Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Monomyth

YODA_MediumImage by Michael Heilemann via Flickr
Monomyth (n.) - A term for the common structure of heroic stories, particularly in mythology. Also known as the hero's journey, the term monomyth was popularized by Joseph Campbell in his seminal comparative mythology treatise The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell broke down dozens of epic tales from major mythological traditions and identified 17 common stages of any hero's story -- effectively writing the outline of seemingly every successful adventure story subsequently published.

George Lucas openly consulted with Campbell in writing the first Star Wars scripts, and thus the original Star Wars movie is held up as a paramount example of the cinematic monomyth in action. Naturally, this has led to some backlash. Novelist David Brin has cited the monomyth as a tool of despots used to justify their favored status. John Scalzi argues that Lucas's obsession with the monomyth contributed to the failure of the Star Wars prequels.

I bring it up because: Joseph Campbell killed genre fiction, or so some have argued. This is not news, as there have been several YouTube videos mocking the monomyth parallels between sci-fi franchises, but the subject got goosed last week when Ron Moore explained how Star Trek: The Next Generation writers incorporated science into their scripts. (To quote sci-fi editor John Joseph Adams's response to the interview: "Every time Ron Moore speaks about writing an angel kills itself.")

The geek blogosphere was ablaze after Moore's comments, hitting apogee when Charles Stross explained why he hates Star Trek -- because it sublimates ideas to story, effectively using the structure of the monomyth and dressing it up in technobabble drag. Thus we re-open up the can of worms as to why TV genre fiction seems so formulaic and facile when compared to prose genre fiction. Because, ultimately, we're a prisoner of the monomyth and use Joseph Campbell shorthand as the basis, rather than the framework, of the story. There are worse guides, but its hard to be taken seriously when everything looks and reads and sounds the same. Who says cloning is a future technology?