Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Folktales and Science Fiction

A review and response to W.M.S.Russells article 'Folktales and Science Fiction' 

Russell, W. 'Folktales and Science Fiction' Folklore, Vol.93, No. 1. (1982) pp 3-30. Taylor & Fracncis, Ltd. : Folklore Enterprises Ltd. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1260136, Accessed 20.06.2013

In Folktales and Science Fiction Russell explores the variety of connections between folktales and the literary genre of science fiction by discussion in recurrent themes through his own literary experiences. An important discussion within this text is the relationship between 'partly conscious and unconscious' use of folktale material within science fiction. In order to further discuss the article it must be stated that Russell defines a folktale as 'traditional narratives, handed down in speech as well as usually also in writing, and classified into myths (folk science), legends (folk history), and fairy tales (folk literature)".

Through lengthy examples, it is argued that science fiction writers commonly have a long lasting interest in mythology and folk material. This relationship is argued to be nearly inevitable, with the same formulae of folk narratives and themes constantly applied in science fiction works. A lengthily explored example is the example of the popular 'Sleeper' motif, first notably utilised by H.G.Wells in 'When the Sleeper Wakes' in 1898-8*. Russell cites the story of Epimendines of Cnossus of Crete, who falls sleep in a cave and wakes up in increments of every 40 to 60 years, which was first recorded in 4th century B.C. The story then allegedly made it's way to English folk tradition with a tale called 'Rip Van Winckle. Well's When the Sleeper Awakes uses a similar framework, when the Sleeper struggling with insomnia, eventually falls asleep waking up 203 years later in a dystopian situation which he then attempts to solve. Although a clear citation of Wells's familiarity with the original legend is not available, a reference is made to Rip Van Winckle within the novel itself. The motif has been then onwards been a popular form of introduction of science fiction novels, even before scientific advances solved a practical explanation for such a sustained sleep, it has been used to explain the changes and speculations of future societies. In his use of the Sleeper motif, Wells influenced a long chain of science fiction writers, so that, 'In many ways, most of english writers returned, quite unconsciously to the root legend of english literature.'. Thus, by a cycle of literary influence, folktales play an inevitable role in the formation of science fiction literature. However, this use cannot clearly be isolated to the field of science fiction, but is only one example of a how folktales could influence writers unconsciously. On the same note, Russell quotes a previous address of his stating that 'all worthwhile works of ... literature have important points of contact with folktales. For folktales are a very fundamental part of human culture, and ... a very important medium for the transmission of symbolism over long periods.". Although Science fiction writers often work with topics of the future, or work with knowledge contemporary to them to look back at the past ( for example, in the popular theme of backwards time travel), they cannot expel themselves from literary and folk traditions of their past. Furthermore, it is also conceivable that early science fiction writers may have looked to folktales for inspiration on topics relating to theirs, as folktales arguably deal with similar elements of imaginative speculation.

However, he goes on to argue that science fiction often has a specific and more obvious relationship with folktales then other forms of literature. This is first seen explored in the acceptance of science fiction in popular soviet literature, and an immediate reference to the folktale form of the fairytale. Yevgeny Zamyatin described Wells in 1922 as the 'creator of urban fairytales', and the popularity of science fiction writing in the U.S.S.R was described by"Axinow, 'president of the Russian poets' "Soviet",' "as being due to the "Russian peoples fondness for fairytales". Russells argues that few literary genres can claim to have such a strong relationship between the writer and readership at the birth of its genre as science fiction. Often appearing in instalments in pulp fiction magazines, the readership was keen and watchful of the progression of the genre. This relationship is neatly summarised in notable example, Klass's novel of a fan called Joe Doppelberg, and a situation where the writer of a science fiction novel is transported into a alternate universe dreamed of by a fan- "Keith winton is not simply in the universe that Joe Doppelberg has dreamed up- he is in the universe that he thinks Joe Doppelberg would dream up." Philip Klass is further cited as saying "few workers in any art form ever had the experience of so much of their audience looking over their shoulders as they worked.". In this sense, science fiction itself may be viewed as a form of folk fiction. If we accept that science fiction can be shaped by folk culture, it would not then be impossible to conceive that similar narrative structures may be naturally evident in science fiction.

Folklore can be seen as a direct influence in the use of the 'legendary cycle' in narrative form, and by application of traditional symbolism within science fiction. Epic literature, especially greek tales, are particularly popular in use the genre, "Greek tales appeal especially to embyro science fiction writer". As folk tales draw familiar examples to our minds, it allows the science fiction writer to contrast these motifs with the unfamiliar and strange, or, alternately, to show timeless connections. This link is apparent in a variety of forms, the sceintification of myth, being a clear example- by taking traditional folktales and either applying them in a contemporary context, or by seeking to explain them with science. As mentioned, the recurrence of similar themes and motifs is a striking connection between the two genres, both deal with settings of destruction, creationism, colonialism. This can be argued to reach out toeless apparent similarities, such as the theme of 'robots', though clearly under a different aim, the same concept is time and time again dealt with in folktales. Of the various examples is the clay 'golems' of the jew, who's "eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect', and from my own knowledge of finnish folklore, the 'golden bride' of the Ilmarinen. One possible explanation for abundance of similar themes could be that myth itself could be interpreted as a science of the past. The combination of rational and imaginative thinking in trying to understand the physical world without science as we know it seems to strike a similar note to the process of writing a science fiction work. It may then be possible even to view folktales as an early type of science fiction, without the label and connotations that we associate with the genre today.

Russells concludes with a quote that I too find appropriate to end on, "Each generation, finds for Andromeda a different monster and another rescuer". Though science fiction and folktales seems to spring from opposite ends of a spectrum, they spring from a similar need in human nature to tell stories of our origins, and to predict what may come, leading to inevitable similarities between the two forms.

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