Asimov’s Adventure editorials III: on mythology, sword & sorcery, and economists.

This is the third editorial [first and second] of Asimov’s Science Fiction Adventure Magazine, a short-lived magazine with only four issues (from late 1978 to late 1979,) where the famous writer explained his understanding of adventure, science fiction, fantasy, and their place in the current scientific era.

His thesis is that there is an important abyss between the pre and post scientific understanding of the world, especially concerning the problem of how to manipulate the universe or to make it work for us. He isn’t wrong, though, but I’d really like to know what was his opinion about writers like Jack Vance, who were aware of that pre and post scientific chasm but consciously played around it to undermine it and mix the different worldviews. Unfortunately, I have never come across any suggestion that Asimov knew or cared about Vance.


I have often made the point that true science fiction is a creature of the last two centuries. Science fiction cannot exist as a picture of the future unless and until people get the idea that it is science and technology that produce the future, that it is advances in science and technology (or, at the very least, changes in them) that are bound to make the future different from the present and the past, and that thereby hangs a tale.

Naturally, no one could possibly get the idea until the rate of scientific and technological change became great enough to be noticed by people in the course of their lifetimes. That came about with the Industrial Revolution —saym by 1800— and it was only thereafter that science fiction could be written.

And yet there must have been something that came before science fiction, something that was not science fiction and yet filled the same emotional needs. There must have been tales of the strange and different, of life not as we know it, and of powers transcending our own.

Let’s consider—

The respect that people have for science and for scientists (or the fear that people have, or a combination of both) rest on the certain belief that science is the key to the understanding of the Universe and that scientists can use science to manipulate that key. Through science people can make use of the laws of nature to control the environment and enhance human powers. By the steadily increasing understanding of the details of those laws, human powers will be greater in the future than in the past. If we can imagine the different ways in which they will be greater, we can write out stories.

In previous centuries, however, most men had a dim understanding, if any at all, of such things as laws of nature: of rules that are unbreakable, of things-as-they-must-be that can swerve neither to help us nor to thwart us, and that must allow themselves to be ridden to glory, if we but knew how.

Instead, there was the notion that the Universe was the plaything of life and the will, that if there were events that seemed analogous to human deeds but that were far greater in magnitude, they were carried through by life-forms resembling those we know but greater in size and power.

The beings who controlled natural phenomena were therefore pictured in human form, but of superhuman strength, size, abilities, and length of life. Sometimes they were pictured as super animals, or as super-combinations of animals. (The constant reference to the ordinary in the invention of the unusual only to be expected, for imaginations are sharply limited, even among the best of us, and it is hard to think of anything really new or unusual—as Hollywood ‘sci-fi’ constantly demonstrates.)

Since the phenomena of the Universe don’t often make sense, the gods are usually pictures as whimsical and unpredictable, often little better than childish. Since natural events are often disastrous, the gods must be easily offended. Since natural events are often helpful, the gods are basically kindly, provided they are well-treated, and their anger is not roused.

It is only too reasonable to suppose that people would invent formulas for placating the gods and persuading them to do the right thing. Nor can the validity of these formulas be generally disproven by events. If the formulas don’t work, then undoubtedly someone has done something to offend the gods. Those that had invented or utilized the formulas had no problems in finding guilty parties on whom to blame the failure of the formula in specific instances, so that faith in the formulas themselves never wavered. (We needn’t sneer. By the same principle, we continue to have faith in economists, sociologists and meteorologists today, even though their statements seem to match reality only erratically at best.)

In pre-scientific times, then, it was the priest, magician, wizard. shaman (again the name doesn’t matter) who filled the function of the scientists today. It was the priest, etc., who was perceived as having the secret of controlling the Universe, and it was advances in the knowledge of magical formulas that could enhance power.

The ancient myth and legends are full of stories of human beings with supernormal powers. There are the legendary heroes, for instance, who learn to control winged horses or flying carpets. Those ancient pieces of magic still fascinate us today; and I imagine a youngster would thrill to such mystical methods of aeronavigation and long for the chance to partake in it, even if he were reading the tale while on a jet plane.

Think of the crystal ball, into which one can gaze to see things that are happening many miles away, and magic shells that can allow us to hear the whispering of humans many miles away—how much more wonderful that the television sets and the telephones today.

Consider the doors that open with ‘Open sesame’ rather than by the click of a remote-control device Consider the seven-league boots that can transport you across the countryside almost as quickly as an automobile can.

Or, for that matter, think of the monsters of legend, the powerful travesties of life invented by combining animal characteristics: the man-horse Centaur, the man-goat Satyr, the woman-lion Sphinx, the woman-hawk Harpy, the eagle-lion Gryphon, the snake-woman Gorgon, and so on. In science fiction we have extra-terrestrials that are often built upon the same principle.

The goals of these ancient stories are the same as those of modern science fiction—the depiction of life as we *don’t* know it.

The emotional needs that are fulfilled are the same—the satisfaction of the longing for wonder.

The difference is that the ancient myths and legends fulfill those needs and meet those goals against the background of a Universe that is controlled by gods and demons, who can in turn be controlled by magical formulas—either in the form of enchantments to coerce, or prayers to cajole. Science fiction, on the other hand, fulfills those needs against the background of a Universe that is controlled by impersonal and unswervable laws of nature by an understanding of their nature.

In a narrow sense, only science fiction is valid for today, since, as far as we can tell, the Universe *does* follow the dictates of the laws of Nature and is *not* at the mercy of gods and demons.

Nevertheless, there are times when we shouldn’t be too narrow or haughty in our definitions. It would be wrong to throw out a style of literature that has tickled the human fancy for thousands of years for the trivial reason that it is not in accord with reality. Reality isn’t all there is, after all.

Shall we no longer thrill to the climatic duel fo Achilles and Hector because people no longer fight with spears and shields? Shall we no longer feel the excitement of the naval battles of the War of 1812 and of the Napoleonic Wars because out warships are no longer made of wood and are no longer equipped with sails?


Why, then, shouldn’t people who enjoy an exciting science fiction adventure story not enjoy a rousing mythological fiction adventure story? The two are set in different kinds of Universe but follow analogous paths.

So though I am sufficiently stick-in-the-muddish to be narrow in my definition of science fiction and would not be willing to consider sword-and-sorcery as examples of science fiction, I am willing to consider it the *equivalent* of science fiction set in another kind of Universe—a pre-scientific Universe.

You may therefore occasionally expect to see in *Asfam*, stories in the tradition of Robert E. Howards and his Conan the Barbarian; of Fritz Leiber and his *Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser*; of J. R. R. Tolkien and his tales of Middle Earth.

We don’t even ask that they be wrenched out of context and somehow be made to fit the Universe of reality by being given a scientific or pseudo-scientific gloss. We ask only that they be self-consistent in their pre-scientific Universe—and that they be well-written and exciting stories.

Final editorial.

2 thoughts on “Asimov’s Adventure editorials III: on mythology, sword & sorcery, and economists.

  1. Pingback: “Asimov’s adventure” editorials II – The Frisky Pagan

  2. Pingback: Asimov’s Adventure editorials IV: Hollywood, movies, and pew-pew sci-fi. – The Frisky Pagan

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