alternatively they might be called the red king (even if no-one remembered what the communists where, the fact that they were the red ones would remain, I am sure) and the blue king.

Fidel Castro would of course appear, without name, as a bearded duke of a little country before the blue border. I imagined that Castro and Cuba are forever linked to Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who became such a pop culture icon that he might find his way into the story, although in reality he had nothing to do with it. Everybody knows that “che” means “pal” in Spanish, so I considered making him a semi-heroic messenger figure called “the friend”.

Considering the barbaric age that might tell this fairy tale, the atom bomb would seem like magic to them, so I turned it into a magic weapon, invented by some legendary sage (Einstein?). I considered describing it in the shape of a small metallic mushroom (the notion of a mushroom cloud would remain in the human consciousness, I thought).

And the danger of radiation! For my (European) subconsciousness it is linked to the Chernobyl disaster, so some allusions to that would enter the story as well (although it happened later than the missile crisis). I think the notion of the “liquidators”, men clad in white doing a grisly radiation-related task in secret which killed them is strong enough to survive the ages and suffuse any story concerning atomics.

Add some random trivia, which might be remembered, for example that Chruchev was bald and did something with his shoe. Would Lee Harvey Oswald fit in the story? I did not come so far in writing, but maybe it would be possible after all. Add some more popular themes of the cold war, and tell the whole thing in the cutesy way in which fairytales disguise darker themes and there you are.