Science Fiction and Simon the Magician

Here I reprint of a column from years past, but still pertinent, or impertinent.

Let me propose a rather long essay and a slightly droll theory:

The aliens behind the Monolith in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY are the same as the aliens signaling from Vega in Carl Sagan’s CONTACT. They both are part of the Galactic Overmind seeking the evolutionary transcendence of all life, and to elevate lesser races to maturity, as in CHILDHOOD’S END, also by Clarke.

On a less droll note, I am proposing that these works, and several others, are similar in their mood and theme and treatment of the plot elements, because they tacitly agree on a central myth.

It is a mythic thread that runs through much of science fiction from even before the golden age, and, if I am right about what this thread is, back two thousand years and more. Van Vogt and Heinlein and Asimov have all placed at least some of their stories in the service of this myth, the Great Myth.


To prove my point that the CONTACT aliens built the Monoliths, please contemplate the following multiple choice question:

Dave Bowman (or whatever the name of the utterly forgettable Discovery Astronaut representing Man was in the scene) discovers the Monolith floating in space near Jupiter (we are using the movie version, here, not the book, which placed it around Saturn). He descends into the Monolith and suffers a beatnik-era lightshow, which is supposed to represent something beyond human experience such as passage through a wormhole (which is explicit in the book). He finds himself in a perfect replica of a bedroom appointed in the Louis XVI-style. Strange shifts of time occur as he sees himself simultaneously at different ages: and as he lies dying, the Monolith appears in the room, and….

  1. The Monolith is a teleportation device out from which steps a number of Vulcans, the highly advanced aliens from 40 Eridani, whose mastery of mental and scientific disciplines enabled them to build the monoliths, which they send out in attempts to elevate pre-rational species to Vulcan level of sober and dispassionate logic. He offers Bowman membership in a peaceful federation of stars.
  2. The Monolith is a teleportation device out from which steps a number of Kzinti, the belligerent hunting-cat aliens from 61 Ursae Majoris. They send out the Monoliths to find apelike prehumans of various worlds and teach them how to kill each other with the thighbones of an antelope, in order to jump-start the evolution toward a warlike species who will afford the Patriarchy of Kzin some jolly sport. The whole point of the indirect approach via Monolith was a cat-and-mouse game, playing with one’s prey. He offers Bowman a choice of weapons.
  3. The Monolith is a teleportation device out from which steps an insane Puppeteer, native of a Klemperer Rosette of dirigible worlds on a long voyage out of the Galaxy, which is doomed. The Puppeteer explains that they evolve animals to intelligence in order to provide possible customers for their trade goods, such as hyperdrives and macromolecular-diamond hulls. He offers Bowman a catalogue, and explains that for the next nine-hundred-sixty-eight earth-years, they are having a buy-one-get-one-free special on starseed lures, tasps, and slaver stasis boxes.
  4. The Monolith is a teleportation device out from which steps a Ferengi, highly advanced native of the planet Ferenginar. He hands astronaut Bowman a bill for the forced-evolution services which elevated the human race up from hominids. Pay up or the Earth will be sold to the Klingons.
  5. The Monolith is a telepathic device that puts Bowman in contact with Mentor of Arisia, a fourfold mind of the highly advanced race who have been controlling human history (and that of many other races) in order to selectively breed for psionic talent, mental qualities of force, scope, drive, and integrity. This breeding program is as part of an eon-long plan to create a galactic Lensman Corps to fight invaders of immense power from another galaxy. Mentor offers Bowman a Lens: a lenticular polychrome of writhing, almost fluid radiance which proclaimed to all observers in symbols of ever-changing flame that here was a Lensman of the GALACTIC PATROL!
  6. The Monolith is a telepathic device that puts Bowman in contact with the Guardians of Oa, who inform him that they have been elevating hominids to sapience throughout the galaxy in order to find life forms that are utterly fearless to aid in policing the universe. He is presented with a Power Ring, and assigned to Space Sector 2814.
  7. The Monolith is a transportation device built by a federation of space faring worlds. Out from the monolith steps a man in a silver suit named Klaatu. Behind him, a giant robot. He explains tersely that Bowman is to deliver the following ultimatum to Earth: with the development of rocketry and atomic weapons in recent years, Earth has become a threat to other worlds. A race of robots with the power and authority to destroy any aggressor world has been created, and their decisions are final and absolute. Earth must obtain peace now, or face obliteration.
  8. The Monolith is a transportation which teleports Bowman from Vega to a world circling a star in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. There in a vast chamber, along with a hominid, a Roman centurion named Iunio, and a little girl named Peewee, he finds that the human race is on trial for its survival. The Tribunal is a mixture of biological and mechanical minds collected of many races from three galaxies. With utterly cold Machiavellian realism, the Tribunal describe that their only interest is not in justice nor injustice, but merely in the safety of its members from possible harm. It is coldly explained that the home worlds of dangerous races are summarily flung into interstellar space, far from their mother star, so that their populations can die in slow and lingering torture as their atmosphere condenses over hours and days from gas to liquid and freezes solid. They offer Bowman the right to speak in the defense of mankind.
  9. The Monolith is a transportation device built on the same principles as the Arroway machine from CONTACT, which transports Bowman though a serious of wormholes to the world near the center of a galaxy. On a beach that seems a perfect replica of Shell Beach (a place he knew as a child) he meets a being that seems to be a perfect replica of his dead mother. She explains that mankind has passed the first test in being worthy to meet with other species, but that the next test will not be for thousands of years.

I am not going to ask the question you think I am going to ask.

The question is not going to be “Which of these answers is most in keeping with the mood and theme and unspoken idea behind 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY?

I am not going to ask that because the answer is obvious. The best answer of all was not given in the multiple choice test, but in another work by Arthur C Clarke:

10. Bowman learns that the Monolith was seeded throughout the galaxy by the Karellen Overlords of the star NGS 549672. This was done at the behest of the vast Overmind, a collection of group-minds representing the ingathered consciousnesses of all the ancient civilizations of the stars, and that Bowman is the first of many ‘Starchildren’ who will one day surpass all the limits of matter. Soon, the sole remaining human left on Earth will be Jan Rodricks, who, with a profound sense not of fear but of cosmic fulfillment, sees the starchildren sweep as a column of flame to the heavens, and all the elements of the solid earth fade into transparency and nothingness….


Instead let me ask this. “How is it that all of us who are not completely tone-deaf can agree that we do not prefer the version where the Monolith Architects are tradesmen seeking customers or hunters seeking good sport or eugenic stock-breeders seeking war recruits?

Another way of asking the question is why did all the answers but the last set your teeth on edge?

(And if the answers did not set your teeth on edge, forgive my impertinence, but you need to read more science fiction.)

Surely any reader not tone-deaf sees that the aliens from Vega from CONTACT have the same mysterious grandeur and, yes, transcendent quality as the Monolith Architects.

For one thing, unlike Vulcans and Arisians and Kzinti, the transcendental aliens have no names. They never come on stage. If they speak, their speech is as cryptic as the oracle of Delphi.

This is because bringing them onstage, or having them speak too much, would ruin the awe and mystery. If they must appear, let them be something ghostly, such a dead loved one from your own past.

The other aliens listed here are science fiction aliens, that is to say, beings like us, merely having evolved on other planets under other circumstances. They have different psychologies, as the Puppeteers are great cowards, the Vulcans great stoics, the Klingons are great warriors; but they are mortals, like us.

They are men.

The idea that the Monoliths were built by Ferengi or Kzinti is appalling. They are not even men, but monsters. These aliens are creatures of greed or wrath, no more human than Albrecht the Niflungar or the Nemean Lion.

The idea that the people on the other side of the wormhole will be guys like us, except maybe with big ears or cat heads would elicit, after all the buildup of awe and wonder of the voyage from the early hominids to Jupiter’s inner moons, a groan akin to the groan heard when the Jedi of STAR WARS said they got their powers from micro-organisms in their bloodstream.

The groan is because the idea breaks the mood of 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY. The Space Odyssey (which is also the odyssey of human evolution from apeman to spaceman) cannot end this way. To have monkeys elevated to manhood by monsters would make a cynical joke of the whole story.

The Oans and the Arisians are less like us and more like the fathers and grandfathers and wise old wizards of the galaxy, and the Arisians may or may not have physical bodies at all. But they are on stage too much, they talk too much, they have definite goals and values which humans understand.

They may be like wizards or like genii, but they are not like gods.

On the other hand, the Overmind from CHILDHOOD’S END is godlike, and so are the Monolith Architects from 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY and so are the Vegans from CONTACT. That is the whole point. These are not science fiction aliens, who have specific shapes and come from specific worlds.

These aliens are the stuff of myth.

The myth is that mankind, with the aid of benevolent higher powers, is meant to evolve from apeman to spaceman to superman, and not just to Nietzsche’s idea of a superman, nor that of Siegel and Shuster. A very specific type of superman is here envisioned, even if in the vaguest possible terms: a being of pure thought, pure intellect, who is evolved beyond the sullen bounds of matter.

The superman in this myth is the man science has set free of nature!


Let me draw your particular attention to the answer where Bowman is hauled before the Tribunal of the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, whose moral code consists of no more than a pragmatic assessment of possible danger, followed, if the species flunk the test, by planetary genocide of truly ghastly, nay, Eedocsmithian proportions.

The allegedly advanced aliens of the Lesser Magellanic Cloud obliterate whole worlds, from suckling babe to wizened elder, largest redwood to tiniest bacterium, using an execution method you would not use on a mad dog. (Unless you like locking mad dogs in meat lockers and listen to them howl while they slowly freeze to death).

Doomed worlds are not even allowed to sell their eggs or children as slaves in return for sparing their lives. So the Tribunal aliens are lower on the scale of civilization than ancient Babylonians or the Danish corsairs.

This scene of course is taken from the climax of HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL by Robert Heinlein. More than any other book that I can bring to mind, this Tribunal represents Heinlein’s notion of the superman, the next evolutionary step beyond ours.

Of all the answers, this one I find the least in keeping with the august and mythic impression we get of the Monolith Architects, because the motives and goals of the Tribunal are a slap in the face of the evolutionary myth Clarke and Sagan so carefully evoke.

Heinlein’s notion of a superhuman race is a race which adopts his same blustery tough-talk notions that might makes right and the end justify the means, which no doubt the author merely thinks to be unsentimental common sense, but from which a more civilized soul, not so eager to contemplate genocide, must recoil.

Klaatu and his race of deadly world-destroying robots is a similar idea from the movie DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (the real one); but here this idea has a little more leeway, since at least the Earthlings are told they are on trial, and the death sentence will not be carried out until Earth actually opens fire on some neighbor.

Note the sharp contrast with CHILDHOOD’S END by Clarke. There, the warlike nature of man is contained partly by direct alien intervention and partly by an understandable awe at the discovery of superior alien life. Instead of slowly torturing the mad dog to death via freezing, the Overmind assigns one of their servant races to act as caretaker and jail-warden to mad mankind, and they nurse the next generation of human beings to adulthood, this generation which surpasses all human limits, forms a mass mind, and studies war no more.

The abhorrent Tribunal of the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, and the coldly practical Federation of Worlds of Klaatu lack the mythical stature, the transcendental grandeur of the Monolith Architects, the Contactors or the Overmind for the simple reason that they are still mortals like us, and, worse, afraid of us and afraid of our weapons.

But for the Monolith Architects to fear us would be like having the entire NATO military be afraid of a small band of lemurs from Madagascar. It shatters the whole myth.


Why is the idea that the Monolith Architects are men like us only with big Ferengi Ears or Kzinti tiger-faces appalling?

The reason this idea appalls is because Arthur C Clarke, although he is known and revered for his hard science fiction tale and their technical accuracy, is not telling a science fiction story here.

He is telling a myth.

The Monolith Architects are not science fiction aliens. They represent the awe of the human for the superhuman. They embody the wonder we feel at the sight of the stars, knowing they are distant suns, for the most part larger and older than our own, which shine on unknown worlds.

By myth I do not mean falsehood, I mean mythos, an account in symbolic language of ultimate things.

Myths have several telling features. C.S. Lewis, one of the finer myth-makers of the modern world, identifies them in his book AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM:

First, myths have a simple narrative shape. Lewis calls it “a satisfactory and inevitable shape, like a good vase or a tulip.”

Second, the power of the myth comes not from their literary virtues, but from a compelling quality present even in the simplest retelling of them. The usual narrative tricks of suspense or surprise are not needed. Elevated language is not needed.

Third, myths need no character arc. The wrath of Achilles, the jealousy of Othello, and the indecisiveness of Hamlet need to be introduced for the narrative story of these men to be told. This is not true for the story of Orpheus. Orpheus is an everyman who suffers the pain of loss at the death of a loved one. No specific personality characteristics need to be introduced for his story.

Fourth, myth deals with the fantastic, the impossible or preternatural.

Fifth, the experience may be sad or joyful, but it is always grave.

Sixth, the experience is not only grave but awe-inspiring. We feel it to be numinous. It is as if something of great moment had been communicated to us.


Let us look at the narrative structure of 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY: Hominids are elevated to human sapience by a mysterious monolith, and, for good or evil, the apemen learn both human tool-use and human weapon-use. Astronauts discover an enigmatic monolith on the moon which sends a signal to Jupiter. The Discovery pursues the signal to its source, and, after destroying a malign computer murdering the crew, the sole survivor enters the monolith, dies, and is reborn as an infant among the stars as some higher order of being.

It is the starkest possible three-act play of cave-man, space-man, and starchild.

The only element of the plot which is “narrative” rather than “myth” is the homicidal computer HAL 9000; but the book makes it clear that HAL malfunctioned because of a falsehood built into its programming. If we interpret this falsehood as representing all of the mechanistic and deceptive impulses of man, the danger of our own tool-using nature to turn against us by creating tools to which we enslave ourselves, then indeed HAL 9000 is the symbolically-apt antagonist attempting to stop Man from achieving transcendence. Even the death of HAL 9000 is thematically correct for the story. HAL is the antithesis of Bowman; instead of being elevated to superhumanity, HAL 9000 failed the cosmic test of evolution. HAL is reduced to infancy, to idiocy, sings a childhood song, and dies.

But the awe and the point of the story is not the homicidal computer, it is the single narrative of caveman to spaceman to starchild. That is the source of the enduring awe of the tale, and that is what still fascinates about the movie and the book, despite any other drawbacks.


Even the things that don’t make sense as narrative make sense as myth. The reason why Bowman does not have any personality is that Orpheus does not have any personality. He is all men; he is Man .

The hippy-dippy lightshow at the end is actually stronger in the movie than the much more sensible and pedestrian parallel scene in the book, where Bowman is drawn through a wormhole and sees an long-abandoned alien shipyard. A shipyard, even of unearthly starships, is too prosaic for a myth. It is good SF writing, but bad mythmaking. We all know what a shipyard is. Seeing a group of torpedo-shaped vessels built by aliens is almost comically inadequate against our expectations. If Kubrik had put a star-yard in the film, all would have laughed in scorn. The incomprehensible light-show works as a myth because it is incomprehensible.

And Bowman does not meet or see any aliens, because any alien you can see with your eyes is not worth seeing.

I will point out that in CONTACT the main character, Elli Arroway, does not meet anything that looks like an alien. She meets the ghost of her dead father. Sure, it is allegedly an alien using some technology we do not understand to take on the appearance of her dead father, but the reason why the writer chose a dead father as the image for the aliens to assume, rather than Colonel Klink from HOGAN’S HEROES, (an appearance which would have, in theory, been just as easy for the aliens to assume) was that ghosts of loved ones are spooky and supernatural and loving. To appear as a familiar ghost is in keeping with the transcendental nature of the aliens.

The appearance in he final scene 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY of the bedroom done in the style of Louis XVI is for the same reason. The architecture is strange yet familiar, something from the past. It is haunting. The reason for the sudden slips or shifts in time, where Bowman sees himself in the past and future is again for the same reason: to produce the mood of a myth about the supernatural and transcendental.


Turning our attention to the other telling signs of myth, I submit that many a science fiction book shares these features, but that 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY displays them tellingly. Indeed, one might even propose it as an epitome or perfect example of the genre, both the genre’s strong points and weak.

There narrative tricks of suspense or surprise are absent from 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY. The astronauts do not know the monolith is an alien artifact that evolves beings to higher states, but the audience knows this from the first scene. Poole and Bowman have no character arc, no personality characteristics. The subject matter is fantastic, impossible and preternatural even for a science fiction story: this is not a mere space adventure.

Elevated language there is none. The book is written in a clean journalistic style without poetry; as indeed most science fiction is.

The tale is clearly grave and sober in its approach. There is not a single joke, not one moment of lightheartedness. It is as solemn as a cathedral lit by candles.

And, as for awe-inspiring, that is what the tale is about. If you are not awed, this story is not for you. We feel 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY to be numinous. It is as if something of great moment had been communicated to us.

What was communicated? I submit that it is nothing less than man’s place in the universe, at once humble and exulted.


What is the myth?

It is one of the central myths, if not the central myth of the modern mind.

C.S. Lewis, who pronounced the eulogy of this myth, mentions the name ‘Wellsianity’ after H.G. Wells, one of its more imaginative proponents; but Lewis himself also called it the Myth of Darwinism, or, more simply, The Great Myth.

After taking pains (which, alas, are always ignored) to distinguish the theory of Darwin, which deals with change to organisms through natural selection, Lewis described this most unscientific myth of Darwinism that has accumulated in the wake of Darwin’s scientific theory, which deals with endless improvements to a golden future.

Even H.G. Wells knew better than to confuse the theory natural selection with the optimistic Victorian myth of ever-upward evolution: his cannibal troglodyte Morlocks of AD 802701 were the product of natural selection, but hardly an improvement.

C.S. Lewis describes the myth in this way:

[This is] a cosmic theory. Not merely terrestrial organisms but everything is moving ‘upwards and onwards’. Reason has ‘evolved’ out of instinct, virtue out of complexes, poetry out of erotic howls and grunts, civilization out of savagery, the organic out of the inorganic, the solar system out of some sidereal soup or traffic block. And conversely, reason, virtue, art and civilization as we now know them are only the crude or embryonic beginnings of far better things–perhaps Deity itself–in the remote future. For in the Myth, ‘Evolution’ (as the Myth understands it) is the formula for all existence. To exist means to be moving from the status of ‘almost zero’ to the status of ‘almost infinity’.

To those brought up on the Myth nothing seems more normal, more natural, more plausible, than that chaos should turn to order, death into life, ignorance into knowledge. And with this we reach the full-blown Myth. It is one of the most moving and satisfying world dramas which have ever been imagined.

The drama proper is preceded (do not forget the Rhinegold here) by the most austere of all preludes; the infinite void and matter endlessly, aimlessly moving to bring forth it knows not what. Then by some millionth, millionth chance–what tragic irony!–the conditions at one point of space and time bubble up into that tiny fermentation which we call organic life. At first everything seems to be against the infant hero of our drama; just as everything always was against the seventh son or ill-used step-daughter in a fairy tale. But life somehow wins through.

With incalculable sufferings (the Sorrows of the Volsungs were nothing to it), against all but insuperable obstacles, it spreads, it breeds, it complicates itself; from the amoeba up to the reptile, up to the mammal. Life (here comes the first climax) ‘wanton’d as in her prime’. This is the age of the monsters: dragons prowl the earth, devour one another, and die.

Then the irresistible theme of the Younger Son or the Ugly Duckling is repeated. As the weak, tiny spark of life herself began amidst the beasts that are far larger and stronger than he, there comes forth a little, naked, shivering, cowering biped, shuffling, not yet fully erect, promising nothing: the product of another millionth, millionth chance.

His name in this Myth is Man: elsewhere he has been the young Beowulf whom men at first thought a dastard, or the stripling David armed only with a sling against a mail-clad Goliath, or a Jack the Giant-Killer himself, or even Hop-o’-my-Thumb. He thrives. He begins killing his giants. He becomes the Cave Man with his flints and his club, muttering and growling over his enemies’ bones, almost a brute and yet somehow able to invent art, pottery, language, weapons, cookery, and nearly everything else (his name in another story is Robinson Crusoe), dragging his screaming mate by her hair (I do not know exactly why), tearing his children to pieces in fierce jealousy until they are old enough to tear him, and cowering before the terrible gods whom he has invented in his own image.

But these were only growing pains. In the next act he has become true Man. He learns to master Nature. Science arises and dissipates the superstitions of his infancy. More and more he becomes the controller of his own fate. Passing hastily over the historical period (in it the upward and onward movement gets in places a little indistinct, but it is a mere nothing by the time-scale we are using) we follow our hero on into the future.

See him in the last act, though not the last scene, of this great mystery. A race of demigods now rule the planet (in some versions, the galaxy). Eugenics have made certain that only demigods will now be born: psychoanalysis that none of them shall lose or smirch his divinity: economics that they shall have to hand all that demigods require. Man has ascended his throne. Man has become God. All is a blaze of glory.

And now, mark well the final stroke of mythopoetic genius. It is only the more debased versions of the Myth that end here. For to end here is a little bathetic, even a little vulgar. If we stopped at this point the story would lack the highest grandeur.

Therefore, in the best versions, the last scene reverses all. Arthur died: Siegfried died: Roland dies at Roncesvaux. Dusk steals darkly over the gods. All this time we have forgotten Mordred, Hagen, Ganilon. All this time Nature, the old enemy who only seemed to be defeated, has been gnawing away, silently, unceasingly, out of the reach of human power. The Sun will cool–all suns will cool–the whole universe will run down. Life (every form of life) will be banished without hope of return from every cubic inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness. ‘Universal darkness covers all’. True to the shape of Elizabethan tragedy, the hero has swiftly fallen from the glory to which he slowly climbed: we are dismissed ‘in calm of mind, all passion spent’. It is indeed much better than Elizabethan tragedy, for it has a more complete finality. It brings us to the end not of a story, but of all possible stories: enden sah ich die welt.

I grew up believing in this Myth and have felt–I still feel–its almost perfect grandeur.


Allow me to emphasize two points which Mr. Lewis does not dwell upon. First, the clearest, and perhaps the only, expression the Great Myth in the modern day is in Science Fiction. Second, the Great Myth is not futuristic at all, not new, but is an ancient heresy, perhaps the most ancient.

The Great Myth is the core idea of Science Fiction to such a degree that even books that cut against the Great Myth must touch on it.

Perhaps here I am making too bold a claim — since who can define a field as varied as SF? — let me instead merely say the Great Myth is the core of H.G. Wellsian science fiction and his epigones. It is not the Hard SF of Jules Verne we are discussing, but the social and philosophical SF of Wells.

Science Fiction is a new genre, springing out of the industrial and scientific revolutions, made possible by the growth of a world view among the common man that change was possible or inevitable and would change the way we live our lives. Those who live in a classical or heathen world view that promises nothing but the eternal return of the universe again and again to the same conditions has no room for speculation about progress and no curiosity about adventures set in a future world grown strange by technological change.

Some of the earliest Science Fiction were perhaps more bold about the ultimate fate of progress than later, and hence were more explicit in their attachment to the Great Myth.

Olaf Stapledon in LAST AND FIRST MEN explicitly lays out the course of human future human evolution for the next seventeen species of man, and then he did it again for all worlds in STARMAKER and (by no coincidence) the ending in both books is precisely as Lewis here describes—a sorrowful universal death.

Lewis himself addresses the Great Myth, albeit as an adversary, in the dialog between man and eldil (angel) which forms the climax of OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET: he explicitly mocks the myth, both in its ambitions for interstellar colonization and conquest, and in its glorification of the evolutionary metamorphosis of the human race into a greater albeit nonhuman one.

With the advent of John C. Campbell Jr, the Great Myth was somewhat shrunk in scope. Campbell’s magazine ran stories which generally promoted a world view of pragmatic men hopeful of better living through science: the last act of the myth was dropped, so Campbellian tales tend to be about the evolutionary climb, not the conquest by entropy at the end. The transcendental view of the man beyond man was muted, perhaps because the Campbellians regarded the superman as a mystical idea, but traces of the superman still can be seen.

The foremost portrait artist of the superman in during the golden age of SF is, without doubt, A.E. van Vogt.

In SLAN van Vogt portrays the superhuman in one way a human mind can grasp: as a young of one of the species.

Gilbert Gosseyn is introduced in WORLD OF NULL-A as something like a feral child, like Tarzan or Mowgli, a superhuman raised among men, but unaware of his heritage (Gosseyn is later given another origin story, but in the original magazine version of the tale, the clues pointing toward Gosseyn as a feral superhuman).

In WEAPON MAKERS OF ISHER, we see what an adult superhuman is capable of. Captain Hedrock aka Walter S Delany is the immortal man who is the founder of the weapons shops guild is also the founder and prince consort of the Imperial family is Isher. He singlehandedly guides the human race through the Frankenstein dangers of technological growth, and leads man to his ultimate destiny. In the greatest curtain line in science fiction, or at least the most inexplicable, we are told that mankind is the race that will one day rule the sevagram.

What is to be particularly emphasized is that the immortal is not merely superhumanly intelligent, he is superhumanly altruistic, far-sighted, benevolent. He has a particularly laissez-faire attitude toward ruling the human race, and uses the two great institutions in balance against each other, to allow mankind, should man chose it, to be free.

In defiance of the rather cold hearted and hyper rational image of superhumans (of which I smell traces in Heinlein) van Vogt consistently depicted superhumans as having superhuman altruism. The contempt we see in that other superman, Michael Valentine Smith of STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND, for the “chumps” and “marks” and loser of the human race, we weaklings who must be swept aside by the glorious course of evolution, is nowhere present in Walter S DeLany.

In nearly all of A.E. van Vogt’s works, one can detect a mystical idea that man and the universe are intimately intertwined, so that one cannot affect one without affecting the other. This idea is explicit in only two stories.

One is the short story ‘Secret Unattainable’ where a machine that bypasses the limits of space and time cannot be used except by souls who have attained a certain level of enlightenment because the laws of nature are intertwined with the moral law, the laws of sanity.

Dr Kenrube, the story’s protagonist, gives the Nazis a machine that bypass time and space, and he promises them that it will destroy them. He says

“Somehow, beneath adaptations, peculiar and unsuspected relationships existed between the properties of matter and the phenomena of life. … Here is your machine. It is all there; yours to use for any purpose—-provided you first change your mode of thinking to conform to the reality of the relationship between matter and life …. It is not that the machine has will. It reacts to laws, which you must learn, and in the learning it will reshape your minds, your outlook on life.”

The second is the novel length work THE UNIVERSE MAKER, where the protagonist Cargill discovers that all reality is an illusion created by the life-energy in order for life to satisfy inexplicable psychological needs for possessions and for revenge. The godhead is nothing more than Cargill and the various other enlightened avatars of the one primal and timeless energy field. The universe is but a game, and the players have forgotten the reason for the play, or even that it is a game and that they are players. In the climax of the novel, Cargill survives the destruction of the universe and recreates it.

Van Vogt may have differed in his belief about this cosmic unity of man and universe from the pragmatism of Heinlein or Campbell, but the belief in the growth of man to superman, to what Wells called Men Like Gods, is as apparent in both. The main deviation between this and the Great Myth is the tragic ending. Van Vogt’s characters are more likely to recreate the universe after its death than to topple when it dies, as Nat Cemp from THE SILKIE or Cargill from THE UNIVERSE MAKER.

The theme of cosmic recreation is present in writers from the Golden Age more famous than A.E. van Vogt.

The Isaac Asimov short story ‘The Last Question’ whose tongue-in-cheek surprise ending is that entropy can indeed be reversed when the ultimate artificial intelligence achieves power and understanding that are literally godlike, and utters the famous words: ‘Let there be light!’

A more egregious example is Robert Heinlein’s THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST, where in an ending only slightly less wacky than the ending of the CASINO ROYALE (the 1967 spoof), all of Heinlein’s friends and characters meet at a party outside of time, having discovered that the universes, all of them, are the creations of their own imaginations. The theme of STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND where all the enlightened turn out to be amnesia-riddled gods, is here made explicit.

The idea is the same as that in THE UNIVERSE MAKER, but without the dignified techno-babble about psychological needs and energy fields.

There are any number of time travel stories by Heinlein and others where the time traveling main character turns out to be his own creator, having made himself by himself, for ever and aye, amen. Heinlein makes no mention of who the deceiver or demiurge is who traps all souls in the meshes of material existence might be, unless ‘The Beast’ of the title is he.

This theme of the material universe as a cosmic deception to be escaped to an awaiting godhead is not rare in science fiction. I recall having seen it or some variation of it in VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay, which mentions a Pleroma called Muspel (very similar to the UNIVERSE MAKER’s energy field) from which all spirits derive, and are trapped, having forgotten their true source and true home, and to which they yearn eternally to return.

I read the AEGYPT series by John Crowley, where the philosophy of cosmic self-deception is laid out in precise yet lyrical terms. Similar themes and ideas form the core of THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Phillip Pullman and THE LITTLE PRINCE by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. These themes are also present in muted form in the movies DARK CITY and THE MATRIX.

There is more here than just typical adolescent power fantasy as we might see in a Conan the Barbarian story. The theme in GOLDEN COMPASS and THE LITTLE PRINCE and VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS concern the escape from a cosmos-wide deceiver, a way to seek release from the material world. In DARK CITY and MATRIX the theme also explicitly promises superhuman powers, godlike powers, to the enlightened once the escape is made.

Now, in this are we dealing with a new myth, or an old one?


Longtime readers of mine will have previously been introduced to Gnosticism, that most ancient heresy attributed (if tradition is to be trusted) to Simon the Magician himself.

It is as old as scripture, perhaps older; it is the heresy that St John denounces in 1 John 4:1-3.

Gnosticism has no Magisterium, so there is no definitive list of its dogmas. Indeed, each Gnostic is urged to create for himself his own personal mythology and inner cosmos. But certain telling features remain across the many variations of the heresy.

First, Gnosticism it proposes a Cosmic Conspiracy theory of cosmic proportions, namely, that the God of the Old Testament, who drove our First Parents out of Eden, is the Demiurge only, the maker of the vulgar and degrading material world, not of the cosmos, which is a more august and grandeur spiritual reality, a Pleroma of disembodied spirits.

Second, there is no resurrection in the flesh for Gnostics. Like Socrates and the Neo-Platonist, the Gnostic seeks a disembodied life as a pure intellectual being, a spirit with nothing to be the spirit of.

Third, Gnostic despise matter. This is because matter is regarded as the source of both evil impulses and deceitful pleasures and the illusions of the senses which draw the soul away from gnosis, the enlightenment. The idea of resurrection in a glorified body able to have hands with nail-wounds still in them is abhorrent to Gnostics.

Fourth, the enlightenment is in stages, as the freed spirit rises from lower heavens to higher, he will pass through the spheres of Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and beyond the Sphere of the Fixed Stars to unimagined wonder. Each heaven proposes an archon, or ruling spirit, who impedes the freed soul from its ever upward journey.

Fortunately, the Gnostics also believe that spiritual guides, and more enlightened beings now free of the degrading trap of matter, will aid and assist younger souls to shake off the smoky deceptions of the flesh and rise above the archons. These guides are called daemons.

Finally, Gnosticism is elitist. Only those who possess the secret knowledge will be saved (hence the name—gnosis means knowledge, particularly esoteric and ineffable knowledge).

It proposes apotheosis, or, rather, anagnorisis: the secret knowledge is that Thou Art God.

Are there parallels between Gnosticism and Wellsianism?


The first parallel is the Cosmic Conspiracy.

The main objection to finding a parallel is that there is a Demiurge in Gnosticism, whereas the Wellsian Great Myth has no room for such a Deceiving Spirit because there are no spirits in the Darwinian-materialist myth of things. I submit that there is still a cosmic deceiver in the Darwinian-materialist conceit, but that now it is merely matter in motion, as all things are.

In his eulogy of the Great Myth, C.S. Lewis points out its fatal self-contradiction:

The Myth cannot even get going without accepting a good deal from the real sciences. And the real sciences cannot be accepted for a moment unless rational inferences are valid: for every science claims to be a series of inferences from observed facts. It is only by such inferences that you can reach your nebulae and protoplasm and dinosaurs and sub-men and cave-men at all.

Unless you start by believing that reality in the remotest space and the remotest time rigidly obeys the laws of logic, you can have no ground for believing in any astronomy, any biology, any paleontology, any archeology. To reach the positions held by the real scientists–which are taken over by the Myth–you must, in fact, treat reason as an absolute. But at the same time the Myth asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming.

The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true. If my own mind is a product of the irrational–if what seem my clearest reasonings are only the way in which a creature conditioned as I am, is bound to feel–how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about Evolution?

In sum, in the universe where reason arises from non-reason by a non-rational because non-deliberate mechanical process, all that can be said of reason is that it is a mechanical process: it cannot be said to be true or false, valid or invalid, efficient or wasteful, because none of these concepts have anything to do with mechanical processes.

The mental process cannot even be said to work or to fail. A clockwork only jams or runs slow if there is an observer with free will who looks at the dial on the clockface and makes a mental connection or association (a connection not present in the clockwork itself) between the motions of the hour hand and celestial motions of the sun and the passage of abstract entities called hours. The jam of gears is only a ‘jam’ if the clockwork has a purpose to keep time. But no clock can have a purpose without a clockmaker. When a stream is dammed by a rockslide, the stream is not ‘broken’ or ‘running slow’ in any sense of the word, unless we propose there is a nymph in the stream whose wish to run to the sea has been frustrated. Hence, if mental processes were mechanical processes only, there would be no standard by which they could be judged to be sane or insane. The appearance of purposeful mental process is all illusion, deception, but, paradoxically, there is no one and nothing to deceive.

Notice the role assumed by reason in the Great Myth. It is a deceiver. And it is a ubiquitous and inescapable deceiver.

All thinking creatures by definition are under the illusion that they think, but in reality all thought is merely the by-product of chemical and energetic processes of molecules and electrons, no more the product of free will or rational validity or intellectual truth than the fall of the final domino in the row once the first is toppled.

Those who truly believe in the Great Myth have three choices: first, and this is the most popular, they can deliberately not think about the paradox, and change the subject when it is brought up.

Second, the true believer can argue that the mechanical process by some unexplained coincidence just so happens to generate thought-output which somehow correlated to what thoughts would be were they true and rational and under the control they seem to be. All thought is an illusion, but somehow the illusion works out as if by divine harmony to agree with the thought-content we would have were we free. Perhaps the irrational universe has a correcting process whereby those who employ the argumentum ad baculum are beaten to death: albeit how this arranges the universe to have a universal rule defining ad baculum as an informal logical fallacy is beyond me. The fact that birds build round nest does not somehow create the rule that pi is an irrational number.

Third, the true believer can dismiss free will as an illusion or define it to be the same as a mechanical process. The true believers who use this choice either adopt a tone of weary resignation, or they define the belief in free will as a pernicious illusion and the realization that we are all meat robots as liberating: all the old moral codes that chained us in our predemigod days have fallen away. We are now free to use hypnotic-chemical brain-conditioning to improve the race, without any of that unpleasant judgmentalism and rude condemnation that accompanies things like sin and confession and repentance and contrition.

Those of you who have turned the leaves of the obscure science fiction books AEGYPT by Crowley or VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by Lindsay will recognize the character of the deceiver. In Lindsay’s allegory he is a literal character called Crystalman. This is the demiurge of the Gnostics, the creator of the vast trap we call the cosmos or the material world.

In the Great Myth, the demiurge role is played by human reason, the self-deceptive belief in free will.

The other parallels, even if not clear in the myth itself, are certainly clear enough in the science fiction stories discussed here, which I propose gain their power and allure only because of the power and allure of the Great Myth—the two books by Arthur C Clarke foremost.

The second parallel is the lack of resurrection in the flesh.

Note that CHILDHOOD’S END ends with the completely pointless and inexplicable destruction of the Earth. Mankind has ceased to reproduce at replacement levels; and, knowing themselves to be a evolutionary dead end, they gracefully commit racial suicide.

The violent conflict as might be between the Magneto’s Homo Superior and fear-haunted Homo Sapiens as depicted in X-MEN never eventuates in CHILDHOOD’S END. Such an open conflict would have broken the dignified solemnity of the mood: justified opposition to evolution in the name of self-preservation is not part of the Great Myth. Man must pass away gracefully.

This same theme is present in the A.E. van Vogt book mentioned above, SLAN, where it is revealed in the final chapter that old mankind is programmed by nature to suffer infertility, give birth to their replacements, and die off quietly to make room for the supermen.

In CHILDHOOD’S END the literal childhood’s end is when the posthuman children turn themselves into energy beings and fly off to oneness with the Overmind, annihilating the world into a transparent nothingness as they go.

The event is dramatic and striking precisely because it harkens back to Gnostic distaste for the material body. Had the posthumans simply flown away, leaving an empty earth perfectly intact and ready for the old fashioned homo sapiens to use, that would have been a jarring note, even to the point of making a mockery of the Great Myth. The old Titans are not supposed to stick around and live happily ever after once the younger and stronger Gods arise. The grandeur and sorrow of the myth is that the old gods die and are swept aside when the new gods arise.

And the Earth is not destroyed in a crude and material way, blasted by the Death Star, no. That would not be spiritual enough. Instead, the material world fades like a dream.

The third parallel is the distaste for the material world

The Great Myth is rather cramped compared to reality, and has no room for spirits or immaterial things like thoughts, justice, mathematical objects, Platonic forms, Hamlet’s Father, the Ghost of Christmas Present, or even Casper the Friendly Ghost: but it does allow for Superior Beings to be made of energy or have their engrams imprinted on the fabric of spacetime, and this serves in Science Fiction tales as a material substitute for spirits more suited to the naturalistic assumptions of the genre.

The starchild from 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY is, in the sequels, explicitly made a being of energy, not flesh. The Contactors from CONTACT likewise do not have bodies, or, at least, nothing they can show to Eli Arroway, so their spokesman appears as a ghost.

Likewise immaterial, literally ghosts, are the elder Martians in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, even though Heinlein’s work rejected many elements of the Great Myth — he was too cynical (or too realistic, take your pick) to believe in forever upward progress — but he kept this element, no doubt for its simplicity and drama. Making your aliens out of energy is a quick shorthand way to tell the reader that they are advanced beyond the material form.

Everyone from the Squire of Gothos to the Organians to the Q Continuum in STAR TREK follows this same conceit.

Of course, one needs to grasp emotionally if not intellectually the notion that matter is bad and departing from it is good, which is the core Gnostic idea, for this image of energy beings as superior spirits to have any emotional appeal.

Fourth, the enlightenment is in stages. The process is ongoing.

Please note that in both CONTACT and 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, the enigmatic aliens are initiating a process, not ending it. The starchild is not the finale. The First Contract in CONTACT is not the last contact, but the first in a series of tests as the human race grows to unimaginable and godlike maturation.

Without this crucial element, the awe and wonder is lost: at the end of the story, we readers are left as a man standing at the bottom of a tall mountain, craning back his head and back, seeing glimpses through the cloud and mist of peak rising above peak. And above those snowy peaks, heights even greater. That is the future of the race we are asked to contemplate: measureless grandeur.

Finally, the last parallel is the elitism, and the promise of apotheosis.

The elitism inherent in science fiction tales like this, and, to a degree, forming the moral atmosphere of the whole genre, should be obvious from these examples and countless others: it is not the masses, the poor, the dispossessed, the meek who shall inherit the Earth, but the Slans.

In my whole SF reading career, I have read exactly one short story where the characteristic defining posthumanity was something other than super-high intelligence (and that was a psychic ability to see the future, which that story said was the point of intelligence in the first place). Everywhere else, the superhumans are all supergeniuses, even in a yarn like STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, which does not logically require that Michael Valentine Smith be smarter than average, because he has been raised by an ancient and far superior race of beings.

Science fiction is the perfect place for this conceit to nest, because science is an strictly intellectual effort, and has attracted men of genius and intellectual accomplishment like no other field. The message that the smart folk will be changed into demigods because of their smarts fits nicely in such an environment.

Returning now to the opening question, the reason why the Monolith Architects are the Overmind are the enigmatic aliens from Vega is that these are the Daemons, the spiritual guides of the Gnostics.

The reason why merely science fiction aliens, men like us from other worlds, cannot be daemons is that it violates the basic and elegant structure of the Great Myth, which proposes a hierarchy leading ever upward out of the murk of matter into the intellectual and disembodied perfections of the heaven above the heavens.


I must confess that, for me personally, the Great Myth has lost a great deal of appeal. The desire to be godlike by one’s own efforts, or even with the help of benevolent but mysterious daemonic powers, seems a losing proposition compared to the promise to be heirs and co-heirs of Christ and children of God.

It is the lie of the serpent of Eden. Abolish your humanity, and you shall be like gods.

To all such, my answer is nicely summed up in a line from yet another science fiction book, URTH OF THE NEW SUN by Gene Wolfe, who has a very different take on what it means to be a superhuman able to bypass space and time.

In one scene, the voice of elitism incarnate, the necromancer Ceryx challenges the hero Severian to a duel of magic.

Ceryx vaunts, “Do you know what it is like to train your will until it is a bar of iron? To drive your spirit before you like a slave?… Yet they are what must be done if you would seize the scepter of the Increate!”

Severian, who already possess the power they are discussing, answers mildly:

“I know nothing of seizing that scepter. To tell the truth, I am certain it could not be done. If you wish to be as the Increate is, I question whether you can do it by acting as the Increate does not.”