Saturday, March 14, 2009

Science Fiction and Mythology -Bridging The Gap !

We have had a wonderful discussion on various aspects of sf and mythology especially Indian mythology here on Yahoo Indian Science Fiction Group and here ,courtesy to great Greg Bear ,one of the luminaries of contemporary American sf.

While you could accesss the links directly here is an excerpt from the lively discussion which I trust you will enjoy -But please do not hesitate to put your own views to enrich the discussion.

From: Swapnil Bhartiya
Location: New Delhi, India
Date: 03/31/2007

Hi Greg, I am a technology journalist and sf writer. I have read you a lot and, of course, a fan. But at times I think have you tried to explore the intellect of ancient India? Indian literature is full of such instance like Nuclear Bomb -- Brahmastra; guided weapon like -- Sudarshan Chakra; plastic surgery and the concept of Geetha....? I would request you have a look into it, I guess that would enrich the SF literature.

Swapnil Bhartiya
Assistant Editor

From: Greg Bear
Date: 04/02/2007

Thanks for writing, Swapnil! I quite agree--I think the ancient Indian writers and thinkers would have gotten along well with science fiction writers--and certainly taught us a thing or two. I'm utilizing Hindu concepts and words (and ancient gods, reshaped) in CITY AT THE END OF TIME, but there's always more Indian source material to be mined for inspiration. (In ETERNITY, I opened the novel with a quote from the Upanishads...)

From: Arvind mishra
Location: Varanasi
Date: 04/03/2007

Hi Mr.Greg,
Its great to hear you are interested in ancient hindu scriptures and mytholgy which are full of imaginative ideas and human/humane values.I know you are aware that Carl Sagan was also inspired by these sources of ancient knowledge.Please do tell me whether mythology could in any conceivable way inspire sf writing? What aspects of mythology could relate to sf?or THEY are just poles apart? Your opinion may be of great value to indian sf writers in general and to me in particular.
There are many extrapolations,imaginative plots,descriptions of gadgets very akin to sf of today in Indian mythology like
'PUSPAK VIMAN'a special kind of aeroplane full of emotions and always has a seat vacant for last time VIP[very important person] entrant[Please remember, RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA BY CLARKE].SUDRSHAN chakra AND ARROWS used by LORD RAMA comes back to the owner just after hitting the target.ofcourse these are the ideas of acient writers only but how interesting when we care to see that they came into existence thousands years ago.There are still many more like MAYA YUDDHAA very akin to virtual war,birth of an army by a live body[pind] in great epic war-MAHABHARAT and one is tempted to make an anology to human cloning with it.May be only if you like it more of it next.
regards ,

Dr.Arvind Mishra

From: Greg Bear
Date: 04/04/2007

I don't know of any Western sf writers who haven't been inspired by one or more traditions of mythology. Physicists in particular seem taken with Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, since they deal with such long vistas of time, and such curious cognitive and metaphysical states--much like modern physics. Roger Zelazny, decades ago, wrote the much-admired LORD OF LIGHT based on Indian stories and myth. Sir Arthur's FOUNTAINS OF PARADISE takes place on both ancient and future Serendip, a.k.a. Taprobane, today known as Sri Lanka--though Sir Arthur moved it a few degrees, as Gregory Benford reminds us, to expedite a space elevator. I'm sure there are many more examples! In Western myth and legend, there are many science fiction-like tales of marvels both technological and philosophical. One example I'm fond of are the legends concerning Alexander the Great, who in medieval lore is reputed to have done many extraordinary things--defeating dragons by wearing protective armor against their poisonous breath (a space suit?), diving to the bottom of the sea in an inverted bell, etc. A heroic Tom Swift type! Human imagination has always trended toward the marvelous, and today we often call it science fiction. Perhaps the greatest analogs to stories like Mahabharata are found in comic books--tales of superheroes--and in movies and television shows like X-Men and "Heroes." Is Dr. Who a wandering god with a propensity for young human females? Perhaps we should color him blue, like Krishna!

Swapnil Bhartiya
Date: 04/05/2007

Now, Indian mythology is very rich and is full or references of events, people and devices most of which S&T realized after years as well as many others which are still to become reality. Besides, the episodes in Mythology could give some writer's ideas to base their stories upon. I am not against mythology, but the kind of points I was expecting were missed out altogether.

I wanted to see the view of my experienced friends on the same. I wanted to see their view on a utopian society created in the times of Ram Rajya -- could not such a society be a bane instead of boon? Failure of any utopian society is destined -- HG Well's Time Machine is a vivid example of what happens when everything is good. Instead of celebrating Indian Mythology (every civilization has its own myths) is it possible we take lessons from it as well and base our SF on it, warning of the same?

I was also expecting to analyse the multi-dimensions of Indain Mythology --- Krishna shared the doctrin of Geeta with Arjuna in the war of Kurukshetra -- Geeta was so lengthy that it would have taken Krishna Weeks to tell it, would two armies - with Duryodhan on one side - wait that long standing because two guys are talking? Or, Krishna gave Geeta the way Neo was trained in Matrix -- information was fed directly into the mind of Arjuna?

We must also consider most of the thing in Indian mythology was exploration. In Indian mythology, people referred to nine planets (and Sun and Moon are not planets, as described in mythology -- but today's science has expelled Pluto off the planet's list), this is confusing. I trust my friends know we DON'T have nine planets anymore (click here to learn how we lost Pluto).But Indian mythology has no reference to Neptune, or moons of other planets. Indian mythology has no reference that actually there are three stars which make our pole star. Its not one. Dear friends doesn't this raise questions on authenticity or limit of mythological imagination? I wanted to explore that through this discussion.

With all due respect sir, I beg to differ with the belief that future generations will not laugh at us when they look back. They will. But by that time they will have their own newer superstitions; newer fantasies. Future generations will have their own fantasies and will be laughed at by their future generations. This is a non ending cycle of evolution.

Now, Tiwari Ji has very rightly put the point of short sight -- but I don't completely agree that we are ignorant. People in India are ignorant of global warming and our effort to address it is zilch. But same is not the case in more aware societies like the west. I guess my friends are aware that there may organizations working and lobbying to deploy policies like Koyoto Protocol for the same. This year Al Gore's documentary -- An Inconvenient Truth -- won the Oscar and the movie addresses the issue of global warming. But the debate is also on that is it man made or due to natural reasons?

Weather is one of the most complex phenomenons on our planet; we cannot predict it for more than few weeks. And we don't have enough data to analyze how the climate of the world changed in ages. This we do know that there have been several ice ages, and that was the reason of collapse of a race -- Neanderthal man. So it could be a natural phenomenon. And to address issues like global warming and comet impact as predicted by scientist in year 2110, NASA and other organizations are exploring possibilities of moving to inner planets like Mars. I guess my friends have enjoyed views of Mars at their home on Google Mars which gives you free trip to Mars and Moon. (Please click here to take a free ride to Mars)

The point that I want to drive home is Indian mythology does give some references but it is not ultimate truth. You can take references from it if what ever is available in mythology suits your needs. That is a rich source of ideas.

But, our Mythology doesn't talk about such celestial events like meteorite attack, comet impact or mass extinction. Indian mythology gives no solutions to upliftment of ordinary human's life. And as Zakir put, there is more to ordinary beings -- humans -- than gods and heroes.

Now, as dear Arvind ji pointed, there is more to learn from nature -- my story Rhythm Of Nature is based on such phenomena -- Arvind ji has read it. Many natural phenomena are still unexplained. Rukhsana referred to one -- Bermuda Triangle. I am sure my friends are aware that Earth is losing its magnetic field. Poles are shifting, in some years North Pole will becomes South Pole -- what will happen in between when we have no poles? We will be consummated by the solar winds? What will happen when the molten core of the Earth will solidify?

Any answers in Mythology?

Mythology offers some good ideas to those who have not explored them yet. So does nature and current S&T. A debate arose that mythology is SF of that time. It came out that it could not be SF, but fantasy. As some one on the panel added that our SF can be traced back to the hard science but same is not the case with mythology. However, to some extent same rule is applicable to contemporary SF as well. For example, there is no reference of Star Trek Enterprises' devices or Start War's gadgets in real world!

Also if we talk of society, in Mythology we do find examples of individual's capacity to do things  powers with gods like hanuman or devices like pushpak viman -- a plane with only executive class. But those facilities were not far masses -- ordinary people were kept deprived of all that. Whereas SF deals with ordinary life -- that, how science affects them -- Zakir's approach and something I have seen in Arvind ji's stories.

Respected Tiwari Ji and Dear Rukhsana, I would request you to please identify more such issues like global warming and death of sun, and see how mythology could give solutions to these. We are not living in past. We have new sets of problems -- serious ones. Mythology has nothing that could cure disease. Now please friends don't bring in Charak - he is not part of mythology!

For disease like AIDs, Cancer and eradication of racism -- which plagued our mythology as well -- discrimination against woman (a rich king can have 100 wives --no respect for woman at that time) and so-called lower cast. Mythology has a lot of dark chapters too, but we ignore them, why? Does mythology offers solutions to disease, Identity crises? Wars? Racism? Expansion of human civilization? Employment? Public entertainment? Mass source of information like the internet? And many more.

If it does, then we can refer to it. If it doesn't then we should not live in a dreamland and come out to address the grotesque reality of our times and try to make the world a better place.

We have to find a mid path; we live in today's world. We have to find how mythology can help. Onus is on us: we want to live in a Utopian world that doesn't exist anymore or we want to open our eyes and look at pain surrounding us and solve some problems.

We are free beings. We make choices, and there is nothing right and wrong. It's just what the need of the hour is.

Regards ,
Swapnil Bhartiya

From: Greg Bear
Date: 04/05/2007

Fascinating discussion!

In the West, an erroneous (in my opinion) distinction is often made between what we teach as mythology and what many consider religion. The traditional stories and even the religions of others are considered by many Westerners to be "mythology," which they regard as lesser, or manifestly untrue.

But my perspective is that of Western mythologist and philosopher Joseph Campbell, who in his works pointed out that mythology is the rich background on which all our thoughts and lives are based--be it modern religion, ancient myths, fairy stories, or fantasy. (He did not consider science fiction to be any sort of mythology--one point on which we disagree.)

In Western science fiction fandom, there has often been a debate between "serious and constructive" stories--particularly so-called hard SF, scientifically rigorous--and more free-wheeling fiction, often labeled fantasy or science fantasy.

I think it is a mistake to expect any mythology--and most science fiction--to offer practical and immediate solutions to present-day problems. Their value lies in more personal enrichment. Like religion, however, they may offer ethical guidelines for real-world solutions--or warnings against destructive behaviors.

My apologies for loosely conflating formal Hindu religious beliefs with science fiction ideas, or perhaps the less enlightened usage of the term Myth. Joseph Campbell regarded all religions as coming under the umbrella of mythology--and never considered mythology to be "fanciful" or "a lie." He was extremely respectful of all cultural ideas, and worked to compare them in a larger human and historical context. That's what my discussion has attempted to do.

From: Arvind mishra

Thanks for sharing your views on mythology and sf.I find myself greatly benefitted.But i fail to understand why one should be apologetic for exploiting the mine of ideas ie mythology for betterment of a creative persuit like sf.You are modest in admitting that.Its amazing that you are aware of even very subtle things as tendencies or even the colour of a Hindu god ie Lord Krisna.As such do you have a longing to visit the land of those facsinating and eternal ideas ie India?
arvind mishra

From: Greg Bear
Date: 04/06/2007

One of my favorite professors, Elizabeth Chater, shared a deep love for Hindu stories with me, and my shelf of Indian religious and mythological texts is about a meter long!

I'd love to visit India. Gregory Benford is the Killer B who has made the most visits to India, and most recently to Sri Lanka. His photographs and essays certainly pique my interest.

From: arvind mishra

India awaits the Great Greg!.It would be a great moment for Indian SFfandom too.May be we we could organise an event this years end and reguest your goodself to chair a session.I shall let you know if things are finalized.Thre we would have a detailed discussions on the associations of sf and mythology especially the Indian mythology.
I can recall Issac Asimov also had a longing to visit India but his dread of air travels prevented that.I feel you dont have any such phobias.
arvind mishra

From: Swapnil Bhartiya
Date: 04/07/2007

Dear Greg,

Once aging the journalist is back(pun intended).The discussion with you is getting more and more interesting. But there is one more opinion building in the process. Just like TV was a killer of imagination, as it limits a viewers own imagination of events, similar is the case with mythology. As you have also mentioned that every civilization has its own mythology. Don't you think that limits the flight of imagination a SF writers could have had otherwise?

Your point puts it very clearly that we should look and learn from mythology, but when people try to prove that actually people of those times knew science behind things like -- Pushpak Viman (a plane) looks illogical to me.

What is your opinion Greg, that where should we draw that line of not going overboard and prove that people of those times were much more learned?

Writers who are obsessed with mythology tend to forget present day issues and live in a Utopian society, where as those who know where the line is -- Sir Clarke and yourself, they do justice.

Please share your views -- where to draw the line.

From: Greg Bear
Date: 04/09/2007

There used to be a lot of books about how we could find evidence of modern technology in the past--CHARIOTS OF THE GODS by von Daniken being a good example. I've never been convinced. But what we can prove is that our ancestors had imaginations as rich and developed as our own--and created fantastic stories in their own contexts. In a way, we live some of the things they could only dream about--but we have yet to live ALL the things they dreamed about! There's nothing wrong with being inspired by ancient imaginations! But as you say, let's not get carried away...

From: arvind mishra
Location: Varanasi,India
Date: 04/09/2007

Thanks for kind reply.We anxiously await your arrival to India .Indian sf could derive inpirations from your works and person.You have very well concluded[what I think!]the issue of myth and sf.There are many such examples which denote that many a dreams of our ancestors are still to be realized in want of suitable technology.
Thanks for sparing your valuable and bysy minutes to enlighted us on the topic of universal interest.

From: Greg Bear
Date: 04/10/2007

My pleasure, Arvind! Thanks for writing!


  1. Great discussion and quite valuable too!

  2. This morning only did I become aware of this discussion. By evening I was able to go through the whole of it.

    I must say I enjoyed it very much!

    Because of my theology background, I have had occasion to read the mythology of numerous nations. Among all of them, the Indian mythology is radically different in many way.

    It is different in the way in which it has weaved technological ideas into the narrative. For example, a arrow that is shot eventually breaks into numerous arrows before it reaches the destination -- which has technological parallel in multi-targeted independent reentry missiles.

    The technological component is there most probably because of the advanced technology that did exist in India around 2000 BC and which came to its zenith in about two millennia.

    Anywhere that one visits ancient Indian monuments, one is struck by the the advances in trigonometry, statics, and such fields which were necessary to build these ancient monuments.

    In other words, the Indian mythology with its mythological imaginations coupled with its technological fancies (whether they really existed or whether they were projections does not matter) gives a wide spectrum from which the modern SF writer can pick and choose to create unique works.


  3. रोचक एवं ज्ञान से भरपूर परिचर्चा।


If you strongly feel to say something on Indian SF please do so ! Your comment would be highly valued and appreciated !