The myth-making process of science fiction

J.R.McCulloch
7 min readMay 11, 2024

In a sense, the ‘science’ of science fiction has been outstripped by another process. In coming to terms with tomorrow's potentialities, the ideas of science fiction and technological progression have been swept up in a storm of modern-day myth-making.

Hence, today, the rocket and the robot seem natural. They more closely resemble the technological society we live in than the gothic supernatural (although that still captivates us with its tantalising, terror-filled possibilities). Yet, like the supernatural, these strange tomorrows have become comfortable myths whose broad concepts most of us are faintly familiar with.

A little background

The Industrial Revolution occurred some 150 years ago. Since before then, back to the Age of Enlightenment, we’ve been reacting to and prophesying on technology. We’ve grown up in a culture that has long fictionalised and grown familiar with technologies, so much so that we have codified mythologies around such concepts as artificial intelligence and space travel.

The idea that humankind will reach out into the stars or replace itself as the dominant lifeform on the planet has been explored so often that they can be viewed much in the same way as the codified vampire or werewolf.

Except that, whereas the supernatural is cognitively estranged from reality, science fiction, on some level or another, purports to represent reality. Science fiction is a reaction to technological progress that doesn’t necessarily have to follow a strict scientific progression. Nonetheless, it promises in some shape or form to reflect and decode for us our surrounding world, and it does this by becoming codified itself.

Codifying science fiction

I first came across this idea from reading Gary K. Wolfe, Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University, who wrote a book called Known and Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (1979). In the book, Prof. Wolfe talks about the lasting influence of certain features in science fiction that have become icons, figures of mythification which get replayed in order to tell a story, revealing ‘a complex codification of many of the beliefs and values of an increasingly technological culture’.

However, the myth-making process abstracts the central icon from its contemporary surroundings, turning it into a recurring storytelling element that may last for centuries to come. This type of thinking is reflected in Vladimir Propp’s assertion in the Mythology of the Folktale that all stories are made of a few set props and characters that are used to tell a story about good, evil, and ambivalence.

Mythologising science fiction

A mythologised figure, then, is one that fits in with the storytelling process. It would seem to need time to develop and build up a mythic base — as Dr Will Slocombe suggests in his article ‘Futures literacy through narrative’; ‘we may also reconstruct this possible world as something close to the other fictions that we know.’ For that reason, much science fiction has gone beyond the merely scientific to enter into our cultural myth-making.

This I think, is critical to understanding the genre. Science fiction is written primarily by non-scientists who are influenced by previous science fiction, as well as science. The result is a mix of fiction and reality, with writers reacting to the fictional past.

The lasting symbols of this fiction can be so powerful that we find ways to bring them into existence — the robot being one such symbol. But fundamentally, there is a myth-making process surrounding these science fiction icons that surrounds them, so that even 100 or 200 years on, we still continue to use and are persuaded by the same iconography.

In a sense, science and the belief in science has become a religious conviction — the very point Theodore Sturgeon makes in his article Science Fiction, Morals, and Religion.

What is science fiction?

What is science fiction, then? Science fiction is a reaction and acknowledgement of a technical and scientific point of view brought to bear on the humanities. Science fiction has entered our collective mythos because we can no longer ignore our ability to change the world, create fantastic inventions or discover the underlying complexities of the universe.

But far from becoming as disciplined as science, science fiction frequently moves into the sphere of myth-making, taking the complex world of science and creating lasting myths that permeate even today. Hence, interstellar travel and colonisation, a seeming impossiblity, still holds people to this day, with many believing it to be our ultimate universal destiny.

100 years ago, the fact that our solar system was found to be barren of life didn’t stop science fiction writers from placing stories on Mars. It was only when the first pictures of the planet appeared that this dream was shattered, with the visual reality of the planet perhaps forcing the fantasy from the annuals of science fiction forever (or at least reducing its popularity considerably).

Foundation

I found this sense of estrangement, too, when viewing the recent Foundation television adaption of the Isaac Asimov series. What started in book form has been interpreted today, still as science fiction, in a way that’s very different from what Asimov intended. Psychohistory, Asimov’s pseudoscience of reading cultural patterns, was a somewhat plausible discipline in the original series. However, in the TV series, the ‘science’ of psychohistory is mythologised — understanding the discipline becomes not a learnt skill but a feeling. One is born with mathematic intuition and the ability to ‘sense’ the universe.

I’ve written about this in my blog before, but this process highlights what has gone on since science fiction began and what we need to understand about the shape of the discipline. Aside from the very hard science advocates, the genre has moved on, and now it lends its figures to the process of myth-making. Just see how easy it is to read messianic contexts into something like Dune. It feels natural in science fiction that technological and societal progress should lead to a state of almost God-like existence. This tradition is one way of interpreting the vast space between our society now and the unknowable ‘awesome’ possibilities of the future.

Thinking about science

I believe it’s important to acknowledge the way we think about science. For the most part, we live now in a ‘post-truth‘ era, where science and science fiction have become almost synonymous.

For the average non-scientifically minded person (myself included), science truths and science fiction become almost indistinguishable. A gap of knowledge exists between science and the general public, a gap which becomes filled with mythologising science fiction. And thanks to the internet and the spread of misinformation, people may readily believe in anything.

This isn’t to suggest that anyone aside from Scientologists may pick up a Philip K. Dick or A. E. Van Vogt and believe it to be gosple. Rather, the broad strokes of science fiction, the ideas that drive the story arch, which are used repeatedly, become part of a ‘belief’ in science.

We think we know what AI will hold because science fiction has prophesied its arrival from day dot. We believe we will colonise the universe because science is always progressing. These beliefs don’t come from sound, empirical and science-backed thinking. They come from a snug, self-assured belief in science and general science principles handed down from science fiction, stories, magazines and TV half-hour specials.

Collectively, in science fiction, humanity has found new symbols and icons ready-made to explain the technological age. We’ve used them time and time again to tell new stories, often with old contexts. We use science to help explain our own sense of estrangement, wonder or bewilderment.

I’ll conclude with something Ben Bova said in an article called ‘The Role of Science Fiction’:

Joseph Campbell, professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, has spent a good deal of his life studying humankind’s mythology and writing books on the subject, such as the four‐volume The Masks of God and Hero with a Thousand Faces. He has pointed out that modern man has no real mythology to turn to. The old myths are dead, and no new mythology has arisen to take their place.

And man needs a mythology, Campbell insists, to give a sort of emotional meaning and stability to the world in which he lives. Myths are a sort of codification on an emotional level of man’s attitudes toward life, death, and the whole vast and sometimes frightening universe.

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J.R.McCulloch

A literary student by nature (and training), with a splash of ad experience, I’m setting out to make passion my career — reading, writing and SF.