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Toy-view and Doll-view in Videogames

Some further thoughts about how prop theory can clarify the experience of play over on ihobo today. Here’s a quote:

First person perspective places something in your virtual hands: this is toy-view; whatever you see in your hands being the toy e.g. a gun for most shooters… Alternatively, third person perspective allows you to look at what the doll your avatar is animating is up to, offering a more imaginative doll-view… There is at least one other view available, which we could call tabletop-view or table-view, that game menus, board-games, puzzle games and the like use. It seems whatever game you’re playing, the fictional world is either built around a toy, a doll or a table, which is unsurprising since these are what we play with as children.

The complete piece, Toy-view and Doll-view in Videogames, is over on

Why Co-operation? (1) The Rise of Kin Selection

In the first of two pieces discussing the evolution of co-operative behaviours, I lay out the background to the orthodox solution.

haldane The question of why creatures co-operate to the extent that they risk their own lives presents itself as something of a dilemma when the evolution of life is approached from the gene’s eye view. Looking solely from the perspective of genes invites the assumption that there is a problem with any behaviours that act against the propagation of a particular gene variant – if a behaviour works against a gene being passed on, how could the genes that facilitate this behaviour have originated and why would they have persisted?

It’s important to appreciate that in the orthodox gene centred view, co-operation isn’t strictly problematic. If two animals co-operate for mutual benefit, so much the better for both their genes. The assumption that the inherent background of competition will block co-operation is misguided, and not just because the importance of competition in the history of life is frequently overstated. Taking into account only self-interest, it is often possible to gain additional benefit from co-operating: cleaner fish of various kinds (for instance, remora that attach themselves to sharks) gain nutrition from cleaning bacteria and algae from the skin of other fish, while their “clients” attain better health by having dead skin and infectious agents removed. Since everyone benefits, this kind of co-operation is unproblematic from the gene’s eye view.

The problem comes when facing situations whereby one animal sacrifices its chance to have offspring or risks its life for another. This looks (at first glance) to be ruled out by gene centred arguments, yet it happens all the time in nature. As examples of the former, consider social mammals such as meerkats or dwarf mongooses where within any pack usually only one pair breeds; or ants nests, where worker ants are sterile and only the queen has offspring. As examples of the latter, consider alarm calling in squirrels, whereby the loud noise puts the squirrel in question in danger of being caught by an attacking predator but helps guard other squirrels nearby; or the white tail of deer and rabbits, whose bobbing motion attracts attention and allows one animal to lead a predator away from the rest of its group.

Possible solutions to this problem percolated through evolutionary biologists working in the mid-twentieth century. J.B.S Haldane (pictured above) developed the basis of an approach, which was later formulized by W.D. Hamilton into what John Maynard Smith termed kin selection. The idea is simple enough: if you die (before you have children), your genes die with you. But your relatives share a proportion of your genes, so if you die saving your relatives, your genes can live on. A famous story regarding Haldane says that he was seized with the idea while in a pub, and proceeded to scribble calculations on the back of an old envelope before declaring “I am willing to die for four uncles or eight cousins!”.

More formally, a gene which influenced behaviour towards this kind of fraternal sacrifice could propagate itself in a population if the death of one animal carrying that gene helped the survival of other animals carrying the same gene. In what we can call Haldane’s jest, an uncle has a one in four chance of carrying the same ancestral gene variant as you, while a cousin has a one in eight, hence the numbers quoted. Hamilton’s mathematical version of kin selection had at its heart a simple mathematical inequality, known as Hamilton’s rule, whereby a gene encouraging self-sacrifice can propagate if the ‘benefits’ of this act outweigh the ‘costs’, with the degree of relatedness weighting the extent of the benefit. Hence, if you are carrying a gene variant that promotes self-sacrifice, that gene can become more widespread if you die saving the life of four uncles or eight cousins, any of whom could be carrying that gene (presuming the costs and benefits involved are equivalent).

By apparently solving an otherwise insoluble problem in evolutionary studies, kin selection became enormously popular among evolutionists, and the term inclusive fitness entered into the canon as a description of what natural selection optimizes. The idea here is that rather than counting solely a creature’s offspring when imagining fitness, relatives can also be counted too, when modified by a fractional value representing relatedness. Crudely, therefore, if a hypothetical animal is survived by two children, but also eight nieces and nephews, its inclusive fitness will be proportional to three (two plus eight-times-one-eighth), rather than two. Remember that ‘fitness’ here is only a metaphorical measure of reproductive success, and ‘inclusive fitness’ is similarly only metaphorical, but these abstractions can still produce hypothetical claims when they are found in equations such as Hamilton’s rule. Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson explain this point clearly:

Before inclusive fitness came along, it was natural to think about individual selection by imagining that individuals “try” to maximize their Darwinian fitness. Although “trying” can’t be taken literally, the as-if quality of this thought is often heuristically useful; we often can predict which traits will evolve by imagining rational agents who are trying to get what they want... Inclusive fitness seems like a natural generalization of this idea – individuals are “trying” to maximize the representation of their genes in future generations, where it is recognized that your genes can be found in your genetic relatives as well as in your own offspring. The idea then gets broadened further, by taking into account the fact that nonrelatives sometimes have copies of your genes (though here “your genes” means genes that are identical by type, not identical by descent); this means that helping nonrelatives can also be a way to get your genes represented in future generations.

Part of the appeal of the kin selection approach was that it enabled altruistic behaviours to be interpreted as a form of self-interest, because the animal making a sacrifice for its relatives maximizes its own inclusive fitness by helping “its” genes. David Sloan Wilson notes that inclusive fitness “made evolution seem just like economics, in which everything can be explained as a form of utility maximization at the individual level.” Indeed, Hamilton’s rule is only this – an optimality model. It is not really a model that explains how the behaviour in question might evolve at all, and indeed, how it might be practically applied “remains a bit of a mystery”.

Thinking in terms of kin selection has a subtle hidden cost: by envisioning any form of co-operation that evolves by natural selection as a form of genetic self-interest, the idea of ‘self-interest’ becomes “an all-encompassing category”. Philosophers are naturally suspicious of ways of thinking that achieve totality via the way they are defined – the satisfaction a theorist can feel at having devised an apparently universal theorem can mask a severely blinkered perspective. However, the idea that self-interest can serve as an ultimate explanation for behaviour (i.e. egoism) goes wildly beyond Popper’s milestone, and can only reasonably be considered metaphysics. It is for this reason that kin selection, while legitimate science in one sense, also becomes mythic, an imaginative story that guides thought towards specific conclusions, and away from alternative perspectives.

In the case of kin selection, the perspective that became brushed under the carpet was group selection. The evolutionists responsible for developing kin selection were aware that there was a possibility that selection might occur at the level of the group rather than the level of the individual, but the consensus – especially in the light of the formulation of inclusive fitness and kin selection – was that it was too weak a force to have any significance. John Maynard Smith, for instance, was willing to accede the possibility that group selection might occur, but felt that the necessary conditions for it were unlikely to come about in practice. By the late twentieth century, anyone hoping to make convince biologists that selection at the level of the group might be a factor in evolution faced a daunting uphill struggle.

Extracted from the draft manuscript of Myths of Evolution, due from Zero Books in 2012.

Next week: Group Selection Strikes Back

Only a Game on Tour – July 2011

I am off “on tour” this July, with stops in three British cities and one in the States. Here’s my itinerary:

  • 4 July: Immersion 11 Forum, London
    On the Game Changers panel
  • 7 July: Film Philosophy Conference, Liverpool
    Presenting “Fictional Worlds in Films and Games”
  • 8-10 July: Videogame Cultures III, Oxford
    Presenting “Prop Theory for Game Aesthetics”, 2 pm Friday
  • 12-14 July: Visions of Humanity in Cyberculture, Cyberspace and Science Fiction VI, Oxford
    Presenting “Orthodox Science Fiction and Fictional Worlds, 4 pm Wednesday.
  • 18-22 July: IGDA Summit/Casual Connect, Seattle
    “Imagination and Game Design: A Philosophical Approach”, 10 am Tuesday

Happy trails!

Positivists: Atheists for Science

efflorescence Are you a Positivist? If you place your trust in science, and avoid believing in untestable things, you might well be.

Realists believe in only one reality, and for Positivists that reality is only reliably reported by empirical processes – by science, whatever in practice that may mean. Everything untestable can largely be ignored, except perhaps for personal emotions and those stories that are taken as fact – and even these must seem physically plausible and have trustworthy credentials. As Realists working with one clearly defined model of how things are, anything that deviates from that model draws a lot of attention to itself.

The beliefs of traditional religions inevitably look strange from a Positivist perspective. Some Positivists respond with curiosity towards traditional beliefs – it is a wild myth that all people of this ilk hate religion. Some even find ways to participate with religion on their terms, perhaps as metaphor or ethical wisdom. Some, however, find faith and mysticism so antithetical to their knowledge of reality that it becomes abhorrent, disgusting, or at least profoundly disappointing.

(There are other kinds of Realist, including Realists who have faith in something other than science, but these need not concern us for now).

Few if any actually identify as Positivists, although many people who call themselves ‘atheists’ could just as easily call themselves ‘positivists’. There are other similar terms as well – scientific materialist, perhaps, or E.O. Wilson’s scientific humanist (“the only worldview compatible with science's growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature”) but the use of ‘scientific’ in the description of a belief system risks being misleading since the term usually refers to adherence to certain procedural guidelines, and doesn’t make much sense outside of this context. Besides, ‘Positivist’ can stake a claim to being the oldest term for this kind of belief,  having originated with Auguste Comte in the early nineteenth century, and having an unbroken connection with scientific practice ever since.

Positivism is not a religion, as such – certainly not to its diehard representatives – although like Marxism the temptation is always there for people to say that it might as well be. ‘Nonreligion’ seems a fair compromise as a term for the sort of belief system in question. If someone insists no part of their beliefs constitutes a religion it seems only polite to avoid using the term ‘religion’ to describe their way of life. ‘Worldview’, the other obvious contender, has the advantage of taking in both religions and nonreligions, but the disadvantage of blurring distinctions that both Positivists and the religiously minded tend to consider important.

Like a religion, a nonreligion can be practiced with differing degrees of vigour. The seventeenth century names for “dangerous” religions are apposite to considering the extremes of Positivism: Superstition for techno-fantasies like the Singularity, Enthusiasm for people who have attained strident certainty on some-issue-or-another, Fanaticism for those willing to act beyond the accepted bounds of polite society. There are, of course, also a lot of moderate Positivists, who are embarrassed by such excesses, but moderates are always invisible when your primary sources of information are looking for interesting things to report. Extreme people are a lot more interesting precisely because of their intemperance.

The “New Atheists” are not, as is sometimes claimed, fanatics, but they are enthusiastic Positivists. Dawkins, Dennett, Ayer and their chums know what they think and they’re not shy of sharing their point of view. Really, there's are plenty of things being said in the world more shocking than anything this bunch says. In a quirkily self-defeating fashion, however, they ardently believe evolution should be taught to children, yet tell people evolution proves there is no God. It's scarcely surprising this causes conflict with people for whom faith in God is a cornerstone of their lives, nor that it makes teaching evolution into an uphill battle.

Positivists have various views with respect to their enthusiastic brethren. Those that want evolution taught in schools have little reason to thank them, but most seem to see them as not a big deal, or as fundamentally sound people, despite their occasionally injudicious remarks. Quite a few are sympathetic to their views. However, if Positivists want to be accepted as part of global society, they might do well to thank their enthusiastic friends for helping to build a new community of like-minded individuals, and then push firmly for moving the discussion along more productive matters, rather than continuing to tub-thump anti-religious messages bordering on racism. Perhaps it is time to focus on the values and ideals that Positivists uphold, rather than fighting an ill-considered crusade against those who believe differently.

This piece is a terminological experiment; thoughts welcome.

The opening image is Essence by Jaison Cianelli, which I found here on the Cianelli Studios website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Dajani on Evolution in the Muslim World

RDajaniphoto Dr. Rana Dajani is a Jordanian molecular biologist, working principally in biological studies at Hashemite University. She conducts genome-wide studies concerning diabetes and cancer in the ethnic populations of Jordan, and also researches stem cells and bioinformatics. She has also found herself at the forefront of discussions of evolutionary theories in the Muslim world.

Chris Bateman: The Islamic world played such a critical role in the development of modern science, taking up and substantially developing the work of the ancient Greeks. Yet in recent centuries, Muslim interest in science has waned. What’s your perspective on this?

Rana Dajani: In the past three centuries education has waned in the Muslim world primarily as a result of Western colonialism, cultural imperialism, the corruption of the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century, and a lack of focus on education in the Arab-Muslim world – factors which aren’t fully discernable.

Chris: So you see a lot of these problems as fallout from European imperialism in previous centuries, similar to the problems facing a lot of post-colonial African nations?

Rana: Yes, and another effect of colonialism and the resultant lack of political freedom was the loss of autonomy for the general public. The lack of freedom of thought and opinion resulted in less freedom in terms of thinking about, and pursuing, scientific projects. From another perspective, the turn away from Islam as it was originally practiced reduced the practice of education as a form of enlightenment, which is primary in Islam. Inevitably, science suffered because of this.

Chris: Islam was responsible for the first flourishing of universal literacy in any part of the world, yet you have recently set up a “We Love Reading” project in Jordan, to encourage children to enjoy the stories in books. What happened to make this necessary?

Rana: Because of colonialism and the corruption of political regimes, the literary history unique to the Arab and Muslim world was not preserved. The corrupt political regimes prevented freedom of thinking and a culture developed where children don’t grow up reading what they want.

Chris: You see governmental corruption as a key factor in this?

Rana: Yes, those who are invested in political corruption – those who benefit from it – take advantage of people’s ignorance and ban books, religious and otherwise, in the name of fighting against extremist views. Reading and writing are practiced less often, and the availability of books diminishes.

Chris: Is reading for entertainment less common in the Muslim world, then?

Rana: Reading for pleasure is a luxury when you have food and the basics. We have passed through periods of hunger and poverty especially in the past century. Coming out of the past century, first we achieved literacy now we are gaining our freedom soon we will be reading for pleasure.

Chris: Your field of molecular biology has been playing a key role in the clarification of evolutionary theories in recent decades. Although your work has been primarily medical, you seem to have taken a role as an advocate for evolution in Muslim nations. How did this happen?

Rana: I had studied evolution as an undergraduate and the controversy always puzzled me, in terms of what alternative explanations are offered. Then I was asked to substitute for a professor of ecology who was teaching the evolution course at the university where I teach. I jumped at the opportunity because I love to be challenged, and also because the field of evolution had piqued my interest for quite some time. It was a chance to address the field again from a molecular biologist’s point of view.

Chris: A chance to bring a fresh perspective to the issues?

Rana: It was like a pilgrimage for me that I took my students on as well. As a molecular biologist I know that evolution is a scientific fact and I looked for ways to reconcile it with religion. Because of my conviction that my religion is true, I found support in the Qur’anic verses by looking for new meaning in the light of the scientific evidence concerning evolution.

Chris: In English speaking countries, opposition to evolution (often called “Creationism”) seems to have come about as a result of one of the worst public relations disasters in the history of science – the insistence by certain biologists and philosophers that accepting evolution necessitates rejecting traditional religion. A similar situation seems to have come about recently in the Islamic world – what is your impression of the causes of Muslim resistance to evolutionary theories?

Rana: Ignorance of science in the past few hundred years has led to this kind of “Creationist” ideology. Also, ignorance as regards the theory itself – misunderstanding of the definitions used, language barriers and so forth. In the Middle East in particular, the lack of freedom of thinking also facilitates ignorance about these kinds of scientific issues. So a group of people control what others think or what is permissible to think about in order to push for their political and personal agendas. This kind of cultural and scientific stagnancy is definitely not what Islam preaches as evidenced by the Golden Age of Islam, which coincided with important discoveries in science.

Chris: What do Muslim Creationists believe?

Rana: Creationism in Islam is seen in a different context than it is in the West. For Muslims, ‘Creationism’ means that there is a creator who is responsible for making the universe and all that is in it. That does not deny evolution and the presence of natural selection.

Chris: But there is still a conflict of some kind...

Rana: The only clash would be with atheists who believe that there is no divine being that started it all. But this issue in not the point of discussion in the argument. The whole argument is about whether all creatures were created instantaneously from a human perspective or through a long process controlled by laws.

Chris: On the surface, that doesn’t sound as if it would be problematic for Muslims, since the Qur’an doesn’t offer a literal chronology of creation like the Book of Genesis in the Christian Bible.

Rana: Indeed, in Islam this is not a problem. The problem was created when Islamic scholars out of ignorance adopted the stance of certain Christian Churches against evolution, which was necessarily a response to the particular atheistic understanding of evolution common in Europe and the United States. For some people in the West, if you believe in evolution you are an atheist and if you don’t you are a believer. That is not the case in Islam.

Chris: You have said: “If the religious texts contradict the scientific facts it means that we do not understand the religious text,” and advocated that the Qur’an is “about how to live as a human being… It is not a book of science”. How have these views been received?

Rana: I’ve received conflicting responses. Some have agreed. Some have opposed. Some have agreed but were very careful to emphasize the delicacy and importance of not getting carried away in interpreting everything according to science because science changes – and I agree with this. Also, many responses have stressed that consultation with experts in theology and language is necessary.

Chris: Are you optimistic that the perceived conflicts between traditional Islamic beliefs and contemporary evolutionary theory can be resolved?

Rana: I am optimistic that we will reach some sort of resolve. At this point, traditional Islam has been monopolized by a group of people. With the freedom of speech and opinion following the Arab Spring, people will revolutionize contemporary Islam and discover once again the root of authentic Islam, which calls for questioning and reviving – ijtehad (thinking for oneself) and qiyas (interpreting things in a new light).

Chris: Creative thinking has traditionally been a value in Muslim society, hasn’t it?

Rana: Yes, in the early Muslim community every adequately qualified jurist had the right to exercise original thinking, mainly ra’y (personal judgment) and qiyas (analogical reasoning). So any conflict between scientific theories can be addressed in a scientific way as authentic Islam preaches.

With thanks to Professor Dajani for her time.

Seeking New Mail Client

Can anyone recommend a mail client for use under Windows XP?

I still use the aging Outlook Express as my mail client, largely because I’ve been unable to find anything better. I did try Thunderbird the other year, but found it had no significant advantages over OE, and a lot of clunky new problems.

The main factor pushing for change is that when I’m travelling, transferring mail from my desktop to my laptop is very difficult – even with a tool expressly designed for the job. In particular, mail rules (which OE stores in the registry) do not transfer well. Webmail is impractical for the volume and diversity of email I handle (e.g. sometimes I get 5,000+ survey data emails in a week), so it will need to be a POP3 client.

Here’s my “wish list” for a new mail client:

  • Lightweight code – quick to start, little to go wrong.
  • Easy filtering – ideally, I’d like to drag an email into a folder and have the client learn that I want emails from that contact to go into that folder. Failing that, to be able to easily compile lists of contacts that filter into a particular folder. But most importantly, all this information has to export easily for when I transfer to my laptop.
  • Effortless export – as I say, I need to switch from desktop to laptop without losing any data.
  • Secure – I have to protect non-disclosure agreements with commercial clients, so I need software I can trust.
  • No fluff – I want a mail client to sort and read mail; I’m not looking for software that tries to take over my desk diary’s job.

Any suggestions?

Cross-posted from

Update: following a demonstration of Gmail by Peter, I'm now much more confident that this is a sensible step for me to take. I'm going to experiment with Gmail while I'm on the road in July and if it works out I'll ditch Outlook Express when I return. Thanks to everyone for their assistance!

The Truth is Somewhere

thetruthisoutthere If the truth is not dependent upon us to establish it, where is it?

A sidebar discussion with Peter in the comments to The Mythic Void set my thoughts back onto a familiar topic: the question of “the truth”. As regular players will know, I have a fairly soft view of the truth. I don’t dispute that the concept is meaningful, but I do dispute that it is as robust as most Realists want to assert. I take a broadly contextualist view, whereby if something is true it is true in a particular system or context. But Realists of various kinds contend that true things remain true even if no-one believes them.

My problem with this is: where is this truth? How does it attain to truth without a system or context to validate it? For theists and the like, this truth can be sited in God. But there are plenty of Realists around who do not have a working concept of God – so where does their absolute truth reside? In some strange parallel universe that has truths but no thinking beings to conceptualise them?

This ties in with Nietzsche’s observation that “anti-metaphysicians” still believe in Plato’s absolute truth, they just reject Plato’s claim that this truth is God. He criticises this prior commitment to truth, and so do I. I’m far from convinced that the truth is worthy of this degree of adulation, especially once it is stripped of any divine veneer. The idea seems to be that there is a system of truths that we tap into, and our grasping of the truth is just glimpsing this ultimate system. But that was precisely what Platonic idealism was – so are contemporary Realists confessing to being idealists? Because that admission seems rather self-defeating!

The truth has to be somewhere, it can’t just be an ephemeral spectre that has ‘truth’ and nothing else. For me, true things have their life in systems of thought and belief, and it is only in such systems that something can be true. That’s where my truth “lives”. But Realists insist this isn’t the case, and that what is really true is universally and absolutely true – even without God as an anchor for this absolute assertion.

So where does this absolute truth reside? If it resides in some absolute system, perhaps one that we don’t have direct access to, then this is tantamount to God (or at least, the “God of Spinoza”, whom Einstein acknowledged). But even then, the truth would be true only within a system; this view amounts to the idea that there is a perfect system and within that perfect system truths are absolute. This view doesn’t give much for Realists to hang on to, since clearly nothing we think or believe rises to the level of this imaginary perfect system.

As pictured above, The X-Files used to claim that “the truth is out there”. Fair enough – but where?

Digital Dominance: Goals

Following and concluding last week’s discussion about the gun as a game prop, this week I look at the goal as a verbal prop in games.  Here’s an extract:

The domination of videogames by guns and goals is likely to persist unless viable, creatively-driven, art-game movements can emerge that either subvert or discard both explicit achievements as the structure of play and weaponry as the focus of play. If this is not possible, games-as-art will flounder against the possibility of holding sufficient interest against the commercial mainstream, and will fail to earn attention, funding or respect. With the mainstream of videogames now quite clearly defined, the open question is whether the artistic potential of the medium will be explored, or left fallow.

This is a very different kind of discussion to last week’s, but with the same motivations and general approach. You can read Digital Dominance: Goals over at

Folk Science Fiction

X-men If orthodox science fiction is dictated by current beliefs among scientists, what of the wider appeal to science fiction in contemporary stories? Perhaps, in parallel to the use of the phrase ‘folk tales’, we can call this ‘folk science fiction’.

In classical mythology, gods and magic lift the hero out of the ordinary world. In contemporary mythologies, it is more often science and technology playing this role. But except when the tales conform to orthodox science fiction, the distinction between technology and magic is merely cosmetic – and not just because of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Superhero stories are perhaps the closest contemporary analogue to the classical tradition of recounting legends: they are told by many different storytellers, the details often change with each telling, and in the form of comics the episodic narrative is close to the ancient fireside oral tradition, where tales unfold night after night. While DC Comics established the genre – and in Superman and Batman have its most famous examples – it is Marvel Comics that currently occupies the larger spotlight.

Marvel threw itself with gusto into folk science fiction tales inspired by the Big Science of the sixties: nuclear power. Hence, boy bitten by radioactive spider (Spider-man, 1962); scientist transformed by lethal dose of gamma rays (Hulk, 1962); and mutant “children of the atom” (X-men, 1963). Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko developed a whole new “Atomic Age” spin on superheroics, before then chiefly comprised of patriotic fantasies and wild spin-offs from detective comics, a legacy felt most acutely in the case of Batman (1939) whose comic of origin was literally called Detective Comics.

With the rise of genetics in research communities, genetic engineering began to appear in orthodox science fiction, and this may have helped the X-men to grow in popularity outside of comic fanboys. Other Marvel characters have steadily drifted closer to orthodoxy over the years: recent Spider-man movies, for instance, favour a mutant spider bite as a justification for Peter Parker's powers (no more plausible than the original, but closer to orthodoxy than 'radioactive spider'). The 2000 Bryan Singer-directed X-men movie (pictured above) rocketed Marvel into the big league by quadrupling it's multi-million dollar budget in revenue, although the adaptation of Marvel character Blade two years earlier had been a stepping stone in terms of hooking Marvel up with better contacts in the movie community, and Warner Bros. successful adaptations of DC Comics’ Superman (1978) and Batman (1989) had already paved the way for this kind of  blockbuster superhero movie.

Cinemas are the cathedrals in which these new mythological stories are told. Today, comics are a lesser part of Marvel’s folk science fiction industry, largely a proving ground for movie concept, a business model gainfully employed by numerous old and new media companies today. Other folk science fiction myth cycles – Star Trek, James Bond – have long thrived in the temple of the silver screen, and some, like Star Wars, began there. Folk stories have always been popular media, while orthodox mythology has been the pursuit of the hierophant and the hermit. For science fiction, the scientist and the nerd fulfil these roles with varying degrees of fervour.

Identifying a storytelling tradition that can be termed ‘folk science fiction’ is not to belittle its value, but to place certain stories into a specific relationship with scientific research. This perspective raises many questions. Does the early science fiction of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells count as folk or orthodox science fiction? We do not need to decide, and looking back it can be hard to judge since what constitutes orthodox science changes with astonishing regularity, but Wells’ attitude towards science certainly leaned towards the ideological.

The important point to recognize is that authorized stories (i.e. facts) always acquire a mythology, and this is the case in any sphere where authority might be claimed: science, history, politics, religion – even art. For the “inner circle” of experts in each case, the myths must attain to some kind of ideological orthodoxy, since it is this upon which authority rests. But for the world at large, folk mythology is the shadow cast by that authority. Folk science fiction reveals the silhouetted shape of mythic symbols that are rooted in scientific research and theory, and thus expose the influence of science in contemporary culture – and perhaps also the vagueness of the general public’s grasp of empirical stories.