Archive for March, 2017

TT: Back Into the “Real” World

March 9, 2017

JANE: For the last few weeks, we’ve been discussing religion and SF.  While certainly there has been SF written to “debunk” religion or to examine various theological issues from the point of view of a future in which it might be possible to – for example – figure out all The Nine Billion Names of God, there has also been SF written in which religious, theological or spiritual elements are seen as being a valuable part of human nature.

Visionary Landscapes

Having settled that issue to our mutual satisfaction, there’s another I’d love to look at: What happens when religious or spiritual concepts created for a story walk out of the fictional world and into our “real” one?

ALAN: Well, the obvious elephant-in-the-room example of this is Scientology. It was the brainchild of the SF writer L. Ron Hubbard and it derived from some ideas he’d published in Astounding in the late 1940s and early 1950s. John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding, was an enthusiastic early adopter of Hubbard’s ideas, claiming that they’d cured his sinusitis!

Hubbard coined the word “Dianetics” to describe his techniques for ridding the mind of fears and psychosomatic illnesses. The fruits of his thinking were eventually published as a book in 1951. As far as I can tell, this book (Dianetics – A New Science of the Mind) has remained constantly in print ever since.

In 1954, Hubbard redefined Dianetics as a religion which he called Scientology. Dianetics, Hubbard said, focused primarily on the physical being whereas Scientology concerned itself with the spiritual.

JANE: I had no idea that Hubbard’s work went back that far.  I don’t think I heard of either Dianetics or Scientology until the 1980’s.

ALAN: I have an amusing story about Scientology. I wrote a 100 -word review of a biography of Hubbard for a local newspaper. Almost by return of post I received a HUGE parcel from the Scientologists. I have no idea how they found my address (perhaps they could give the CIA lessons). The parcel contained a lot of glossy Scientology literature and a neatly-typed 10,000-word essay pointing out all the wrong assumptions in my review and all the lies and damn lies in the biography itself. It seemed an awful lot of effort to go to for a tiny review in an obscure newspaper – but that’s Scientology for you.

I found their response amusing, but also a little scary. So perhaps that’s all we can usefully say about Scientology…

JANE: Another good example of religious/spiritual ideas crossing out of fiction into reality comes from Robert A. Heinlein’s novel 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land.  In it, Valentine Michael (“Mike”) Smith is the sole survivor of an Earth colony on Mars.  In the best traditions of feral child fiction, he is raised by the Martians.  When he returns to Earth, he carries with him the values – including religious/philosophical ones – taught to him by the Martian “Old Ones.”

These include sharing water (and the bond that creates between “water brothers,” ritual cannibalism, and, last but definitely not least, the idea of “grokking” something – a deep understanding that encompasses a complex hybrid of intellectual and emotional comprehension that is more than either alone.

In the novel, Mike goes to the fate destined for most prophets who push local customs too far, but “grok” crossed over into the “real world.”  Even today you’ll occasionally hear someone say “I grok that” in all seriousness.  On a lighter note, there’s also a tee-shirt: “I Grok Spock.”

ALAN: I grok all that now, but it took me several readings of the book to grasp fully just what was meant by the term. It’s a really useful word for a very important (though sometimes slippery) concept, so it’s hardly surprising that the word has entered the language. But I’m sure many people who use it don’t know where it comes from originally.

Hubbard and Heinlein aren’t alone in influencing the real world with their philosophical ideas. Octavia Butler’s Earthseed books, which we talked about last time, have also directly inspired three spiritual organisations – SolSeed, a celebration of life and change, Terasem (from the Greek roots tera- (earth) and sem- (seed) which uses technology in an attempt to shape God, and Earthseed itself, a humanistic religion derived from pagan traditions and filtered through Butler’s fiction. There seems to have been something quite inspirational about her thinking.

JANE: I had no idea, but I think that’s fantastic!  Let’s see, what else?  Ah, hah!

Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel, Creatures of Light and Darkness, contained a passage that has come to be called “the agnostic’s prayer.”

 “Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.”

Having heard Roger quote it from memory, I’d say he was fond of it, but I think he’d be surprised to find it has taken on a life of its own.

ALAN: That’s marvellous. I thoroughly approve!

Another huge science fictional influence on the real world comes from the Star Wars movies. The Jedi Church has a large number of members. In the 2001 census in New Zealand, 1.5% of people declared their religion as Jedi. The statistics bureau refused to accept it as a legitimate answer though, interestingly, if they had accepted it, it would have been the second largest religion in the country.

In 2010 a man called Craig Thomas ran for the Auckland city council on a Jedi platform (I don’t know if he was elected or not), and Jedi wedding celebrants can legitimately marry couples.

Unfortunately the 2011 census was never completed because of the disastrous earthquakes in Christchurch, so we don’t know if the religion’s popularity has continued to increase.

JANE: I hope there’s a new census so we can learn if the Force is still with us.

ALAN: But nothing is so serious that it can’t be examined from a humorous angle. Science fiction has had a lot of fun with religious ideas. Let’s look at some of them next time.

Dreams, Meet Reality

March 8, 2017

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

That’s a question we ask kids pretty routinely.  As they grow up, the phrasing changes, but it’s still that same basic question.  Have you thought about where you want to go to college?  What do you want to major in?  What do you want to be?

What Do You Want To Be?

Society thinks that the first question and the last question are the same, but there’s a big difference between “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  And “What do you want to be?”  In fact, only after basic education is taken care of does the question begin to seriously morph.  Only then does it become “What sort of job do you want to do?”

Even then, it gets prettied up.  One of the most popular job search guides is called What Color is Your Parachute?  Another book promises to be a “Pathfinder” guide, as if the book is Hawkeye (James Fennimore Cooper’s wilderness guide, best known from Last of the Mohicans) and the would-be-jobholder is a tenderfoot facing the wilderness.  In both of these choices of words, what’s implicit is that you will arrive at your destination safe and sound, content because you’ve found the job that lets you – to borrow an old Army recruiting slogan – “Be all that you can be.”

I don’t know about you, but what I wanted to be when I grew up, and what sort of job I wanted to do, had absolutely nothing in common with each other.  At one point, I spent a lot of daydream time in being a starship captain along the lines of classic Star Trek.  I was absolutely not interested in being an astronaut or even a pilot.  I didn’t even want the Star Trek universe.  What I wanted was strange new worlds, great challenges, new civilizations.

Even those people – like my husband, Jim – who know what they want to be when they grow up (in his case, be an archeologist) find that the reality of the job and the dreams aren’t at all the same.  Jim spends a lot more time in an office writing reports than his nine-year-old self ever would have imaged.  Mind you, this is something he’s very good at.  It’s something which he’s learned to enjoy because it enables him to share his discoveries with others, as well as add to the larger body of information about his field.  But writing reports was not what attracted his nine-year-old self to want to “be” an archeologist.

And me?  Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I’ve always wanted to tell stories, why I wanted this so much so that I learned how to write fiction, and have spent a lot of time doing so.  Maybe it’s because it’s the closest I can get to “being” all those things I dreamed about when I was a kid.  (And, believe me, starship captain was only part of the mix!)

How about you?  Where have your dreams taken you?  Where might they still take you?  I’m a firm believer that dreams aren’t just for kids.  If we’re lucky, they continue to fuel the best parts of adult reality as well.

FF: Sailing on…

March 3, 2017

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

Lettuce Dream

Lettuce Dream

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O’Brian.  Audiobook.  Last in the series!

Memory and Dream by Charles de Lint.  In addition to a complex plot with a truly creepy antagonist, a considerable meditation about the complex relationship between the private and public artist.

Naruto: The Seventh Hokage and the Scarlet Spring by Masashi Kishimoto.  A stand-alone sequel to series.  I suspect intended as a companion piece to the anime movie Boruto (which I haven’t seen).

In Progress:

Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien.  A children’s story.

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton.  Loving it!

Knight of Shadows.  Eighteen episodes of The Shadow radio drama.  All new to me!


Pulling random research material together.

TT: Evolving Spiritual Concepts

March 2, 2017

ALAN: Did you know that this is our 300th Tangent?

JANE: That’s amazing!  Even at a low average of five hundred words per Tangent, that’s something like 150,000 words, or a good sized-novel’s worth of talk.

ALAN: Actually, we average rather higher, but I’ll let you be modest.

Future Theological Quests

Future Theological Quests

This seems like a good time to remind people that I have compiled some of the Tangents into a free e-book which can be downloaded  from the “My Books” page of my website.

JANE: And while they’re at it, they can download some of your amusing collections of essays…

Now, what were we talking about?  Oh, that’s right…

I’d realized that – with the exception of  A Canticle for Lebowitz – most of the stories we had discussed took a negative view regarding how traditional religions and theological positions would cope with the challenges of the future – in particular, with encounters with aliens.

ALAN: You’re right to point that out – but it wasn’t a deliberate policy. It’s just that the examples we chose were the most obvious and famous ones.

JANE: Surely someone other than Walter Miller has taken on the challenge of incorporating traditional religion into a future history.  Obviously, that religion might change – the Catholic Church of the 21st century is not the same as the Catholic Church of the 10th century – but they are clearly related entities.

Do you have any thoughts/suggestions?

ALAN: Actually, yes I do. Whenever you think about SF ideas that might be a little controversial, the name Philip Jose Farmer always springs to mind…

He wrote several stories about Father John Carmody, a Catholic priest who has many adventures with alien religions. Probably the best is the novel Night of Light. Every seven years, the planet called Dante’s Joy is subjected to a fortnight of psychedelic radiation that rearranges reality. Most of the inhabitants choose to sleep through it. Only mystics, newcomers, and the deeply religious stay awake to experience things materializing out of thin air. Many of them will die. But their religion tells them that the good will become better, though the bad may become worse.

Carmody observes a man metamorphose into a tree. Another is chased by statues that come to life. During this time, the living god must face his successor and Father John is there to help and to reconcile the planet’s religion with his own faith.

But by the end of the story, it seems likely that the alien religion will displace his own and spread throughout the galaxy.

JANE: Now that I think of it, Clifford Simak, whose works we discussed at some length back in 2014 met this particular challenge.  Unlike those authors who feared that encounters with aliens would challenge faith, in Simak’s stories non-humans often share the desire to explore theological questions like what constitutes the soul or the existence of God.

In several of Simak’s books – A Choice of Gods and Project Pope immediately come to mind – theological questions and questing are taken up by robots.  Simak clearly views religion—or at least the spiritual impulse – as something that is key to the expanding of the self, perhaps a step in the evolution of consciousness as important as opposable thumbs or the equivalent.

ALAN: Encounters with aliens are all very well, but what about encounters with everything on Earth? In the two novels that make up Octavia Butler’s Earthseed (Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)) we meet Lauren Olamina, the daughter of a Baptist minister. She suffers from hyperempathy – she shares the pain of every living thing that she sees. She founds a haven where she and others can build a community which they call Earthseed. The word derives from the idea that the seeds of all life on Earth can be transplanted, and will change and adapt, in many different types of situations or places. Earthseed teaches that God is change and believers can shape change, both here and elsewhere. Lauren sees Earthseed as a religion destined to take root among the stars as the Earth’s resources are used up. To that extent, it is a religion of the present and the future. It has no connection to the dead past.

JANE: That sounds fascinating.  If Earthseed is unconnected to any past faiths, what are its tenets?

ALAN: The essential truth of Earthseed is defined in the paradoxical questions and answers:

Why is the universe? To shape God.
Why is God? To shape the universe

The ideas of Earthseed are developed in a very science fictional framework where America has devolved into a society of city states who fight each other for access to the few remaining resources. The books are Octavia Butler’s masterpiece.

JANE: You are certainly far from alone in thinking so!

One thing that’s interesting in how SF authors deal with religion and/or spirituality is whether they believe the older faiths will have any value in a transformed future world.  Butler has Lauren create a new religion to suit new challenges.  Simak – especially in A Choice of Gods – shows how different “gods” will suit different life paths.

Then there’s Roger Zelazny who, in Lord of Light, showed how a very old religion – in this case, Hinduism – might become “current” again when technology makes possible such things as reincarnation which previously had to be taken as a matter of Faith.

Zelazny dealt with other myths in stories, of course, but Lord of Light may be the best example for this particular discussion, because between technology and actual changes in the nature of humanity, many of the main characters don’t simply copy the Hindu gods, they become them.

ALAN: The great grey ghost who hangs over all discussions of SF and religion is Philip K. Dick. In 1974 he answered a knock on his door to find a young woman wearing a necklace fashioned in the shape of a fish, an ancient Christian symbol. Sunlight reflecting off the necklace caused what he perceived as a pink beam of light to strike him. After experiencing a series of hallucinations for several days, he came to the understanding that the pink beam had imposed a transcendentally rational mind onto his own. Clearly it was highly intelligent. He considered that its appearance must have been a sign from God. He spent the rest of his life exploring what that might mean.

His last few novels (the Valis trilogy and the posthumously published Radio Free Albemuth) are full of deeply spiritual and theological speculations and he kept a private diary which he called his Exegesis in which he tried to rationalise his experience. Portions of the Exegesis have been published, together with commentaries by several people. They are very difficult to read – I was unable to make anything of them. The novels are more approachable and some critics consider them to be his masterpieces. I confess, I am much amused by Dick’s designation of God as a Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS).

JANE: I never knew that was what VALIS meant. Interesting!

We could probably keep coming up with new example of spirituality in SF, but I think we’ve made our point.  Science and spirituality are not mutually exclusive – at least not in the writings of many science fiction writers over a long span of time.

Lion or Lamb?

March 1, 2017

The classic March 1st question is whether  March is coming in like a lion or like a lamb.   Well, based on what I’m seeing here in New Mexico, I’d say either a very temperamental lamb or a lion who is feeling mellow enough that he wants a tummy rub.  As any of you who are familiar with cats know, an invitation to a tummy rub is not a promise of peaceful behavior.

Lion and Varied Lambs

Lion and Varied Lambs

In my errands around town, I’ve noticed that some optimistic fruit trees are already flowering, mostly ornamental pear, apricot, and what I think is ornamental cherry.  Happily, none of my fruit trees (peach, apple, pomegranate) are showing the same level of optimism, but I am seeing buds fattening out.

My writing lately has been very lion and lamb as well.  On the lion side, I wrote a short story last week.  It wasn’t very long – only 1,400 words – but I enjoyed seeing what had been inchoate impulse take shape.

On the lamb side, I’ve been immersed in research for a potential longer project.  I’ve finished the non-fiction reading (at least for now) and am going to turn to some myth and folklore.  Then I’ll probably do some freewriting to see if various elements begin to tumble together, or if there’s a sense that I need to find more.

I’m also still working on getting Smoke and Mirrors ready to re-release as an e-book.  Depending on how long I take to get various elements resolved, the new edition could be ready for readers before the end of March.  I’m finding that preparing an e-book  is a lot like spring weather: sometimes intense and full of bustle, other times focused on quiet growth.

On the side, Sunday I took a few hours to work on multi-media craft project. Like many of my stories, this is something I’ve wanted to do for many years, but I had never quite settled on how to begin.  Now I’ve begun, and am eager to see how it develops.  It’s sort of large, but I’ll worry about where to put it when I’m actually done…

The way my life is right now, changeable weather feels just right.  Lion or lamb?  How about lion and lamb?  And maybe a few other things besides!