JANE: Last time you promised to tell me about the most expensive SF/Religious epic ever made…
ALAN: That’s right, I did. It was one of Arthur C. Clarke’s projects.
JANE: Really? I always think of him as a writer of hard science fiction. I didn’t know he was interested in theology enough to have a religious movie made based on one of his works.
ALAN: Clarke’s novels often have spiritual and religious themes. His most famous work is 2001 – A Space Odyssey, and he is on record as saying, during the shooting of the film, that “MGM is making the first ten-million-dollar religious movie, only they don’t know it yet”.
So there it is – 2001 was the expensive epic that I had in mind.
JANE: You’ve got me there! I’d never heard that quote. One of my friends was saying just the other day that she’s tired of the false dichotomy that science and spirituality will always be in opposition. It sounds as if Clarke would have agreed with her that the two need not be perceived to be at odds.
ALAN: I’m sure he would agree. Clearly Clarke was very well aware of the spirituality that infused so many of his stories and, equally clearly, he was doing it deliberately. It seemed to be very important to him and it was a theme he returned to time and time again. He was so much more than just a hard SF writer.
JANE: I really like the idea that his work shows how Hard SF need not exclude theological speculation – that it, indeed, might encourage it.
ALAN: Another very good example of that idea would be Clarke’s famous short story “The Star”. Scientists investigating the remnants of an advanced civilization that was destroyed when its sun went supernova discover that the supernova was actually the star that heralded the birth of Jesus. The protagonist, a Jesuit, suffers a crisis of conscience. He cannot reconcile his faith with the capriciousness of a god who is willing kill so many in order to make the symbol of their passing shine in the skies above Bethlehem.
JANE: I don’t remember that one well… I’ll need to go and re-read to see how the Jesuit resolves his crisis.
Now that I think about it, Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” is also theological in nature – if not based in Christian theology. I won’t say more about it lest I provide a spoiler for a story that rests very firmly on the ending.
So, we’re on a roll now. What other authors have successfully combined theology and SF? Oh, of course, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Lebowitz! Although the grocery list that becomes religious text is what everyone tends to remember, still, I think there’s more to it than some clever gimmicks.
What do you think of it?
ALAN: It’s a stunningly brilliant post-apocalyptic novel mostly set in a Catholic monastery deep in the desert of the Southwestern United States. The story spans many thousands of years as civilization slowly rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz (named after the pre-apocalypse engineer who left behind the grocery list that you mentioned) preserve what little remains of humanity’s scientific knowledge until the world is ready for it again.
I first read it in my teens and it made a huge impression on me. The total desolation in the first part of the book felt very real and the occasional unexplained peculiarity was intriguing – at one point, the protagonist might have encountered the Wandering Jew, but we never find out for certain.
Then, gradually, things began to come together. The society that arose from the rubble was sometimes bizarre to my eyes, but it made sense to the characters, which is all that matters, of course.
It’s one of the few books that I’ve returned to again and again over the years, and every time I do I think I get something more out of it. It really is that good…
Miller views religion, particularly Catholicism, as a stabilising and unifying force that helps hold things together during times of crisis, and this is brought out very clearly in the story.
JANE: And Miller is not at all wrong in viewing Catholicism in this light. Remember, it was Catholic monks who preserved a great deal of literature during the so-called “Dark Ages,” including classics by “pagan” authors.
ALAN: That’s one of the things that makes the book resonate with me – drawing these kinds of parallels gives the story an enormous depth and makes it very convincing.
Since we’ve raised the idea of Catholicism in SF, there are two other books I’d like to discuss. A Case of Conscience (1958 – James Blish) and The Sparrow (1996 – Mary Doria Russel.)
JANE: I don’t think I’ve ever read The Sparrow and I haven’t read A Case of Conscience since college. Can you tell me more about them?
ALAN: A Case of Conscience is the story of a Jesuit who investigates an alien race. The aliens have no religion and yet they have an innate sense of morality. This is in direct conflict with Catholic doctrine. After much soul-seaching, the priest concludes that the alien planet has been constructed by Satan to demonstrate the possibilities inherent in the complete absence of God. He pronounces an exorcism and the planet is destroyed, but it remains ambiguous as to whether God intervened through the exorcism or whether human meddling with fissionable material on the planet was the cause.
The Sparrow has a similar theme. A Jesuit priest’s experiences on an alien planet cause him to question his own belief in God. When he finally manages to return to Earth, all his companions on the planet are dead and he himself is horribly mutilated. The novel is constructed of two intertwined narratives – one that tells what happened on the alien world, and one that tells of the priest’s debriefing by the Jesuits as they struggle to reconcile his faith-destroying experiences with their own beliefs.
JANE: I presume that in each case the relevant Catholic teachings are what gives the novels their depth?
ALAN: Very much so. The debate that highlights exactly how each priest came to their separate conclusions is central to both novels and it contains much food for thought. These are subtle ideas, beautifully presented. Each novel complements the other and both are brilliantly conceived, deep and thoughtful. If there is such a thing as “literature” (as opposed to just stories),then both these novels fall firmly into that category.
JANE: What’s interesting is that most of the stories you’ve mentioned, when religion meets the future, religion is seems to be the loser. Only the Miller story is an exception. Maybe next time we can look for stories where religion or at least spirituality have a place in the future.