Huginn and Muninn as Space Ravens

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.

Space Ravens

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.

Adrian Tchaikovsky: Quotes for Our Era of Leadership

This is just a quick post about “Adrian Tchaikovsky on leadership.”

Occasionally, though not often enough, I connect with an author: the way they write, think, imagine. Their prose style.

Over the last year or so, one of the writers I’ve connected with is British science fiction author Adrian Tchaikovsky. He’s prolific, brilliant and always entertaining, and his education in zoology often shines through in fascinating ways.

In one of his books, Bear Head, he was riffing on our current unsavory age of political demagoguery.

I should say this isn’t his usual style. I got the feeling that he was venting about recent political trends in Great Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere.

As I write this on a Saturday morning, the news is filled with the election of Giorgia Meloni, who has come to power in Italy. That made me think of Tchaikovsky’s riffs, which I had highlighted in my Kindle. Here are some categories I’ve applied to them.

On hate, fear and politics

  • [H]ate was not just a fire to destroy, not just an excuse to panhandle donations. Hate was an attractive force.
  • [T]he generation that held those chains are yesterday’s men, trying to hold on to power by whipping up fear of the other, just like always.

On authority, virtue and the metagame

  • [T]here’s a metagame…[Y]our worker who ‘kisses ass’ is seen as management material not because they give their all to the company, but because they spend that effort they would otherwise give to the company on looking like they give it all to the company. They spend it on all the little social games instead, and because effort spent on the metagame is focused entirely about the appearance of virtue, it overshadows those who are actually performing the primary task, it overshadows actual virtue.
  • [T]he people who end up in authority are generally not those focused on whatever the purpose of the community is, but are focused on achieving positions of authority.
  • [T]hat meant the people who achieved status and power were by definition the least qualified to have it
  • [M]etagamers could hack organisational structures and procedures to promote themselves without needing to be good at the primary task of the organisation

On leader parasites

  • He was an ingeniously evolved parasite, the scion of a strain honed over generations to fool wider humanity into following his orders and tending to his needs.
  • [My] mind kept coming back to that insect in the ant’s nest that convinces the ants it’s more ant than they are, so that they serve up their own larvae for its delectation.
  • There was nothing to engage behind those eyes, barely anything more than a voracious id, a sense that was all me me me….a pattern of behavior that could be as mindless as some insect’s mimicry of an ant, that let it into the nest to eat the young.
  • [T]here’s a predatory bug that releases the pheromones of its prey more strongly than ever the females do, so that the witless wooers come from miles around to be devoured. …And yet there’s nothing true within it, nothing at all.
  • A parasite that prospers because it presents an exaggerated performance of its host species’ salient characteristics. Not just passing for human, but passing for superhuman: putting out all the tells so that you think they’re super-confident, super-dynamic, super-inspiring, exactly the man to follow to the end of the earth. Far more so than anyone who actually has reason to be confident, or to be worth following….more human than human, a colossus, possessing all the virtues the viewer might want to see.
  • [He] wasn’t about being loyal to underlings, he was about taking their loyalty and wringing every last drop of use from it before discarding them.

There’s clearly more to be said about the role that parasites play in ecosystems–and that demagogues play within the complex reticula of political economies and human limbic systems–but we’ll leave it here for now.

Featured image by José Clemente Orozco:The Demagogue