Monsters, myths and machines

I hid in the closet for years. Everyone around me is so literary, I never really admitted to my love for writing fantasy and science fiction. That’s changed now but the conversation still leaves a little something to be desired:

Well-meaning acquaintance / WMA: So you write?
Me: Er…yes.
WMA: What do you write?
Me (wincing): Science fiction and fantasy
WMA (making an effort): You mean like…Stephen King?
Me (mumbling): I wish.

Thank goodness for the rock stars of genre fiction. Stephen King, JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer have made sure that everyone knows about boy wizards, brooding vampires and bad clowns.

Of course, science fiction and fantasy has always lurked in our literature: we just didn’t know it. Mythical elements pervade the earliest writings known to humans. East or west, ancient epics like the Sumerian Gilgamesh, the Indian Mahabharata and the Greek Odyssey simply reek of the fantastic. Gilgamesh battles a fearsome monster, Humbaba the Terrible, who has the face of a lion and the horns of a bull. Odysseus – poor man, his very name means ‘trouble’– must deal with multiple horrors including Sirens, Cyclops and sea monsters, all conspiring to sink his decade-long voyage home to the patient Penelope.

The Mahabharata and Ramayana, on the other hand, are so futuristic that they take my breath away. I can never read about the flying chariots and deadly weapons of the godlike warriors in these epics without thinking: OMG flying saucers! Lasers! And we’re talking about stuff written over two and a half thousand years ago.

Pushpak Vimana, flying saucer from Ramayana

Pushpak Vimana, a flying vehicle from Ramayana

In a nutshell, there’s nothing new about this genre. Brave heroes and heroines fighting monsters in the eternal battle of good versus evil – this story is as old as we are. What is relatively new, perhaps, is the flowering of the multiple subgenres within science fiction and fantasy. There’s a readership for just about everything out there – you just have to find it. Think Hunger Games – who knew the word ‘dystopian’ before it hit the shelves? (Those who read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, you may point out. But you get my drift). Or ‘paranormal romance’ before Twilight? Or ‘steampunk’ before The Difference Engine? Or ‘cyberpunk’ before Neuromancer? William Gibson, by the way, was also the guy who coined the term ‘cyberspace’.

Which brings me – by a rather circuitous route, I admit – to the word ‘science’ in science fiction. Just as all fantasy literature has its roots in the story-telling traditions of our most ancient civilizations, science fiction has its roots in the well-known historical fact that all humans are descended from aliens from outer space.

Haha, just kidding :-). Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who believe that, or at least believe that aliens visited planet Earth in the ancient past. There are whole religions devoted to extraterrestrial belief – Scientology comes to mind – to say nothing of a vast and breathless body of literature.

In a 1945 paper, Clarke illustrated how the entire globe could be covered by three satellites in geostationary orbit

In a 1945 paper, Clarke illustrated how the entire globe could be covered by three satellites in geostationary orbit.

Anyway, science fiction has its various roots in science. Hard sf and near-future sf, at their best, can predict what might actually be. Arthur C. Clarke, a ‘Grand Master’ of the genre, is credited with the idea that geostationary satellites would make ideal telecommunications relays. The geostationary orbit (35,786 kilometers above Earth) is named after him – ‘The Clarke Orbit’. In a 1974 interview, he even predicted the rise of the internet – online banking and shopping that are now everyday realities.

The science fiction of today is the truth of tomorrow. We can, of course, hope that the future is more ‘utopian’ than ‘dystopian’. Meanwhile, it’s fun to speculate where technology will take us. Google Glass adds a layer of information – augmented reality, if you will – between the wearer and the physical world. What’s the next step?  Doing away with the wearer altogether? We may as well just send our robotic eyes for a stroll and stay in bed. (Note: this might make a good story, if it hadn’t already been done to death.)

I grew up reading the ‘greats’: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury. I dove into the aptly-named Marvel universe, smuggling comics under my blanket and reading by torchlight. Which comic-devouring kid has not dreamed of having superpowers and saving the world from the clutches of an uber villain? I know I did.

We grow older but the pull of the fantastic is always there, just around the corner. It is in speculative fiction, after all, that we get to truly represent our hopes, dreams, fears and desires. Unbound by the laws of the physical universe, free of the inevitability of death, speculative fiction represents the ultimate escape. 

About Rati Mehrotra

Science fiction and fantasy writer. I blog at: Thanks for dropping by!
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5 Responses to Monsters, myths and machines

  1. jdsfiction says:

    That’s a great post Rati! I really enjoyed it, thanks. Also, the Ramayana was a quite fantastical read, especially for how long ago it was written. It definitely feels like the first sci-fi, or at least a possible origin.


    • Thanks. 🙂 You might also enjoy the Mahabharata – loads of action and awesome weaponry!


      • jdsfiction says:

        I hadn’t heard of that one, which is strange seeing as how long it’s been around. I’ll look around and see if I can find a translated copy, I know there has to be one somewhere. Always enthralled with the myths, legends, and histories of other cultures. Thanks again Rati. 🙂


  2. geetu says:

    loved reading….


  3. Terrific post Rati! You’re certainly well-read in your genres. And yes, I hid under my bedcovers with comic books too – Archie comics! 🙂


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