Myths of Inner and Outer Space:
Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence
by Maureen B. Roberts BSc, PhD
A paper presented at the 11th International Conference of the Mythopoeic Literature Society of Australia [July, 1994]
And I quote: 'By day fantastic birds flew through the petrified forests, and jewelled alligators glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline rivers. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown.' The stuff of myth and fantasy? It could well be, yet this is a work of science fiction by J. G. Ballard, who with Conradesque irony evokes in his novel The Crystal World (1966) the metaphysical landscapes of the mind through the Daliesque dwarfing of the individual by the immense energies of the unconscious as they are mirrored in Nature. Set in a West African jungle, an apocalyptic crystallisation of the universe into living gems unfolds when through a time contraction effect all is 'transfigured and illuminated, joined together in the last marriage of time and space.' Matter and antimatter, time and antitime are mutually annihilated into timelessness.
If Ballard's 60-ish vision is the ironic nemesis of Nature too long abused through the hubris of technocracy, it nonetheless anticipates the transcendence of dualism in all its forms. However bizarre the apotheosis, it involves the surrender of a lone self limited by a physical and temporal identity to one unbound by such restrictions, a self whose fate is the fate of the universe to which he is inextricably bound. Since the 60s, in an often more positive light, much of science fiction as prophetic mythology has anticipated certain changes about to erupt into our collective awareness. As a reflection of radical shifts in the meanings of 'science' and 'God', our age is witnessing a dramatic upheaval of consciousness through the humanization of the universe and the corresponding deification of humanity. This development reflects our quest for selfhood as completeness - as a relatedness of being that seeks to unite the many polarities of life - dark and light, male and female, inner and outer, Nature and technology, human and divine.
In science fiction, along with the stock transcendental themes of parallel universes and time travel, we find metaphysics, utopianism, shape-shifting, gender-swapping, cybernetics, psionics, God - anything is fair game in this genre's role as mediator between science and the imagination in our quest for release from the limitations of mundane existence. But this escapism is neither - in Tolkien's terms - the flight of the deserter nor the lawful escape of the prisoner. It is, rather, the search for a new paradigm of reality which reflects the level we have ascended to on the evolutionary ladder of enlightenment.
Myth is both a response to the emerging needs of a culture and an impetus for its change. As a redeeming quest for meaning, myth is a mirror held up to the collective mind. Who, then, are our myth-makers? They are prophetic voices who anchor the universal themes of myth in a contemporary context and deal with questions that are often triggered by the deplorable state of the world and the apparent meaninglessness of materialistic society. Science fiction has the power both to question and sanction the directions society is taking, because its response to scientific progress is ambivalent. Here an unavoidable psychological law comes into play, for on the warning side we encounter the double edged potential for inflation, or hubris, and the nemesis of revenge. To illustrate the point, the 50s remained stuck in a science-Nature opposition through the deifying of deterministic science and the backlash of a mass neurosis concerning Nature. The self-assuredness of rationally directed technology triggered the nemesis of Nature, and the dragons and monsters of traditional mythology became a giantism of Natural imagery - a fly, rabbits, ants, walking plants, dinosaurs, The Giant Claw, The Spider, The Blob, the Creature From the Black Lagoon - all angry symbols of the rejected instinctive realm. This was a time when mechanistic 'Science', philosophically armed with high-powered futurism and the illusion of technological omnipotence, saved the day.
Since then the inflated notion of science as conquest has been superseded by humility as a search for harmony with, respect for and understanding of Nature and alien cultures, a quest championed by authors such as Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Larry Niven, C. J. Cherryh, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Walter Miller, and others. So then, can myth and technological progress coexist? Indeed it can. Far from rejecting technology, science fiction incorporates the redeeming transposition of technology from a materialistic into a personal context, which in turn subsumes the possibility of the harmonious coevolution of technology and consciousness - a challenge from which fantasy, in spite of its being a Tolkienish 'lawful' escapism, makes (dare I suggest) a sometimes cowardly retreat. If fantasy's defect is its exclusiveness, that is, its rejection of the technological, science fiction's merit is its inclusiveness - its potential to embrace as myth every facet of modern culture into a unified vision.
For myth always speaks of the unity of life and in many instances the label 'science fiction' becomes something of a misnomer in cases where the actual ambition is to mythologize. At the heart of myth is the archetypal essence of human nature, the transcendental inner centre of the self as that which is coextensive with the cosmos and experientially indistinguishable from God. If myth is inclusive by virtue of its holism as a mode of consciousness and existence, so, then, is its unifying principle, the self, whose holism resides in its transcendence of the polarities of matter and mind, inner and outer, Nature and technology. Hence in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), the mythologizing of computer networking occurs on a cosmic scale in the context of a heroic struggle against a technopsychic 'Perversion' which is threatening to destabilize the galactic 'Known Net' and its Zone borders. In Vinge's scheme, different planetary races explore paths to a Transcendence whose supremacy is hazily defined in terms of technological superiority. Vinge's division of the mandala-like galaxy into 'Zones of Thought' mirrors the hierarchical structure of the psyche, moving outward from the 'The Unthinking Depths' of the unconscious Core, through the Great Slowness, to the Beyond, and finally to the outermost 'Transcend' where godlike 'Powers' dwell.
There is perhaps a similar mythic intent in Damien Broderick's The Dreaming Dragons (1980) which evokes a symbolic reality in which a 'transcendent computer' induces a godlike consciousness through which machines, a centaur, angelic archetypes and the aboriginal Serpent Dreaming coexist in a 'universe of discourse' where inner and outer reality form one consciousness, one technomythic mode of existence. At the culmination of the novel earthly wisdom is revealed as culminating in 'spirit and matter brought together in life knowing itself' as the questing protagonists move inward through ten spheres of progressive enlightenment toward the central singularity of ultimate truth. In The Dreaming Dragons Broderick presents an intriguing rationale of the Platonic idea of the World Soul, or the collective unconscious, which originates as a constructed 'Soul Core', a spherical locus of wisdom located in a Central Australian 'Vault' made by ancestral prehuman saurians.
In these novels we witness the trend to literalise the symbolic order, to merge gods and humans through the erosion of a clear distinction between fact and myth, for such visions imply the hope that technology and consciousness may merge into an alchemical synthesis transcending both material and immaterial realms of existence. It is this mode of transcendence which is in many respects the key to our future, for through an evolutionary imperative humanity moves from one model of reality to another. In exploring existential questions of identity and apocalyptic visions of transformation, science fiction has become a means of imaging the wholeness and the uncertainty, the complexity and mystery of what we are. To quote the motto of Star Trek's 'Deep Space Nine' series: 'It is the unknown that defines our existence.' The relativity of mass, space and time echoes the shifting kaleidoscope of our own identity. But, paradoxically, a kaleidoscope image remains ordered, for in the Self, as in the cosmos, order and uncertainty coexist in creative tension.
As Kim Stanley Robinson suggests, successive scientific eras zig-zag between alternating paradigms of reality, from the comparative safety of determinism to the fluid boundaries of relativity, the oscillation between order and uncertainty mirroring the cyclic growth of the human psyche, for constant change and the undermining of stability are necessary to the evolution of thought. In science fiction the quest for identity includes fundamental concerns about knowledge, and the nature and scope of Mind. Behind it all lie unanswerable questions as our age becomes the midwife to a new consciousness in which there are as many universes as there are minds to experience them. Undoubtedly in this regard the quasi-mystical view of science which has come increasingly to the fore has helped foster the burgeoning growth of science fiction's metaphysical branch of its evolutionary tree.
In the new holistic paradigm of science the theoretical emphasis is no longer on detached analysis, but rather on interaction, complementarity, synchronicity, and relatedness, reflecting the supposition that 'matter, energy and consciousness have a common ground which is unknown.'(1) When we describe the universe as a great idea, though, we are no longer implicating the mind of a particular deity, but are rather affirming that Mind per se is present throughout the whole universe. Philip K. Dick endorses the pre-Socratic notion that the 'kosmos is not as it appears to be, and what it probably is, at its deepest level, is exactly what the human being is at his [or her] deepest level - call it mind or soul, it is something unitary which lives and thinks, and only appears to be plural and material. . . . The universe, then, is thinker and thought, and since we are part of it, we as humans are, in the final analysis, thoughts of and thinkers of those thoughts.'(2)
In microphysics an observer is postulated in objective reality. In our own age of relativity, uncertainty as the prime factor of quantum theory dictates that the 'reality that the observation sharpens into focus cannot be separated from the observer. . . .'(3) Reality, then, is not empirical; the universe achieves a knowable existence only as a result of our perception of it: it is, at least in some sense, it seems, created by its own inhabitants. The allied theory of parallel universes may well induce a cosmic schizophrenia, for if the archetypal unity of mind and cosmos postulated by Jung and various theoretical physicists implies on one level the coincidence of subjectivity and universal truth, the other side of the coin is that it has given rise to a personal crisis of knowledge, perception and existence. In this connection, Dick, perhaps better than any other science fiction writer, manages to integrate both perspectives.
As metafictions of the radical spirit-matter dualism of Gnosticism, many of Dick's metaphors of individual alienation can be read simultaneously as allegories of the ignorance which binds us to a fake reality and blinds us to the 'gnosis' or Gnostic certainty of our true, eternal identity. Thus although Dick's spirit-matter dualism is at odds with the emerging holism of our age, VALIS, his cosmic 'Vast Active Living Information System', is envisioned in Radio Free Albemuth (1985) as a 'great universe of transmitting and receiving stations', like brain synapses.
If the universe is more like a great idea than a great machine, for those of us who value intimacy there's a certain comfort to be gained from this rather more personal paradigm. The shift of perspective boils down to the undermining of the Logos of discrimination by the increasing dominance of Eros, the feminine principle of relatedness, such that we are forced to understand through acquaintance and participation in that detachment is no longer even a respectable theoretical option. In Dan Simmons' The Fall of Hyperion amidst high-tech gateways and networks AIs threaten to build a 'God of Machines' - a technology void of relatedness. Understandably, it is the unborn female child of emerging human consciousness who is to counteract - through becoming 'the One Who Teaches' - the wisdom needed for the 'junction of human spirit and AI logic'.(4)
In exploring the parameters of knowledge and existence, science fiction is able to explore the godlike role of human consciousness in shaping reality - in codetermining the very fabric of the universe. Greg Egan uses the device of the conscious manipulation of quantum probability states in Quarantine (1992), while in Le Guin's earlier The Lathe of Heaven (1971) we witness the awesome power and frightening predicament of a man who repeatedly wakens from his changing dreams of the world to find the world to be as he has dreamed it.
Although this PhilDickian brand of cognitive dissonance results from the shattering of one reality construct after another, it is as well an indictment of the omnipotence of mind. This warning aside, Dick's two main recurrent questions: 'What is real?' and 'What does it mean to be human?' remain at the forefront of science fiction's explorations of inner and outer space. If in Arthur C. Clarke's brand of transcendental evolution through alien intervention we are passive recipients of a preordained cosmic destiny, as human gods we are not merely pawns or subcreators but rather direct makers of our own reality. Thus in Dan Simmons' The Hollow Man the mind of a dying, retarded boy becomes a new universe for a man and his dead wife; her resurrection is not the gift of an all-powerful God, but rather is bestowed, ironically, by the most helpless of human beings. Here Divine weakness and vulnerability have indeed become humanised. Simmons raises quasi-mystical notions about the collapsing of quantum probability structures as his protagonist comments that 'without us, the universe would be pure duality, infinite probability sets', that is, chaotic, whereas through us the universe focuses out from a blur of possibilities into a finite reality. This is the stuff of philosophical intrigue. Did relativity exist before Einstein's theories of it? Such questions are inherently mystical, yet it is, in Simmons' words 'without the absurdities of religion' that we can respond to 'the spiritual potential of the universe' to be one among its many parallels.(5)
Here we are dealing with the coincidence of idea and reality in the form of a special state of existence. Can we perhaps say, then, that what we envision in space are the outward occasions for an inner process of dialectic? As Brian Aldiss, commenting on Greg Bear's Blood Music (1986), succinctly puts it: 'Inner space is our evolutionary future.'(6) From within this synchronistic paradigm, black holes could not have been discovered until their theoretical foundations had been established; as Einstein would have it: 'It is the theory which determines what we can observe.'
As our significance in the universe becomes increasingly godlike, we realise more and more that the boundless energies of the cosmos, its order and its chaos, are also within our own selves. Psychically, the unconscious is a relative space-time continuum. Black holes and neutron stars incarnate on one hand the threat of nonexistence and on the other the extreme pressure of existence that we feel. The science in science fiction is not a replacement for older mythologies, rather, as Ursula Le Guin comments, 'its originality is that it uses the mythmaking faculty on new material.'(7) The archetypal God-image of centre and circumference becomes the the invisible inner point - the singularity surrounded by its spherical black hole whose outer event horizon mirrors the psychic interface between conscious and unconscious. Through exploiting the creative and destructive potential of this cosmic phenomenon, the central singularity mirrors the transcendent centre of our being as a region where all the rules fail. And if, paradoxically, this is a form of certainty, like us, the universe is also illogical and shadowy; incomplete and fragmentary.
Kim Stanley Robinson's The Memory of Whiteness (1987) concerns the unification of a new form of deterministic physics with music and philosophy, whereby 'the Music of the Spheres' is given new meaning.(8) In this futuristic vision, by contracting solar energy to singularities within spherical discontinuities, hundreds of asteroids and moons of our solar system are colonised as self-sustaining orbs. Using a mythic structure, the tale involves the questing journey for ultimate truth of a physicist/musician from outer to inner space, from a peripheral vision on Pluto to the insight gained in the glaring solar light at the centre. In the end the travelling cosmic Orchestra and its leader spin toward the singularity point of a cone and are destroyed, symbolising, perhaps, the death of conscious belief in submission to the higher wisdom of the transcendent Self.
In Greg Bear's 'The Venging' a scientific expedition to a black hole is subsumed by mythic and religious themes involving the ship's voyage into darkness, transformation, self-confrontation, and a transcendent peace experienced by the travellers, culminating in an ironic descent into the hell of a stagnant parallel universe. With equal irony, for an allied, more primitive alien culture the same black hole is a place of ritualistic burial from which intermittently a haunting music returns.
The gods of myth personify ruling archetypal ideas which are morally ambivalent and always have dark and light sides. In response to the expansion of our social horizons into the vastness of the cosmos, the gods became the aliens who also have 'good' and 'bad' faces as our saviours or invaders. Our views of the aliens are projections of our own hopes, fears and anxieties, often as unconscious responses to where we feel so-called 'progressive' trends might (sometimes blindly) be leading us. The more highly evolved aliens are usually indistinguishable from God or gods, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where an apparently benevolent Overmind guides us in our destiny to attain a godlike transcendence of spacetime corporality. The familiar mythic themes appear: symbolic death leading to rebirth as the divine child, the descent into the unknown, the isolation of the lone quester, the 4-fold Monolith as the technomystical symbol of unity and transformation.
Clarke's earlier Childhood's End (1953) concerns our expulsion from innocence into a godlike state of existence by aliens who appear indistinguishable from devils. The evolved humans are finally able to dream their way out into space, through a melting of the interface between inner and outer, while through the paradox of the fortunate fall into godlike knowledge, evil is seen as an artificial human construct formulated in response to our forward-remembering fear of transformation into a more highly evolved state.
In Philip Josť Farmer's Maker of Universes godlike, world-creating cosmic kidnappers are metaphorically revealed as tyrannical aspects of ourselves - ambivalent archetypal forces which we must confront and channel in positive ways. Pride reverts to humility when the main character, Wolff, discovers he, as a former hedonistic planet-maker, has been reincarnated on Earth. Eventually he confronts his former cruelty and ruthlessness and returns to rule as an enlightened being. In Farmer's later To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) unseen godlike beings resurrect everone who has ever lived along the banks of a huge alien river.
The equation is readily reversible when through the shift of focus toward our own divinity, the perspective is inverted and it is we, not an advanced alien culture, who become the gods toward whom lesser beings of other worlds aspire. Mythologically, if the aliens are indistinguishable from gods, they are ultimately indistinguishable from us. Such is the message of Robert Silverberg's Kingdoms of the Wall (1992) which describes the ritual ascent of a chosen group of alien pilgrims to the summit of a mountain on which strange gods - in reality astronauts from Earth - have appeared throughout the ages. Since the time of the Christlike 'First Climber' the pilgrims have been taught that this summit 'is a place where the power of the gods is so great that change comes freely and amazingly to those who live their lives upon it, and all is magic and mystery and strangeness beyond [their] comprehension.' Thus one character muses that 'Those who live in Heaven are gods', since 'Their homes are the stars, and the stars are fire. Who can live in fire except a god?'(9)
Our responsibility - inferred from Jung's revolutionary Answer to Job - is to continue the divine self-realisation which occurs through self-knowledge, a theme hinted at with uncanny foresight in Olaf Stapledon's 1937 novel Star Maker in which the God-image is brought closer to our own consciousness as an evolving deity, who senses that we are more real than himself and goes through a gradual awakening which reflects that of his creatures.
The voyages of the starship Enterprise, the Space Odyssey of the Jupiter Two - these are journeys that are as much inner discoveries as they are outer adventures. As science fiction continues to explore the potential of space travel as a vehicle for myth, in its quest 'to boldly go where no-one has gone before' it is still the individual who becomes a lens through which is focussed the evolutionary challenge to the collective mind. One of the concerns of science fiction is with extraordinary individuals whose sense of isolation and unavoidable destiny forces them to transcend or reject accepted norms, and to embark on the quest for a true identity of selfhood. Through quest patterns intertwined with religious motifs such as the martyr, rebirth, the saviour, the repressed 'underpeople', and through mythic metaphors of ascent, descent, and the journey to the centre, science fiction explores the role of the individual as archetypal scapegoat, prophet, sacrifice, or mediator of the repressed or rejected wisdom that is needed to advance human consciousness further along the path to wholeness. Some of the characters that come to mind here are the Martian Valentine in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Rememberer Tomis in Robert Silverberg's Nightwings (1969), Ransom in C. S. Lewis's space trilogy, Shevek in Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), the 6-fold Gestalt unity in Sturgeon's More Than Human (1953), Paul Atreides in Dune, John Keats in Dan Simmons' Hyperion (1989), David Bowman in 2010 (1982), Courtney Hall in Ian McDonald's Out on Blue Six (1990), Ender Wiggin in Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead (1986), the destitute outcast woman Reah in Greg Bear's Strength of Stones (1988), and in Clifford D. Simak's Way Station (1963) the humble, deaf-mute girl, who, wielding a cosmic Talisman, becomes the new mediatrix of a universal spiritual force of peace and unity. To these we can add the Lion-man Painter in John Crowley's Beasts (1976), the Tiger-woman Tigerishka in Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer (1964), the Catwoman, C'mell in Cordwainer Smith's tales of the Instrumentality of Mankind. Do I detect a recurrent theme in these last few examples? Perhaps we can call it the redeeming shadow of repressed irrationality and instinct as that which must be reintegrated into a picture of holiness as the wholeness of an undivided self and society.
If life requires unity, it also thrives on the tension of opposites from which that unity arises. There is order, law and harmony in the heavens, but there is also violence, emptiness and chaos. These, too, we must enter and transform into something bearable. In the words of Jung: 'All of us gaze into that "dark glass" in which the dark myth takes shape, adumbrating the invisible truth.'(10) Perhaps the overall lesson to be learned is that we must survive and transcend our own paradoxes before we can witness a rebirth of consciousness in which will occur the holistic synthesis of all fields of experience. Science fiction is still dealing with conflict in its many forms. But a state of conflict is a sign of proximity to God, in which respect we must always confront the inner cosmos, the dazzling darkness of our inner selves. In questioning the universe we will always confront the vastness of mystery rather than a final idea. In spite of this persistent uncertainty, we cannot escape the gravity that is pulling us toward the central singularity, the indescribable point within the boundless sphere of our existence. What we can be sure of is that this ball has well and truly stopped in our court, and we can never again pass it back. Now, more than ever before, we are the forgers of our own destiny, for our horizons are of limitless proportions as we create and watch unfold the mythologization of the universe.
Text c.1998 Darknight Publications, from a work-in-progress The Erocentric Vision: Reflections on Life, the Universe & Depth Psychology. Not to be reproduced whole or in part without the author's permission.
(1) David Bohm, interviewed in 'The Physicist and the Mystic', The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes: Exploring the Leading Edge of Science, ed. Ken Wilber (Boston, Mass.: New Science Library, 1985) p. 199.
(2) Philip K. Dick, 'How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later', 1978 speech, rpt. in I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon, ed. Mark Hurst and Paul Williams (London: Gollancz, 1986) p.13.
(3) Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983) p.103.
(4) Dan Simmons, The Fall of Hyperion (London: Headline, 1991) p.629.
(5) Dan Simmons, The Hollow Man (London: Headline, 1992) pp.162, 294, 5.
(6) Brian W. Aldiss and David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree (London: Gollancz, 1986) p.417.
(7) Ursula K. LeGuin, 'Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction', Parabola 1.1(1976) p.43.
(8) In Ch. 9 one character recalls the 'transcendant [sic] peace' in which 'every object had chimed together in one large chord of being.'
(9) Robert Silverberg, Kingdoms of the Wall (London: Harper Collins, 1992) pp.43, 269.
(10) C. G. Jung, CW Vol. 10 [Civilization in Transition] par. 779.
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