Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales: One Southern Boy's Ramblings with Mike Resnick

by Jason Sanford

As anyone down South can attest, Southerners are incapable of telling even the smallest fishing anecdote without embellishment. Without weaving the story into something mythic. Without spinning the tale larger and larger until it takes on a life of its own. Think of tall tales. Think of legends. Think of myths. Role all these grander-than-life stories into one and you have the tales Southerners banter about on a daily basis.

The exaggerated tendency of Southern story telling is probably why, as a child growing up in Alabama, I fell head over heels in love with science fiction. I spent endless days at my grandfather’s house, reading and rereading the science fiction books which lined his study. He owned possibly every science fiction book and magazine published from the 1930s until the late ’70s. The covers of those pulp magazines and paperbacks pulled me in with visions of grander than life vistas and deeds, of terrifying monsters and mysterious aliens, of handsome heroes and buxom heroines. In short, science fiction inspired me to reach beyond the boring little life of a boring little boy in what I then saw as boring little Alabama.

Unfortunately, too much of modern literature has left behind these epic mythos. Even science fiction has generally departed the land of daring-do, thanks in large part to the New Wave movement of the 1960s and '70s. That said, there is one science fiction writer who still creates the type of science fiction I first fell in love with: Mike Resnick

Resnick is the author of numerous novels and short story collections and has won far too many awards to count, including five Hugo Awards. Locus Magazine lists him at number four on the all-time list of top science fiction award winners and first among all writers, living or dead, on the their short fiction award list. Among his more well-known books are Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future, Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia, and Ivory: A Legend of Past and Future.

As suggested by those subtitles, Resnick has long been fascinated with myths, legends and tall tales. In fact, many of Resnick’s novels embrace mythic themes and feature characters with fanciful names like “The Widowmaker,” “The Forever Kid,” “Hurricane Smith,” and “Catastrophe Baker.” If those names echo with elements from the tall tales of the Wild West, that’s deliberate. Just as Calamity Jane, Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Bill were creations of their time and place, so too does Resnick describe a possible future Wild West set in outer space. And just as the characters of the Wild West mixed fact, fiction, and outright lies (Calamity Jane and Davy Crockett, after all, were real people who exaggerated their exploits and deeds until it was difficult to tell truth from fiction), so too does Resnick explore how myths and legends are created, and how history itself is but an “official” version of the tall tales we all enjoy.

Despite the fact that myths, legends, and tall tales are found in every culture and literature on earth, these are not popular topics with current writers. While it has been popular of late to write about myths and tall tales—such as in the novels and comics of Neil Gaiman—this is a sort of post-modern view of the mythic worlds, where myths and legends struggle to survive as humans become too hip and cynical to actual believe in such hogwash. While writers like Gaiman may write about myths, they aren’t creating actual myths, legends, and tall tales.

Into that void steps Mike Resnick.

I recently talked with Resnick and asked him about the importance of myths, legend, and tall tales, and why so many of today’s writers avoid the genre like the plague.

Jason Sanford: When did you first decide to write about myths and legends in a science fiction setting?

Mike Resnick: R.A. Lafferty, a fine writer, in a book called Space Chantey, wrote “Will there be a mythology of the future, they used to ask, after all has become science? Will
high deeds be told in epic, or only in computer code?” When I read that, I thought, maybe someone ought to show what kind of myths they will tell in the future, so I decided to do just that. The book I wrote was Santiago. I enjoyed writing the novel so much, and received such a fine reaction to it, that ever since a third to a half of my writing has dealt with myths and legends.

JS: The main character in Santiago is an elusive bandit, murderer, revolutionary, and hero (depending on one’s view) in the far future. He is supposed to have killed a thousand men, saved a dozen worlds, yet no one really knows who he is or seen his face. How did you create such a compelling character?

MR: With Santiago, I knew the kind of story and milieu I wanted, but I didn’t have much of a plot. Then one day my wife saw a Sergio Leone movie on television called Duck, You Sucker, which has since been renamed A Fistful of Dynamite. It’s about the revolution in Mexico. In the film James Coburn plays a disillusioned Irish revolutionary who gives a little speech talking about why he does what he does. Anyway, my wife rented the movie and made me listen to this speech. Coburn, who plays an explosives expert, recounts how he was once believed in many things, including God, truth, justice, and the IRA. By the time of the movie, though, life has battered him around so much that he says he only believes in the dynamite.

After I watched that scene, my wife said, “Now, go write that book.” And that book became Santiago.

JS: How did you achieve the novel’s mythic feel?

MR: One thing I did to make the novel feel mythic was the poem that starts each chapter. That poetic device meant I could take a page or two at the start of each chapter, introduce the new character, give you his history, and it didn’t feel like I was stopping the book. Instead, I was explaining the poem. It took me seventeen years to do a sequel. People kept asking, but I didn’t want to write the same story again. When I finally came up with a new idea (for the sequel), I may have disappointed a few readers because no one in the first book was alive in the second book.

JS: Can you tell me a bit about some of your other books which take on mythic themes?

MR: Other mythic books of mine include the Widowmaker series. That character came about when I was sitting around the GEnie network, which in its day was the greatest of computer networks, with endless chatrooms that were always filled with science fiction writers. And someone was talking about clones and cloning stories, and I thought about how tired I was of clones who get right off the slab they were born on and go out and do great things. I thought it would be interesting to create a clone of a great bounty hunter, a really competent killer, train him for a month or two till he’s as good at age 22 as his progenitor was, and send him out into the universe to do his work. But the problem is that what you’re sending out is an emotional and mental two-month-old. Maybe the clone has some education tapes and can read and write, but he’s had no experiences.

Out of that I created the Widowmaker character. And of course he comes to a bad end.

JS: Is it difficult to come up with characters who are mythic yet also realistic enough that the reader will believe in them?

MR: Someone once asked me, “Who is the greatest killer you ever created?” I wasn’t sure, but that made me think how interesting it would be if the most dangerous human being who ever lived was a little six-year-old girl who was scared to death and wanted to be anyone else but herself. Out of that came the main character in Soothsayer. I think creating a mythic character requires a writer to think of ‘bigger than life’ situations and scenarios. Once you do that, your characters become mythic. Of course, to be realistic the characters must have desires and hopes which resonate with readers.

JS: That’s probably how the old myths and legends, such as Wild West tall tales, were created, by people talking about the biggest and craziest things imaginable, like how the Grand Canyon was created. People used myths and legends to explain things that were beyond explanation, or to laugh at situations or warn about danger. In today’s world, we like to believe that we’re so in control of our lives that we no longer need myths. But we still respond to them, don’t we?

MR: Of course we do. The latest figure I’ve seen says that 83% of Americans go to church. Of those, I’ll assume that a third do it out of rote and for social graces, but that still leaves half of all Americans believing in their religion. But what is their religion except a series of myths? You don’t know that the Bible is the word of God—the Bible was rewritten 64 times during the Dark Ages to agree with the current political philosophy coming out of the Vatican and other places. We don’t know that the Old Testament is any more accurate than the New. So, clearly, these are created myths that half the people in America and billions more worldwide believe in. And these myths are so powerful that some people are even willing to kill themselves as suicide bombers. But these are myths. These are not statements of absolute facts in the Bible or the Koran. But if you tell people they are myths, at least a sizable amount of them would be willing to kill you for saying that.

JS: Do myths and legends, whether religious or not, give us something to strive for, give us an ideal? Is that their purpose?

MR: Yes. The Old and New Testaments of the Bible give you a set of moral precepts you are supposed to abide by. And I’m not only talking about the Ten Commandments. The Bible is filled with examples of how you are supposed to live. Should you kill your son because God says to? Should you turn the other cheek when someone hits you? There’s nothing about that in the Ten Commandments, but you have a guy named Jesus saying it’s a good idea. Of course, there’s another guy named Moses saying no, let’s get a sword and kill these damn Egyptians. You have all kinds of people saying different things and its subject to a lot of interpretation, but eventually the Bible sets down a set of moral precepts they want you to live by. And so, although the precepts are a little different, does the Koran and the holy book of every religion on earth. These are moral behaviors, this is what you must do to be Godly, lead a good life and be rewarded in the next life.

JS: Is today’s culture still creating new myths and legends?

MR: Oh sure. But let’s say we’re not creating new myths, but updating old myths. We’re putting them in a context where a new generation, which is more technologically adept and oriented, can understand. After all, when was the last time you saw a cowboy movie? All the cowboys have become space jockeys. Not many people really care about two guys facing off with a six gun in Arizona 150 years ago, but they do about two guys facing off with zap guns in a space station. But the story still involves the same two guys, and they’re facing off over the same things humans have always fought over. Things like love, hate, fear, revenge, honor, and power.

JS: Why do so many writers simply dismiss myths and legends? While a few writers like Neil Gaiman still write about myths and legends, its usually from the point of view that myths are struggling to remain relevant in today’s world.

MR: I believe that results from a sophistication, or pseudo-sophistication, which makes a writer say “See, we’ve come past all that. Now listen to what I have to say because its more important than all these eons-old myths.”

First off, what today’s writers have to say is not more important and, second, they’re probably just restating what the earlier myths and legends said because there are only a few basic stories which humans retell over and over. The problem is that most writers want to believe that they have discovered something new, that their stories have uncovered some startling new moral truth. I don’t believe there are any great new moral truths to be discovered. Humanity has been on this planet a long time and we’ve had plenty of time to discover the great moral truths and save them for future generations.

To learn what those truths are, all you have to do is look at our myths and legends.