You probably remember Odin, the one-eyed king of the Norse gods. You might even remember he had a couple of ravens always swooping about, sometimes perching on his shoulders and whispering in his ears. You might not, however, remember their names, which happen to be Huginn and Muninn, which mean, respectively, “thought” and “memory.”
This old myth (and I’m a sucker for mythology) was recently reincarnated as a new science fiction conceit in Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s latest novel Children of Memory.
I’m not going to review the book. There are already hundreds of reviews and I’m not a huge fan of book reviews in general.
But I did want to quickly mention something that’s not highlighted in the book itself or in anything else I’ve so far read about it. That is, Tchaikovsky was blatantly and, I’d say, mischievously ripping off Norse mythology when he created the corvid characters of Gethli and Gothi.
The literary conceit that Tchaikovsky uses in the book is that these two space ravens, as you might call them, are two parts of a whole. Neither one is sapient in itself but together they represent a creature that’s about as sapient as your average human being.
Tchaikovsky is not shy about his exploitation of the Huginn and Muninn myth. More than once, he alludes to the neurodivergency of the two birds, with one being excellent at recording the details of day-to-day life and the other being wondrous at seeing how all those details fit together into a conceptual whole. Apart they are cognitively crippled but together they form a kind of genius.
The two birds are part of a much larger corvid population that evolved to form the same kinds of pair bonds again and again. At one point, the author writes that Gethli and Gothi are citizens from a civilization “made from independent halves of thought and memory.”
The reference to Huginn and Muninn can’t get much more explicit than that.
Does It Matter?
Why does it matter? Well, it doesn’t really. People are enjoying (or not) the book regardless of whether they get the reference. Heck, even an egghead like Erza Klein did a whole interview about the fictional ravens without once alluding to Odin’s avian companions.
But it is interesting to see how a modern author is able to lift from whole cloth a mythical idea, turn it into a science fiction conceit, and then have people talking about it like it’s a modern innovation without acknowledging that it’s a very old, pre-scientific idea.
Of course, that’s not the first time it has happened. In fact, the whole zombie genre stems directly from folklore, though there is usually a psuedo-scientific explanation for them in modern sci-fi horror. Likewise, the vampire in Peter Watt’s Blindsight is another example of a creature from folklore appearing in hard science fiction.
The Ongoing Cycle
I suppose that it’s an ongoing cycle. Just as we continue to pull from mythology for science fiction (the creatures in the Alien franchise are basically just space dragons, after all), the sci-fi creatures of today become a part of tomorrow’s folklore. The movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, both pulls from and continues to nurture our modern folklore about big-headed aliens surreptitiously visiting Earth.
And on we go. The science-fictional Iron Man and Captain America fight alongside the mythical Thor to defeat an army of aliens led by (what else?) another Norse god, Loki.
And we take it all in stride, even as the lines get ever blurrier and more surreal.
So, welcome, Gethli and Gothi, to our new pantheon of ancient mythical creatures who can comfortably inhabit the undiscovered terrains of our science fictional future.
P.S. Note that, apparently like Tchaikovsky, I’m also a fan of corvids, which feature prominently in my short story The Municipality.
Featured image: From Ranveig. Odin hrafnar: the two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin's shoulders. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Odin_hrafnar.jpg