TT: Truly Speculative SF

JANE: Last week you suggested telepathically that we should talk about…

ALAN: …Religion and theology in science fiction.

Stapledon's Star Maker

Stapledon’s Star Maker

JANE: I suppose that, as usual, you are going to point out that H. G. Wells was a pioneer in the use of this particular trope.

ALAN: Actually no. Wells did publish The Wonderful Visit in 1895 – it’s a novel about an angel visiting Earth. But the angel is much more of a fantasy creature than it is a heavenly angel and Wells pays little or no attention to the possible religious implications.

As far as I can tell, science fiction came quite late to the notion of discussing religious ideas, which is odd because it’s been a preoccupation of mainstream literature for as long as there’s been mainstream literature.

JANE: Actually, that’s not precisely accurate.  Religion and science fiction – especially in its “speculative” mode, rather than its harder science mode – have long worked together.  To quote Clute and Nicholls’ Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

“It was the religious imagination of people such as Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) which first envisioned an infinite Universe filled with habitable worlds, and it was visionaries like Athanasius Kircher and Emanuel Swedenborg who first journeyed in the imagination to the limits of the Solar System and beyond.”

John Mastin’s 1909 Through the Sun in an Airship even had actual physical space travel.

ALAN: I’ve not read any of those, so I really can’t comment.

JANE: Me, either, and even the encyclopedia classifies them more as “scientific romances, rather than true science fiction,” but it does show that science fictional elements and theological speculation have gone hand-in-hand for a long while.

As time went on and scientific works – such as Darwin’s theory of evolution or new discoveries in geology that extended the probable age of the Earth beyond what had been deduced from material in the Bible – put pressure on what had been uncontested theological truths, authors took up pens to explore the conflict.

Some of this, like Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam: A.H.” or Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” was non-fiction, but many other works, if published today, would certainly be termed science fiction, since they dealt with the implications of science and scientific experimentation, as well as the impact of such of religion and faith.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction provides numerous examples going through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Suffice to say that the work that is most often cited as the first “true” science fiction novel dealt as much with religion as with science.

Want to guess what it is?

ALAN: I’ll go with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – on the grounds that Brian Aldiss considered it to be the very first example of “modern” science fiction in his brilliant and scholarly critical examination(s) of the field, Billion/Trillion Year Spree. Am I right?

JANE: Absolutely!  These days, most people – influenced by Hollywood depictions – think of Frankenstein as a “monster movie,” but the actual text deals less with the actions of a monster than with the question of what would happen if a man took upon himself God’s role – that of creating life – and the consequences when that man is able to be a creator, but lacks God’s ability to provide guidance to his creation.

Still, none of these works are “science fiction” as we tend to think of it today.  What would you nominate as the first SF novel to tackle the difficult line where science and religion meet?

ALAN: One of the earliest (and still one of the best) examples of SF coming to grips with religious and theological ideas in any significant way is in Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 novel Star Maker  which culminates in a vision of God as a scientist constantly experimenting with aspects of creation in a multitude of universes.

Stapledon has a small but very devoted following in the UK. His books are seldom out of print. Both the late Arthur C. Clarke and Brian W. Aldiss were huge fans. Unfortunately, however, he seems not to be very well known outside the UK. Have you ever come across his books?

JANE: Uh…  Not me.  I know the name, but I’m not sure I’ve read much of his work.  Sorry.

ALAN: Only a year after Star Maker appeared, C. S. Lewis published Out of the Silent Planet (1938), the first volume of what eventually became his great science fictional / theological trilogy. (The other two volumes are Voyage to Venus (aka Perelandra) (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945)).

Lewis thought very deeply about the relationships between religion and science and many of his published works, both fiction and non-fiction, concern themselves with the boundary between the two. Along the way, he coined what I think is a very telling phrase to describe the vastness of interstellar distances. He called them “God’s quarantine regulations”. He saw these huge distances as a means of separating us from other beings who, unlike us, could be thought of as being unfallen, and still in a state of grace.

And, quite apart from any religious considerations, that is also a very good answer to the so-called Fermi paradox. If the universe is full of alien life, why have we never seen any evidence of it?

JANE: I agree.  I really liked Out of the Silent Planet.  Most people don’t realize that the “silent planet” of the title is Earth…  I won’t say more, because it’s a major spoiler.

Perelandra was seriously creepy, especially the bit with the frogs.  That still haunts me to this day.

That Hideous Strength is rooted more on Earth.  As such, as a younger reader I liked it a lot less than I did Out of the Silent Planet, with its wonderful aliens and depiction of life on a lower gravity planet.  However, as I grew older and my life crossed with self-styled “intellectuals” very like those featured in the novel, I found a lot worth thinking about.

You might say the science fiction was what drew me into the books, but the theological elements are what make me re-read from time to time.  (Although Perelandra the least frequently.  I can’t get over the creep-out.)

ALAN: I have a question for you – what’s the most expensive SF/Religious epic ever made?

JANE: I have no idea.  I hope you’ll tell me all about it next time!

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9 Responses to “TT: Truly Speculative SF”

  1. James M. Six Says:

    It has been a long time since I’ve read them but Zenna Henderson’s books about The People struck me as religious when I read them, albeit not any particular religion I’d heard of at the time. I’ll need to go back to see why I thought that.

    As for religion and SF/Fantasy and true believers writing things, there’s a reason so much of fantasy borrows (shamelessly steals) from older religions that can no longer defend themselves. Their stories, as written, read like fantasy already: Thor vs Giants (MCU), Perseus’ adventures (Riordan’s books). Even Judeo-Christianity has been getting the fantasy treatment (and not as allegory for believers) with horror movies about angels “The Prophecy” and more than one TV series featuring an episode with or actually starring Nephilim (“Supernatural”, “Shadowhunters”).

    My guesses for most expensive SF/Religious epic ever made (because looking it up would be cheating):
    I’m guessing either (in actual dollars) “Battlefield Earth” (whatever outsiders think about Scientology, most of those inside it think of it as their religion) or (in adjusted-for-inflation dollars) the Heston version of “Ben-Hur”.
    I’m looking forward to the answer next week.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      I think I would describe the People stories as spiritual, rather than religious, which might explain why you don’t associate them with any particular group.

      Since spirituality is the essence of true religion, though, I feel your description is still apt.

  2. janelindskold Says:

    Alan and I decided we’d use the terms “religious” and “spiritual” both, whenever possible, so as to try and embrace the greater human impulse that engenders both impulses.

    • chadmerkley Says:

      Could I get a definition of how you’re using those terms? I’m not sure I understand the subtleties involved in this case.

      • janelindskold Says:

        “Religious” involves (at least as Alan and I are using it) a codified belief system. “Spiritual” may certainly involve religious belief (and in the most sincere cases certainly does) but the individual’s relationship with the divine does not necessarily fall within the parameters of a religion.

        Theological, just to toss in another term, maybe be neither religious OR spiritual (although it certainly can be both) since it is merely the study of things to do with “theo” or god.

  3. chadmerkley Says:

    Slight tangent: There are have been several times when I’ve had a coreligionist recommend an SFF novel specifically because the author is also of the same religion. Most of them have been kinda weird. It’s almost become a red flag for me these days. YA novels have been good, though. Oddly, there seems to be an almost perfect split between the author’s gender in those categories.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Interesting. Do you feel that the tenants of the religion in question contribute to this “kinda weirdness”?

      (As Louis notes below, I meant “tenets,” and I’ll blame being beat, not the spellchecker!)

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        “tenants”. I’m sure that that was your spell chucker putting it’s oar in, but it fits nicely with my view of the nature and history of religion: we tend to occupy our religions, and take them over and redecorate them to suit ourselves, Eventually, though, as the parable of the Vineyard warns, the Landlord is going to come back and put everything in order the way _He_ wants it. Whatever our opinions on the subject.

        So, yes, the tenants do indeed contribute to the weirdness – in fact, they’re probably responsible for it.

      • chadmerkley Says:

        Louis–ha! I like that. Jane, I think it’s because I feel there’s some kind of disconnect between our shared religious tenets and what the authors are writing. Does that make sense? Also it’s the fact that people just assume the shared religion means I should support the author and their work.

        Since this Jane’s space, I’m not going give further details or examples here unless she’s okay with it. I don’t mind further discussion; this just isn’t the best venue.

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