In our newest blog post, author Josh Pearce discusses the intersection of myth and science fiction and how it pertains to his first piece of fiction in Analog, “Leave Your Iron at the Door” on sale now in our May/June issue.
by Josh Pearce
To syncretize myths, legends, or religions is to string them together with a common thread. To collapse the many possible paths down to one reality tunnel.
Space opera—of the ray-gun gothic, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, James Kirk, Han Solo variant—is based on Westerns. These are space cowboys with low-slung holsters, laser-quick on the draw (always shooting first). The lone-hero gunslinger, in turn, comes from samurai movies (especially from Akira Kurosawa films: The Magnificent Seven is Seven Samurai; Star Wars is The Hidden Fortress; A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood’s first leading role, is Yojimbo). It’s a progression of two people facing off against each other, skill against skill. The hand-to-hand combat of martial arts movies escalates to samurai-sword duels, which escalate to high noon shootouts with pistols. (Cowboy Bebop pits space cowboys against space samurai throughout the entire series. Guns versus swords, and guns don’t always win.)
Where do we go from there? Neal Stephenson ends The System of the World with a cannon duel and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers are armed with personal nuclear weapons. In World War stories, man-versus-man merged right into man-versus-machine. Sniper duels, dogfights, panzerkillers, two submarine commanders stalking each other.
American heroic tales rely heavily on the individual: John Henry singlehandedly racing (and beating) the steam drill through a railroad tunnel a prime example of man-versus-machine. During the space race, the enduring image of the heroic American switched from the lonesome cowboy out on the range to the John Glenn and Alan Shepard alone in their space capsules, mythologized in Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo. We’re going to explore new worlds using the latest technologies, but we’re packing our oldest stories with us.
There are a number of stone-and-mortar medieval bridges throughout Europe whose construction is said to have been impossible by the available technology of the time and so they must have been built with the help of the Devil. If such superstition accretes around just piling stones upon each other, what legends will we tell about when the first Einstein-Rosen bridge spans the night sky in Cherenkov mother-of-pearl?
In our future legend, the bridge needs to be completed during a spate of good solar weather. When construction falls behind (when the bridge is in danger of being destroyed by flares and star storm), the architect consorts with unholy (or alien) forces to finish it before increased radiation dissolves the atomic bonds holding the fragile arch together. Most likely, attempting to form a theoretical wormhole tunnel in the real world is—and always has been, and always shall be—beyond the capabilities of the human race, and so only the Devil could be responsible. Faced with the impossible task, the builder makes a pact with Devil, who agrees to create an Einstein-Rosen bridge on the condition that he receive as payment the first soul to cross it.
Humanity gets around this payment by, in the grand cosmonaut tradition, shooting a test capsule containing only a dog through the newly-opened mouth of the wormhole. The Devil promptly consumes the dog’s soul.
(Or the Americans launch the first capsule, but theirs contains only a chimpanzee. Or humanity simply launches an automated probe through the wormhole gate, and the Devil mistakes the onboard AI for a living soul.)
The current ghost town of Canyon Diablo in Arizona was the closest settlement to Meteor Crater and so the meteorite dug up there was named for this particular devil. Other myths have attached themselves to the area since, such as that the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad ordered the wrong span length for its bridge across the canyon and, without the Devil’s help, the bridge remained incomplete for several months. Or that the township was so lawless that its main thoroughfare was named “Hell Street.”
Before nearby Route 66 was redesignated, chopped up, and turned into several different freeways, its sixth spur was numbered Route 666, which became known as the Devil’s Highway. It was supposedly cursed, the site of an unnatural number of road fatalities. But its number also made it a popular target for sign theft, probably not helping the road safety conditions any. A myth that fed on itself.
Charybdis the sea monster is a whirlpool that would swallow entire ships. Algol is the demon star. What natural deep-space hazards will lead future travelers astray, and what will they be named? How will they be personified?
Tengu get their name from the Chinese tiangou dog demons, who eat the Sun or the Moon during an eclipse, like Fenrir’s children Sköll and Hati, who finally catch their prey at the end of the world. Ragnarok begins when the ouroboros serpent Jörmungandr releases his tail and Yggdrasil is swept away in the flood. Living in its branches were forest spirits, satyrs, tengu, and maenads, and Br’er Rabbit entangled with the brea, briar, and brambles.
Minerva’s mother forged weapons and armor for her while they were both inside Jupiter’s body. The noise from this caused Jupiter so much pain that he had his head split open to relieve his headache. Minerva emerged, whole, as an adult, and she brought her iron with her.
(To most, living entirely within a metal shell would be torture, but historical use of iron maidens is difficult to prove.)
Minnie Mirv travels only by legend and lore, with her seven-parsec boots (Mephistopheles uses this footwear in Faust), across Devil’s bridges, and over the rainbow road. The bifrost likely had its roots in the Milky Way, yet another structure doomed for destruction in the end days. A glimpse of a familiar myth, no matter how oblique, can bring the scale of the intergalactic down within grasp, and after the events of Ragnarok, the world will be remade anew by two human survivors.
This is one possible interpretation.