We expect the mystical in fantasy. Wizards, sorcerers, and magickal entities are part and parcel of the genre. Books like The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, the Conan series by Robert E Howard and Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson typify the fantasy genre. In the aforementioned examples, the protagonists encounter strange mythic beasts and magick-wielding adversaries.
Fantasy was separate from science fiction for one simple reason: plausible deniability. Many felt that science and spirit were separate matters. For many sci-fi buffs, things had to have a scientific explanation, even if it were based on fictional science or things not yet developed. A science fiction writer who incorporated any mystical or magickal elements had to tread lightly. It was too easy to slip past the thin line of plausible deniability.
The original Star Trek series had a few episodes that touched mystical subjects. For example, one involved a “Roman planet” and worshipers of the Sun / Son. Another had the crew encounter the Greek God Apollo. Even then, there was an attempt at a scientific explanation. More often than not, those that dealt with unusual phenomena found a rational explanation for it. Apparently, in the Star Trek universe, telepathy and empaths were within the realm of science, but sorcery was not.
The Star Wars franchise introduced its own mystic element known as The Force. According to its lore, the Force was a power that could be used for good and evil. Certain knightly mystics known as Jedi and Sith learned to use the Force. These characters were like the Japanese Yamabushi warrior monks. Unlike the Yamabushi (lit. “mountain warriors”), the knights could use the Force to influence others and move objects. For instance, near the first movie’s end, the hero drops into a Zen-like state to let the Force guide him to launch his missile accurately.
What is this Force? It is like bits of the Astral, Ki / Chi, Prana, Megin / Magna / Macht, Wyrd and synchronicity all rolled into one. Of course, the power is fictional and any connection to actual mystical or occult phenomena is tenuous at best.
Star Trek Deep-Space Nine had its own mystical aspect involving the Bajorans and their religious connection to the Prophets, which were actually “wormhole aliens.” On the bad side were something like demons, one of which was called Kosst Amojan. Prophets and the demons could possess people. Of all the Star Trek series, this one was most connected to a mystical and religious trend.
Farscape. and the other Star Trek franchises had their own occasional contacts with mystical events and beings. Farscape’s search for the wormhole itself was bizarre and at times esoteric. The character Q on Star Trek’s The Next Generation and Farscape’s Zahn and Stark each had mystical attributes.
Too much of the mystical in a science fiction story can dislodge fans who insists on science.
A peculiar thing about science fiction is that many aliens are similar to the appearance and mannerism of mythic beings. Star Trek’s Klingons are like orcs or hostile imps. The Vulcans and Romulans have a similarity to the old Norse light and dark elves, respectively. The Scarrans of Farscape are a hominid dragon species. Scorpius is a wraith or ghoul. Star Trek’s Jawas are like dwarves who work with metal things. The Wookie could be Bigfoot or a wood troll.
Several members of the crews of various science fiction series correlate with mythic roles. One finds the Jupiterian leader, Mars warrior, Venus love interest, and so on. We find a similar thread in Captains Kirk, Picard and Archer, John Crichton, Adama and Han Solo. Scotty, Worff and Ka Dargo share more than a volatile temperament. Many a successful ensemble follows older patterns of storytelling.
Darth Vader is a mirror image of the heroic Captains and Commanders mentioned earlier. He is the same type but works for the opposition.
So why have we not seen these patterns before? We have! Prior to the rise of science fiction on television and movies, the Western genre was the popular milieu for storytelling. Instead of the crew of a star ship, the ensemble members were the townsfolk of Gunsmoke, the family of Bonanza and the various characters of Maverick. You may have noticed that Lorne Greene played a similar type character both as Ben Cartwright, family patriarch of Bonanza, and Adama, commander of a battle-star ship. It is all part of telling a good story
Science Fiction is the mythology of the present and future. In view of Dr. Carl Jung’s work on archetypes, it should be no surprise when an old magickal myth re-emerges in a modern scientific context.
Personally, I find that many attempts to include the mystical with science fiction fall short. Brief encounters such as those in the original series of Star Trek are fine, so long as they remain well within the limits of plausible deniability. With my background of esoteric spirituality, I find that many writers do not have enough knowledge of the mystical to include it in science fiction and remain plausible.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine overplayed the “wormhole aliens” and the Bajoran mysticism. The series went from science fiction to occult drama, complete with bizarre rites, demonic possession and evocation of evil spirits. That is the kind of thing you expect in a horror movie, not a science fiction series.
Gaming with mystical elements has been around since the 1970s. The Chainmail miniature game for Medieval Warfare added a fantasy supplement to accommodate entities from various popular books and myths. This later evolved into the pinnacle of nerdware, Dungeons and Dragons. The game blended magickal and other esoteric properties with Medieval weapons and combat techniques. This was strictly within the fantasy genre, where science has little impact.
The Chainmail fantasy supplement included several magickal spells that could be used in miniature battles.
Science fiction is a very different genre. Mystical and magickal powers would have a much smaller place. As with nerdware like Dungeons and Dragons, it could be used in a role-playing game. For sci-fi battle and skirmish games, the impact of magick and mystical powers would be limited. Things like the Vulcan Mind Meld and wormhole aliens would not find a place, as these are things that occur in non-combat situations. In fact, most of the mystical things added to science fiction stories tend to happen only outside of combat.
One mystical power that has combat application is the Force of Star Wars. The Force can improve a fighter’s ability to aim and to use a weapom. A person with enough Force can deflect projectiles and other weapons. An expert can use it to influence others, move objects and attack at a distance. The trick for gamer makers is balance. A character could become too powerful and offset the balance of the game. On the other hand, too little power lowers the value of such a character.
I have been exploring the varieties of spirituality for decades. As was said, I’ve been “...from Alchemy to Zen and back again.” This is not to say I am expert in the many systems that I researched. I spent more time with some than others. Several were studied and experienced in depth, others with less interest.
One thing that must be noted is that a religion may seem bizarre to outsiders, but it is perfectly normal to its adherents. Here is an example:
A fellow I knew was stationed in Thailand with the Air Force. He became romantically involved with a local woman and they decided to be married. The man was Catholic and wanted to have a Catholic wedding. He took his beloved to the nearest English-speaking Catholic church to make arrangements.
The results were not what he expected.
Behind the altar of the church was a large crucifix with a painted statue of Jesus mounted on it. There were other statues in the place, as well. The Thai woman was mortified. She was terribly frightened by the large statue of a man being crucified with bloody wounds and thorny crown. The Buddhist woman left in terror and refused to go back.
Catholics and most folks from Western countries take a crucifix in stride. Whether Christian or not, they know the basic Jesus story and are familiar with the cross as a religious symbol. They also have seen the Catholic crucifix and know its context. People from other cultures may regard it as strange and frightening. By the same token, Christians from the West may see Hindu and Shinto rites as weird. Even within Western culture, adherents of conventional religions may find Rosicrucian rites exotic and eerie. Those familiar with Western esotericism would see nothing unsettling about them.
Whether sci fi or not, unfamiliar religious and spiritual practices may look bizarre. Again, those involved in those beliefs consider them perfectly normal. For writers of sci-fi, it is a good distinction to understand when writing of alien rites and beliefs.
Tomorrow's article will include suggested rules for adding special powers like The Force and telepathy to skirmish games.