Messages from Mythology

BIS Odyssey Science Fiction

Mythology for the future. Published by Sphere Books 1970.

The myths of ancient Greece and Rome produced tales which still resonate with us to this day.  They are timeless stories of love and betrayal, quest and glory, heroism and death, which speak to people throughout history, and sometimes even hold messages for our own approach to life today and how we perceive the world around us.  We touch on this in the latest edition of Odyssey, in which we discuss the forces and influences which gave rise to modern science fiction as we know it.

One of the most touching of those myths concerns Orpheus, a gifted minstrel, who fell in love with the nymph Eurydice.  She died after being bitten by a poisonous snake, and Orpheus followed her into the Underworld in a search to recover her.  The ultimate failure of his quest, largely through his own fault, and his death which was brought about by those who could not understand his music, were described by writers such as Virgil and Ovid from the classical world of ancient Rome.  Over the centuries, the tale has had a strong influence on our culture in the West, and recurs in various forms in stories which have been published to this day.

The science fiction writer Samuel R Delany gave a dramatic and mysterious updating of this story in his 1967 Nebula award-winning novel The Einstein Intersection.  In a far distant future, mutation has created numerous abnormalities in the people who then populate the planet.  In a fascinating variant on Orpheus’ talent, the hero of the story can hear the music in the minds of others.

The journey of this future Orpheus in search of his lost Eurydice takes him through a strange world where nothing is as it seems, made real through Delany’s evocative prose.  At one point, the hero receives sympathy, to some extent at least, from an artificial intelligence created by the earlier race of humans: “It must be rather difficult, walking through their hills, their jungles, battling the mutated shadows of their flora and fauna, haunted by their million-year-old fantasies.”

Greek mythology has influenced other works of science fiction such as Delany’s 1968 novel Nova, which has elements of Jason’s well-known quest for the golden fleece, as originally told in the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes in the third century BC, or perhaps of the legend of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods.  And, again back in 1968, R A Lafferty retold Homer’s Odyssey, originally written around the eighth century BC, in science fiction terms in his novel Space Chantey.  Indeed, there have been other stories based on the Orpheus myth, one of the most noticeable being Patricia McKillip’s 1987 novel Fool’s Run, where the Underworld features as an orbiting prison space station.

A Greek myth of particular significance to the British Interplanetary Society, though, surely has to be that of Daedalus, whose story is best known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  He fabricated wings to allow him to fly, and hence his name represents a worthy title for the ground-breaking BIS feasibility study of 1978 which described a possible interstellar probe.

On the other hand, the related tale of Daedalus’ son Icarus, who failed to survive his flight using artificial wings because he foolishly flew too close to the Sun, despite the clear warning from his father, probably has something to say to parents and children everywhere.   But the desire to fly lies deep in the human spirit – it also appears in the depiction of the winged horse Pegasus, who the hero and monster-slayer Bellerophon saw as the means to take him to the heavens, and whose name is a favourite for spacecraft in science fiction.

The messages are still there, and frankly, have changed little in real substance over the millennia.  In one sense, as the hero of The Einstein Intersection observes, “The stories give you a law to follow…”


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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