Saturday, February 15, 2014

How Silly Notions Stay Alive

A short primer based on a material I've had sitting in "draft" for awhile.

First, somebody makes a cultural observation which -- although it lacks any factual support to the point of being frankly silly -- nonetheless fits neatly into one of our cultural opioid receptors.

In this case, the alleged divide between science-stuff and God-stuff:
Religion in Science Fiction

by B.J. Keeton

Very often science-fiction writers treat the ideas of religion and spirituality as being quaint at best and harmful at worst. Characters who believe in a higher power are often ridiculed for their faith, for not supplicating themselves before science as being the be-all/end-all.

There are exceptions to this tendency; however, positive religious SF stories are much harder to track down.
Now I don't know a thing about Professor B.J. Keeton (who clearly shares my love of this genre and could in all other regards be a fine and noble human being) other than he got this one thing rather pretty flamboyantly wrong. A fact which would never have come to my attention had it not tickled someone else's cultural opioid receptors and been picked up and passed along by...
Alien Mormons?

An essay on how to incorporate religion into science fiction, prompted by a short story about alien Mormons.
Very often science-fiction writers treat the ideas of religion and spirituality as being quaint at best and harmful at worst. Characters who believe in a higher power are often ridiculed for their faith, for not supplicating themselves before science as being the be-all/end-all. ...
And even though the basic premise was respectfully and firmly debunked in the comments section...
"There is certainly science fiction that takes religion seriously, and Battle Star Galactica is certainly one of them, moving the struggle between Christianity and the pagans in the Roman empire forward into the far future, and re-enacting the wanderings of Moses and his tribes in the wilderness.

"As a genre, science fiction probably more often takes religion considerably more seriously than, for example, mystery novels (I've read only one or two, e.g. "The Quaker Witness," that take religion seriously), chick lit, thrillers (Dan Brown's novels are the only notable exception that comes to mind), or romance novels that aren't expressly written for an inspirational sub-audience.
...the conceit was so tasty that it teased yes another person's cultural opioid receptor, who, in turn, pushed it along still  further:
Religion In Science Fiction
08 Aug 2010 10:43 am
Bainbridge mulls it. More here.
Now this is a deliberately light and kind of silly example of how a false idea gets up a head of steam.  A false idea which can have been fairly easily taken apart if one is so inclined.

For example:
Frankenstein -- arguably the first and most famous of all science fiction novels -- is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus" and is all about where the boundary between human and divine powers should be drawn.

In Arthur Clarke's "The Star" the priest/narrator must cope with the tragic secret of the Nativity:
"[O]h God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?"
Half of everything Ray Bradbury ever wrote are meditation on Christianity.

Half of everything Harlan Ellison -- from "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" to "The Deathbird Stories" -- are meditations on what happens when humanity worships the wrong Gods.   Also super-atheist Ellison has a ball here telling the story of Jewish aliens who need to make a minyan but come up one participant short.

Arthur Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" for fuck's sake!

"Dune" is about the terrible power of faith.

Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" is the retelling of the Passion, positing a literal afterlife, where different faiths contend and interact with each other.

Heinlein's "Job: A Comedy of Justice" spends an assload of pages playing with the realities of Hell, Heaven, salvation and sainthood (Hell, if I remember a'rights, is run as a lazzire faire capitalism paradise by banks and credit card companies.)

Phillips Jose Farmer's entire "Riverworld" series is set along a giant river alongside of which every human who ever lived is reincarnated over and over again.

David Brin's "Uplift" trilogy is shot through with distinctly religious overtones.

"Snow Crash" is about a plot to reboot humanity to a pre-Tower of Babel mental state.

Most of "Star Trek" [TOS] are reworkings of Greek, Roman and Christian stories and tropes, up to and including a literal retelling of the rise of "The Son of God" in a parallel, 20th Century Roman Empire.

"Star Wars" for fuck's sake (even though it's not science fiction)!

In "Inferno", Larry Niven sends his protagonist to Dante's Hell.

Spider Robinson's "Harmony"-themed stories (including his "Callahan's" tales) are all about the salvation and redemption of the entire human race.

Islam in science fiction?  Yep.
So, do "science-fiction writers [very often] treat the ideas of religion and spirituality as being quaint at best and harmful at worst"?

Not at all.

In fact, the opposite is true.  As a genre, science fiction spends a lot of time contemplating the concept of God, the power of faith. It is constantly asking what  it means to be human, what it means to be alien, in the end, how much difference is there between Clarke's "any sufficiently advanced technology" and the according-to-Hoyle divine.


Lawrence said...

I would be interested to see what Keaton, et all, are citing as evidence of their premise. I can't think of anything. Even in The Stars My Destination where Christianity is a criminalized underground movement, this is presented as a mere fact of future history and not celebrated. It is possible that the complaint is that science fiction ought to be a Buck Rogers themed Chick tract. Certainly there is a large audience for that sentiment.
You left the explicitly Catholic Canticle For Liebowitz off your list. And I would add The Last Question as well. And Frak Herbert's The Jesus Incident. Come to think of it, what the hell are these people on about?

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention A Case of Conscience by James Blish.

Yastreblyansky said...

Just for the record, on the mystery side, Dorothy L. Sayers takes religion seriously on many pages of her Lord Peter Wimsy series, and Christ is it tedious when she does. To say that Dan Brown's novels take religion seriously is like saying the Batman comics are about municipal government, only much less true. Science fiction, explicitly concerned with chance and necessity, questions of cosmology and the human place within it, and where we will all end up, is probably more religious than self-denominated religious fiction of the Left Behind type which questions nothing and is merely about rooting for Our Team.

Great captcha: "calling rapsite". Is this a sign from the gods?

Anonymous said...

A I understand it, C. S. Lewis wrote "Out of the Silent Planet", "Paralandra", and "That Hideous Strength" with strong Adam and Eve overtones. Calling C S Lewis a "militant, disparaging atheist" would be utterly laughable. (Although I have heard people *try* to say that the Narnia books are about free market capitalism, I think those people are idiots desperate for validation.)

While Doctor Who used to strictly avoid any Earth-based religion, that has changed in the new series. "I was there."

And lets not forget Babylon 5.


Approximation Prophet said...

Hey Drifty,
Ever read any of Alistair Reynolds? His "Revelation Space" trilogy was some of my favorite SciFi of the last decade. His short story collections are incredible as well. One of the reasons this is my favorite blog besides your whiphound sharp tongue is the SciFi. I think many of us wish you would publish more on SciFi and maybe some of that original material you hint at.

Anonymous said...

Gee, guess none of these folks have been reading David Weber's Safehold series, which is the Protestant Reformation IN SPAAACE...

Marc McKenzie said...

I'll toss this in from left field--the story "Lucifer Rising" from Yukinobu Hoshino's outstanding science fiction manga 2001 NIGHTS. The story is about a Jesuit priest going on a space mission to investigate a newly discovered gas giant beyond the orbit of Pluto.

This story was written and drawn thirty years ago, but it's damned good, and the entire 2001 NIGHTS manga is probably the best sf comic I've ever read.

toma said...

I think that 2001: A Space Odyssey can be seen as an SF movie-story that touches on common religious themes. The obelisk was Jerry Falwell, right?

Anonymous said...

Keaton is possibly just peeved because he really liked the novel Enemy Mine and quite properly despised the movie version.

Anonymous said...

And "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russesll.

Anonymous said...

"You forgot to mention A Case of Conscience by James Blish."

ah yes, where a utopian planet is destroyed either to a decision by humans to make it into a nuclear bomb factory or an exorcism by a priest because the planet is really a snare of the devil

Linkmeister said...

Not to mention Margaret Atwood's "A Handmaid's Tale," a truly depressing dystopia featuring the world as theocracy.