Our time and place in the cosmos is filled with unprecedented change and technological advancement, that much is for certain. But what else is changing beneath our very eyes?
In this interview with PJ Manney, professional futurist and author of the Philip K. Dick Award nominated Phoenix Horizon trilogy, we discuss the New Mythos and how that seeks to change the way we think about storytelling.
IP: One of the most intriguing things I’ve seen you write and talk about is The New Mythos. Can you explain for our readers what exactly the New Mythos is?
PM: The New Mythos refers to how in various periods throughout human history, we have reassessed our relationship to each other, our community, and whatever governing body we’re in, as well as our relationship with the cosmos. And this often happens at a turn in technology.
So, the first one that I often talk about is the Axial Age, where in the first millennia BCE, there was a huge shift in mythology, religion, and spiritual guidance because we had to learn how to live with each other. We’d been living in nomadic groups, and suddenly we were coming together in cities and we were getting specific jobs.
There were a lot of us that we didn’t know, and we were exceeding what they called Dunbar’s Number. And we had to learn how to live together. The rules that religions gave us were, at that point, quite practical rules of social engagement.
The next period was the Enlightenment, which also included the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Method.
This was a whole new way of how people related to themselves, to each other, to their society, and to how they saw themselves on a planet and in the cosmos. We came up with a bunch of new rules and in the stories we told about them, myths evolved, and those myths are still with us today.
Interestingly, we didn’t necessarily lose the Axial Age myths, they just got laid over with a whole new mythos that applied to the Enlightenment.
What I see in this period is a huge shift of paradigm—a species-changing shift—in our relationship with new technology, chiefly the Internet, who we are, and how we communicate.
I don’t know if people are familiar with the idea of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, where we’re creating a global rate of instantaneous communication that has never existed before. And we need new myths for this; we need new stories because the old stories aren’t hacking it.
In fact, the old stories are actually detrimental to our development as individuals, as societies, and as a species.
IP: In what kind of ways are older stories detrimental to our development?
PM: Well, a lot of these stories just aren’t practical anymore or are downright offensive. In old myths, people with power and money were seen as better than everyone else, and that we should just hand over our leadership to them by virtue of their power or money.
That went all the way from religion, through the divine right of kings, through sadly to our present era, with Donald Trump and Elon Musk.
We create our assumptions of who should lead based on things that may not be wisdom. These are not people who are wise; these are just people who have power, and that’s a big difference.
Another example is who gets to speak within a society? In the old societies, it was free white men of adult age.
What we’re discovering is, ironically, some of the greatest information we can get comes from marginalized communities. That’s everybody, from children to elders, from every race, religion, and gender. Inclusivity is an incredibly important value in the future and our old myths never covered that.
IP: How can writers start to think about stories in a new way and apply the idea of the New Mythos to their work?
PM: Well, I’m writing a book on the New Mythos, and I just taught my first class about it the other day at the Rambo Academy. I’ve been working with some really interesting philosophical ideas that can help us to understand the New Mythos. They’re very big and very gnarly, but when you deconstruct them, you start to realize, “well, yeah, that’s actually what our world is really about”.
So instead of thinking of utopias or dystopias–which is an extremely binary and limiting way of considering what kind of society to incorporate into your world building—try to come up with positive futures or a roadmap to what might be a way to live.
I teach about heterotopia, which is Michel Foucault’s idea of society. If utopia means “no place” and dystopia means “bad place,” then heterotopia means “the other place,” or “the different place”. And that’s actually the place where change happens.
Utopia’s induced hope reflects the idea that change is hard, which is why a lot of our dystopias end badly.
In terms of storytelling, a heterotopia is a way to free yourself from that binary thinking of “where I have to put my story” and then put your story someplace else. This allows you the freedom to come up with new ways of thinking.
That’s just one example. I work with everything from Timothy Morton’s ideas of hyperobjects and hyposubjects, to really just helping people deconstruct their assumptions.
That’s the biggest thing. We’re all swimming in the cultures we were raised in, and my goal is to help people deconstruct their assumptions about what a story is.
I also talk about Western story structure and the hero’s journey.
The hero’s journey isn’t really cutting it anymore because it’s all about a circular story that returns to the status quo. The hero might change, but why does society get to stay the same?
Superman goes out and slaps Hitler or stops the asteroid or saves Metropolis. But he comes back and, minus a building or two, has restored Metropolis to its status quo. That’s not cutting it because that’s not reality, and it doesn’t inspire people to make their own change.
I prefer the heroine’s journey. Gail Carriger has a wonderful book and class where she looks at the ancient heroine’s journey, which is really a story of someone being thrown out, gathering their new-found family, working together, and making a better place. This is a far more constructive story to tell and is more applicable in our time.
I encourage people to look at other cultures’ story structures, and learn from them. I don’t want you to appropriate them, but I want you to start breaking down the notion that this three-act structure Hollywood has imposed on us is the way to write a story.
IP: That’s very interesting. As a writer myself, I’ve always kind of struggled with the idea of breaking up the traditional hero’s journey.
So, you mentioned how the Internet and similar technologies are articles of big paradigm shifts. With all of these kinds of things happening in our world right now, like the Metaverse, NFTs, and cryptocurrency that are changing the ideas of finance and art, what’s your broad outlook on the future?
PM: As a futurist I look at multiple scenarios and ask the question “What are the possibilities based on the choices that get made?” Because that’s really what this is all about; it’s about choices. And I think people don’t look far enough down the path of their choices.
It’s very easy to look at something like NFTs and see the good things about them. As a creator myself, I see the desire for creators to get their stuff out there and not have the intermediary of distribution channels. Like, I get that having come from Hollywood and worked in publishing; I get that more than anybody.
There’s also the dark side of NFTs, and we’re already seeing this. It’s really like the Wild West with all the scams, the pump and dump schemes, and all the ways that the naive can be taken advantage of.
Same with the blockchain. The old belief was that the blockchain was immutable, it could not be corrupted. It wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time to try to break the blockchain. And now we know that’s just not true.
I was warning about this in my books and people were like, “you’re so negative,” to which I’d say, “look, here’s the article about it!”
I’m not a techno-pessimist or a techno-optimist; I’m a techno-realist in my science fiction. I see the good and the bad of all of these technologies, where they have very powerful, great ideas behind them, but there are bad actors in the world.
And those bad actors are going to find the loophole, the crack in the façade, and they’re going to exploit it. Exploitation has become something that’s actually being honored in our new society, which I find appalling. There’s a sense that everybody who creates something is the man and everybody who can exploit it, steal it, or hurt other people with it is somehow a good guy.
I think that upside down ethical quandary we found ourselves in is a really good indication of why we needed a New Mythos!
IP: It’s a kind of paradigm shift in itself, isn’t it?
I read somewhere that you actually threw out the draft for your book (CON)SCIENCE after Trump was elected. Can you talk a bit more about your approach to rewriting that book?
PM: I started this series back in the mid-2000s, and it was originally designed as a television series. But it didn’t get any interest from our production company, so I took it back in 2006 or 2007 and said, “you know what? I want to write a novel”, which I’d never done.
The series has always been about the rise of fascism and my fears of authoritarianism in the United States and around the world. I was already seeing signs because I grew up during Reagan and knew what I was looking at. So, none of this was really a surprise to me.
And so, I started writing these books thinking that when I got to (CON)SCIENCE, that I made the same mistake everybody else made: I thought I had four more years. As a futurist, I thought Hillary would get elected, she’d anger a lot of people, and she’d have a one term presidency. Then after that, we’d end up with some kind of authoritarian leader.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
I was flying on election day and that night when I got home, I opened my phone and saw the news. I just broke down weeping. I was stunned, and I knew I had to throw my out my draft because my book would come out during his term.
This was 2018, and it also coincided with why the New Mythos was created. I was at Northwestcon on a panel called “Science Fiction in the Age of President Trump” with Nisi Shawl, Gordon Van Gelder, and Elsa Sunjenson—just an incredible group of people.
I literally had an actual epiphany while sitting on this panel and I just started speaking in tongues! You know, it just comes through your head and out your mouth. It was this realization that we had to start telling these stories that were fundamentally different than the stories we’ve been telling.
And that’s actually how I rewrote (CON)SCIENCE. I was leading into it with identity and I didn’t even notice that I was destroying the hero’s journey and identity as much as I was. (CON)SCIENCE goes full-on heroine’s journey. So, I have this evolution through the series about the faults or the hero’s journey, and it gets very meta.
Like, they’re talking about narrative in the narrative because it’s also talking about propaganda and how to convince people that what’s going on is bad. I discovered I was going in a whole new direction and realized it wasn’t just me; I was watching this in other writers as well.
The thing about the New Mythos is that I didn’t invent it and I’m not the only one doing it. You’ve got writers like Nisi Shaw, Kim Stanley Robinson, Cat Rambo, and a host of people who are already thinking in these terms and they’re all dancing around the edges of it.
And I just want to bring it together so that it’s not just all of us grappling with it by ourselves in the privacy of our little rooms. We are a group of writers—writing about the future, because that’s what we do—who can grapple with the stories that now need to be told.
IP: That’s awesome. I mean, it’s not awesome that you had to throw out your draft and start over to have this kind of epiphany. But I assume it was like a weight lifted off your shoulders when you had the realization of what you had to do.
PM: Not only was it a weight off my shoulders, it actually spun my goals into a whole new direction.
Because now I don’t only write science fiction, I am professional futurist and consultant, too. I got to talk at the United Nations Association a couple of weeks ago about women in technology, specifically in AI, and I started to bring the New Mythos into that conversation. And they were all like, “yes!”
So, it’s not just about us as writers. It’s about us as human beings in the world, and starting to tell the story of whatever it is we do. But in the context of, again, this diversity, inclusivity, and seeing us in the human story in a new way.
IP: You mentioned that you were teaching a class about the New Mythos. Is there a way that people can enroll for the class?
PM: They can ask Cat Rambo for me to teach it again! Or ask any of the writing groups. I’m friends with the people at Writing the Other, and Clarion West knows who I am. Any place where science fiction and fantasy writers meet, I’m happy to teach there.
If you’re on Facebook, there is a Facebook group about the New Mythos. Because of Facebook’s new rules about groups, you won’t find it by searching for it because it’s private right now. It’s about 350 writers, academics, and other creatives. We’ve got a number of a fine artists, designers and people who work in landscape design. I mean, it’s people in all kinds of fields who are looking at these ideas and thinking, “this really applies to me.”
I’m PJ Manny on Facebook, so if you message me and say, “look, I’m really interest in the New Mythos,” I can add you to the group. It’s a really safe place for a lot of people to discuss stuff that can be very advanced and they’re not excited to make this a public group.
So, if you’re a writer and you really want to learn about this stuff, I’m not the only person teaching it. This entire group has incredible things to say and their own experiences and perspectives. Just ask me.
IP: I’ll definitely shoot you a message because that sounds like a great group!
Well, to wrap it up, is there anything else you’d like the audience at Signals from the Edge to know?
PM: Just keep reading; read my stuff, read everybody’s stuff. I think there’s so much great, new science fiction out there that’s going down a lot of really fresh paths.
With my own work, I kind of played a trick on everybody. In the first book, you think you’re reading a mainstream, political techno-thriller with science fiction elements. But, in fact, I’m taking you by the hand and walking you through to a whole evolution. By the time you get to (CON)SCIENCE, it is so hardcore science fiction, with brains, memory, the death of empires, and politics.
And, I think just be open to new kinds of writing because that’s what’s going to happen with the New Mythos. We’re going to find people taking big chances in their writing, and it would be really nice if the audience was out there to support it.
Thanks to PJ for doing this interview, I learned a lot, and I hope you do too. If you’d like to learn more about PJ’s work in both science fiction and as a futurist, check out her website!