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.